Throckmorton on Metaxas

Metaxas

Warren Throckmorton has weighed-in on Jon Ward’s piece on Eric Metaxas at Yahoo News.  Here is a taste:

More contradiction comes via Metaxas’ opinion of Hillary Clinton. On one hand, he wrote to Ward:

Christians who think the Church in America might have survived a Hillary Clinton presidency are something like the devout Christian Germans who seriously and prayerfully thought it unChristian to be involved in opposing Hitler because to do so would have dirtied their hands with politics,…

He even once tweeted “Hitlery Clinton“), but in the email exchange he told Ward: “Nor do I mean to compare Hillary to Hitler, but the principle at issue is the same nonetheless.” If he didn’t mean to compare Hillary to Hitler, then why bring up Hitler?

Despite his complaints of being pilloried, he did not hesitate to pillory. His response to a question about historian John Fea’s spot-on critique of his book If You Can Keep It is a case in point.

Read the rest here.  See my response here.

“[Fea finds] any healthy celebration of patriotism as like unto worshipping the Beast of Revelation.”

Fea patriot

I am patriotic!  I really am!  I own flags and I even have a  “Patriot’s Bible!”

Check out Jon Ward‘s recent piece at Yahoo News on court evangelical Eric Metaxas.  In addition to Ward’s profile, he also posted a series of e-mails he exchanged with Metaxas.  Those e-mails include Metaxas’s responses to several of Ward’s questions.

Here is one of the questions Ward posted to Metaxas:

Have you engaged much with John Fea’s critique of your book? He makes a persuasive argument that you have airbrushed the American founding into an airbrushed version that exaggerates the role of Christianity as the sole source of virtue (not one of several), that exaggerates the extent to which there was religious liberty at the founding (Seamus Hasson’s “Right to Be Wrong” is best I’ve read on this topic), and treats the American experiment as more of a miracle detached from anything before it than it was. Fea writes that America built on the democratic principles at play in British life, which is something of a subtle point, but an interesting one which tempers exuberance over American exceptionalism as some kind of divinely ordered miracle. He also believes you give the Great Awakening too much credit for how it influenced American politics. The greater point is that Fea thinks you make a common mistake of many evangelicals, that of confusing America with the kingdom of God. This is a complex and nuanced point. A firm rootedness in one’s citizenship in heaven should not produce passivity or fatalism about one’s community or nation here on earth. But the critique of culture warriors often is that they cling too tightly to worldly outcomes because the two categories (kingdom of God and America) have become almost unintelligibly mixed or combined. Do you think you have done this in any way?

And here is Metaxas’s response to Ward:

Mr. Fea’s critiques have not only not persuaded me, they have helped me see more clearly why what I said in my book If You Can Keep It is necessary to communicate to as many Americans as possible at this time in history. If I could give a copy of that book to every American — or at least to every young American — I would do so. Mr. Fea’s misunderstanding on this central issue — one that particularly seems to plague academics — is at the heart of our problems as a culture and as a church.

To mix these very separate categories is a great sin indeed, but such sins must be in the eyes of the beholder. I am afraid Mr. Fea has committed the opposite sin in being so enamored of a certain anti-populist and anti-American narrative — which view is so trendy in the Academy that he should be concerned about having accepted it himself — that he falls into the category of those who find any healthy celebration of patriotism as like unto worshipping the Beast of Revelation.

I am glad Metaxas is familiar with my critique of his book If You Can Keep It and he no longer just sees me as “some guy.”  You can read my critical posts here and decide for yourself.  As you will see from those posts, I don’t think it is a good idea to give a copy of this book to every American. You can also read my 2016 piece on Metaxas at Religion News Service.  I still stand by both pieces.

I also wrote this on August 5, 2016. Here is a taste:

…I get fired up about bad history.  This, for example, is why I wrote a six-part review of Eric Metaxas’s book If You Can Keep It.  I am not suggesting that Metaxas set out to tell blatant lies about the past, and his errors are certainly not as egregious as Trump’s, but I do think that much of his argument is based on a misunderstanding of historical facts. The claims of his book are built on a very weak foundation. They are not just cosmetic errors, they are historical errors that affect the entire structure and message of the book.

I know its easy to dismiss historians as idealistic ivory tower-dwellers with too much time on their hands.  I get this criticism a lot, but I have never accepted.it.  Perhaps the late historian of the African-American experience John Hope Franklin put it best when he said: “One might argue the historian is the conscience of the nation,if honest and consistency are factors that nurture the conscience.”

Now back to the Olympics. I am thinking about staying up late tonight to cheer on the U.S men’s curling team.   I wonder if this counts as “healthy patriotism.” 🙂

What Do Eric Metaxas and Hillary Clinton Have in Common?

