Review of Eric Metaxas, “If You Can Keep It”: Part 2

MetaxasYesterday we started a short series on Eric Metaxas’s new book If You Can Keep It: The Forgotten Promise of American Liberty.  You can get caught up here.

One of the main themes of If You Can Keep It is the founding fathers’ belief that a republic is only sustainable when the people of the republic are virtuous. Metaxas is correct in pointing this out.  The founders of the United States were students of history.  They knew that Western Civilization offered very few examples of successful or long-lasting republics. They also knew that republics only worked when people were willing, at times, to sacrifice their own interests for the greater good of the republic.  “Virtue” was the name that they, and the ancients whose books they read, gave to this kind of self-sacrifice. Modern-day historians have also called it “republicanism” or “civic humanism.”

Metaxas believes the founders were correct when they said that a thriving republic needs virtuous people.  He joins the large chorus–a chorus that can be traced back to the 1780s–of concerned citizens who worry that the country’s failure to act virtuously is undermining the republic.  Metaxas thus challenges his readers to pursue the common good, balance self-interest with togetherness, and make “the business of the republic” their business.(p.4)

Though I am not sure he or his followers will appreciate the comparison, Metaxas is tapping into the same political philosophy that has been the driving message of the Barack Obama presidency.  This is not the message of “Make America Great Again” or the libertarian/Tea Party message of individual freedom without duty, but rather a message deeply rooted in a commitment to virtue and the common good.

But unlike Obama, Metaxas’s vision of a virtuous republic is almost entirely connected to religious belief and, if one reads carefully enough, to Biblical Christianity.  On p. 62, Metaxas asks “What would make someone behave virtuously?”  He concludes: “the answer–both practically speaking and theoretically–must be religion.”  Granted, there are many Americans, like Metaxas, who believe that virtue is impossible without religion, but the founding fathers did not fall into this camp.  Metaxas’s understanding of the founders’ view of virtue is problematic for several reasons.

First, the founders did believe that religious people made good citizens because they knew how to sacrifice their own interests for something greater, namely their god. But the founders did not believe that religion, or particularly Christianity, was the only source of virtue.  Metaxas is wrong when he says that “virtue and morality divorced from religion was unthinkable” to the founders (p.60).  Most of the founders, including John Witherspoon, the evangelical Presbyterian clergyman who was the only minister who signed the Declaration of Independence, believed that virtue could stem from the conscience or the “moral sense.”  Granted, many of them–whether Christian, Deist, or something in-between–believed that the conscience or moral sense was instilled in human beings by God, but they did not believe that a religious experience, the practice of a a specific faith, or the imbibing of particular religious doctrines was necessary to live a virtuous life.  (I have argued this in two of my books: The Way of Improvement Leads Home: Philip Vickers Fithian and The Rural Enlightenment in Early America and Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?: A Historical Introduction).

On p.66. Metaxas states that the “religion” that the founders thought was inseparable to a virtuous republic was not the religion of the “clockmaker God of Deist imagination,” but the religion of the Bible. (He quotes the Massachusetts statesman Daniel Webster on the importance of the Bible in creating citizens). Metaxas implies that “Deism” was not a religion that the founders thought could contribute to a virtuous republic because it did not adhere to the teachings of the Bible. But while Deists did not believe that the Bible was inspired, they did believe that the ethical teachings of the Bible could serve as a guide–one of several–to a virtuous life.  In other words, Deism was certainly one of the so-called “religious” beliefs that the founders believed could contribute to the greater good of the republic.

Second, Metaxas argues that religion was essential to the success of the republic because it brought “order” to liberty.  This was indeed a widely held view among many founders, especially those, such as John Adams and his Federalist friends, who wrote state constitutions (see the 1780 Massachusetts Constitution for example) that maintained religious establishments or state churches for the purpose of preserving moral order. Liberty was not licentiousness.  A self-governing people needed to be reminded of the limits of their freedoms.

