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Eric Metaxas penned an impassioned case for the patriotic citizen in If You Can Keep It: The Forgotten Promise of American Liberty and set out to define what both ‘patriotic’ and ‘citizen’ meant, not only in this day and rather cynical age, but during the early years of our Republic. The differences that arise in the two centuries plus between the framing of the Constitution and today are striking.
If You Can Keep It is not, however, a political screed. Instead, Metaxas bring to the fore the primary ingredients of a populace capable of governing itself – and demonstrates how far from those standards we have drifted, whether by complacency or intent.
He begins with Franklin’s famous quote to one Mrs. Powell, who asked, “Well, doctor, what have we got? A Republic or a Monarchy?” The reply that lives nearly two and a half centuries later, “A Republic, madam—if you can keep it.” This is no idle place to open the conversation. Embedded into the short exchange is both a promise, unique to the world at that time, of self-government, and an equally sincere promise of the effort that would be required of the citizen and the country to preserve the liberties thus secured.
For those expecting a purely intellectual discussion of Constitutional minutiae, this book will be disappointing. Metaxas takes the position that for all the wonder of the freedoms expressed in that document and the Bill of Rights, they cannot long exist without the active participation of the patriotic citizen. He is careful in defining such and spends considerable time on the nature of the patriot, how patriotism was conveyed from one generation to the next, and most importantly, that which is lacking in today’s populace.
Nor, given Metaxas’ fervent belief, should it surprise any reader that he builds his case upon the faith and virtue of the country. Using Os Guinness’ Golden Triangle of freedom, faith, and virtue, he explains how each plays a crucial part in an interlocking system by which the ordinary man can rise above his personal desires and benefits to vote to the betterment of the country as a whole. In fact, this is central to the idea of self-government and he correctly points out that moral leadership is absolutely necessary to encourage and foster the commitment to the nation as a whole over the benefit to oneself directly. Quoting,
“Corruption in leaders gives citizens the sense that they are, in fact, not all in it together. They will get the positively fatal idea that there is indeed an ”us” and “them.” . . . The citizens will buy into the deeply pernicious idea that rather than ruling themselves, they are in fact being ruled but others—that all the talk of self-government and liberty is a sham.”
A more timely and prescient summation of the current political environment would be hard to find.
Metaxas is expressly religious in many of his arguments, as would be expected of him. None of that negates his larger points. From John Adams, “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.” (pg.61). There simply must be a call to a power greater than oneself for a people to self-govern. In the case of Metaxas, and indeed many of the Founders, it was a Christian God. Even a Deist such as Benjamin Franklin recognized the significance of religion in crafting virtue. “Only a virtuous people,” he declares, “are capable of self-government.”
This is no small idea. In the political arena today, we see the result of a lack of virtue. One person campaigns on “free-everything”, another on vague generalities, and none on the national stage could in any sense be considered virtuous. Other than the obligatory nod of “God Bless America!” at the end of speeches, religion might well not exist in politics. There is no call to rise above oneself, no noble over-arching view of the ‘city on the hill.” In short, the politics of the nation has become as tawdry as the leaders lives. It becomes almost impossible to consider a modern politician as a hero in the mold of Washington, or Lincoln, or even Kennedy. Whatever their personal flaws, each asked Americans to rise to the challenge of citizenship.
Selected for special attention by Metaxas as emblematic of the larger problems are our heroes, and our new-found inability to acknowledge heroic behavior. This, postulates Metaxas, exposes a major deficiency in our modern society. Without unifying heroes to rally around as a culture, we Americans supplant the noble with the famous to our detriment. Truly, though, our current leaders prefer this. Measuring up to reality television is much easier than matching the integrity of Washington, the steadfastness of Lincoln, or the courage of the minutemen who suffered in Valley Forge.
Throughout, Metaxas deliberately avoids pointing fingers except at brief points to show that the polarization that exists today is detrimental to the body politic. His message, which permeates every page, is that improving our discourse, providing for the common culture, and our responsibility to preserving our Republic is in our hands. Simple demagoguery will not solve the divisions in society that threatens the Republic. And Metaxas clearly sees the American Exceptionalism as in great danger. Unlike many, he does not believe that we are beyond the point of no-return.
We have a Republic, if we can keep it. Will you, citizen, stand fast to see America survive and thrive, a beacon to the world for freedom or will you surrender? As a free person, which will you choose?