Review of Eric Metaxas, “If You Can Keep It”: Part 3

MetaxasWe are in the midst of 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.

In this post we want to examine Metaxas’s assertion that British-America was characterized by religious freedom.

Here are some of the pertinent passages:

p.10: “The American colonies at the end of the eighteenth century…had a deep and abiding respect for religious freedom and were well-practiced in living with those who held different beliefs from their own.

p.34: “The founders, however, had quite another idea, based on their experience in the colonies over the decades before, where the idea of total religious freedom was paramount.  They had already experienced this religious freedom as part of life in the American colonies.  The very first settlers on American shores had left their lives behind precisely for this freedom.

p.70: “Since the Pilgrims came to our shores in 1620, religious freedom and religious tolerance have been the single most important principle of American life.  This was the genius at the heart of it all.”

p.77-75: “One of the main reasons the United States came into being was because people had left Europe, where this ‘establishment’ of religion was going on all the time and was manifestly monstrous and destructive to individual freedom.  People’s lives were ruined if they didn’t choose the ‘right’ religion.

There is so much that is wrong about these statements that I don’t really know where to begin.

Let’s start with the Pilgrims.  First, the Pilgrims did not come to America for religious freedom.  They traveled to Holland for religious freedom, but they came to America because they were worried that their children were losing their ethnic identity in Holland. Second, the Pilgrims, and their “City on a  Hill” neighbors to the north, the Puritans, did indeed believe in religious freedom. (Sarcasm alert!!)  As I tell my students, people who came to Plymouth and Massachusetts Bay were free to practice the religion of the Puritan settlers or else be removed from the colony, imprisoned, fined, or even killed.

On p. 72, Metaxas praises Roger Williams as a champion of religious liberty.  This is correct.  Indeed, Rhode Island, the colony Williams helped found, was a place where religious freedom flourished.  Yet later in the book, Metaxas sings the praises of the Massachusetts Bay Colony and John Winthrop’s “City on a Hill” as a model of American exceptionalism (more on that in a later post).  In the process, he completely ignores the fact that Williams was thrown out of Massachusetts Bay largely because of religious differences with the government. (So were a bunch of other people, including Anne Hutchinson).  So much for religious freedom. Metaxas can’t have it both ways.

In fact, there were only a few places in British-America where religious freedom “was paramount.”  The colonies of Rhode Island, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and parts of New York celebrated religious freedom.

In New England, the colonies of Massachusetts Bay, Plymouth (before its merger with Massachusetts in 1691), and Connecticut all had state churches in which Congregationalism was the “established” religion.  In some cases, these established churches were “manifestly monstrous and destructive to individual freedom.” Mary Dyer, for example, was one of four Quakers executed for their faith by the champions of John Winthrop’s “City on a Hill.”

Religious freedom and economic acquisitiveness motivated British settlers to come to Pennsylvania, New York, and New Jersey–the so-called middle colonies.  William Penn was certainly interested in creating a “Holy Experiment” in Pennsylvania, but he also wanted to make some serious cash on land sales. On the eve of the American Revolution there was so much religious strife in the colony (especially between Quakers, Anglicans, and Presbyterians) that whatever kind of peaceable kingdom that previously existed in Pennsylvania had been largely lost.  This all raises some serious questions about Metaxas’s argument that the colonists were “well-practiced in living with those who held different beliefs from their own.”

And then there was Virginia, where Baptist, Presbyterians, and just about anyone who was not Anglican (the state or “established” church of the colony) were persecuted for their faith. Very few settlers came to the Old Dominion in pursuit of religious freedom.  Indeed, to quote Metaxas, people’s lives “were ruined” in Virginia because they “didn’t choose the ‘right’ religion.” As late as the 1770s Baptist preachers were imprisoned for preaching in Virginia.  Others were beaten, had their property destroyed, and nearly drowned in rivers for their nonconformity.

It amazes me that Metaxas or Viking Press did not have a historian check this material on religious liberty before If You Can Keep It went to print.

I understand that Metaxas is very concerned–as he should be– about religious liberty, especially in light of some recent Supreme Court decisions. But his use of colonial-era history to defend religious liberty in 21st century United States fails in a major way.

Stay tuned for our next segment.

