In honor of Independence Day, author Eric Metaxas discusses the importance of acknowledging both the mistakes and successes in our nation's history, and recognizing the heroic efforts of our Founding Fathers to establish a free society. He also encourages each of us to be responsible for understanding America's heritage and values, and to pass that knowledge on to our children.
John Fuller: It’s Independence Day and we’re celebrating the birth of America. But as we do so, are you celebrating for the right reasons? Here’s a perspectiveand I wonder if you can relate to it.
Mr. Eric Metaxas: In our generation, since the ‘60s, we have begun to stop thinking about the greatness of America and the great heroes—Nathan Hale, Paul Revere. We’ve started to focus more on the anti-heroes, on the villains, on the shortcomings, on the things we’ve gotten wrong. As you just said, it is utterly important to know those things so that we don’t repeat them, to understand that we have not been perfect. We’ve done all these things wrong. But if you get to a point where you’re only focusing on that, it’s exactly the same as if you’re saying, I will not hear one negative thing said about my country. It’s America; love it or leave it. Get out. Both are wrong.
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John: That’s Eric Metaxas and he’s an author, a speaker, a radio host. He truly loves this country, but he also recognizes that there have been mistakes in our nation over the past 240 years and you’ll hear his perspective and why he loves America so much on today’s “Focus on the Family.” Your host is Focus president, Jim Daly and I’m John Fuller.
Jim Daly: John, when you think about it, we don’t have a lot of heroes in our culture today. We don’t trust institutions. We just don’t trust generally. People, maybe some people we should trust that are doing a good thing in this country. Today we want to talk about that concept of heroism and what it should mean to us as believers, as Christians. Certainly our faith is filled with those types of people that we still look up to and I’m grateful for that, but I still believe after traveling to 70 countries in my international days with Focus, that the United States is an exceptional nation. It is.
And I remember the first time I returned from a trip. I literally got down on my hands and knees and kissed that tarmac, ‘cause we have something incredible and I wish every high school student, every college student could go abroad for one year, which I did—I studied in Japan for a year—but to come back after that experience, we would so much more deeply appreciate what the Founding Fathers have done, what this country is, even with its mistakes.
John: And to explore some of these themes, we have Eric Metaxas. As I said, he’s an author, a speaker, a radio host and he has written a book called If You Can Keep It: Forgotten Promise of American Liberty. And we’ll have details about that book at www.focusonthefamily.com/radio.
Jim: Eric, welcome back to “Focus on the Family.”
Eric: I love being here. Thanks for havin’ me.
Jim: Eric, we’re talking about your wonderful, wonderful book, If You Can Keep It. Let’s start where that title comes from because it was a phrase that was used, a statement that was used by one of the Framers, right?
Eric: Yeah, I don’t want to forget to say this. I have never, ever written a book where I have gotten so much positive feedback. It’s almost funny to me because I think it’s because there haven’t been books like this written recently. But the feedback, just like on Amazon or whatever, has been unbelievable. There’s a hunger for, I would say, a renewed healthy sense of patriotism. I say “healthy,” because it needs to have balance. But anyway, to give you an example of what I’m talkin’ about, I’ll answer your question. The title of the book is, If You Can Keep It. “If you can keep it” is a famous phrase.
Benjamin Franklin, he was exiting Philadelphia’s famous Independence Hall in 1787. They had just created the Constitution, which really means they had just created the United States of America.
I mean, we think of 1776, but the reality is, that we won the war in 1783. We kind of bumbled around under the Articles of Confederation, trying to be a country, but we didn’t really have a federal government that was very strong. We didn’t know if it was gonna work.
So they had to go back to the drawing board and create our government. And they said, it’s not working. Let’s go back. Let’s figure it out. So, all the, you know, important guys get together in Independence Hall, the same place where they signed the Declaration of Independence on July 4th, 1776. And now they’re there to create the Constitution. And when it’s all over, Benjamin Franklin walks out of the building and this woman, Mrs. Powell of Philadelphia says to him, “Dr. Franklin, what have you given us, a monarchy or a republic?” Now she wasn’t joking around.