Hillary

They both believe that America is a “shining city on a hill.”

Some of you may remember that I questioned the way Eric Metaxas used this phrase in his book If You Can Keep It.  You can read the criticism here.

Now it is Hillary Clinton who is playing the “city on a hill” and American exceptionalism card.  Granted, Clinton’s “city on a hill” is not as overly providential at Metaxas’s use of the term, but the rhetoric of American exceptionalism is similar.

Here is Ryan Teague Beckwith’s piece at Time on Clinton’s use of this language:

In her address, she also heartily endorsed the concept of American exceptionalism, going even further to call America “indispensable” and citing two Republican presidents in her speech to the American Legion.

“The United States is an exceptional nation,” she said. “I believe we are still Lincoln’s last, best hope of Earth. We’re still Reagan’s shining city on a hill. We’re still Robert Kennedy’s great, unselfish, compassionate country. … In fact, we are the indispensable nation.”

It was an argument aimed squarely at the veterans of an organization that lists “Americanism” as one of its central pillars. But it was also a way of turning one of the Republican lines against Obama back against the party’s own nominee.

Read the entire piece here.Metaxas

This may be the first time a Democratic candidate has the phrase “city on a hill” since John Kennedy in 1961.

On why the use of this phrase is problematic as a way to describe American exceptionalism, click here.

Thanks to longtime reader and commentator Tom Van Dyke for bringing this article to my attention.

 

The Conscience of the Nation


Many of you have already seen George Stephanopolous’s recent interview with Donald Trump about the Khan family.  Watch it here:

A lot has been said about this video.  I don’t want to rehash all of those issues.  But, as many of you know, I have been making an argument against Trump based on his failure to embrace some of the very basics of historical thinking.  I am not saying that Trump or any political candidate should be professional historians (although it wouldn’t hurt).  I am, however, trying to use Trump’s popularity to call attention to the contribution that historical thinking (and, for that matter, other types of critical thinking) might make to our democracy.

With that in mind, I want to call attention to one of the more controversial parts of Trump’s remarks.  Trump suggests that Ghazala Khan did not speak at the DNC because “she wasn’t allowed to have anything to say.”  The implication here is that Ghazala Khan’s Muslim faith and its view of women had something to do with her silence.  I am not an expert on Islam, so I don’t know if Trump is right about this.  I do know that Khizr Khan has said on multiple occasions that Ghazala did not speak at the DNC because of her grief. And Ghazala Khan turned to the op-ed page of The Washington Post to explain this.

Trump claimed that his view on Ghazala Khan’s silence was probably correct because “plenty of people have written that” and “a lot of people have said that.”  I don’t expect Trump to cite his sources in an interview, but I also don’t want my president making public statements to national audiences about the parents of war heroes based on the notion that “a lot of people have said that.”  This reveals Trump’s inability to keep his mouth shut until he has some assemblage of facts about a particular issue.  When my POTUS speaks I want his or her arguments to be based on solid evidence.  The last time I checked, historians were in the business of making arguments based on evidence.  Again, you don’t have to be a historian to make statements based on solid evidence, but historians tend to do it better than most.

And then there is this:

In this clip Trump claims that there is a video of United States authorities transferring cash to Iran.  Trump does not just mention the video in passing, but he builds an entire argument about Barack Obama’s foreign policy on what he claimed he saw in this video. Trump claims that the tape was released by Iran for the purpose of embarrassing the United States.

The video Trump is referring to does not exist.  Trump was making it all up.  He used this blatant lie about something that happened in the recent past to stir up his supporters and win votes.

Hillary Clinton is also having her problems on this front.  It’s time to stop the Jedi mind-tricks.

This is why I get fired up about bad history.  This, for example, is why I wrote a six-part review of Eric Metaxas’s book If You Can Keep It.  I am not suggesting that Metaxas set out to tell blatant lies about the past, and his errors are certainly not as egregious as Trump’s, but I do think that much of his argument is based on a misunderstanding of historical facts. The claims of his book are built on a very weak foundation. They are not just cosmetic errors, they are historical errors that affect the entire structure and message of the book.

I know its easy to dismiss historians as idealistic ivory tower-dwellers with too much time on their hands.  I get this criticism a lot, but I have never accepted.it.  Perhaps the late historian of the African-American experience John Hope Franklin put it best when he said: “One might argue the historian is the conscience of the nation,if honest and consistency are factors that nurture the conscience.”

Eric Metaxas and David Barton Team Up Against “Angry” Historians

MetaxasToday David Barton, the GOP activist who uses the American past to promote his political agenda, appeared on the Eric Metaxas Show.  Thanks again to Warren Throckmorton for providing an audio clip of the part of their conversation related to Metaxas’s book If You Can Keep It.

