Opinion

How Eric Metaxas manipulates the past to serve his political agenda

Ted Cruz, left, speaks with moderator Eric Metaxas at the National Religious Broadcasters Annual Convention at Oryland in Nashville, Tenn., on Feb. 26, 2016. Photo courtesy of REUTERS/Harrison McClary *Editors: This photo may only be republished with RNS-FEA-OPED, originally transmitted on July 13, 2016.

(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)

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34 Comments

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  • I think the series “God in America” on PBS gives Whitefield this same kind of weight. Of course, PBS has no axe to grind for Evangelicals.

  • PBS also isn’t trying to create fiction about history to support theocratic views like Metaxas. Seeking to impose a new Puritanism.

    Metaxas is just rehashing the same anti historical BS of David Barton and The Wallbuilders. Attacking religious freedom and seeking special privilege for fundamentalist Christians.

  • “I have no doubt that Metaxas means well. He cares deeply about his country.” Perhaps. But if Metaxas were more thoughtful, would he not have mastered the historical scholarship of the periods he’s concerned with before writing a book about them? And would he not have spent time studying even some basic historiography before putting out a “history” book full of so many howlers?

  • Finally someone has said it. Thank you. Like David Barton before him, Mr. Metaxas has only ever been concerned with advancing his ideology and agenda. Facts and real history can be annoyances but name-calling and innuendo can raise the stakes and the speaker fees. Note his recent statements comparing the Obama Presidency to Nazi Germany and you’ll see just how self-serving even those remarks can be. (He references his best-selling book on Bonhoffer) http://www.nytimes.com/2015/09/27/opinion/sunday/donald-trump-and-the-rise-of-the-moral-minority.html?_r=1

    A person who thinks as highly of himself as does Mr. Metaxas is a rare find. Thank you for your fact-checking and for this fine review.

  • I think ones mileage may vary in the validity of the comparison. Either way, Metaxas is spinning fiction concerning history.

    Anyone who can credit the Puritans and Roger Williams for religious freedom together in an unironic fashion, as Metaxas has done, is full of it. It’s akin to crediting both Zionists and Nazis in equal measure favourably for the founding of Israel.

  • No, it might be more like crediting secular Zionists and ultra-Orthodox Jews in equal measure for the founding of Israel.

  • Saying that someone “means well,” is a meaningless statement which, at best, exempts a critique from being dismissed as merely mean spirited. I don’t even know what something like that means in relation to Metaxas, as I don’t care whether he’s writing in good faith or not. That isn’t the point. His 15 minutes should be up. Can we imagine someone who has lived and breathed Bonhoeffer endorsing Trump?

    METAXAS: “Not only can we vote for Trump, we must vote for Trump, because with all of his foibles, peccadilloes, and metaphorical warts, he is nonetheless the last best hope of keeping America from sliding into oblivion, the tank, the abyss, the dustbin of history, if you will. If you want to know how bad things are in America, and how far we have gone, read the previous sentence aloud over and over.” http://www.patheos.com/blogs/jacoblupfer/2016/06/who-is-eric-metaxas-and-why-does-his-trump-endorsement-matter/

  • Yes indeed, the Pilgrims were never interested in “religious freedom” for anyone but themselves. Others’ freedoms were of no account, in their eyes. America’s true father of religious freedom, Roger Williams, found that out first-hand. As a Baptist preacher, he was a victim of the Calvinist Pilgrims’ ardent persecution. It was this unfortunate experience that taught him the importance of tolerance.

    I also question the ferocity which with modern Christianists like Metaxas worship the Founding Fathers and demand that everyone else worship them, too. Are they really followers of Christ and view him as their sole Lord? Or are they also worshipping the FFs, as demigods or something? If so, how can they do so and still consider themselves Christians, i.e. followers of the deity who ordered, “Thou shalt have no other gods” (aka the First Commandment)?

    My guess is, they’ve compartmentalized all of this and have no freaking clue what’s wrong with it. The blatant contradiction they’ve built their religionism on, is something they can’t even recognize.

  • Not at all. If you recall from history, Roger Williams was banished from the Puritan colony for preaching religious freedom and the separation of church and state. He founded Rhode Island as a place for people fleeing the puritans. If the puritans were not such harsh theocrats, Williams would not have needed to leave. The puritans are an example of how not to do things. Our own version of the Caliphate on North American soil.

  • I think your judgment of the Puritans is unreasonably harsh, and as a matter of history they did contribute a great deal to what would become the United States–as did Williams.