They had no idea what was going on inside that building. For all they knew, the Founders are getting together and say, “You know what? Let’s be honest. This isn’t working.” No one in the history of the world has ever had this kind of a government ever. It’s never worked. Why should we think it’s gonna work? They might have gone in there and said, “We have to have some kind of a soft monarchy. We’ll have a good king. He won’t be like King George III. It’ll be King George Washington. He’ll be great.
But we can’t do what we wanted to do.” So when the woman says, “What have you given us, a monarchy or a republic?” she actually didn’t know. She was wondering what have you created?
So, he says, “A republic, madam, if you can keep it.” And when he said, “If you can keep it,” we kind of think of Franklin as kind of jokey, like he thought, hey, it’s a republic if you can keep it. You know, try, but he was not joking. He was serious in the sense that he and all of those in the room who had created this Constitution, who had created this new government understood that the only way it would work, the only way it would work is if the people kept the republic, if the people actually governed themselves.
You cannot have self-government if the people don’t step up—that’s you and me and everybody listening—if the people don’t step up, understand what’s necessary and govern themselves. So when Franklin said this, he was only a few years from his own death, three years. He was an older man.
He had no idea if 50 years or 100 years in the future, this government would exist. So when he said this, “If you can keep it,” it was a charge to every future American. If you don’t keep it, by definition, it goes away. It’s not that it might go away. It will go away. You have a role to play. You need to understand what it means to govern yourself. That’s what the book is about. And what I basically say is, that in the last 40 or so years, we have forgotten what it means to live as free Americans. We have forgotten what our role is and we have basically abdicated our role. And unless we remember what this is and begin to do the work that we haven’t been doing for these 40 years, it goes away and we are not in a great place.
Jim: Eric, let me ask you this question because when you look at world history or U.S. history, I actually love history. We read a lot of history. We’re reading Andrew Jackson’s biography right now--very good book. But you read even that and it seems like there’s just chaos. You think of the Civil War and will we be able to keep it? That must have been frightening at the time for the citizens watching what was happening between North and South.
Jim: There [have] been episodes in our history which have created fear that it’s not gonna last. It’s popping seams, our Republic.
Eric: That’s right.
Jim: So, when we look at the last 40 years, why is it different? Why should we be more concerned in these 40 years than we were the previous 160?
Eric: Well, I wouldn’t say that we should be more concerned than we were say, at the Civil War, but we should be as concerned. Why? Because anybody who thinks that our country just bumbles along and continues to exist, doesn’t have any clue of what America is.This country is fragile. Our form of government is not supposed to work. It’s supposed to fall apart unless you have a citizenry that takes a solid active role in governing themselves.
Now how does that happen? First of all, you have to teach people what does it mean to govern yourself? You have to teach people what does it mean to be an American? For 200 years we were doin’ that. We were teaching young people and we, ourselves, older people knew what does it mean to be an American? How are we different from other countries? What is wonderful about what we have and why is it worth a great effort to keep it?
And by the way, we’re not keeping it just for ourselves. We’re keeping it for the whole world because we actually want the whole world to borrow these ideas, to steal these ideas, to live out the liberty that we have, to have the freedom we have—religious freedom and economic freedom and opportunity.
All of this stuff was not given to us by God just for us. It was given to us to be really a shining beacon to the world. That’s where you get this image of the Statue of Liberty. We exist for others. It’s a fundamentally Christian idea, the shining city on a hill, that if we shine the light of liberty, which is very connected to Christian faith and to virtue, the whole world will say, “Hey, I want a piece of that. Can I be like that?
And so, this is something that we have basically stopped teaching in schools for 40 years. You don’t get these messages on TV, on the TV programs. You don’t get these messages in films.We have adopted, since the ‘60’s, a kind of anti-American narrative, an anti-heroic narrative. If you hear about George Washington, instead of hearing about the infinity of heroic things he did, you hear, “Oh, he was a slave owner.”
We have done a profound disservice to this generation and even to our generation, us growing up in the ‘70’s or whatever, that we have not taught these things. If you have a couple of generations that doesn’t understand this stuff and that is not living it out, that is—I’m not being hyperbolic—that is the end of America and we have not been doing this and we need to get very busy.
