Yesterday we started a short series on Eric Metaxas’s new book If You Can Keep It: The Forgotten Promise of American Liberty.
One of the main themes of If You Can Keep It is the founding fathers’ belief that a republic is only sustainable when the people of the republic are virtuous. Metaxas is correct in pointing this out. The founders of the United States were students of history. They knew that Western Civilization offered very few examples of successful or long-lasting republics. They also knew that republics only worked when people were willing, at times, to sacrifice their own interests for the greater good of the republic. “Virtue” was the name that they, and the ancients whose books they read, gave to this kind of self-sacrifice. Modern-day historians have also called it “republicanism” or “civic humanism.”
Metaxas believes the founders were correct when they said that a thriving republic needs virtuous people. He joins the large chorus–a chorus that can be traced back to the 1780s–of concerned citizens who worry that the country’s failure to act virtuously is undermining the republic. Metaxas thus challenges his readers to pursue the common good, balance self-interest with togetherness, and make “the business of the republic” their business.(p.4)
Though I am not sure he or his followers will appreciate the comparison, Metaxas is tapping into the same political philosophy that has been the driving message of the Barack Obama presidency. This is not the message of “Make America Great Again” or the libertarian/Tea Party message of individual freedom without duty, but rather a message deeply rooted in a commitment to virtue and the common good.
But unlike Obama, Metaxas’s vision of a virtuous republic is almost entirely connected to religious belief and, if one reads carefully enough, to Biblical Christianity. On p. 62, Metaxas asks “What would make someone behave virtuously?” He concludes: “the answer–both practically speaking and theoretically–must be religion.” Granted, there are many Americans, like Metaxas, who believe that virtue is impossible without religion, but the founding fathers did not fall into this camp. Metaxas’s understanding of the founders’ view of virtue is problematic for several reasons.
First, the founders did believe that religious people made good citizens because they knew how to sacrifice their own interests for something greater, namely their god.
But the founders did not believe that religion, or particularly Christianity, was the only source of virtue. Metaxas is wrong when he says that “virtue and morality divorced from religion was unthinkable” to the founders (p.60). Most of the founders, including John Witherspoon, the evangelical Presbyterian clergyman who was the only minister who signed the Declaration of Independence, believed that virtue could stem from the conscience or the “moral sense.” Granted, many of them–whether Christian, Deist, or something in-between–believed that the conscience or moral sense was instilled in human beings by God, but they did not believe that a religious experience, the practice of a a specific faith, or the imbibing of particular religious doctrines was necessary to live a virtuous life. (I have argued this in two of my books: The Way of Improvement Leads Home: Philip Vickers Fithian and The Rural Enlightenment in Early America and Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?: A Historical Introduction).
On p.66. Metaxas states that the “religion” that the founders thought was inseparable to a virtuous republic was not the religion of the “clockmaker God of Deist imagination,” but the religion of the Bible. (He quotes the Massachusetts statesman Daniel Webster on the importance of the Bible in creating citizens). Metaxas implies that “Deism” was not a religion that the founders thought could contribute to a virtuous republic because it did not adhere to the teachings of the Bible. But while Deists did not believe that the Bible was inspired, they did believe that the ethical teachings of the Bible could serve as a guide–one of several–to a virtuous life. In other words, Deism was certainly one of the so-called “religious” beliefs that the founders believed could contribute to the greater good of the republic.
Second, Metaxas argues that religion was essential to the success of the republic because it brought “order” to liberty. This was indeed a widely held view among many founders, especially those, such as John Adams and his Federalist friends, who wrote state constitutions (see the 1780 Massachusetts Constitution for example) that maintained religious establishments or state churches for the purpose of preserving moral order. Liberty was not licentiousness. A self-governing people needed to be reminded of the limits of their freedoms.
But while religion (and one gets the impression that whenever Metaxas refers to “religion” he really means Christianity) was one way to curb the dangers of liberty, it was not the only way. Again, one could look to the conscience, the moral sense, or cultural habits to bring order to one’s life and curb the passions associated with liberty. (On p. 56 Metaxas notes that Ben Franklin turned to these things as a means of bringing moral order to his life). One could even argue that the United States Constitution, with its system of balanced government designed to keep the passions that come with liberty in check, was a means of accomplishing this task. As James Madison wrote in Federalist 10, a strong central government (as opposed to the weak Articles of Confederation) was necessary to keep the factionalism and rampant self-interest of the wild 1780s under control.
All of this may sound like nitpicking, but it is actually important in light of Metaxas’s use of the founders to make his case for the revitalization of the American republic today. The claim that the founders believed Christianity to be the only (or even the primary) source of virtue in the republic is not an accurate one. Yet Metaxas runs with this idea and uses it to diagnose what he perceives to be our current malaise. In other words, he argues, we need to return to the founders’ idea that the republic will only survive if we become a nation of Christians again. On this point, Metaxas is not far removed from the views of GOP activist David Barton and his call to “return” America to its Christian roots. To be fair, Metaxas rarely says that we need to return to “Christianity” per se (he prefers the term “religion”), but I am guessing that most of his largely evangelical and conservative readers will miss this distinction. Does Metaxas believe that Islam, for example, can also serve as a source of republican virtue? I don’t know.
In the end, Metaxas may be correct. Perhaps only God can solve whatever problems we face in this country. But his appeal to history to make this point does not work.
Fourth, and finally, it is important to remember that when the founders wrote about the role that religion might play in strengthening the republic they were writing as statesmen charged with building a nation, not as theologians or ministers charged with the responsibility of advancing the Kingdom of God. For the founders, religion served as a means toward a very secular end. If religion would help the republic to thrive, then they were willing to promote it. Whenever the founders wrote about religion in their work as nation-builders they wrote about it in this context. Their goal was not to use the United States to advance the cause of God, but to use religion to advance the cause of the state. I am guessing that some Christians may find this problematic.
More to come…