Eric Metaxas’ If You Can Keep It: A Critical Review
Evangelical author Eric Metaxas wants to save the republic. He believes we are in a crisis as serious as the Civil War or the Revolution. According to Metaxas, the crisis has come because for the past 40 years Americans have neglected the principles which made America great and we are now on the brink of losing the republic.
He promotes his new book, If You Can Keep It: The Forgotten Promise of American Liberty as his “best shot” at providing a “user’s manual” to guide Americans to reclaim our fragile freedoms. As a prime focus, Metaxas summarizes Os Guinness’ “Golden Triangle” from his book A Free People’s Suicide. In short, the Golden Triangle is “when reduced to its most basic form, that freedom requires virtue; virtue requires faith; and faith requires freedom.”
For Metaxas, faith and virtue take on a biblical meaning consistent with what he believes to be America’s Christian calling. Metaxas asserts that Abraham Lincoln and the founders understood America’s calling to be toward God in addition to other people. He says America has a calling which sounds a lot like God’s promise to Israel in Genesis 22:18 (“in you [Israel] will all the nations of the Earth be blessed”). Metaxas writes:
For them [Lincoln and founders] it was God who had the idea in the first place and who had called America as a people to accomplish this task. It was for his purposes in history, to bless the whole world with the freedoms we had enjoyed. So the idea that America was to be a blessing to the rest of the world and to the future was inextricably intertwined with the God of the Bible, whom these people believed had led them to do what they were doing.
Then three pages later Metaxas applies this divine call to us today:
So if we turn away from our calling— whether intentionally or merely by forgetting what that calling is— we commit suicide. And if we turn away from the moral law, we forfeit the blessings of God.
To support his vision of America, Metaxas selectively refers to events in American history. When one is attempting to teach lessons from history, one should make sure the facts are right. Throughout the book, Metaxas is careless with facts and as a consequence misleads his readers and calls his conclusions into question.
Here are three basic errors. Metaxas calls John Adams a “committed and theologically orthodox Christian,” says Thomas Jefferson believed in Yahweh as his God, and implies that the Constitutional Convention acted favorably on Ben Franklin’s call to daily prayers. None of these claims are true. Adams did not believe in orthodox teachings including the Virgin Birth and deity of Christ, Jefferson believed Yahweh was vindictive and cruel, and the Constitutional Convention did not vote on Ben Franklin’s motion to have daily prayers. In fact, according to Franklin, the Convention, save three or four delegates, did not think prayers were necessary.
More serious is Metaxas’ whitewash of Great Awakening evangelist George Whitefield’s support for bringing slavery to the colony of Georgia. Slavery was banned in Georgia before Whitefield advocated for expansion. In one of his appeals, Whitefield wrote:
…though liberty is a sweet thing to such as are born free, yet to those who never knew the sweets of it, slavery perhaps may not be so irksome. However this be, it is plain to a demonstration, that hot countries cannot be cultivated without negroes. What a flourishing country might Georgia have been, had the use of them been permitted years ago? How many white people have been destroyed for want of them, and how many thousands of pounds spent to no purpose at all?
Despite the fact that Whitefield own slaves and spoke for expansion of slavery, Metaxas rhapsodizes about the equalizing effects of Whitefield’s preaching:
The egalitarian strains of the Gospel extended to women and blacks as well. Many female preachers were spawned by the revival of the Great Awakening and many African American preachers too. Unlike most of the mainline ministers of his day, Whitefield often spoke to “Negroes” and once remarked that he was especially touched when one of them came to faith. One of them even asked Whitefield, “Have I a soul?” That Whitefield believed he did meant that the Negro was in this most important respect perfectly equal to whites.
In fact, Whitefield did preach to slaves but advocated to keep them in bondage so whites could be spared working in the heat.
An error which permeates the book is Metaxas’ claim that the Pilgrims and Puritans advocated religious freedom for all. Just one example represents many such statements: He writes, “Since the Pilgrims came to our shores in 1620, religious freedom and religious tolerance have been the single most important principle of American life.” He claims that the principle of religious freedom, so important for most of the founders, was derived from the example of the Pilgrims and Puritans. This is false.
Quakers and Catholics and other dissenters were banished or imprisoned in Massachusetts during that era. Some were killed for their dissent from orthodoxy. Roger Williams who Metaxas also cites was banished from Massachusetts and founded Rhode Island as an alternative bastion of religious toleration. Despite these facts, Metaxas upholds the Pilgrims and Puritans as worthy of emulation.
What makes a book like this troubling is that Metaxas writes so well he lulls the reader into complacency. Readers who don’t know their history can’t evaluate what they don’t know. After reading the book, they feel confident but are ill equipped to defend the important principles of liberty. Metaxas has a much higher responsibility to get the facts right and should take responsibility for these errors by publicly correcting them.
In some ways, it feels like the book isn’t finished. Easily verified details (e.g., a quote attributed to a letter from Thomas Jefferson actually was a second hand recollection from another source and not written by Jefferson) are not reported accurately. There are only eight footnotes which seriously undermines the credibility of the book. For instance, the entire chapter on Whitefield contains much detail but doesn’t point the reader to necessary primary or secondary authorities.
Although the frequency of errors does not match David Barton’s The Jefferson Lies which was withdrawn from publication by Thomas Nelson in 2012, I can’t recommend the book and believe Metaxas and the publisher should publicly address the problems identified here and by other reviewers such as evangelical history professors John Fea, Tracy McKenzie, and Greg Frazer.