Eric Metaxas, best-selling author and radio talk-show host, is the author of a new book, If You Can Keep It: The Forgotten Promise of American Liberty. We talk a little about it here. – KJL
Kathryn Jean Lopez: Why is this book so important right now?
Eric Metaxas: America is in an existential crisis no less serious than the one we faced in the Civil War. Or the crisis before that, when our nation came into being in the Revolution. For the first time in a century and a half we are facing the imminent vanquishing of the republic, except there is no John Bull or Johnny Reb to fight against. We are being hollowed out silently from within by termites — and a hollow, brightly painted shell called “America” will soon exist where America once stood.
For example, if Hillary Clinton is elected, we will face a Supreme Court that always unconstitutionally legislates from the bench and thereby abrogates the fundamental rights of the people to govern themselves. We’ve tasted it in the Roe and Obergefell decisions, but with a few more progressives on the Court, we will have this deadly poison poured down our throats in a funnel.
The fact is that in the last 40 years, via liberal academia and teachers’ unions and the media, all Americans have been force-fed a negative narrative of who we are, and we have forgotten the glorious ideas that brought us into being in the first place. If we don’t refresh our memories immediately, it’s game over for this great experiment in liberty that’s lasted almost 240 years. If we don’t know what a treasure and a gift America is, not just to Americans but to the world, we can never summon the courage and will necessary to fight for her. Some things are far, far too good ever to forget, and America, this grand experiment in liberty, is one of them.
Lopez: What is freedom in your book and why does it need a user’s manual today?
Metaxas: The freedoms we have enjoyed in America — and spread around the world — are incredibly fragile freedoms. They don’t exist without the constant attention of “we the people,” and for the last 40 or so years we have neglected them unconscionably, not teaching them in our schools and actively teaching against them in our universities and in our media. The garden has not been kept, to use Franklin’s famous verb, and so it has gone to seed. If we don’t start weeding and cutting and replanting immediately, the thorns will very soon prevent us ever from doing so again. We will have lost our chance.
So yes, we need a refresher, a primer — a user’s manual, if you will — and this book is my best shot at that. The first thing required is knowing how it works, is appreciating the fragile but glorious mechanism that the Founders gave to us. It is like an exquisite watch that has gone on for a long time, but is winding down. It needs our attention. Badly. Immediately.
Lopez: How far away is any kind of real threat of our nation’s ceasing “to exist in any real sense”?
Metaxas: If Hillary is elected, less than two years. If Trump is elected and actually appoints originalists to SCOTUS, we will have bought ourselves some time. But there’s much more to do than appoint the right kinds of SCOTUS justices. That’s just the beginning. But it’s a vital beginning.
Lopez: Are we equipped to keep the republic anymore?
Metaxas: Certainly not. Which is precisely why I wrote this book. We need to refresh ourselves on what previous generations knew but we have forgotten. We need to remind ourselves who Cincinnatus and Nathan Hale and Paul Revere were, and what George Washington did in 1783 in Newburgh. Unless we know our history and the stories of the heroes of that history, we cease to be a people or a nation in any real sense. We become Americans in name only, which is to say, not Americans at all.
Lopez: What’s so special about the U.S. Constitution and what is it you’re most worried about losing from it?
Metaxas: It is a marvel. That something could so perfectly balance the various freedoms in a way that has lasted into a third century is almost beyond belief. It is the foundation of all our laws and therefore, of our way of life. Who can fathom such a thing? But the least we can do is teach it in our schools and universities and elect people who see it for what it is, and respect it as a glorious inheritance to be treasured.
Lopez: What on earth is miraculous about it?
Metaxas: Many of those who were at the Constitutional Convention said that it seemed genuinely impossible for all of the various parties to come to terms. They were at an impasse and began to get desperate. Benjamin Franklin, of all people, exhorted them to pray and ask for God’s help. And they did. Things seemed to move along with alacrity after that and many who were there said that it really did seem miraculous. I quote them in the book, of course.
Lopez: To what extent is this an attempt to recast or jump-start a conversation about religious liberty, one that much of the country still seems to be missing?
Metaxas: All of the freedoms are intertwined, and when one of them is ignored, all others suffer. That’s just how our system works. So a robust freedom of conscience and freedom of religion make everything else possible. To ignore them is to cause economic freedom and every other freedom to suffer. Restricting the religious impulses of Americans is precisely like killing free enterprise with too many regulations.
Lopez: How would you explain “ordered Liberty” to someone to whom the concept may be new, or who does not fully appreciate its value?
Metaxas: It’s not easy. Ordered freedom is an exquisite and fragile thing of almost infinite value. It requires the user to understand how it works and how to use it in the right way. Our freedoms don’t simply mean we can do as we like. So we need to understand that if we don’t know how it works, we will ruin it. And anyone who doesn’t want the government ruling over them in a way that kills their ability to live as a free person will need to know these things.
Lopez: Has America ever really been exceptional?
Metaxas: America is fundamentally exceptional. No one in the history of the world had ever done anything to compare with what the Founders did, creating a fragile mechanism by which men and women could actually govern themselves. It was supremely daring and the Founders all knew that without the people’s full-on participation in the noble venture, it simply couldn’t work. So you have two exceptional situations. First, the Founders had to be able to put together a form of government that had never been done in history, and second, that form of government had to be exercised by a people more prepared to self-govern than any people in history. It was a wild and unprecedented thing and we must never lose sight of how astonishing it really is. And we have lost sight of it. This book means to restore us to a proper appreciation for this thing we have been bequeathed, and entrusted with.
Lopez: What’s this “Golden Triangle of Freedom” business?
Metaxas: Os Guinness — to whom I dedicate the book — wrote about this in his spectacular book, A Free People’s Suicide. In a nutshell, it is that freedom requires virtue and virtue requires faith and faith requires freedom. The first part is an idea that all of the Founders understood, that real freedom, which is to say self-government, requires the people to govern themselves. That’s not a tautology. It means that in order for self-government to work, we must each govern our own individual selves. We must not commit crimes or fail to pay our taxes or to do what is right for the community when we see that right. We must, in a word, possess virtue and behave virtuously. At least generally speaking. And virtue, in turn, requires faith. This doesn’t mean people cannot be virtuous apart from faith, but all the Founders knew that historically and in their experience, communities that took faith seriously tended to be virtuous in the way that self-government required. And faith in turn requires freedom, because unless people are free to practice whatever faith they choose, that faith is coerced by the state, and therefore not real faith at all. So the Golden Triangle is: Freedom requires Virtue; Virtue requires Faith; and Faith requires Freedom.