As some of you know, I have been critical of Metaxas’s book.  I have also been critical of the work of David Barton.

This is what Metaxas and Barton had to say today:

Metaxas: David, one thing I have to say that I have in common with you other than writing about American history and God’s role in it, and the role of Christians and faith and virtue, is that I have been outrageously attacked…I was thinking of you because, man, you took it on the chin.  There are some people that are just…  My thesis is that they are annoyed by our conclusions so they kind of nitpick and they find one little thing.  If there’s something that’s in my book that’s wrong I want to change it, I don’t want it to be there.  But they kind of jump on that and they write a whole essay on the thing that is wrong.

Barton: Or they take it out of context too.  Not only will they nitpick, but they never tell the reader to go read the book and look at the context.  That’s what these guys notoriously do. We’ll have a thirty minute broadcast and they will take a seven-second clip out of it and say “look what you said.”  Well, listen for thirty minutes [and] it’s a whole different thing.

Metaxas: It is extraordinary I have to say. And I feel like because you’ve been through it I take it as a point of pride, you know.  Because I thought to myself “I know what I’m writing is true.”  You know, a number of people were criticizing me for interpreting John Winthrop on the Arbella when he preached this sermon about that we’re a city on a hill, and that whole thing.   It’s real clear to me, it underscores my larger thesis, that America has always been a nation for others–that we want to be a shining beacon of liberty and truth and the gospel.  That’s been who we are and a number of folks have said that I totally take that out of context, it meant something else.  And I thought to myself, that is simply wrong.  You can “quibble”–that would be the verb–you can quibble with what I’m saying, but really you cannot say that what I am saying is wrong, and I am sure it’s not wrong. 

Barton: Well, in my case, we actually have the original documents. Give me a break. But they say “yeah, but we got all these Ph.Ds who say you’re wrong.  Well, that’s alright–I’ve got the original documents. But they don’t go there. The same with your.  They’re going to criticize your through academic channels because they don’t like your conclusions.

Metaxas: It’s so funny.  It’s so funny.  It’s a lot of angry quibbling.  I take it as a point of pride because I’m called by God to do what I am doing.  It doesn’t mean that God is always on my side, but it does mean that I care about my country, I love my country. It goes way beyond this country.  If you care about the world  you need to care about America. God has a point to this country as a beacon to the whole world, a share our liberties.  So it really is something I consider important.  Your work has been foundational.  I want to thank you for the tremendous work you have done.

Listen to the exchange here.

Just a few quick points:

  1.  Metaxas’s view of Winthrop’s use of the phrase “city on a hill” IS taken out of context.  I encourage you to take David Barton’s advice and read the original source– “A Modell on Christian Charity.”  You should also read Hillsdale College professor David Gamble’s  In Search of the City on a Hill: The Making and Unmaking of an American Myth. And don’t forget the post by Tracy McKenzie, chair of the history department at evangelical Wheaton College.
  2.  I am sure I have addressed this before, but it needs to be said again.  For years Barton has been telling the ordinary evangelicals who follow him that he is right about American history because he owns a lot of documents.  He claims that he reads the original documents and suggests that professional historians do not.  This is a completely absurd claim.  ALL professional historians read and interpret primary sources.  This is what we do.  Doing history–especially the history of political ideas– has very little to do with whether or not someone one can hold an original document in their hands.  For example, if Barton had a copy of the Declaration of Independence would he be in a better position to interpret the ideas in the document than someone who was merely reading the Declaration of Independence online or in a textbook?  I have never been to Wallbuilders or seen David Barton’s collection of documents, but I am pretty certain that most of the documents he possesses are easily accessible for historians in online and print collections.  Unless one is writing a history about these books, letter, and manuscrpts as physical objects or pieces of material culture (which is not how Barton uses the documents–he peddles in ideas), the fact that Barton owns these documents and can actually them does not make his interpretations of history any more right or wrong.
  3. I will admit that many websites do take Barton’s words, especially when he is on the radio, out of context.  But the best and most thorough critiques of his work do not.
  4. Metaxas claims that he is called by God to write such flawed history. He thus sees the criticism of his work as a “point of pride.”  As an evangelical Christian who also believes he has a calling, I find this sort of “blessed are the persecuted” mentality to be offensive.

Metaxas: “Some Guy Wrote a 6-Part Series”

Republican U.S. presidential candidate Ted Cruz speaks with moderator Eric Metaxas at the National Religious Broadcasters Annual Convention at Oryland in Nashville

Head over to Warren Throckmorton’s blog and listen to Eric Metaxas mock me on his radios program for my 6-part critique of his book.  He and Ann Coulter have a good laugh over the fact that there are errors in their recent books.