11 thoughts on “Review of Eric Metaxas, “If You Can Keep It”: Part 3

  1. The right will get far the better of the deal, for NARAL alone. Oathkeepers? The Eagle Forum? Please.

    But what this discussion reveals is how ready, willing and able the left seems to plow under all civil society and replace it with the all-encompassing control of government. This is the current crisis, and it’s not amusing.

    [For the record, the Republican National Committee is not tax-exempt.]

    And New England’s Quakers were a huge nuisance. Their incursions into the Puritan religious communities were no different than Jehovah’s Witnesses setting up shop on top of the Kaaba. The Puritans did not risk everything to come to a new land just to build a haven for heresy and lunacy.


  2. Great idea, Tom.

    Let’s also tax the right wing propaganda groups like the NRA, the Republican National Committee, the Heritage Foundation, Focus on the Family, American Family Association, Family Research Council, Oathkeepers, Liberty Counsel, National Organization for Marriage, and Eagle Forum among many others.

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  3. Sure, that’s what religious freedom is about: Freedom for all unless they make a nuisance of themselves.

    Actually, the Quakers of the Massachusetts Bay Colony were a huge nuisance. That’s the point.

    As for the tax exemptions, you’d also be obliged to abolish the tax exemptions for the Sierra Club, Greenpeace, GLAAD, Planned Parenthood and the endless laundry list of leftist causes while you’re at it. The ACLU. NPR.

    Perhaps you’re onto something here.


  4. Wow. Dyer “forced their hand”? Sure, that’s what religious freedom is about: Freedom for all unless they make a nuisance of themselves.

    As for the rest of your comment, Hobby Lobby was a disastrous decision, and I really have no sympathy for the Little Sisters – all they have to do is opt out under the law. If you think it is an abridgement of their “freedom” to utter a perfectly simple “No,” then you are indeed ignorant of just what the First Amendment does, and does not, allow.

    But we really should be focused on the true remedy for all of this: Simply remove the tax exemption for religious institutions. Nothing in the Constitution states that religious institutions should be tax exempt, and I, for one, am sick of subsidizing someone else’s delusions.

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  5. I’d say it’s more the function of the chatty, scattershot approach that expends a mere 5 pages getting from Plymouth Rock to George Whitefield, who then goes on to occupy 37 mostly pointless pages. It’s more a slow jam than a symphony.


  6. Yes. This is a change over time issue. I think this kind of thinking may be a bit too nuanced for Metaxas or the audience he is trying to reach.


  7. John, no pushback here (I have to go back to yesterday’s thread, though.) It’s just historical fact that full religious liberty drove few of the colonial settlements. So, where did we get it? It’s a historical development–and that story, where people move from religious toleration to embracing full religious liberty, is more dramatic and interesting than the assertion that “America has always been that way.”

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  8. Mary Dyer, for example, was one of four Quakers executed for their faith by the champions of John Winthrop’s “City on a Hill.”

    Well, your point holds vs. Metaxas’s re “tolerance,” but the Quakers [who held some very funky beliefs]–they weren’t just the bland Barneyists they’re thought of today] and others were persecuted for proselytizing their weird doctrines, not just for believing them. As with most of these things, it’s the threat to public order and social harmony that was considered a civil threat, not a mere religious offense.

    Mary Dyer could have gone free if she’d promised to stop troubling the Massachusetts Bay Colony with her [per]version of the Christian religion, but she quite intentionally forced their hand.

    The “intolerance” meme is nearly as off as the “tolerance” one: The issue of religious freedom–of the Puritans to live as a religious community without disruption from the Dyers and Hutchinsons so lionized today–is still a live one, though not in the pluralistic sense we have come to think of it. [See also Barry Shain’s “Myth of American Individualism.”]

    Indeed, in just the last 8 years under Barack Obama, the religious freedom controversies–such as in re Hobby Lobby and the Little Sisters of the Poor–have become about the right of families and religious communities to be left alone from outside disruption and coercion.


  9. I came into some hot water when I started teaching that American religious liberty was not the Fundamental Utopia many think/wish it were. My HS students are often shocked when they realize the extent to which those “people of Faith” who came here “for religious liberty” were intolerant of others’ religious beliefs.

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