Jim: Well, and I appreciate that. We’re celebrating Fourth of July and the creation of our country. There was a personality you really highlighted in your book and that’s Nathan Hale. Most people won’t even know who Nathan Hale is.
Jim: Who was he and what was he doing and how did he contribute to the nation?
Eric: Well, I want to say this, that one of the reasons I wrote the book is to explain all this stuff, but also to put the stories in the book that I think are the seminal stories, that if you read this stuff, you’ll get a sense of the heroism. There’s much more than is in the book, but these are the basic stories that 100 years ago, every single American knew these stories.
Jim: Would’ve known.
Eric: I would even say 50 years ago, every American knew these stories.Nathan Hale, Paul Revere, George Washington, why were they great and what did they do? If we don’t know these stories, we can’t really be Americans. I mean, let’s put it this way.
America is an experiment in ordered liberty. America is an idea. We’re not an ethnic group. There’s no such thing as an ethnic group. We are from [different countries]. My parents are from Greece and Germany and people are from Mexico and China and from all around the world and they become Americans. My parents are as American as George Washington, because they bought into an idea. To become an American is to buy into an idea.
So if people don’t know what those ideas are, we now become America in name only. We become Americans in quotes and the whole thing goes away.So I said one of the most important things is to know your stories, to know the history and the heroic stories of people like Nathan Hale because these stories inspire you. Every nation and every culture has heroes and you say, you know, as Greeks celebrate every year their own independence day and they celebrate these heroes, they’re not ashamed. They don’t say, “Oh, Greece has its faults,” whatever. They say, “Of course, we have our faults, but let’s celebrate our heroes.”
In America, Nathan Hale stands as one of the great heroes of the Revolution. He was first of all, a profound Christian. He went to Yale University. He graduated in 1774, I think. It was in the early 1770’s. His dorm is still there today. You can see it.
Eric: This young man decided to enroll as a Christian and as an American patriot. He wanted to fight for his country. And then George Washington needed some spies because [of] the British intelligence efforts, you know, [which] were really beyond our own. We needed some Americans willing to go behind enemy lines and to do the brave work of being a spy.
Nathan Hale volunteered. He was eventually caught by the British and hanged. He was 21-years-old. He was hanged about three-quarters of a mile from where we’re sitting in an orchard on the east side of Manhattan. It was an orchard. It was a farm. He was hanged. He was 21-years-old old.The people who hanged him were moved by his character. They knew that this is an uncommon man.
And when he was hanged he said, “My only regret is that I have but one life to give for my country.” He was paraphrasing something from one of the, I think, the Romans had said, I forget who it was. But this was what he said when he was being hanged, 21-years-old. “My only regret is that I have one life to give for my country.”
This man’s death was celebrated among all of the revolutionary soldiers. They said this is our hero. We’re gonna fight for him. He was 21. He was young. He was Christian and he was a great man. And so, his name was [well-known], They wrote a couple of ballads about him and over the decades and the centuries, we’ve celebrated Nathan Hale.
John: So, you said he’s a great man, but he was executed at 21. So, there’s a contradiction there in perspective or in what he did.
Eric: Well, it’s his willingness to say, “I’m willing to die for my country.” And when I say he’s a great man, I mean, this was not a man who ran away from danger or who ran away from any trouble. He basically said, “What can I do for my nation?”
Young people need to be inspired that to give yourself for your country is a noble thing. We’ve all [heard]. All we hear about is examples of how, oh, so and so was killed in a war that didn’t mean anything or whatever.That’s not right. It doesn’t mean we shouldn’t mention those examples, but if you only mention those examples, you do a profound disservice because thousands and even millions of people have died for noble causes.
And if we don’t tell people there’s such a thing as a noble cause, that nothing matters, look out for yourself, you’re creating a generation and a whole world of selfish people who, by the way, will implode. We cannot be a great nation or a great world; we cannot have peace unless we aspire to these noble ideas. And so, one of the great stories from our own history is this young man named Nathan Hale.
