On July 5, 2019, court evangelical Tony “Mulligan” Perkins of the Family Research Council hosted court evangelical and author Eric Metaxas on his “Washington Watch” radio program. The conversation was devoted to Metaxas’s 2016 book If You Can Keep It: The Forgotten Promise of American Liberty, Readers of The Way of Improvement Leads Home blog are aware that this book is riddled with historical problems, many of which I wrote about in a series of posts when the book was published.
Listen to the Perkins-Metaxas conversation here.
Here are some comments:
2:00ff: Metaxas, citing Christian author Os Guinness, suggests that the founders believed that virtue was essential to a republic and that people could not be virtuous without “faith.” There are some problems with this formulation. The founders did believe that virtue was essential to a healthy republic. Virtue was a political term. The virtuous person–usually a man–was someone who sacrificed his own interests for the greater good of the republic. With this definition, it seems as if there would be a lot of present-day Americans–including socialists–who might have a claim on this kind of eighteenth-century political virtue. In fact, one of our best historians of American socialism, Nick Salvatore, has argued that socialists like Eugene Debs drew heavily upon this tradition of republic virtue.
Moreover, as I argued in my book The Way of Improvement Leads Home: Philip Vickers Fithian and the Rural Enlightenment in Early America, many founding fathers, including Ben Franklin (who uttered the saying in the title of Metaxas’s book), believed that Christianity or religion was not the only source of this kind of virtue.
2:45ff: I don’t know of any “progressive” or person of “the Left” who is invoking the French Revolution these days. (I am willing to be proven wrong on this). Metaxas describes the French Revolution in terms of bloodbaths, anarchy, madness, egalitarianism, socialism, and the general lack of freedom. Later in the interview Metaxas says that fear was not a factor in the evangelical turn toward Donald Trump. As I argued in Believe Me, fear-mongers often build on false or exaggerated claims. Isn’t this what Metaxas is doing here? Perkins and Metaxas want to keep everyone scared so they pull the lever for Trump in 2020 and continue to man the ramparts of the culture wars.
4:50ff: Metaxas says that we have been given a “sacred charge, a holy charge by God” to preserve the United States of America. Here Metaxas equates the fate of America with the will of God as if the United States is some kind of new Israel. He also says that if the Christian church does its job in the United States, “freedom will flourish.”
Is this true? Is the role of the church to promote political freedom?
Metaxas confuses the mission of the Christian church with American freedom. He fails to recognize that if the church does its work in the world, Christians will realize that their American freedoms are limited by a higher calling. For example, if the church is doing its work fewer Christians will “pursue happiness” in terms of materialistic consumption. Fewer Christians will commit adultery or file for divorce. The number of abortions will be reduced. Hate speech will decline. The number of people viewing pornography will be reduced. The right to be gluttonous, greedy, slothful, and envious will decline. The right to own vehicles that destroy the environment will be curbed. Of course all of these things–materialism, consumerism, adultery, divorce, hate speech, pornography, gluttony, greed, sloth, envy, the ownership of a big SUV– are legal and protected under our freedoms as Americans. They are also contrary to Christian teaching. Americans are “free” to hate their neighbor and their enemies. But if you claim to be a follower of Jesus you are not free to do these things. So if the church is doing its work in world, Christians should become less, not more, “free” in the American sense of the word.
9:40ff: Perkins implies that those evangelicals who do not support Donald Trump do not “think,” “pray,” or “act.” (For the record this anti-Trump evangelical does try to think, pray, and act). Metaxas says that those who oppose the POTUS are “prideful” and “myopic.”
I’ve noticed that when Metaxas is talking with critics such as Kristin Powers and Jonathan Merritt he backpedals and issues calls for civility. But when he is on the air with a fellow court evangelicals like Perkins, he returns to his 2016 Wall Street Journal op-ed mode of calling out the judgement of God on anti-Trumpers.
10:35ff: Metaxas says: “we are at a tipping point in America…we could go back to the 1750s where we no longer have American style freedom.” This is more fear-mongering. It reminds me of when Ted Cruz said that if Clinton won in 2016 the government would start erasing crosses and stars of David from tombstones. Metaxas also fails to realize that his conservative approach to the world looks very much like the British freedoms all the American colonists enjoyed in 1750.
11:50ff: Metaxas defends Richard Nixon. He claims that George McGovern wanted to “take us down a socialist road.” The last time I checked, McGovern was not a socialist. Here Metaxas implies that Nixon may have indeed committed a crime in office, but at least he wasn’t a big-government liberal.
12:00ff: Metaxas compares those evangelicals who do not “get their hands dirty” voting for Trump to those who did not stand up to Hitler. (Of course Hillary Clinton is the “Hitler” figure here–a comparison Metaxas has made before).
12:30ff: Throughout this interview, Metaxas sloppily (although I don’t think he believes it is sloppy) mixes Christian faith and American ideals. He talks about the blood of Jesus dying for sinners and in the very same sentence references the “minute men” in the American Revolution dying for “freedom” and the un-“biblical” Loyalists. This is not unlike the way in which many 18th-century patriotic ministers interpreted Galatians 5:1 to mean freedom from British tyranny instead of freedom “in Christ.” (I discuss this old American evangelical bad habit in Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?: A Historical Introduction).
If we want a quick introduction to Metaxas and his thinking, listen to this interview.