  • Not at all. In terms of the development of our freedoms, especially our religious freedoms, the Puritans are the warning sign as to how destructive unchecked religious authority can be. What not to do.Of course Dominionists like Metaxas and David Barton idolize them. They have absolutely no respect for religious freedom. They seek entanglement of their faith with the apparatus of government.

    Roger Williams conceived the basis of much of our religious freedoms. He coined the term separation of church and state. Rhode Island was one of the first British colonies with actual free exercise of religion. These are things Metaxas pays lip service to, but does not actually trust.

  • Funny, I would come to the same conclusions about Trump, but not as the last, best hope, but the absolute symbol of how far we have slid.

    If this country elects 2Rump, we will be getting only the government we deserve.

  • It sounds from the interview that Metaxas’ approach to our past and relating it to how it could point to the future is not too different from what I hear from many religious conservatives. Such people look at the religious claims people made about themselves back then without reflection or criticism. And the point of providing connections between the the past and their own group or ideology today is to give themselves and their group a certain authority so that they can better, as Fea states, further their own agenda. And that often doesn’t work because not everyone ascribes to authoritarianism like many of us religiously conservative Christians do

    And it is that approach that sabotages how us religiously conservative Christians can contribute to our nation. And it sabotages our chances by making it more difficult for us to work with others in making decisions about the nation. It isn’t that we don’t have contributions to make, it is that many of us have too difficult of a time playing and working well with others.

  • They executed four Quakers, one of whom was a woman, yes. That’s irrelevant to the historical point that the Puritans are part of American history.

  • Executing people for belonging to a different faith from the ruling class is as far from the notions of religious freedom as one can get. Thank you for pointing out how I was probably going easy on the Puritans, for equating them to those living under the thumb of ISIS.

    Your point about puritans being part of history is a ridiculous strawman. Nobody is denying that. What people are objecting to is equating them with the progenitors of our free and democratic society.

    Pointing out the executions demonstrate why William Penn felt it necessary to form his own colony which ensured religious freedom. Not just for his people (Quakers) but all people. To get away from the atrocious excesses of the Puritans.

    Yes they are part of history, as a warning. Not people to be lauded as Metaxas did. Again putting them on the same stature as Roger Williams is to extol oppressor and liberator with equal measure.

  • No, they were much more restrained than ISIS. (Mary Dyer, whom you mentioned, was only killed after she repeatedly returned to Boston after many warnings, and after one reprieve when the noose was already around her neck.) ISIS are a bunch of thugs who seem to take every occasion to kill and torture. The Puritans are much more to be compared with historic, mainstream, classical Islam, which was still intolerant by our standards–or to medieval Catholicism.

    Tolerance seems obvious to you, as a 21st-century Westerner. But it’s not an easy concept, and it continues to have its ambiguities, as our present debates about “religious freedom” indicate.

  • So modern methods of enforcing oppression are more effective. A very minor distinction. The puritans were thugs in the same vein. Back in England, under Cromwell they instituted a reign of sectarian terror that still is discussed today. Many puritans went back to England to fight for Cromwell.

    BTW Williams and Penn didn’t discuss religious tolerance. They talked about religious freedom. The inherent right to worship as one pleases regardless of the attitudes of those in power. Their 17th century concept is what we carry today. So it’s not just modern eyes calling out gpuritanical excess, but their own contemporaries. Your statement that they somehow embodied even religious tolerance is utter fact free BS.

    Either way, there is no honest way a modern historian can consider puritans as progenitors of religious freedom except as its adversary. You can’t polish the terd of the puritans and make claims they are worthy of praise for their beliefs and practices l. It wasn’t the case in their day,nor now.

  • “You are the light of the world–like a city on a hilltop that cannot be hidden.” Matthew 5:14
    Perhaps if the author was not so biblically illiterate, he’d know that quote is from Jesus, some 18 centuries before Winthrop. Do you also think Lincoln invented the “house divided against itself” (Mark 3:25) quote? What kind of amateur wrote this article?

  • You could not be more wrong about the “Pilgrims.” Google anything written by Jeremy Bangs about them.

    The Pilgrims who founded Plymouth colony – unlike the English Puritans who created Massachusetts as a theocracy – sharply advocated church-state separation. They also believed that women should be allowed to speak in church. They were far more tolerant of other faiths (influenced by the Dutch during their post-England/pre-Plymouth exile from 1607-1619 in Leiden. Netherlands) and open to the idea that their theology, like all human dogma, might contain errors.

  • Note that the ultra-Orthodox opposed the creation of the state of Israel then and now. They believe that it should only be created after the coming of the Messiah.

    In practical political terms Israel was created by socialist Zionists, and the greatest threat to its existence is the policies of Likud.

