Book Highlights: If You Can Keep It, Eric Metaxas

This July 1st weekend Eric Metaxas visited our church and I thought I would add If You Can Keep It to my 4th of July reading list. Interestingly, I took this book with me on a trip to work with vendors in communist China. I have read some of his other books including Seven Men and the Secrets of their Greatness, Amazing Grace, and Bonhoeffer. Have you ever been around someone and just know that they are on another intellectual level and you have to work just to keep up with the conversation. Unfortunately, I run into this situation often and feel this way when around Eric. I have visited with Eric on a couple occasions as Eric is a co-founder of The New Canaan Society, which I also associate and years ago Julie brought him in to Houston as the Distinguished Speaker at Second Baptist School. Eric is a gifted in researcher and communicator. He brings to life the thoughts and lives of great men that have dared to stand up for truth and virtue in the face of cultural evil and great adversity. These men have positively influenced our history and culture and are worthy of study and admiration. Eric’s writing taps into their personality and core beliefs that drove them to change the course of history. Occasionally, I take the time after reading a book to write down some of the highlights so I can retain and share with others. The following is not a book summary, but are some of my highlights and notable thoughts from If You Can Keep It. Even if you don’t read all my notes, just taste a few of the noble thoughts that Eric extracts from our forefathers.

  • The Promise: “Nothing is more wonderful than the art of being free, but nothing is harder to learn how to use than freedom.” -Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America – Page 1
  • If we Americans cease to know that we are part of that group charged with the terrible and wonderful burden of keeping this glorious promise, the promise is already being broken and will soon be irrevocably so. So Franklin’s question is to you and me: Can we keep it? and How? – Page 11
  • Once it goes out, it goes out forever. If the flame given to us goes out, we will not only lose the light ourselves forever but will also lose the ability to pass it along to all those others who are waiting for it. That is what makes keeping it so important and the thought of letting it go out so terrible and tragic. – Page 14
  • America exists primarily not for itself but for others. This is a strange idea, and easily misunderstood, so we should take a moment to clarify what it means. – Page 21
  • We have to acknowledge that the United States has been remarkably and consistently generous in sharing what it has, whether material things or ideas. We really have demonstrated our belief in the idea that if we bless others, we will be blessed. It’s the “rising tide that lifts all boats” philosophy first popularized by John F. Kennedy. We’ve believed that if we help others it will come back to us, and we haven’t done this in a calculating way. There is something in the American cultural character that is simply like this, that believes this is the right way to conduct ourselves. – Page 23
  • If we have ever been great, it is only because we have been good. If we have ever been great, it is only because we have longed to help make others great too. That earnest humility and generosity must be attended to. – Page 25
  • True freedom must be an “ordered freedom,” at the center of which is what we call “self government”. So to be clear: People would not have freedom from government, but would have freedom from tyrannous government, or from government that might easily become tyrannous. The ordered freedom given to us by the founders was meant to enable the people to govern themselves. – Page 29
  • The first of the two things was simply the structure of the government. A view of mankind as fallen meant that a government must be created that took this into account and whose very structure limited the power of any one part, lest that power grow and take over, devolving into tyranny. It was an observable fact of history that everyone wanted power and more power. If people had not power they wanted to get it, and if someone had power he wanted to keep it – and if possible to get more of it. So the founders must create a government that somehow took this into account, that was structured so that this fallen and selfish human desire for power actually worked against itself. – Page 32
  • They knew that the religion was necessary to self government was not coerced but free. True religion must be free religion. This was something new, and this was what made possible the unprecedented experiment in liberty that came to be known as the United States of America. – Page 35
  • Freedom must have religion and religion must have freedom. One without the other was in fact neither. Freedom without religion would devolve into license or end in tyranny; and religion without freedom would really be only another expression of tyranny. The challenge was to combine them. Somehow. So yes, there was something called the social contract, where we each give up something to the community – surrender certain freedoms and pay taxes to a government so that the laws can be enforced. And yes, there was something called the law that would enforce the social contract. , and there was a document called the Constitution that would be the basis of those laws. But the founders understood that what they had in mind had to be much fore than these things. What was required was a virtuous people who were prepared to handle the great freedom being proposed….The founders understood that the more each person governed himself, the less there would be a need for strong government, and by their estimation the American people were ready. – Page 36
  • The “liberal” misunderstanding of American freedom, in short, is when freedom – or liberty – is confused with license. License to do anything at any time is not what the founders had in mind when they were talking about freedom.