But while religion (and one gets the impression that whenever Metaxas refers to “religion” he really means Christianity) was one way to curb the dangers of liberty, it was not the only way.  Again, one could look to the conscience, the moral sense, or cultural habits to bring order to one’s life and curb the passions associated with liberty.  (On p. 56 Metaxas notes that Ben Franklin turned to these things as a means of bringing moral order to his life).  One could even argue that the United States Constitution, with its system of balanced government designed to keep the passions that come with liberty in check, was a means of accomplishing this task.  As James Madison wrote in Federalist 10, a strong central government (as opposed to the weak Articles of Confederation) was necessary to keep the factionalism and rampant self-interest of the wild 1780s under control.

All of this may sound like nitpicking, but it is actually important in light of Metaxas’s use of the founders to make his case for the revitalization of the American republic today.  The claim that the founders believed Christianity to be the only (or even the primary) source of virtue in the republic is not an accurate one.  Yet Metaxas runs with this idea and uses it to diagnose what he perceives to be our current malaise.  In other words, he argues, we need to return to the founders’ idea that the republic will only survive if we become a nation of Christians again.  On this point, Metaxas is not far removed from the views of GOP activist David Barton and his call to “return” America to its Christian roots.  To be fair, Metaxas rarely says that we need to return to “Christianity” per se (he prefers the term “religion”), but I am guessing that most of his largely evangelical and conservative readers will miss this distinction.  Does Metaxas believe that Islam, for example, can also serve as a source of republican virtue?  I don’t know.

In the end, Metaxas may be correct.  Perhaps only God can solve whatever problems we face in this country.  But his appeal to history to make this point does not work.

Fourth, and finally, it is important to remember that when the founders wrote about the role that religion might play in strengthening the republic they were writing as statesmen charged with building a nation, not as theologians or ministers charged with the responsibility of advancing the Kingdom of God.  For the founders, religion served as a means toward a very secular end.  If religion would help the republic to thrive, then they were willing to promote it. Whenever the founders wrote about religion in their work as nation-builders they wrote about it in this context.  Their goal was not to use the United States to advance the cause of God, but to use religion to advance the cause of the state.  I am guessing that some Christians may find this problematic.

More to come…

15 thoughts on “Review of Eric Metaxas, “If You Can Keep It”: Part 2

  1. Washington’s argument is that for the great mass of men, religion is necessary and therefore a self-evident public good if not necessity. The others would agree, I think–that whether some men can manage republican virtue without religion is an unnecessary digression to the exception instead of what was recognized as the rule.

    [If one wants to counterargue the validity of pagan virtue as an academic or philosophical point, the burden of proof must be shared, and support among the Founders be offered for that proposition: GWash, JAdams, GMorris and JWilson, et al. are a fine foundation for a claim to the normative view. Any rebuttal must punch out that Murderer’s Row. ;-)]


  2. Tom: Yes–I have no doubt that the Federalists you mentioned (Rush excluded) believed religion was the best source of virtue. In fact, I would argue that one would be hard-pressed to find a founder who did not think religion was useful in promoting republican government. My only point was that many founders believed that one could still exercise virtue WITHOUT religion. (I said in my post that ALL of them believed that one could not exercise virtue without religion. If the quotes you have pulled up are representative of these particular founders, I obviously overstated my case). I will say this: Mark Noll and other have argued that Christians in British-America saw republican virtue as a pagan idea for most of the 18th century. It was only in the immediate wake of the American Revolution that so-called “founders” began to integrate this pagan idea with Christianity. I don’t have the time to do this, but it would be interesting to get the dates on these quotes from Morris, Rush, Adams, and Webster.


  3. Props, JDH. I have my problems with Metaxas’s details too, but to everyone’s credit here, the thesis is taken first. Was saving these for later and there are more at the link, but at some point, Metaxas’s thesis might be conceded as the majority view in the Founding era. What is missing in the current crisis is that religion was seen as a self-evident public good–even a necessity. Today, it’s in the docket at every turn.

    John Adams in a speech to the military in 1798 warned his fellow countrymen stating

    “We have no government armed with power capable of contending with human passions unbridled by morality and religion . . . Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”

    Benjamin Rush, Signer of the Declaration of Independence said

    “[T]he only foundation for a useful education in a republic is to be aid in religion. Without this there can be no virtue, and without virtue there can be no liberty, and liberty is the object and life of all republican governments. Without religion, I believe that learning does real mischief to the morals and principles of mankind.”