Here is Metaxas:

There are errors in my book and people have written ESSAYS–I’m not even kidding.  People have attacked my book so much. This never happened to me before. They take a sentence that I could just change that sentence and everything would be okay.  They have written ESSAYS about this sentence.  I said something about freedom in our early days, implying that it was universal, which of course it was not (we had a lot of problems with religious freedom)–peoplek have written essays and essays.  Some guy wrote a 6-part blog thing, 4000 words criticizing my book. There’s another thing–oh–that I misinterpret John Winthrop when he says that we are a shining city on a hill–Jesus’s words–and he says I misinterpreted them.  In fact, I did not misinterpret it. But even if I had it is not worth and ESSAY correcting me

To get the full effect (and the sarcasm and smugness in Metaxas’s voice) you really need to LISTEN to the exchange with Coulter.  It is only about one minute long.

My Review Series on Metaxas’s “If You Can Keep It”: A Wrap-Up at RNS

Republican U.S. presidential candidate Ted Cruz speaks with moderator Eric Metaxas at the National Religious Broadcasters Annual Convention at Oryland in Nashville

Six posts are enough.  I could say a lot more about Eric Metaxas’s book If You Can Keep It: The Forgotten Promise of American Liberty, but I decided, for a variety of reasons, to bring the series to an end yesterday.

Today Religion News Service is running a piece that I envisioned, when asked to write it, as a summary and wrap-up post.

Here is a taste:

(RNS) In 1994, evangelical historian Mark Noll wrote about the “scandal of the evangelical mind.” The Wheaton College professor called out evangelicals for their anti-intellectual approaches to public engagement and urged his fellow believers to be more thoughtful in their political reflections.

I don’t know if Eric Metaxas has ever read “The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind,” but since the release of his wildly popular biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer he has been touted as one of conservative evangelicalism’s leading spokespersons and public intellectuals.

Metaxas’ latest book, “If You Can Keep It: The Forgotten Promise of American Liberty,” is soaring up the New York Times best-sellers list. The title comes from a popular story about Benjamin Franklin and the Constitutional Convention in the summer of 1787.  When Franklin walked out of the Pennsylvania State House at the end of the convention he was met by Elizabeth Powell, a prominent woman in Philadelphia. She asked Franklin what kind of government the members of the convention had forged.  Franklin responded, “A republic … if you can keep it.”

Read the rest here.

Review of Eric Metaxas, “If You Can Keep It: Part 6

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.

This post, our final one in the series, examines Metaxas’s understanding of American exceptionalism, an idea that drives much of his thesis in If You Can Keep It.

Metaxas roots his understanding of American exceptionalism in the famous words of John Winthrop, the first Puritan governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. In his lay sermon A Model of Christian Charity (1630), Winthrop used the phrase “city upon a hill” to describe the colony.  The phrase comes from Jesus’s words in Matthew 5:14-16: “You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hid. Nor do men light a lamp and put it under a bushel, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.”

Here is how Winthrop used the phrase in A Model of Christian Charity:  “For we must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill.  The eyes of all people are upon us. So that if we shall deal falsely with our God in this work we have undertaken, and so cause Him to withdraw His present help from us, we shall be made a story and a by-word through the world…”

It is worth noting that Metaxas has made the common mistake of taking Winthrop’s words, which were addressed to the inhabitants of one British-American colony, and applying them to the United States writ-large.  Winthrop, of course, was not applying his “city upon a hill” metaphor to the already-existing colonies of Virginia, Plymouth, and the Dutch colony of New Netherland (which became New York thirty-four years later).  Yet these colonies and several others–colonies in which the “city upon a hill” metaphor was not part of their founding ideal–would also be part of the United States of America in 1776.  Metaxas is in good company here.  John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan, both fans of the “city upon a hill” metaphor, also made this mistake. (More on Reagan below).

At the heart of Metaxas’s argument in If You Can Keep It is the idea that America remains a “city upon a hill” today.  It is, and always has been, a nation chosen by God to do His will in the world.