John: Well, thanks for elaborating on that. Our guest today on “Focus on the Family” with Jim Daly is Eric Metaxas and you can find out more about Eric’s book, If You Can Keep It at our website, www.focusonthefamily.com/radio.
Jim: Eric, you mentioned the last 40 years these stories have not been shared generally. Prior to that most of us—I’m 55—in the early days of school I got a lot of that history and understood who George Washington was.
Jim: I don’t think we caught Nathan Hale, which is what [was] unfortunate, but that was the beginning of that history teaching in that.
Eric: Well, you and I kinda caught the tail end. We’re right on the cusp.
Jim: We got some of it, but not all of it.
Eric: Well, right and some people in different parts of the country, in the South, they were much better about this, but generally speaking, the ‘60’s changed. The heroism of people, people weren’t talkin’ about heroes. They started talkin’ about anti-heroes. They started celebrating the dark side. They started talking about the negative narrative of what we did to the indigenous populations of the Americas. They’d talk about slavery.
By the way, it’s important to talk about that stuff, but if that’s the only stuff you talk about, you do a profound disservice to history, because we as a nation, abolished slavery. We repented of our sins of racism. We abolished Jim Crow laws.
Most of that, by the way, came out of people of serious Christian faith, which is another very important part of the American story and a part of my book, If You Can Keep It, is that all of the Founders, every single one of them, even Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson understood that without virtue and robust faith, America cannot exist. America cannot function.
That has not been taught in schools for over 40 years. We took prayer out of the public schools. We need to understand that what we have, our form of self-government, real liberty cannot exist without a people of virtue and most of that comes out of faith.
All of the Founders got that, but in our generation, we have completely forgotten this. We don’t teach it. And by the way, because it’s true, even if you don’t like it, we oughta be teaching this in the schools, public schools.
Jim: And there are some people that are beginning to talk in that way, secularists even that are saying these things, that it would be very positive for us to do that.But I want to get to the divide. That was the second half of the question.
Jim: We do have this great divide in the culture today, where it is only the dark side. It’s only the negative, the embarrassment of it, very little about the positive. Then you have those who are very positive, who want to sometimes negate the negative and not address it.
Eric: Oh, you’ll always [have the negative], right.
Jim: But the bigger question is how do we begin to pull this back together so that our Republic can survive?
Eric: Well, first of all, in the book I talk about how I believe we are obliged to love our country. Now as Christians, how do we define “love?” That’s the other thing. Love doesn’t mean I agree with everything.
But if I have a son or a daughter who’s not behaving the way I like, what does it mean to love that child? Do I just say, “Hey, keep on doin’ the bad stuff?” No, but do I want to curse this kid and saying, “You’ll never amount to anything. You’re a bum. You’ve always been this way. You’re just like your mother.” Or “You’re just like your father.” That’s to curse, rather than to love. That’s to judge and through judgment to cur.
And so, to love is to call someone higher. So, to love your country doesn’t mean to agree with all the bad stuff, but it means to praise if for the good stuff. When you praise a kid for what he does well or what she does well, you’re calling them higher. You’re saying that, at the bottom of everything, I love you. I want you to be better.
I think that in this country something happened around the ‘40’s [that] this narrative took hold that I’m always gonna be, you know, kind of nagging, negative. I’m gonna focus on that. I’m never gonna praise because if I praise, that means I agree with all the bad stuff. I agree with Vietnam and I agree with every bad thing. No, no, no.
We have to have a healthy view of what does it mean to love your country. And if we do not love our country, we kill our country, just like a kid. If you refuse to praise the kid, you’re so mad at that kid that you will never praise him, you will never look at him, you will never say, “You did a good thing because I don’t want you to ever forget all the bad stuff you did,” if you do that, we know that, that cripples the soul of that kid.
Eric: I would argue that we have done that, that the larger culture has done that to this nation, that if you do not celebrate what is good and beautiful, true in America, first of all, you’re telling a lie, because those things happened and they need to be celebrated. But secondly, you’re limiting America. You’re basically destroying America. Even though you claim you’re not, you’re destroying it. And I think that, that is what is happening, that the voices in the culture that want to focus on how, oh, everybody’s racist and we haven’t dealt with this and we haven’t dealt with this. We have always had problems, but I would say to our credit as a nation, we have always tried to get it right.
