As a child, I used to play a game with my family called, “Masterpiece.” Each player acts as an art collector, buying and selling famous paintings with the goal of amassing the highest cash earnings. Among the available options, I especially fancied Georges Seurat’s, A Sunday on La Grande Jatte, which is one of the most famous examples of “pointillism,” a technique of applying individual paint spots to form a single grand image. Years later, I had an opportunity to view the painting in person during a visit to The Art Institute of Chicago and wondered at the detail. My tour guide encouraged us to inspect it closely, then to step back and admire the accomplishment as a whole. Every single dot played an instrumental role in creating the seven-by-ten foot image. Seurat, like all painters, understood the importance of details. A misplaced spot, color, or slip-of-the-hand corrupts a portion of the final piece.We don’t have to ignore the faults of important historical figures in order to celebrate their accomplishments. In fact, those failings often help us see men and women in history correctly and understand the power of ideas in action, both for good and ill.
The same is true for history. Details matter—especially when it concerns a topic as divisive as the founding of the United States of America. New York Times bestselling author and radio show host Eric Metaxas takes on that very subject in his latest book, If You Can Keep It: The Forgotten Promise of American Liberty. Born out of concern that modern Americans have lost sight of what it means to be “we the people,” Metaxas sets out to tell afresh the story of our country’s founding by unearthing the intentions of the Founding Fathers and other enduring historical figures. He argues that the past fifty years have evidenced a growing practice of cynicism towards America and its heroes, leading the citizenry to stray from its duty, namely, to uphold the promise of the Constitution, which he refers to as “the flame of liberty.”
According to Metaxas, the U.S. Constitution uniquely established ordered liberties that the colonial Americans were prepared to preserve due to their propensity for self-governance. The Founders ratified the document knowing its future would depend upon the people’s active participation in keeping the republic they had been given. However, Americans now stand on a precipice. Metaxas argues that we risk extinguishing the flame of liberty in this generation. In other words, to be an American means embracing a devotion to spreading ordered liberty—or self-governance—to a world that needs it. Metaxas argues, “If in any sense we care about the rest of the world, we must first ‘keep’ this republic.” Thus, our global concern begins with self-concern and if we fail in our task, the light of liberty will go out forever.
The remaining chapters of the book focus on developing Metaxas’s thesis through biographical surveys of iconic historical figures and underscoring the importance of faith, freedom, and virtue in the establishment of liberty. His writing style is appealing and accessible, part of what has made his previous works so successful. Even more, his argument appears innocuous—an attempt at positively contributing to the privilege of citizenship. Nonetheless, the book suffers from broad strokes of embellishment and fails to accurately paint important details in pursuit of a finished product.
One of Metaxas’s earliest missteps was his description of John Adams as a “committed and theologically orthodox Christian.” Few would argue over Adams’s influence on the formation of the Constitution or his significance across the pages of American history, but he famously belonged to the Unitarian tradition, which denied the doctrine of the Trinity. Adams also rejected the eternality of hell and questioned the divinity of Christ. In a letter to Thomas Jefferson dated from September of 1813, he wrote that even if God had visited him upon Mount Sinai and told him “one was three and three one: we might not have had courage to deny it; but we could not have believed it.” Perhaps Adams experienced the saving grace of the gospel, but he was far from orthodox in his Christianity.
Metaxas’s account of George Whitefield suffers for similar reasons. He refers to Whitefield as a man “without whom the United States simply could not have come into being” and describes his preaching as a uniting ideological factor among the colonies that set the stage for pursuing liberty in a way unique to world history: “That the poor and uneducated have value is something we today take for granted, but it is something that came into history only because of what began here, when this young man announced to the unwashed rabble that there was someone who cared about them, who loved them, and who sought their company.” Metaxas asserts that Whitefield’s gospel offered a new identity for the colonies, one of equality and value in the presence of God—a message that “changed the colonies and created an American people.”
Without question, Whitefield holds an esteemed place in both U.S. and Christian history. He had a profound influence on American life and contributed to the spread of the gospel during the First Great Awakening, a beautiful page in our country’s past. But he was a man of paradox. As he preached human equality before God, he owned slaves and advocated for black enslavement in the state of Georgia prior to its legalization. Historical evidence points to his use of slave labor to build an orphanage, a pragmatic decision derived from his concern for the number of orphans populating the state. Ironically, as he preached his gospel of equality—however sincerely—he advocated the ethnic oppression of slavery.
Whitefield assumed more of a middle ground on the topic of slavery compared to his contemporaries, but he was a man of his time, deeply influenced by the views of the colonists. Despite the evangelist’s remarkable achievements, we cannot overlook this fact. In a published newsletter from 2014, historian Thomas Kidd writes, “this does not excuse Whitefield’s complicity in what was a fundamentally immoral system, from the terrible wars and slave catching trade in Africa, to the horrible passage of the forced Atlantic voyage, to the dreadful working conditions for slaves, to the physical and sexual abuse that many slaves endured in the Americas.” Readers need such nuance in the consideration of history, as they are points on which the final painting depends.