Here are some pertinent passages from the book:

p.25: “Therefore, if in any sense we care about the rest of the world, we must first ‘keep’ this republic.  We are to shine not so that we can admire our own brightness but so that we hold out a beacon of hope to the rest of the world.  Our exceptionalism is not for us but for others.”

p.188-189: In speaking about the United States as a “chosen” nation akin to Israel in the Old Testament, Metaxas writes: “So far from being a selfish idea, it is the idea of living for others–of showing them a new way of thinking–that was at the heart of America.  To miss that is to miss everything.  This idea of being as a ‘city upon a hill’ that can be seen from afar–and that will be seen from afar–has been with us from the beginning.  It is the idea that what we have is indeed something extraordinary, but because of this we have been given the tremendous burden of stewarding and sharing what we have with the rest of the world. So if we are exceptional, we are not exceptional for our own sakes.  We are exceptional for the world beyond our shores, for all who are interested in seeing what we are doing and in joining our project.”

p.194: “Reading Reagan, we see that this most conservative of modern presidents, even in underscoring this idea of American exceptionalism, pointedly expressed the idea that America existed for others, for those not yet here among us.  So if this is an idea that has been at the very core of our identity from before the beginning, can we truly continue to be America if we forget it?

p.211-212: “…Lincoln did not think America’s exceptionalism a mere accident of history.  Indeed…he makes clear that he sees our special role in history much as John Winthrop saw it and as many men in the two centuries connecting them saw it: as nothing less than a holy calling.”

p.212-213: “We are not here talking about the contested and controversial idea of ‘Manifest Destiny,’ nor merely of noblesse oblige, but of something far more serious, of something that is even sacred.  Lincoln felt that America had been called by God to fulfill a role and to perform a duty for the rest of the world.  It was not something to be giddy about.  Far from it.  He understood that to be chosen by God–as the Jews had been chosen by God, and as the prophets had been chosen by God, and as the Messiah had been chosen by God–was something that was a profound and sacred and even terrifying obligation.”

p.214-215: “[The Puritans of Massachusetts Bay] would care for one another.  The rich would lift up the poor.  This is something that resonates with us today in large part because Winthrop and his fellow shipmates were successful.  What they did shone so brightly that their distinctly biblical model carried on beyond the Massachusetts Bay Colony and into the United States of America.”

So what is wrong with these passage from If You Can Keep It?

A lot.

Before we examine the historical and theological problems here, let’s remember that the United States has, at times, been a force for good in the world.  It has provided a home to millions of immigrants fleeing persecution and economic hardship.  It has offered aid to oppressed and sick people groups around the world.  It has used its power to stop tyrants and advance freedom across the globe.  And in some circumstances American leaders–Woodrow Wilson comes to mind immediately–believed that they were extending American relief and support as leaders of a Christian nation.  (The previous sentence is a historical observation, not an ethical or theological one.  In other words, I am not saying that Wilson and others were right in believing this).

With that said, we must begin our critique with Metaxas’s use of Winthrop’s famous phrase.  Metaxas believes that Winthrop was correct when he called Massachusetts Bay a “city upon a hill.” I don’t know how he knows this, since there is nothing in the Bible about the United States of America, but he nevertheless thinks that Winthrop was on to something.  And then he argues that somehow the special mission assigned to Massachusetts Bay got transferred, presumably at some point during the American Revolution, to the United States.

As historian Tracy McKenzie has pointed out in his own critique of If You Can Keep It, Metaxas does not understand the way Winthrop was using the phrase “city upon a hill” when he uttered it in 1630.  I will let Tracy take it from here:

So what did Governor Winthrop mean when he told the Massachusetts Bay colonists that they would be “as a city on a hill”?  The most common reading—Eric Metaxas’ reading—is that Winthrop was telling the colonists that God had given them a special mission.  The colony they were establishing (and by extension, the future United States) was divinely destined to serve as an example to the world.  God’s plan was for the new nation to model the values (religious, political, and economic) that He desired the rest of the world to emulate.  Metaxas strengthens this interpretation by adding the adjective “shining” to the metaphor—“a shining city on a hill”—although we have Ronald Reagan to thank for that phrase, not John Winthrop.

Admirers of this reading have been deeply convicted by the sense of America’s high calling that it embodies.  In If You Can Keep It, Metaxas exhorts readers to rediscover this noble mission and rededicate themselves to it.  Critics, on the other hand, have scorned the arrogance that Winthrop was supposedly reflecting and promoting.  Both evaluations miss the mark, because both are based on a misreading of Winthrop’s original statement….

Far from claiming that the Lord had chosen the Puritan migrants to serve as a glorious example to the world, Winthrop was instead reminding them that it would be impossible to hide the outcome if they failed.  Their massive departure had unavoidably attracted the attention of the countrymen they left behind.  They would be watching, many of them hoping that the Puritans would stumble. If Winthrop had been writing today, he could have conveyed his point by telling his audience that everything they did would be under a microscope.  The point was not that they had been divinely selected to serve as an exemplary beacon, but rather that they could not possibly escape the scrutiny of their enemies.

