This is a review of the book: If You Can Keep It, The Forgotten Promise of American Liberty by Eric Metaxas, Viking, 2016. Release date 6/14/2016. (Thankful to be part of the “launch team” for this book.)
But before I delve into the review, I will copy and paste a paragraph from a past post where I interact with The Dictionary of Cultural Literacy, What Every American Needs to Know:
“I appreciate the concerns or philosophy behind this unique dictionary. The authors had specific concerns about the state of American literacy and education. Being able to read words on a page does not mean that you can comprehend what is being communicated by those words. Successful reading also requires a background knowledge of shared, taken-for-granted information in a society. A society has a “collective memory” of the past that influences it today. The authors feel that our schools are failing to properly teach this background knowledge to students and this is responsible, at least in part, for our falling literacy rates and education levels. Maybe students can read, but not well and not with in-depth comprehension because they lack the general background knowledge to do so. This also affects learning, as reading ability and learning ability are closely allied. Thus the idea for this dictionary was born.”
– This is the concern of Eric Metaxas in his latest book, except in relation to the political and cultural state of America. Metaxas’ theme is that Americans have forgotten core ideas, values, and principles from the founding of our nation. In addition, we are failing to remember and honor “heroes” from our nation’s past. Metaxas uses the phrase “mystic chords of memory” from a Lincoln speech.
This not only impoverishes us, but is hindering our ability to maintain our democratic form of government that is by and for the people. “If you can keep it” comes from a statement by Benjamin Franklin, in 1787, after the Constitution was drafted. A woman asked Franklin what the founders had given the American people, and Franklin replied: “A republic…If you can keep it” – realizing the fragile nature of what was created. While not exactly alarmist, Metaxas is concerned (enough to write a book!) that we are in danger of losing our republic and our associated liberty.
Metaxas is a Christian and he is not afraid to emphasize the importance of Christianity in our nation’s foundational years. However, he is balanced, and does not portray people as Christians who were not. For example, Franklin and Jefferson were certainly not evangelical Christians, and even rejected tenants of biblical orthodoxy. Nonetheless, neither were they atheists or secularists, and they affirmed belief in: a Creator God who endowed his creatures with rights and liberties, the importance of religious liberty, and the need for moral virtue to maintain the republic.
One chapter is entitled “The Golden Triangle of Freedom” which is that freedom requires virtue; virtue requires faith; and faith requires freedom. The three go round and round, supporting one another. Among others, Metaxas interacts with the observations of Alexis de Tocqueville. In France, religion and freedom were enemies, but in the United States he observed that they were intimately and vitally connected.
Metaxas is a story teller (having written 2 biographies) and emphasizes the need to remember the stories of those who sacrificed to create our nation and maintain it through struggles such as the Civil War. He makes a good argument about the importance of “heroes.” Their lives encourage and inspire us, and unite us in our shared history. But we don’t look to heroes anymore, and have become cynical.
We no longer honor key individuals because we focus only on their flaws. (Ya know, George Washington owned slaves – horrors!) Metaxas makes it clear that we should not overlook flaws, but we have drifted to an extreme of vilifying people of the past, and this has a toxic affect on us.
There is an extended section on George Whitefield and the Great Awakening that his preaching sparked across the colonies. Why a section on this? It is estimated that 80% of the American colonists heard Whitefield preach at least once. Obviously this profoundly affected the colonists, and Metaxas is demonstrating some of the unique circumstances and beliefs that came together to make the formation of our nation possible.
This book is written for lay people, so it could be criticized as not as academic or detailed as some would like, but that is expecting the book to be something it is not intended to be. Nonetheless, Metaxas provides a review of the early years of our nation, focusing on unique aspects and core values that enabled our nation to be formed and become “exceptional.” If we don’t remember these things, and begin to live in light of them, our nation is in peril.
I feel like this review does not do the book justice, as Metaxas makes many other interesting observations. I frequently underlined as I read it. Despite mild alarmism (which seems justified) the book also offers hope and ideas to help us return to the original intentions for our nation to be a place of liberty and to bless others. One of which is to remember the past – and reading this book will help you do that!