Metaxas employs the same broad brush on a larger scale throughout his depiction of the Puritans. Primarily focused on those who founded the Massachusetts Bay Colony, Metaxas credits the Puritans with creating a biblical model of society that influenced the forming of America itself. Since their arrival in the seventeenth century, Metaxas argues, “religious freedom and religious tolerance have been the single most important principle of American life.” That’s an ironic statement when one considers individuals such as Anne Hutchinson and Roger Williams, both of whom were exiled from the colony over theological dissent. Hutchison and her children died shortly after—massacred by Native Americans—and Williams went on to establish the Rhode Island colony. Both events occurred as a result of religious intolerance. No doubt the Puritans pursued America’s shores for religious freedom, but only for the sake of creating a safe haven for their own particular practice, not to create an inviting environment for all forms of belief. If the Puritans set a stage, it was one the Founding Fathers refused to take a century later.
These and other points sprinkled throughout the book lead Metaxas to describe the founding of America “as nothing less than a holy calling.” For him, Whitefield’s influence along with the “religious” interest of so many early American leaders indicates that “God himself—and if not God, then at least those who are motivated by the idea of God and all it portends” has played a central role in the establishment of our country. Even more, he describes John Winthrop’s “city upon a hill” address, given on the journey to found Massachusetts Bay Colony, as underscoring the responsibility of Americans who “have a special mission and a calling to be an example to the world, and to do what we can with our gifts to help others.”
In fairness, in many instances Metaxas accurately describes the beliefs and convictions of those historical characters he chronicles. However, he regularly adopts the beliefs as his own conclusions about the purpose and trajectory of America with little analysis. For example, in one of the final chapters Metaxas focuses on the convictions of Abraham Lincoln. Using the writings and speeches of the iconic president, he asserts without critical assessment that God called America “for his purposes in history, to bless the whole world with the freedoms we had enjoyed.” Therefore, turning from our call amounts to national “suicide” as well as an active forfeiture of the blessings of God (217). Such rhetoric threatens to confuse the promotion of American liberties with that of the Christian gospel.
Details matter. When taken together they determine the final form of a complete picture. For Metaxas, that final form culminates in an argument for American exceptionalism. He contends that, just as God chose Israel, the prophets, and Christ, so he has chosen America “to bring a new kind of nation into the world, and through that nation to lead the whole world to take part in that experiment in liberty for all.” He is determined to rouse his readers from their national slumber to fulfill a holy calling of bringing liberty to the world. But his call rests on an unhelpful and, many times, inaccurate reading of history.
In the end, Metaxas pines for a memory of America that history cannot substantiate—one marked by a collective embrace of divine guidance and sweeping religious tolerance, and one animated by “the virtuous behavior of Americans, driven principally by their thriving faith in the God of the Bible.” Part of the problem lies in his casting of historical figures without their proper context, supposing they embraced terms like “virtue,” “religion,” and “equality” in the same manner as we do today despite the demonstrable ways in which they proved otherwise. Instead, he passes over that nuance in what appears to be an attempt to defend his opening thesis: that of a God-ordained, American exceptionalism he fears we risk losing today.
Without question, America is a great nation. Because of that, we have significant opportunities to bless those in need around the world. Metaxas does a wonderful job of provoking his readers to leverage their blessings for good. Unfortunately, this point becomes a subtext for his broader endeavor to dress America’s past in the robes of divine providence.
Metaxas has written an inspiring book, but by skewing the past, he risks conflating American ideals with the gospel of Jesus Christ. The Constitution—as brilliant and enduring as it remains—is not the good news God desires his people to carry as a beacon to the world. Despite copious amounts of quoted material, Metaxas includes a total of only eight endnotes, which provide brief comment or recommend further reading. None of the notes, however, offer proper citation for the source of the quotations. The absence of rigorous research shifts his book from the realm of historical study to something closer to personal opinion. Readers are unable to check his sources, as he has failed to provide the means for accountability.
We don’t have to ignore the faults of important historical figures in order to celebrate their accomplishments. In fact, those failings often help us see men and women in history correctly and understand the power of ideas in action, both for good and ill. Even more, they mature our perspectives on what it means to truly love our neighbors as ourselves. A historian’s work should never whitewash its subjects and make them something other than they were. Like Seurat’s masterpiece, a canvas is composed of its parts. Historical nuance requires work and makes for complex storytelling, but that is because history is complex. If we are to remember our history rightly, we must have the ability to remember truthfully. History is our story, both personally and corporately. It requires brushes of various sizes, and we do ourselves no favors by painting the past too broadly.
Image: Page & Palette