So it is that in the very next sentence after noting that “the eyes of all people are upon us,” Winthrop warned that “if we deal falsely with our God in this work we have undertaken . . . we shall be made a story and a by-word through the world.”  In so many words, he was telling the migrating Puritans that they would become a laughingstock, objects of scorn and derision.  What was worse, their failure would “open the mouths of enemies to speak evils of the ways of God.”  Rather than puffing up the Puritans with claims of a divine mission, Winthrop intended his allusion to “a city upon a hill” to send a chill down their spines.

If McKenzie is correct, and I think he is, then one of the central arguments of Metaxas’s book completely falls apart.  McKenzie shows that there was little continuity between the way John Winthrop used the phrase “city on a hill” and Ronald Reagan (and Metaxas) used it in the 1980s. When Winthrop used the phrase it had nothing to do with Massachusetts Bay (or the United States of America) sharing its ideals with other nations.

But the problems with Metaxas’s argument go deeper.  I hope that his Christian readers will be bothered by the fact that Metaxas equates the United States of America with God’s chosen people.  By equating the United States with the chosen people of God he is propagating one of the worst forms of American exceptionalism.  Most versions of Christian theology teach that God no longer works through the nation of Israel but has instead established a “new covenant” with the church.  The church is a community made up of those who have embraced the redemptive message of the Gospel and, as a result, live their lives devoted to building the Kingdom of God, a kingdom defined by loving God and loving neighbor.  In If You Can Keep It, Metaxas conflates the calling of the church with the United States of America.  I am not sure whether to call this blasphemy or idolatry. Perhaps both.

For a more thoughtful Christian assessment of American exceptionalism I highly recommend John Wilsey’s American Exceptionalism and Civil Religion: Reassessing the History of an Idea.

Review of Eric Metaxas, “If You Can Keep It”: Part 5

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.

This post examines Metaxas’s understanding of the First Great Awakening and, specifically, the role in the Awakening played by George Whitefield.  Since Metaxas devotes an entire chapter to Whitefield and connects the eighteenth-century ministry of the evangelist to the coming of the American Revolution and the creation of the United States of America, it is worth spending some time exploring his treatment of this topic.

As Metaxas correctly points out (over and over again), George Whitefield was extremely popular.  During the height of the evangelical revival known as the First Great Awakening he was, without a doubt, the most popular person in the British-American colonies.  As the first inter-colonial celebrity, Whitefield’s message of the New Birth did play a unifying role in the colonies.  The evangelist forged an inter-colonial community of the saved. Indeed, this is why many historians have traced the origins of American evangelicalism to Whitefield.

But after establishing Whitefield as an American rock star who brought the colonies together in unprecedented ways, Metaxas’s argument goes off the rails.  First, it is worth noting that not everyone liked Whitefield.  There were many who opposed him or simply did not care about what he had to say about the state of their souls.  On p.112, Metaxas cites evangelical pastor John Piper as a historical authority on this issue.  Since there is no footnote (there are only 8 footnotes in the entire book) I have no idea where Metaxas got the quote, but Piper apparently once said: “by 1750 virtually every American loved and admired Whitefield and saw him as their champion.” I like John Piper–but he overstates his case here.

Second, and perhaps most troublesome, is Metaxas’s effort to turn Whitefield into some kind of spiritual founding father of the American republic.  Here are the passages worth thinking about more deeply:

p. 100:  “During his lifetime [Whitefield] would cross the Atlantic thirteen times, but it was this second trip to America that would forever alter the landscape of the New World, which in turn would affect the rest of the world. Because it would unite that scatting of peoples into a single people, one that together saw the world differently than any had before and that was prepared to depart from  history in a way none had ever done.  What would happen during his time in the thirteen colonies would begin the process of uniting them into something greater than the sum of their disparate parts, would begin the process of preparing them to become the United States of America.”

p.103: “Americans were becoming united in the wake of his nonstop preaching.  People were being offered a new identity that fit well with the American way of thinking.  Some were German by background and some were French and some were English, but none of it mattered.  They were all equal under God; they were all Americans.  This was something new, an identity that was separate from one’s ethnicity or one’s denomination.  To be an American meant to buy into a new set of ideas about one’s equal status in God’s eyes–and by dint of this to be accepted into a new community, to be an Americans.

p.112:  “[Whitefield] united the colonies as they had never been united, articulating what they came to believe.  So that everyone who accepted these views about liberty and independence–with all of their ramifications and corollaries–would have this in common with the others who did; and sharing these ideas set forth by Whitefield became a vital part of what it meant to be an American.  All who believed these things began to think of themselves as Americans as much as–if not more than–they thought of themselves as citizens of Connecticut or Maryland or North Carolina, for example.  The various members of the thirteen colonies thus slowly became a people; and these people–this people–would eventually seek political independence and would become a nation.”