And when you start saying, it’s not good enough, it’s not good enough, it really is like telling a kid, “You’ll never be good enough. You’ll never be good enough.” You crush that kid and that kid eventually says, “Well, you know what? I’m not gonna even try anymore.”
I really think that there’s a lot to celebrate in America and by the way, if you don’t teach kids what is great about this country, they really can’t even know who we are as a people.
Eric: We have done great things in the world and I would argue, as I said earlier, that the greatest thing about America is, that we have been a nation for others. It’s a Christian idea. Bonhoeffer said, “Jesus is the Man for others.”
We want to help the whole world. We have been generous in all kinds of ways with blood and treasure, but even with trying to export our ideas of liberty, we don’t say, “This is our idea.” We love to bring economic freedom and religious freedom all around the world. But if we’re not taking care of it, keeping it, you know, here, then we don’t have any to give away.
Jim: That’s so true.
Eric: And I really think it’s important.
Jim: You know, one of the tough questions, Eric, and I’ve talked with African-American leaders in this country about this. You know, when you look at the Founding Fathers, they didn’t deal with slavery at that moment. And there’s a deep wound in that community that they didn’t eradicate slavery.
Eric: Yeah and that is very real, absolutely.
Jim: But I would suggest, interestingly enough and you know, somebody will jump on that say, “Well, that was culturally acceptable. It was the economic engine,” all those things to try to justify it. But I would also suggest that they at least created the framework that over time and that’s hard, but it would be remedied. Do you think they understood that the Constitution would eventually bring freedom.
Eric: Some of them did; some of them definitely did and some of them didn’t. I mean, again, this is one of these things that it’s so complicated, you know, you can talk on one side of it or on the other side of it. I think you have to talk on both sides of it.
Sin is sin. I mean, slavery is sin. But when you look at it historically, the entire world was filled with slavery until the 19th century. I mean, Wilberforce abolished in 1833 in Great Britain. It’s not like America was the only place in the world with it. This has existed all over the world and 19th century humanity finally battles for this.
So, it’s very easy to say, “Oh, George Washington’s a hypocrite and Jefferson’s a hypocrite” and whatever. Oh, by the way, you’re a hypocrite and I’m a hypocrite. If you’re a Christian, you understand you are not perfect. You get stuff wrong. So, easy for us to point the fingers. The fact of the matter is, that they did, as you just said, create a framework whereby we went to war and a half a million people bled to death to defeat slavery. I mean, God would prefer that we didn’t have to go that route, but we did. I mean, these are sins that needed to be repented of. But if we can’t ever celebrate that, I mean, isn’t there a time when you say, “Praise Jesus; we abolished slavery.”
It’s not like a foreign power came in and forced us to abolish slavery. We of our own accord, abolished slavery. We abolished Jim Crowe laws in America.If you can’t celebrate that, something’s wrong with you. You have to be able to celebrate the good stuff if you want the right to criticize the bad stuff.
Jim: Yeah, your parents were Greek immigrants into the country, came in.
Eric: Well, my dad came from Greece and my mom came from Germany and today they are Americans.
Jim: And in that process, you were born here, raised in New York.
Jim: 9/11 happens. That had to be a profound moment for you, for your family. What does it mean now to be attacked in that way?
Jim: What were your thoughts on that day?
Eric: I actually write about that in the book because it was as a result of 9/11 that I fell in love with my country. I realized that I didn’t really love America because, listen I went to Yale and that whole world of academia. It’s kind of a liberal culture. It really teaches you that patriotism is something for, you know, hicks. It’s something for the past. We, we’re more mature and sophisticated and we don’t go, “Rah, rah! America’s great.”
And I think we carried that way, way, way too far. And I remember and again, I write about this in my book, If You Can Keep It, but there [were] some months after the attack [that] it was a very weird time in New York, a very somber time. And I was on a speed ferry going to New Jersey with my wife and our 2-year-old at the time to visit our in-laws.
