Author Eric Metaxas Asks If American Democracy Will Survive
Stream contributor Eric Metaxas has a provocative new book out this week, If You Can Keep It, which explores the forgotten connections between faith-based virtues and the survival of freedom in America. Are Americans virtuous enough to keep up a free society? Or are we headed into a new age where self-interested, short-sighted citizens are so caught up in their habits that they allow, or even require, an omnicompetent State to run their lives for them? I asked Eric, an old friend, to share his insights.
John: Please explain what you mean by the “Golden Triangle of Freedom,” a concept which you take from Os Guinness, that inspired you to write this book.
Eric: It’s so important I might shriek. But I shan’t. I mustn’t. But it really is a terribly important idea understood by the Founders as essential to the success of the nation they were creating. The nutshell summation is this: 1) freedom requires virtue; 2) virtue requires faith; and 3) faith requires freedom. Of course it has to be explained.
The first leg of the triangle — that freedom requires virtue — is simply the idea that self-government cannot work unless the people entrusted to govern themselves possess enough virtue to actually govern themselves. For example, they abide by laws not because there is a government aiming a cocked gun at their heads, but because they simply believe it’s the right thing to do and do it of their own accord. Many of the founders said that without a virtuous people there can be no real liberty and self-government, that it simply cannot work. Of course I quote those founders in the book.
Second, the founders knew that people who possessed faith were generally more virtuous than those who didn’t. That didn’t mean it wasn’t possible to be virtuous without faith, but that in their experience and observation people of faith — and in that time and place we mean Christian faith — were generally more virtuous and therefore notably more able to govern themselves. Ben Franklin remarked on how communities where the evangelist George Whitefield had met with success were not only more serious about their faith, but were instantly less troubled by crime and drunkenness, for example. It was simply observable fact.
But the third leg of the triangle is the one that speaks to us most clearly today, as we see religious liberty undermined. The founders knew that without freedom — and of course that means religious freedom — there could be no real faith. The sort of faith that was coerced by a government wasn’t real faith at all, and would never produce virtue. They had seen that in England, from which many of their forebears had fled. To be authentic, faith had to be freely chosen, so the government must stay well out of the business of approving or favoring one kind of faith over another or using government’s power to push people toward a certain denomination. The government had to be absolutely strict in letting the free market of ideas decide, which is to say, in letting the people decide for themselves what kind of faith they wanted and in respecting people’s faith as sacrosanct and outside the realm of the state’s reach.
John: Early on you make the crucial argument, citing John Adams and other U.S. founders, that without “religion,” it’s impossible for a people to sustain the virtue needed for freedom. So they cannot govern themselves, but will need a tyrannical state to protect them from each other. Why do you think this is true? Wouldn’t our rational self-interest make us conclude that in the long run it’s more pleasurable to live in harmony with our neighbors? That’s what Epicurus thought.
Eric: Epicurus was wacky, but that’s another story. To your main point, depending on rational self-interest can only take us so far, and in creating sustainable freedom, it’s simply not far enough. We must ask ourselves: What happens when one’s self-interest conflicts with the larger good? That happens more often than Epicureans might like to admit. If I know voting for so-and-so will give me what I want, but will somewhat harm the country, what’s to stop me from voting for so-and-so and reaping the benefits? What if voting for so-and-so will put money in my pockets? Unless I have children, I certainly don’t give a rat’s fig about the future, and even if I do, the kids will get some of my money and can fend for themselves if things get difficult down the road. If one is only motivated by self-interest, taking the money and running is often the best way to go. Virtue, on the other hand, requires one to do what is right even when it works against one’s self interest, and that time comes sooner or later.
The genius of the founders is that they understood that every government has to deal with Original Sin and the inherent and natural selfishness of all of us, which is not merely self-interest, but something baser. Only a knowledge that our selfishness is objectively wrong and a desire to do right will work. And that doesn’t come from us, but from something outside ourselves.
John: Would any religion do? Could Islam, or New Age “spirituality”, do the job? If not, what’s so special about Christianity — especially in its “free,” American form?
Eric: Without getting into the details, Islam has historically tended to work against the kind of freedom we have in the United States. Indeed, it tends toward theocracy, toward merging “church and state” — or “mosque and state” — into something that coerces faith and thus blurs the line between the laws of the state and the laws of God. There’s no room for “religious liberty” in a world where the state has taken over religion, or where religion has taken over the state. That’s the genius of the Founders in keeping the state out of the faith of its citizens. Islam also typically teaches that one can convert to Islam but never away from Islam, so one is not at all free. Freedom of conscience is defenestrated, along with anyone thought to be gay. So, alas, Islam is generally incompatible with American liberty. Of course Muslims who are willing to abide by American laws have no problem living here, and most of them love the freedoms they have here but do not have in a Muslim state, but once Islam become the dominant religion, those freedoms will have to disappear.
