A Review of Eric Metaxas’ book ‘If You Can Keep It’
With the July 4th holiday upon us, it is an appropriate time to offer a review of the latest book by Eric Metaxas, called If You Can Keep It: The Forgotten Promise of American Liberty. Metaxas is the author of the outstanding and highly revered biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer from 2011, and this new book on American exceptionalism is receiving similar accolades.
The book raised a question in my mind — exactly how devoted should a Christian be to his/her country? Some Christians are overly patriotic, making the grievous error of assuming that America possesses some special status as God’s chosen people (hints of that idea appear from time to time in this book). Other Christians, however, seem to assume that a mark of godliness is total indifference or even animosity toward one’s country. Yet in the Proverbs we read that “righteousness exalts a nation, but sin condemns any people” (14:34), implying that God’s people will have an interest in the moral condition of one’s country. And Paul expresses “great sorrow and unceasing anguish” in his heart “for the sake of my brothers, my kinsmen according to the flesh” (Rom. 9:1-4), showing the apostle’s own sense of passionate loyalty to his fellow Israelites.
I recall my days in elementary school when I was taught that America was a place worth loving, and that to be a good citizen of this nation, there were certain responsibilities and expectations for how one should live. But as Metaxas points out, those days seem long gone. Patriotism has been replaced by cynicism, and the whole notion of “love of country” seems outdated and naïve.
In If You Can Keep It (a phrase originally spoken by Benjamin Franklin about the perilous nature of freedom), Metaxas makes a persuasive case for the inherent value of the American experiment — the idea that a responsible people could actually freely govern themselves, instead of being ruled by the tribe with the most power or the next heir to the throne, and that leaders would actually be accountable to those they ruled.
The risk of freedom and self-governance is that things can go sour quickly if the people go morally astray. As Ben Franklin said, “Only a virtuous people are capable of freedom.” (55). And as Tocqueville wrote: “Liberty cannot be established without morality.” (60). And as John Adams asserted: “our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people.” (61). How sad it would be if we had lose our freedoms to become reacquainted with how precious they were to begin with.
Metaxas makes the case (ch. 3) that it was the gospel-preaching ministry of George Whitefield in the mid 18th century that actually prepared the American people for the unprecedented responsibility of governing themselves. Whitefield’s influence on America was so great that “we really should not think of anything that has happened since without first thinking of” his place in American history (90), a startling claim considering the fact that most Americans don’t even know who Whitefield was (for further reading on the first American celebrity, see the biographies by Thomas Kidd and Arnold Dallimore.)
Under the transforming power of Whitefield’s gospel, Americans did not necessarily become a “Christian nation,” but it is indisputable that a Christian worldview was the dominant way of perceiving the world at the time of the American Revolution. Of course not everyone was a Christian, but the assumed values and mores of the nation were shaped by the Bible. Metaxas quotes a French philosopher named Montesquieu as saying, “More states have perished because of a violation of their mores than because of a violation of their laws.” (155). Can freedom be maintained in this country without a unified moral foundation? Seems unlikely to me. Increased chaos requires increased control. As Tocqueville wrote, “While the law permits the Americans to do what they please, religion prevents them from conceiving, and forbids them to commit, what is rash or unjust.” (64).
I was troubled to read about some of the historical inaccuracies in the book, as described by Gregg Frazer at the Gospel Coalition. Frazer notes the strange absence of footnotes in the book, which not only raises questions about the reliability of sources, but prevents the reader from further exploration of people like Whitefield, William Wilberforce and Squanto.
I also objected to Metaxas’ implication that if the American flame goes out, the world will tragically and perhaps irreversibly descend into hopelessness (14). Certainly Metaxas knows, as a Christian himself, that the light of the gospel and the kingdom of God is what provides the most enduring hope to the world. This is a light that will never be extinguished, even if America is.
America is a flawed nation with many grievous mistakes and errors in its past, which should surprise no Christian who is familiar with the doctrine of total depravity. And the hope of the world is not the expansion of American exceptionalism throughout the world, but the expansion of God’s kingdom by the proclaiming of the Gospel to every tongue, tribe and nation. But even for the Christian, whose first loyalty is to the kingdom of Christ, this book is a good reminder that there are many things about America worth defending and preserving.