Metaxas suggests that Whitefield paved the way for the American Revolution.  At one point in his book he even describes Whitefield’s conversion, which took place while he was a student at Oxford University, as “a hinge in the history of the world–a point on which everything turns.”  Not only does this imply that Whitefield somehow triggered the American Revolution and the birth of the United States, but it also feeds into Metaxas’s argument, which we will discuss in a later post, that God raised up America as an exceptional nation to accomplish His will in the world.

To be fair, there are several historians who have suggested a link between Whitefield (and by extension the First Great Awakening) and the American Revolution.  The argument goes something like this:  Whitefield’s egalitarian message taught the colonists that they were all equal before God and his preaching in local communities taught the colonists how to challenge the authority of ministers who had not experienced the New Birth.  This new sense of equality and resistance to tyrannical authority was then somehow transferred to the political realm, thus explaining the colonial resistance to Great Britain in the 1760s and 1770s.

Those who make this argument today do so with a great deal of caution.  But Metaxas throws caution to the wind. No legitimate historian would take this argument as far as he has done in the three passages I quoted above.  The reason why so many historians tread lightly when connecting the evangelicalism of the Great Awakening to the American Revolution is because there is limited concrete evidence that the founding fathers, or the people for that matter, were specifically drawing upon evangelicalism as they articulated their political resistance to England.

Metaxas is basically trying to argue for the evangelical origins of the American Revolution. The New Birth, he suggests, melted away all other forms of identity–ethnic identities, local political identities, religious identities–into a unique and exceptional “American” identity.  He offers a Whig interpretation of the American Revolution on steroids.  It fails to explain the persistence of ethnic identity in the decades following the Revolution.  It fails to explain the states-rights and local orientation of the Articles of Confederation.  It fails to explain denominationalism as it developed in the decades between the Revolution and the Civil War.  And it highly exaggerates the influence of Whitefield, evangelicalism, and the Great Awakening on colonial life.  Metaxas fails to realize that religious belief was not particularly strong at the time of the American Revolution.

Finally, let’s remember that the First Great Awakening was a transatlantic spiritual movement.  Whatever unity among evangelicals that Whitefield helped to create was not unique to the British-American colonies.  Whitefield preached the same gospel message in England, Wales, and Scotland.  The people in the British-American colonies who embraced the New Birth saw themselves as part of a movement that was transatlantic in nature.  In other words, the Great Awakening made the religious and cultural relationship between Great Britain and the American colonies stronger, not weaker.

The Great Awakening was a deeply religious movement that had a profound impact on ordinary people and their relationship with God. Metaxas’s interpretation makes it into a political movement. When people experienced the outpouring of the Holy Spirit they were not thinking about the ways in which their newfound encounter with God was planting the seeds of rebellion against England.  It is time to stop interpreting the Great Awakening through the grid of the American Revolution.

Stay tuned.

Review of Eric Metaxas, “If You Can Keep It”: Part 4

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 understanding of the relationship between England and the thirteen American colonies, particularly as it relates to the concept of “liberty.”

As my students of colonial America are well aware, the so-called “13 Colonies” were very British at the time of the American Revolution.  In fact, much of what the colonists had learned about liberty and freedom stemmed from the fact that they were British subjects. Ironically, it was the British who taught the colonists how to rebel.  The British were the most liberty-loving people in the eighteenth-century world and they were proud of it. Their monarch was held in check by the people through Parliament, making them unlike nearly all other nation-states.  From the perspective of many of the founding fathers, the American Revolution was the correct and consistent application of British liberty to the imperial crisis over taxation.

But in order for Metaxas’s argument about American exceptionalism to work (we will discuss this in a later post), he must make a clear contrast between England and their rebellious colonies. For example, on p.19-20 Metaxas claims, in reference to the United States, that “back in 1776 and in the decades after, this nation was all alone” in embodying the idea of liberty and its “uniqueness at that time can hardly be overstated.”

On p. 9 Metaxas suggests that the role of “the people” in monarchical government would be “nonexistent.”  This may have been the case for France, Russia, or some other eighteenth-century European country, but it was definitely not true for England. Though the colonists portrayed the English government as tyrannical, it is way over-the-top to compare the eighteenth-century English monarchy to a “strongman dictator” like Saddam Hussein (p.18).

Metaxas uses the term “miracle” to describe the American idea of “self-government.”  He chides the Tories or loyalists, the nearly one-third of British-American colonies who did not support the American Revolution, for their “shocking” failure to embrace the cause of liberty.  He then continues to play the American exceptionalism card by asking : “After all, when in the history of the modern world had anyone entrusted its government to the people?” (p.20).  This is a fair point, but it assumes that the American founders had a much higher view of “the people” than they actually did.  In reality, most of the founders did not trust the people to govern themselves.  In his Notes on the State of Virginia (1782), Thomas Jefferson wrote that “government degenerates when trusted to the rulers of the people alone.”  Alexander Hamilton called democratic government–rule by the people–a “disease” and a “poison.”