    -dlj.

  • Ed,

    Lemme see if I’ve got this straight. Your Puritans are a bunch of thugs who repeatedly threatened this woman with death, at one point going so far as acting out an execution ceremony to the point of putting a noose around her neck. Then they killed her.

    Is that it?

    -dlj.

  • They aren’t “my” Puritans. They’re people who lived in the past and whom I don’t want to see caricatured and smeared just because other people foolishly idolize them.

    The word “thugs” is a piece of polemical rhetoric. They were the local government, and like many early modern governments they thought that radical ideas destabilized society and were harmful in the same way as the acts that most of us would agree are crimes (murder, theft, rape, etc.).

  • No, the difference between the Puritans and ISIS is not simply a matter of the latter having more effective means, though to some extent they do (but relatively less so than more established governments with more effective bureaucracy).

    The Quakers were radicals in their idea of religious freedom, as in other things. They were, in fact, products of the same forces in British society that produced the Puritans, but they were both more radical and more amiable.

    I don’t recall saying that the Puritans “embodied religious tolerance.”

    They weren’t particularly tolerant. They did put a high value on freedom and local government and on people studying the Bible (and other theological texts) for themselves. That is precisely why they became extremely nervous when people took those ideas farther than they themselves wanted to. People in the early modern period were very worried about threats to their “left,” because people to their “right” (i.e, those who held to more traditional views about society and religion) were prone to accuse them of being dangerous radicals. To show that you aren’t, you need to crack down on the people who, by your lights, _are_ dangerous radicals.

    I know more about how this dynamic operated in the early sixteeenth century, which is my field of specialization, but it seems to me that it operated in the seventeenth century as well.

  • I know that the ultra-Orthodox opposed the foundation of the State of Israel originally. That’s one reason why I chose that example as a reasonable alternative to the ridiculous one originally offered. It’s still an example that allows a person to say that one of the two groups is really antagonistic to the foundation of the polity in question. And it’s a good example further because the ultra-Orthodox are now quite influential in Israel.

  • ” I don’t recall saying that the Puritans “embodied religious tolerance.”

    Do your arms hurt from all that goalpost shifting? You claimed I was just bring harsh on the puritans because of modern notions of religious freedom. I pointed out that even among contemporaries they were a rather nasty lot.

    “They did put a high value on freedom”

    No, they did not. They were the prime example of an authoritarian society for centuries. There is a compelling reason they are remembered for the Salem witch trials and Arthur Miller used them as a metaphor for authoritarian paranoid excess.

    We owe our notions of religious freedom to Quakers and related Anabaptist sects. The puritans fit into the historical narrative as enemies to such ideas who had to be overcome. Metaxas and David Barton fictionalize history as ways to attack religious freedom.

  • No goalpost shifting–you referred to “your statement that the Puritans embodied even religious tolerance,” when in fact I made no such statement.

    I disagree with your claim (not something you “pointed out” because you didn’t in fact substantiate it) that “even among contemporaries the Puritans were a nasty lot.” The fact that the Quakers and a few other radicals really advocated total nonviolence and/or total religious freedom does not prove your point. The Puritans were less tolerant than some of their contemporaries, and at least more reluctant to kill than some others (I would not claim that they were in any sense tolerant).

    The bad reputation of the Puritans owes a lot to 19th-century propaganda and is largely a matter of scapegoating. The Salem Witch Trials are an excellent example. These sorts of trials happened in Europe on a large scale in a number of different areas, both Catholic and Protestant, over a period of several centuries (mostly 15th through early 18th), with the most intense outbreaks being in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. They weren’t peculiar to the Puritans–if anything, what was remarkable about Salem was that there were people who questioned what was going on (one of the judges resigned), that the governor called a halt to the proceedings, and that one of the judges, Samuel Sewall, later publicly repented of his role. (Sewall also opposed slavery, by the way, and is a very good counter-example for your unfair portrait of the Puritans.)

    Puritan society was _relatively_ egalitarian by European standards of the time, and they established institutions of participatory government that played a _huge_ role in the development of American political institutions (“town meetings,” etc.). That’s what I meant when I spoke of their belief in “freedom.”

    Like it or not, the roots of our modern belief in religious freedom lie (at least to a large measure) in the claims of the Puritans and others to the supremacy of conscience and the Word of God over human institutions. It is of course true, and tragically ironic, that the Puritans did not give this same freedom to those who had a _different_ conscience than themselves.

  • “The bad reputation of the Puritans owes a lot to 19th-century propaganda and is largely a matter of scapegoating.”

