Book #24: If You Can Keep It: The Forgotten Promise of American Liberty, Eric Metaxas
When asked whether the Constitutional Convention produced a republic or monarchy, Ben Franklin answered, “A republic, madam – if you can keep it.” What seems obvious to us with the benefit of over 200 years hindsight was a fragile dream in the hearts and minds of our founders. They realized that what they produced was something so completely different than had ever been tried that it’s very existence was subject careful, generational preservation. And though we as a nation have survived many great trials, the preservation of what has made us as a nation unique is as fragile today as it was in the days of the founding. If we do not safeguard this idea and pass the torch to the next generation, we are at risk of losing the very essence of what makes us American.
So what do I think? This is perhaps one of the best books that I have read this year and perhaps in the past few years. While there have been many great civilizations and nations throughout history, the United States is unique among them. All other civilizations have been based on a particular geographic location, people group, tribe or ruler. The United States, on the other hand, is the only nation that was founded expressly on an idea. That is the idea of liberty and self government. Our nation was founded on the idea that we should be free to worship as we see fit, conduct commerce, assemble, freely communicate, etc. In a nutshell, we are free to pursue a better life. And in order to protect these freedoms, the government was established to be a self government – not of lords and nobles; not of the elite and powerful; but of the people. The contrast between what was created in Philadelphia in 1787 and the rest of the world could not have been more clear. But over the years this contrast has been blurred. Yes, other nations have adopted similar freedoms that we enjoy. But we also have experienced a progressive erosion of very fabric that makes us unique and once lost, it is gone – that is the basis of this book.
This book isn’t expressly political – in that it is not written as a partisan Republican or Democratic book. It is really written for all Americans. It is a reflection on what has made us a great nation and a call to carry the torch of the idea of America. In this book Metaxas hit on several important themes.
Faith, Virtue and Integrity: Faith has always been an integral part of the American story. And while our founders were careful not to create an atmosphere whereby the government mandates a particular faith, the presence of faith is woven throughout our history. But more than that, faith produces people of virtue and character. Virtue is required of all in a free society. This is what is described by Os Guinness as the Golden Triangle of Freedom: Freedom requires virtue, virtue requires faith, faith requires freedom. This is so true. While men are not angels and our government exists to constrain the passions of men, virtuous people are necessary for the functioning of a free and healthy society. This strikes at the heart of the question, “Can you legislate morality?” While you can argue in circles around that question, the clear and simple truth is this, the more and more we express our depravity, the more we need hard fisted constraints. In order to be free and to be freely governed in a fair and equitable way, we need people of integrity. This is in part the problem that we see today. We have far to many leaders in Washington or in our state capitols who are driven by fame, money or power and not by virtue. But before we point the finger too aggressively at the representatives that we have chosen, we must also turn the mirror on ourselves? Are we as a society living in a virtuous way? Have we lost what it means to be a person of integrity? Can it be that the corrupt people in Washington are more representative of their electorate that we think?
Remembering our History: Throughout the Old Testament, the nation of Israel was called to remember what God had done for them; how he called them as his people, rescued them from slavery in Egypt, gave them a nation, etc. Why? By remembering what God had done, they could remember who they were as a nation. And by remembering what God had done for them, they would keep their national priorities in order (i.e. on worshiping God and proper living). Though we are not God’s chosen people (here the analogy breaks down), we have a nation with a rich heritage. As previously mentioned, we were born out of an idea that when initiated was fragile at best. And since then, we as a nation have gone through many great trials that have challenged the definition of who we are. Through these dark valleys, there have been many defining people and events that have emerged as historical icons. Many of these leaders and events we celebrate with holidays and monuments. And when we look at our flag, we see a symbol that represents the sum total of the events that have defined us as a nation. This idea is summarized well in the Johnny Cash song, Ragged Old Flag. John Winthrop spoke of the colony that he helped establish in Massachusetts as a “City on a Hill.” Our nation, throughout it’s history has been a personification of this city on a hill. We have stood as a beacon of freedom to the world. But as we fail to remember our history, or the men and women who created it, as we fail to lose respect for our country and cease to venerate the symbols of our nation, we gradually lose perspective of who we are. We fade into the background of contemporary and historical nations.
Immigration: We call ourselves a nation of immigrants. Since the beginning of our nation, we have welcomed those who come. Some sought commercial enterprise. Some came to escape tyranny. Some came for religious freedom. Whatever the reason, those who have come to our shores, have come for the freedom to make for themselves a better life. This is the very fabric of who we are. We welcome because we once were welcomed. For those of use who’s families have lived in the U.S. for many generations, this reality is a bit more blurred. But since we are a nation that is based on an idea, we open welcoming arms to anyone who wants to join in this idea. Perhaps one of the most special symbols of our nation is the Statue of Liberty. She stands 300 feet at the mouth of New York Harbor facing the world offering her torch of freedom to all who would come. At her feet is inscribe, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breath free.”
In this book Metaxas clearly outlines what makes us unique as Americans with a plea to pass the torch of freedom to future generations. Yes we have our national sins. But at the end of the day, we are the nation that has held the torch of freedom to the world and promises freedom to all who come.
So what should we do?
- We need to remember our past. We need to cherish our history and the events that define who we are. We need to honor those who have served our nation. And we need to respect the symbols that represent who we are as a nation.
- We should not let political differences divide us as a people. Yes, we all have a different perspective on how to best manage the nation that has been entrusted to us. This is actually good and remarkable. There have been many nations throughout history (even contemporary history) where political dissidence was punished. Here we can have the debates. And debate we should. But at the end of the day we need to remember that we are all Americans and we all love our country.
- We should not let political correctness fade our national identity. Yes, we are a diverse people with diverse opinions and values. We need not needlessly be offensive to others. In fact, Paul in Romans 14 talks about how we should live in community with others who do not have the same values. But it is ok to stand for something. That is why we are a nation today. We should stand and fight for our founding principles.
- We need to be involved. Being involved doesn’t mean that we need to run for and be engaged in public office. While it certainly is admirable to aspire to public service, and there are some people who need to get involved, not everybody will be in public service. But since the idea of America is a heritage that passed from generation to generation, we all have a responsibility to educate ourselves about where we have come from and pass this on to the next generation. Also, as a government of the people, we have a responsibility to be involved in the process of choosing our leaders. While there is much debate about whether we should be engaged in certain elections, there is no excuse to not vote. We have no ability or right to complain about the direction are nation is heading if we are not involved.
- Remember the giver of our freedoms. It is an overstatement to say that we are a Christian nation. We were founded with idea that the Government was not to establish a state religion and that all are free to worship however they choose. But it would be overly simplistic to ignore the fact that our nation was founded by men who strongly believed in God and valued the Judeo-Christian worldview. Even Ben Franklin, perhaps the least religious of the founders acknowledged this. He said, “I have lived, Sir, a long time, and the longer I live, the more convincing proofs I see of this truth—that God governs in the affairs of men. And if a sparrow cannot fall to the ground without his notice, is it probable that an empire can rise without his aid?” As a society we ignore and marginalize God to our detriment. While the last 50 years have seen huge advancements for the 14th amendment rights of many of our citizens, we have also seen a progressive whitewashing of God and a concomitant moral decline. While we need to respectfully acknowledge those of other faiths, we ought not to exclude God from our society. Without God we lack a moral footing. Without this moral footing we lose virtue. I don’t think it takes too much imagination to see what happens next.