    Gouverneur Morris, Penman and Signer of the Constitution

    “[F]or avoiding the extremes of despotism or anarchy . . . the only ground of hope must be on the morals of the people. I believe that religion is the only solid base of morals and that morals are the only possible support of free governments. [T]herefore education should teach the precepts of religion and the duties of man towards God.”


  4. Ed: Thanks for the response. I realize that Obama’s view of the “common good” is probably quite different than the one espoused by conservatives. But I am not engaging in this book with the specifics of Obama’s view of the “common good” and whether it is good or bad. I am engaging here with Metaxas. He and Obama use identical language when they talk about the common good. This is language from the founders (Metaxas is correct here). Because Metaxas is not specific about what he means by the “common good” I cannot compare his views with Obama’s views. So I am left with pointing out that both men are appealing to the language of the founders on civic humanism/republicanism. Frankly, as Metaxas presents his case in his book, I don’t think Obama would disagree with anything. The devil (for both men) is in the details.


  5. Good discussion here…and thanks to Tom for quoting Washington.
    By pushing this here, maybe we’ve come to the issue. Metaxas wants to advocate for a Washington (as in the Farewell Address) / Adams approach to religion in the public square. That’s a defensible position. Indeed, I’m struck that this may speak to our current moment when Washington’s statement that “religion,” freely practiced serves the common good is being questioned.
    BUT, if you’re advocating for a Washington perspective, then I don’t think you can simultaneously claim (via Edwards) that public virtue is only a Christian virtue. Or, Metaxas is unknowingly gluing together two different streams of thought from the founding.
    A Washingtonian vision will support civil religion and even religious pluralism, but it doesn’t get you to full-throated orthodoxy.
    So, this exchange has been helpful.
    As to “founders,” I’ll claim various pastors as “founders” if we’re using the broader, social-history definition of founders favored by Woody Holton and others. So, if common folk can be “founders,” so can ministers in the Revolutionary generation. If we’re restricting the term just to participants in the Continental Congress or Constitutional Convention, then no. But, I think it’s fair to point out that ideas did circulate and that there wasn’t a strong divide between high and low discourse during the Revolution.


  6. Thanks or the review. I had a few friends who were enthralled with Metaxas’ take on DB, so I posted your “warning” about his latest on my FB feed.

    That said, I’ll “nitpick” a bit myself, John. In your critique you make note that Metaxas seems to be “tapping into the same political philosophy that has been the driving message of the Barack Obama presidency”, that we should “pursue the common good, balance self-interest with togetherness, and make ‘the business of the republic’ their business”.

    However, in my opinion you completely ignore one of the “Five C’s” of history – context. Obama and a whole host of others may like to flippantly toss around the phrase “common good” as if it gives them carte blanc to play Santa Clause, but Madison stated that “Charity is no part of the legislative duty of the [national] government” and that the government of the United States was a “definite government, confined to specified objects”. In a speech before the House on a vote to grant money to some French refugees at the time, he stated, “I cannot undertake to lay my finger on that article of the Constitution which granted a right to Congress of expending, on the objects of benevolence, the money of their constituents.”

    Vote for me! “Free” college! I’ve yet to hear – and doubt I will hear – anybody ask if:
    1) is this an enumerated power? what part of the Constitution gives any authority to the federal government to have any involvement in educational matters?
    2) why doesn’t this fall under the 9th and 10th Amendments?
    3) if college freebies are part of the common good, why aren’t free cars, free houses, free food , free 60″ TVs, free iPhones, free iPads, free volleyball lessons and club fees (I threw that in there just for you) or just about anything else a politician can dream up?

    In your discussion of the use of the phrase “Christian America” among folks like Barton, Metaxas, etc., you noted in your book that the phrase has had varying meanings over the life of this country.