    And the executed Quakers and banishment of those who strayed from sectarian ideas didn’t create such a bad reputation? We can also add the mass persecution and execution of Catholics as well under Cromwell.

    “the roots of our modern belief in religious freedom lie (at least to a large measure) in the claims of the Puritans and others to the supremacy of conscience and the Word of God over human institutions”

    Except that wasn’t puritan belief. Human institutions were the Word of God. They were a theocratic society. Freedom of conscience means freedom for ideas outside a societal norms. There was nothing of the sort with them. It’s like saying religious freedom for just my religion. You are misrepresenting their actions in a modem revisionist light.

  • Re: “You could not be more wrong about the ‘Pilgrims.’ Google anything written by Jeremy Bangs about them.”

    I studied them in college. I have no need to “google” them, and am not interested in anyone’s apologias for them.

    Re: “The Pilgrims who founded Plymouth colony – unlike the English Puritans who created Massachusetts as a theocracy – sharply advocated church-state separation.”

    They also insisted on running the colony their way, and they worked to maintain a demarcation between themselves (referring to themselves by the lofty name of “Saints”) and the secular workers who’d come along with them (whom they named, disparagingly, “Strangers”).

    Re: “They also believed that women should be allowed to speak in church.”

    Wow, I had NO idea! Why, we should pin (posthumous) medals on them!

  • The connection between Whitefield and the American Revolution is a direct line, according to the PBS series “God in America.” See the latter half of Episode 1. It is online and live-streamed. PBS is not a front for Evangelical manipulation of American history. The point of the series is that American renewal at certain points in her history has been religious in nature, the citizen’s belief that America bore a special relationship with the God of the Bible. I am not arguing whether or not that is in fact true. The point is that Americans thought it was true. Can Abraham Lincoln and the abolitionists of the North be read in any other way? Can the moral reform of the Second Great Awakening with its ethical enlightenment be read in any other way? The connection with Colonial America and the present does exist. Fea posits that it doesn’t. He doesn’t seriously argue it but relies on the very shaky phrase “largely debunked by historians.” Yield to the experts, global warming like. This ends up in no good place. I am not arguing for Metaxas and certainly not for Barton. I never read Barton and I know enough about Metaxas’ thesis that I don’t need another book asserting the same. But in reading Fea’s responses I sense agendas and the insistence that in no way will America’s journey have anything to do with renewal of Evangelical Christianity. Got it? It can’t happen, a priori. Serious expert historians are all agreed, Evangelical Christianity has no serious explanatory power in the American story. You an sense the agenda in the post and the preoccupation with the minor details (also called nitpicking) rather than the larger outlines. That Winthrop meant this or that by “city on a hill” doesn’t in and of itself demonstrate the role that phrase played in the American experience was not as Metaxas interprets it. Historians by nature and by the rules of the discipline do not study the miraculous and the “out of this word” coming into this world. Any event must have natural explanations, or so the guild says. I don’t have a problem with that as a history major in college with a large amount of history in my graduate work. Yet an author who writes a history of America through religious lens is not unacceptable if it is interpreted for what it is. In light of the charges made against Metaxas by Fea and others I see no fatal errors here. Just a sentence here, a phrase there. A quick editing could correct their concerns without in any way changing Metaxas’ thesis.

  • “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, TRUE! if you read ..THE DECLINE AND FALL OF THE ROMAN EMPIRE…. SAME IDEA…. demand that their leaders have moral character (an interesting claim for a Donald Trump supporter like Metaxas) THIS IS HYPOCRITICAL HYPOCRISY….TRUMP TALKED; but Bill CLINTON WAS ACTIVE ACTIONS…BEFORE, DURING AND AFTER LEAVING OFFICE…REMEMBER ALSO THE “CALL-GIRLS VISITING JFK EVERYWHERE HE WENT? WHAT ABOUT THE MISTRESSES FOR FDR AND ELINORE? and reclaim America as a “shining city on a hill.” CAN IT RECLAIM IT’S OLD GLORY. … DOUBTFUL WITHOUT A DESIRE TO RECLAIM FREEDOM….WITHOUT A DESIRE TO ACCEPT RESPONSIBILITY FOR ONES SELF……JFK…..SAID….ASK NOT WHAT YOUR COUNTRY CAN DO FOR YOU, BUT ASK WHAT CAN YOU DO FOR YOUR COUNTRY… UNDER THE LIBERAL’S THE MOTTO HAS BECOME, LET US, THE GOVERNMENT, TAKE CARE OF YOU, PROTECT YOU, FEED YOU, BURY YOU.

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