(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.”
Over the years Franklin’s words have been a mantra for those concerned about the fate of the American Republic. His statement suggests that government by the people can be fragile, and unless they are diligent in preserving the republic, it will ultimately fail. As a student of the past, Franklin knew that republics had not fared very well in Western civilization.
But how should a republic be preserved? According to Metaxas, in order for the republic to survive Americans must defend religious freedom, cultivate virtue informed by religion, begin again to venerate the Founding Fathers, demand that their leaders have moral character (an interesting claim for a Donald Trump supporter like Metaxas) and reclaim America as a “shining city on a hill.”
Metaxas’ concern for his country is admirable. “If You Can Keep It” raises important questions. What kind of republic did the founders want to create? How should we understand patriotism in a world that includes a growing number of critics disillusioned with the direction our country has taken? What did the founders believe about the relationship between religion and the republic, and are their views on this subject worth considering in the 21st century?
Unfortunately, Metaxas does a very poor job of using American history to answer these questions. He manipulates the past to make it serve his political agenda. His entire argument is based on a weak and faulty intellectual foundation. He searches for continuity between Colonial America and the present that, for the most part, doesn’t exist. “If You Can Keep It” is an example of how not to use the past to make an argument in the present.
I have been reviewing “If You Can Keep It” in a series of in-depth blog posts at thewayofimprovement.com, but a few serious errors are worth noting here.
First, Metaxas is concerned about religious freedom in the United States. But to suggest, as he does, that “since the Pilgrims came to our shores in 1620 religious freedom and religious tolerance have been the single most important principle of American life” is flat-out wrong.
While several colonies embraced the kind of religious freedom Metaxas preaches, others, including Plymouth and Massachusetts Bay, held very different views of religious freedom. As I sarcastically tell my students, people who came to these colonies were “free” to practice the religion of the Puritan settlers or else be removed from the colony, fined, imprisoned or, in a few cases, executed.
Second, Metaxas believes that the United States is an exceptional nation because it has been given a divine mission from God to shine like a “city on a hill” in the sinful darkness of the rest of the world. In his attempt to support this claim he misinterprets the meaning of John Winthrop’s famous phrase. When Winthrop uttered these words to describe the Puritan colony of Massachusetts Bay he was not saying the colony had a special mission to the world. This is the incorrect interpretation of the phrase “city on a hill” made popular by Ronald Reagan in the 1980s.
Rather, Winthrop was reminding his followers that the eyes of England were upon them as they forged their settlement. If their efforts at building a Christian society in New England failed, their Old World enemies would mock them. As historian Robert Tracy McKenzie has written, “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.”
Third, Metaxas believes that the only way the American republic can be saved from its downward spiral is through a revival of evangelical Christianity. He thus draws his readers’ attention back to the First Great Awakening, an 18th-century revival associated with, among others, the preacher George Whitefield. Metaxas correctly calls attention to the popularity of Whitefield. His sermons and appearances before large outdoor audiences were influential in the spread of evangelical faith along the Eastern Seaboard.
But Metaxas goes too far in trying to connect Whitefield’s ministry to the American Revolution and the subsequent founding of the United States. Metaxas buys into the idea, largely debunked by historians, that Whitefield’s message of born-again Christianity unified the colonies, taught them the meaning of “equality” and ultimately led them to use this newfound evangelical identity to create a new nation. Metaxas goes as far as to describe Whitefield’s conversion to Christianity as a student at Oxford University as “one of those things we may properly think of as a hinge in the history of the world — a point on which everything turns.”
I have no doubt that Metaxas means well. He cares deeply about his country. But sadly, “If You Can Keep It” will only appeal to Metaxas’ followers — conservative evangelicals looking for more ammunition in the ongoing culture wars. Because of its many historical errors, it will fail to persuade thoughtful people who are not already in Metaxas’ camp.
Frankly, “If You Can Keep It” is an intellectual mess. Is this the best that so-called evangelical public intellectuals can do? The scandal continues.
(John Fea teaches American history at Messiah College in Mechanicsburg, Pa. A fuller critique of Metaxas’ book can be found at his blog The Way of Improvement Leads Home. Follow him on twitter @johnfea1)