    Before I accept the implied premise that Obama’s “driving message” of equating Big Government and it’s programs with the “common good”, shouldn’t we at least have a discussion about what things actually constitute the “common good” and what things are just folks wanting other people to pay for the goodies they want in life?

    Maybe even discuss if slapping a Jesus fish on such a “driving message” is using religion to further political power in the same way the religious right has been accused of doing with its use of religion.


  7. Great comments everyone. Thanks for helping me refine my argument. Metaxas is very close on this issue of virtue. I was going to let it slide, but I couldn’t help myself. Religious liberty, George Whitefield, City on a Hill, American exceptionalism, the veneration of heroes, and Donald Trump are all in the queue.


  8. Jay: Metaxas is very vague when he use terms like “the common welfare” or “virtue.” Unless he defines what he the practice of serving the “common welfare” or practicing virtue means in specific terms, it seems to me that he is tapping into the same civic humanism as Obama.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Nice work, Tom. Yes, Metaxas does take the Washington view here. Washington was hardly a great moral philosopher, but I am sure Metaxas is happy to have him on his side. I think I should probably amend my criticism a bit, but I still think, as Jonathan Den Hartog notes above, that Washington was one of many founders.


  10. Great point, Jonathan. Spoken like a true defender of the “forgotten founders!”

    You are correct. I fully agree that the Edwardsian tradition offered a very different view of virtue.. I and others have argued that this is what separated the Edwardsian moral philosophy from the Princeton moral philosophy. I wonder, however, just how prevalent the Edwardsian view was among the founding generation. Sherman is one example. Scott Rohrer has argued that Jacob Green is another. I wonder if there are more. Would we call Edwards Jr. and Hopkins “founding fathers?”

    Yes, as Tom Van Dyke notes below, I think I should have been more nuanced here. I did not follow my usual exhortation to my students and audiences about the dangers of thinking about the “founders” as a collective unit, especially on religion. Metaxas is probably closest to Washington and Adams on the relationship between religion and virtue.

    Thanks for the post.


  11. Thank you for sharing your insights. Despite my distaste for Metaxes’ and Barton’s brand of American Christian Nationalism, I was nonetheless taken aback when you argued that Barack Obama is a closer defender of American ideals. Thank you for linking to your argument; I knew you’d written about it but couldn’t find it on my own. Personally, I see President Obama’s philosophy as a perversion in the other direction (based purely on legislative outcome) but must agree that – at least in words if not in deed – he does more accurately reflect the Founder’s vision.


  12. I was glad to see you properly identify Metaxas’s thesis. It is no different from Washington’s.

    And let us with caution indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion. Whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education on minds of peculiar structure, reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.

    It is substantially true that virtue or morality is a necessary spring of popular government. The rule, indeed, extends with more or less force to every species of free government. Who that is a sincere friend to it can look with indifference upon attempts to shake the foundation of the fabric?

    I believe this was the majority view, or at least I have seen little from that time opposing it.

    As for Franklin, morality, and the Bible. This may be of interest.


  13. John,
    Thanks for these reviews. I haven’t read the book, so I’m responding to your comments.

    I do think the distinction between “religion” and Christianity is a good one to be thinking about in writing. It’s one I’ve been mulling over of late.

    In your critique of Metaxas, though, I wonder if you’re running into one of the perennial problems of when we say “the Founders” believed X or Y. We can’t homogenize, not just because many historians tend to be splitters, but because the founders generally disagreed. If we’re talking about “The Big 5” or something, you might see more agreement, but of course lots of people were involved in founding. Thus, the founding was debated, just as principles of virtue were.

    Virtue is, of course, a great topic. But, even here, people interpreted it in different ways. In particular, I’m thinking of the Edwardseans. Following Edwards’ “On the Nature of True Virtue,” they *would have* denied that people can be truly virtuous apart from faith. This would have been the perspective of Samuel Hopkins, Jonathan Edwards, Jr (with Roger Sherman in his congregation), and Timothy Dwight.
    So, I wonder if Metaxas’s error is not in finding things that aren’t present in the Revolution but in taking the elements he likes most and then expanding them to represent the whole.


Comments are closed.