If You Can Keep It : The Forgotten Promise of American Liberty, by Eric Metaxas, New York: Viking, 2016, 267 pp, hardcover, ISBN: 978-1101979983.
If You Can Keep It is an admirable book by renowned author Eric Metaxas. Metaxas is a #1 New York Times best-selling author, best known for biographies of such greats as Dietrich Bonhoeffer and William Wilberforce. An acclaimed speaker and cultural commentator, he is also the host of a syndicated daily radio show, The Eric Metaxas Show. In this volume, he examines the fundamentals of American liberty, offering a critique and recommendations on how “we the people” can safeguard this precious gift.
In the book’s first chapter, the author contemplates the ideas behind America’s founding, such as “What is liberty,” “How did the founders see America’s position in the world,” and the what and why of self-government. He makes a great case for delving deeply into these concepts. “[T]he strangeness and foreignness of this new nation ‘conceived in liberty’ is simply impossible to appreciate fully today . . . for . . . the United States and the ideas . . . that came together to create it have been so successful that they’ve been copied endlessly in the two centuries since.”(19)
Chapter Two discusses the idea of a “golden triangle of freedom,” an idea Metaxas borrows from Os Guinness. (51) In this concept, freedom, virtue, and faith are seen as interrelated, mutually necessary elements of American freedom. Echoing Guinness, he writes, “If any one of the three legs of the triangle is removed, the whole structure ceases to exist.” (54)
The third chapter takes an unexpected turn, as Metaxas examines the preaching of George Whitefield, a mid-eighteenth century preacher who took America by storm and contributed greatly to what has become known as “The Great Awakening.” Even having read a great deal about Whitefield already, I was struck by Metaxes’ descriptions, and particularly his assertions regarding the effect of the preacher’s message on the revolutionary generation. Using first-hand accounts, including those of Benjamin Franklin and Jonathan Edwards’ wife Sarah, Whitefield’s preaching and message come to life in Metaxes’ work.
Chapter Four is, perhaps, my favorite chapter of the book. The author encourages the reader to understand the importance of hero veneration. Telling the stories of revolutionary spy-turned-martyr Nathan Hale and of Paul Revere, one cannot help but be inspired by their patriotism. Every generation, he asserts, needs to be reminded not only of the ideas that formed our nation, but of “the heroes who brought those ideas to life,” that we might draw on those memories as we battle to preserve the liberty they fought and died for. (147) These tales are woven in with personal reflections on telling the stories to his daughter, and inspire the reader to remember the great tales of American history.
In the fifth chapter, Metaxas considers how the character of our nation’s leaders comes “into play with regard to our ability to ‘keep’ the fragile republic of ordered freedoms entrusted to us.” (149)
Acknowledging that character is not the only thing we look for in leaders and, in fact, may be less important in some types of leaders than others, he suggests that strong moral character is important for two reasons. The first is that the character of a leader “affects everyone – their peers and those they lead.” (154) The second is that a system of self-government simply cannot exist without virtuous leaders. (176, ff) Using stories of the ancient Roman Cincinnatus, George Washington, and William Wilberforce, he paints a clear picture of virtuous leadership and encourages the reader to see this as a critical bulwark of liberty.
Chapter Six serves the author’s purpose by setting the record straight about the concept of “American exceptionalism.” This oft-misunderstood term, which comes from the writings of the early nineteenth century Alexis de Tocqueville, is examined in the light of the American idea which, importantly, existed before the American nation. (182-3) From John Winthrop’s idea that this new land would be a “city on a hill,” shining a beacon of hope to all the world, to the miraculous story of Squanto, to the halls of the Constitutional Congress, Metaxas paints a convincing picture of both the unique purpose of America to evidence of a providential guiding of its destiny. He then turns to the words of Abraham Lincoln, from which he draws the chapter’s title, to show Lincoln’s idea of American exceptionalism nearly a hundred years after its founding.
In the book’s final chapter, Metaxas turns his eye to current perceptions of America today, and encourages his readers to experience a renewed love for the nation. This love of country, in Lincoln’s words, “mystic chords of memory,” are something without which the nation cannot survive. The chapter contrasts the love of America exhibited by Lincoln and, later, Ronald Regan, with the trend over the last fifty years to focus more on America’s faults than her greatness. Then he suggests a pattern of truly loving America that encompasses both pride in her accomplishments and a recognition of her shortcomings. In the end, he speaks of “remembrance and ritual” and of poetry as ways that we can keep our love for America strong and instill the same in our children.
If You Can Keep It is a fantastically penned call-to-arms for the American people, and is a must-read for all who fancy themselves patriots. As I write this conclusion, the morning of July 4th, my appreciation of this day is far richer for having read Eric Metaxas’ book. What I appreciate most is the scope of topics covered in such a short volume (258 pages). To touch on the puritan settlers of the New World, the Great Awakening, the creation of the Constitution, American heroes, Abraham Lincoln, and admonishments for modern living is a lofty goal. Metaxas has done so admirably and sufficiently for most readers. By synthesizing this array of subjects around the love for and preservation of our country, If You Can Keep It provides a broad look at the subject for those wanting a small book and, at the same time, works as a springboard for those wishing to study further into any of its many subjects. I highly recommend it to all Americans, particularly those of us who have children, as we are training up the next generation who must hear the promise of American liberty and be challenged to see if they can keep it.
|BUY THE BOOK|