New Age “spirituality” likewise cannot meet the requirements of encouraging virtue in the way that the Biblical faith of Christians and Jews does because it simply doesn’t weigh in on virtue very much at all. Walking mazes and becoming one with the universe are never mentioned in the Federalist Papers, so it’s hard to say very much on this score, although the perpetually wafting candle scents can be cloying and will eventually create an atmosphere in which the nation’s GDP suffers, killing the tax base and gutting vital government programs.
John: Could the cultural residue of Christianity serve the purpose, the way even non-believing Englishmen still seem to believe in fair play, kindness, tolerance? Are there signs that is breaking down even in England?
Eric: Of course the cultural residue of Christianity can serve the purpose for a time. In fact, it has been serving the purpose in the U.S. for the last forty or so years. But at some point you run out of that residue and need more of the real thing from the source. Right now the U.S. is living mostly on the residue of the previous two centuries of Christian faith, just as Europe is. But at some point people want to know: why am I behaving this way again? Who says I should be nice to my neighbor? Who says I shouldn’t grab what I can any way I can, as long as it’s legal, or as long as I don’t get caught? There can be no substitute for actual faith in a God who loves us.
John: Do you think that religious freedom has worked in America in a mode like the free market — that competition keeps churches honest, out of fear of losing congregants, which they needn’t fear in a monopoly religious culture backed by state coercion and persecution?
Eric: Absolutely. That’s precisely how it works, and how it must work. George Whitefield’s staggering successful preaching excursions throughout the Colonies in the mid-eighteenth century goosed this phenomenon so dramatically that every church was forced to up its game or vanish, and the subsequent dramatic rise of robust Christian faith created a people that was better prepared to govern themselves than any in the history of the world. Without Whitefield, there likely would have been no Revolution and no United States. I explain that further in the book, of course, but it’s something that ought to be infinitely more well-known and taught in American schools.
John: This current election is deeply dissatisfying to many Christian voters. How would you answer those who see Hillary Clinton as a grave threat, but fear that Trump lacks the virtue (much less the religion) to lead a free people? Even if he’s the lesser of two evils, is his rise a symptom of our fading virtue and faith?
Eric: Yes, Donald Trump’s rise is certainly a symptom of our fading virtue and faith, but ironically he may well be our only hope for finding our way back to bolder expressions of them. The eerie waxworks automaton formerly known as Hillary Rodham Clinton will no doubt double down on President Obama’s two-term repulsion to Constitutional government, in which unutterably sad case we simply wouldn’t ever be able to claw our way back up the abyss into which we shall have been thrust. If two more anti-Constitutionalist judges are shoehorned onto the Supreme Court we will have a Constitutional crisis — actually a cataclysm — in which the last Justices of that hoary institution will take that thing once described by a Constitutionalist Executive as the “government of the people, by the people, for the people” and place it into a coffin gaily decorated with smiley face and rainbow stickers.
John: Is there any alternative to fighting the “culture wars” politically, even though we seem to be losing? Could we opt out and try to exist in tolerated enclaves, as the “Benedict Option” envisions?
Eric: Honestly, I think we will likely need to do some version of both.
John: You are friends with many good-hearted, tolerant and cultured liberals, such as Dick Cavett. Is today’s generation of secularists and progressives similarly tolerant and cultured — or has something else taken over? Are we seeing the birth of a strange new religion?
Eric: The former generation of liberals were still living off the cultural residue of which you spoke earlier, while the current rough crop know nothing about it and think of politeness and civility as being something like floppy-discs and VHS tapes. They are a generation that “knew not Joseph,” who are quite unwittingly embracing the social Darwinism of National Socialism and the “kill the poor” mentality of Jello Biafra, although at least he was saying it ironically. Their religion is the cult of Rumpelstiltskin, which typically ends — alas! — in leading its enraged devotees to tear themselves in twain.
John: How do you answer people who say things like, “I don’t need religion to be a good person,” and “I’m spiritual but not religious?”
Eric: I tell them I have gas and need to visit a restroom. Sometimes I’ll even wince slightly, just to underscore things before I flee. I’m afraid it’s the only rational response.