Did the idea of liberty develop in the United States in unique ways?  Of course it did.  But that is something that occurred over time.  It is difficult to draw a straight line between the eighteenth-century and today without taking into consideration the developments that existed in-between.  During the 1770s and 1780, the idea of an American monarch presiding over a new American nation defined by something similar to historic British liberties was still very much in play.

Stay tuned for our next segment in which we will discuss Metaxas’s view of the First Great Awakening and George Whitefield.

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.

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…

Review of Eric Metaxas, “If You Can Keep It”: Part 1

MetaxasOver the last decade Eric Metaxas, a writer, biographer, Yale graduate, and cultural commentator, has become a popular spokesperson for conservative evangelicalism.

Metaxas is best known for his wildly popular, but deeply flawed, biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer.  The book not only sold a lot of copies, but launched a speaking tour in which Metaxas was able to showcase his entertaining style of public lecturing. He now hosts a daily radio show–the perfect outlet for his blend of comedy and conservative political commentary.

The blurbs on his current book, If You Can Keep It: The Forgotten Promise of American Liberty, are glowing.  Robert George, the Princeton law professor who is arguably the most important conservative intellectual working today, calls Metaxas “one of our nation’s most brilliant and morally serious public intellectuals.”  Conservative talk show host Dennis Prager says that every American should read If You Can Keep It and should then “reread it aloud to their children and grandchildren.”  Gregory Thornbury, the president of The King’s College, an evangelical college in New York City, writes that Metaxas has done “a great service to this country.”  This is high praise from some important people.  When I read these blurbs I concluded that this must be a book that should be taken seriously.  So I asked Viking Books for a review copy and I read it.

Metaxas is an evangelical rock star.  On the day Viking sent me a review copy of If You Can Keep it was ranked #4 on Amazon.com.  The book’s launch was filmed for C-SPAN. During the Q&A following Metaxas’s talk, one woman in the audience urged him to run for President of the United States. Recently a history teacher told me about a parent who was urging him to adopt Metaxas’s book in his Advanced Placement United States history class. If You Can Keep It is getting a lot of attention.

The title of the book comes from a popular story associated with Ben Franklin and his role at the Constitutional Convention in the summer of 1787.  Reportedly, when Franklin walked out of the Constitution Convention he was met by Elizabeth Powel, a women of prominence in colonial Philadelphia.  She asked Franklin what kind of government the members of the convention had forged..  Franklin responded, “A republic, Madam, if you can keep it.”

Over the years Franklin’s words have been a mantra for those concerned about the fate of the American republic.  His statement suggests that a republic is something that must be “kept.” Government by the people can be fragile.  Unless the people are diligent in preserving the republic it will ultimately fail.  Franklin was aware of this.  So were all the other founders.  As students of the past the founders knew that republics had not fared very well in the history of Western civilization.

But how should the American republic be preserved? Metaxas’s book offers some answers. He argues, as many have done in the past, that the republic is in trouble.  But it can be revived again if people follow his formula, which he claims to have drawn from the lessons of American history.

According to Metaxas, in order for the republic to survive Americans must defend religious freedom, cultivate virtue informed by the teachings of the Bible and Christianity, do a better job of venerating the founding fathers and other American “heroes,” demand that their leaders have moral character, reclaim America as a “city on a hill” and an exceptional nation inspired by God with a moral and Christian mandate to spread love to other nations around the world, and learn to love their country again by celebrating the stories and other cultural manifestations of American patriotism.

Metaxas’s concern for his country is admirable.  If You Can Keep It raises important questions.  What kind of republic did the founders want to create?  What role does history play in the preservation of the American republic today?  How should we understand patriotism in a world that includes a growing number of critics who are disillusioned with some of the directions our country has taken?

Again, these are all good questions.  Unfortunately, Metaxas does a very poor job of using American history to answer them.  This book is filled with historical errors of both fact and interpretation.  It also has serious theological problems, particularly in the way it conflates American history and the kingdom of God.  Frankly, this book is an intellectual mess.  Metaxas’s entire argument about the current state of the American republic is based on an incredibly weak and faulty historical and theological foundation.  It is an example of how not to use the past to make an argument in the present and serves as yet another example of what historian Mark Noll has described as the “scandal of the evangelical mind.”

Over the course of the next several days I will offer my thoughts on this book here at The Way of Improvement Leads Home.  Stay tuned for additional posts.