And we passed the Statue of Liberty. And it was a glorious day and I looked at the Statue of Liberty and I suddenly got choked up. And for the first time in my life, I got choked up about my country and about the liberty. And I thought to myself, “Look at that statue, facing outward, welcoming the people that spat on our face, welcoming the whole world to come to our shores, as we can let them in, as we can afford to assimilate them.
We look outward and we say, “Give me your tired, your poor.” So, when people say we’re a nation of immigrants, that’s the whole point is, that we’ve always been outward focused and we have always said, no matter what, we’re not here for ourselves. But after this attack on 9/11, to see this status still standing, you know, like very close to where the attack happened, holding this, it just got to me. I just got choked up.
And it made me think that I have not loved my country and I have not appreciated what this country is. And I thought about my parents passing the Statue of Liberty. I write about that in the book, too, that when they were in their 20’s, my dad on a ship, my mom on another ship, they saw this statue and they didn’t go, “Oh, phew. That’s a nice idea. What a bunch of hypocrites.” No, no, no, they said, “Oh! Thank God I get to come to America. I get to have an opportunity. I get to raise my children as Americans.
And to have sons and grandchildren that will be Americans and that will live the American dream. I get to do that.” My parents passed that on to me and I think sometimes if you live in America, it’s easy for us to take it for granted. But at 9/11, it just hit me.
Jim: Well, and that’s powerful and that’s the way I think that kind of an event, as dark and as evil as that way, that is the silver lining that comes from that, to remember what we have.
Eric: At least it was for me and for a lot of people.
Jim: Eric, it’s been great to have you with us once again. Thank you for the biographies that you have written and the ones that you’re writing. It is a real encouragement for all of us, so thanks for the labor of love that you go through with each of those books and thank you for bein’ with us.
Eric: Well, it is truly my privilege. Thank you.
John: As you’ve heard today, you’ll be able to read some biographies and Nathan Hale included in Eric’s book, If You Can Keep It: The Forgotten Promise of American Liberty. It’s available for you at www.focusonthefamily.com/radio.
Now while you’re there, be sure to look at a special treat for your family. It’s a free download of our “Adventures in Odyssey” radio program. This is something you can do practically as a family. Listen to “The Day Independence Came,” which features the stories of Nathan Hale and Paul Revere.
Jim: That’s a good episode.
John: It is, yeah and you’ll get that. Again, it’s a free download and Eric’s book and other resources at www.focusonthefamily.com/radio.
Jim: Hey, John, let me also encourage people,get the resource through Focus on the Family. When you buy that resource through a for-profit company online, it just helps them, you know, profit. The dollars that come into Focus when you buy a resource helps to save a marriage, save a baby’s life. I hope you’d be encouraged by that and when you purchase a resource, all of the dollars that come in above the cost of the resource go right back into ministry. So, I would hope that you would do that. I know it might be easier, just one click that thing you’ve set up for the discount and all. But I challenge you to think about supporting the ministry and letting your dollars work for the Lord.
John: And that’s a great reminder, Jim and we do have exclusives like that free download of the “Adventures in Odyssey” drama and other programs with Eric, as well, all at www.focusonthefamily.com/radio.
Well, on behalf of Jim Daly and the entire team here, thanks for listening. I’m John Fuller, inviting you back next time, as we once again, help you and your family thrive.
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Eric MetaxasView Bio
Eric Metaxas is a New York Times best-selling author of numerous books including the award-winning biography Bonhoeffer which has sold more than 800,000 copies and has been translated into 19 languages. A prolific writer, Eric has authored essays, poetry, op-ed articles, book and movie reviews and more than 30 children's books. He is also a public speaker and host of the Eric Metaxas Show, a nationally syndicated radio program heard around the U.S. Eric can also be heard on Chuck Colson's Breakpoint radio commentary that's broadcast on 1,400 radio outlets with an audience of eight million listeners. He resides in Manhattan with his wife and daughter. Learn more about Eric by visiting his website, www.ericmetaxas.com.