  • The point is that there is so much that needs to be in place to make what we call freedom and self-government work that to simply tell someone he is free and bid him govern himself is like saying because of the Second Amendment we could hand out loaded guns to children. There are tremendous responsibilities that come with self-government…This idea that “democratic” voting is all that’s necessary for freedom and self-government has been demonstrated many times to be false. In Germany in the 1930s the people “freely” elected a government that would eventually do all it could to destroy their freedoms, using the “democratic” process along the way….voting purely for one’s self interest can work against freedom. Someone might want to vote for a person he knows as a friend, but what if he knows that the policies of his friend’s opponent would actually be better for the country? Or what if we know a candidate’s policies will help us personally but in the end will harm the country? Don’t we voters bear a serious responsibility to think about the whole country and and about its future? – Page 43-43
  • If the voter is not voluntarily selfless to some extent, and does not merely think of himself but of others; and if he does not think just about the present, but about the future, it all falls apart over time. Self-government will not work unless the citizens bear the responsibility to vote in such a way that continues their freedoms and their ability to have free elections, that continues their economic prosperity. They have to vote in a way that does not trade the future for the present. This “conservative” misunderstanding of freedom is closely linked to the false idea that the free market will by itself magically lead to all kinds of freedoms. – Page 44
  • And as I have said, the government cannot force us to be “good” or “moral” or “selfless.” The Constitution simply doesn’t have that power. But if being good and moral and selfless is necessary for our form of government to work properly over the long run, and if the founders understood that, how is it supposed to happen? – Page 45
  • If you take God and faith and morality out of the equation everything inevitably falls apart. – Page 48
  • The Golden Triangle of Freedom. “Liberty cannot be established without morality, nor without faith” – Alexis de Tocqueville – Page 51
  • The Golden Triangle of Freedom is, when reduced to its most basic form, that freedom requires virtue; virtue requires faith; and faith requires freedom. – Page 54
  • Not until I went into the churches of America and heard her pulpits aflame with righteousness did I understand the secret of her genius and power. America is great because she is good, and if America ever ceases to be good, she will cease to be great. – Tocqueville …..This was something about the culture of America, about Americans’ shared values. The difference was not in their genetic makeup, nor in their drinking water, bor even in their beliefs. It was in their behavior. – Page 59
  • “Upon my arrival in the United States the religious aspect of the country was the first thing that struck my attention; and the longer I stayed there, the more I perceived the great political consequences resulting from this new state of things. In France I had almost always seen the spirit of religion and the spirit of freedom marching in opposite directions. But in America I found they were intimately united and that they reigned in common over the same country. – Tocqueville – Page 63
  • He understood that the law could not force people to do what was right. …Where there is not human sovereign there must be another sovereign, and for Americans that sovereign was God himself, to whom they would voluntarily submit themselves. – Page 64
  • The Establishment Clause in the Constitution, expressing the idea that the national government cannot take sides with one church over another. This is an astonishing notion in the history of the world, that a state would not be directly or officially affiliated with a religious institution. – Page 71
  • The financial meltdown of 2008…So the Federal Government decided it would step in and use your taxpayer money to bail out certain select companies – but not bail out other companies. In other words, the government began deciding who could fail and who must win. It was a scary moment for America, this idea that the government, with all its power and resources, could begin to take sides in that way. – Page 74
  • Regarding George Whitefield (Scottish Evangelist)…It was this second trip to America that would forever alter the landscape of the New World, which in turn would affect the rest of the world. Because it would unite that scattering of peoples into a single people, one that together saw the world differently than any had before and that was prepared to depart from history in a way none had ever done. What would happen during this time in the thirteen colonies would begin the process of uniting them into something greater than the sum of their disparate parts, would begin the process of preparing them to become the United States of America. – Page 100
  • Whitefield’s message that people must choose to be “born again” and must accept their new identity in Christ. Because Presbyterians and Congregationalists and Quakers and Baptists and others all heard the same message and all were free to respond similarly, Americans were becoming united in the wake of his nonstop preaching. People were being offered a new identity that fit well with the American way of thinking. Some were German by background and some were French and some were English, but none of it mattered: They were all equal under God; they were all Americans. This was something new, and identity that was separate from one’s ethnicity or one’s denomination. To be an American meant to buy into a new set of ideas about one’s equal status in God’s eyes – and by dint of this to be accepted into a new community, to be an American. – Page 103
  • Church rolls swelled and those who had merely been filling the pews on Sunday suddenly understood why they were there. The Gospel came alive to them and they to it; and their common faith in God became the central animating force of the thirteen colonies that would in a few decades become the United States of America. William Cooper, a prominent Boston minister, hailed Whitefield as “the wonder of the age.” – Page 108
  • George Whitefield has been called the spiritual founding father of the United States. – Page 113
  • When we take the full measure of Whitefield’s role in creating what would become the United States, who can help but wonder whether our history is one in which 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? – Page 114
  • Unless we celebrate our common ideals and stories – and our common story – and unless we are unified in celebrating those things, we can never appreciate who we are and what we have. If we don’t feel the power of what has gone before, we will hardly be drawn to do our part in perpetuating American liberty. That’s what songs and poems and stories and paintings and sculptures can do. So already to the extent that we have ceased hearing and memorizing poems like Longfellow’s poem about Paul Revere, we have in some terrible sense ceased to be America. By drifting along for half a century as our common stories and heroes have faded or been pushed away, we have increasingly become America in name only. And we haven’t even realized it….America, that great and fragile experiment in liberty, has become cut off from its roots. We need to see this and we need to do all we can to remedy it, and quickly. – Page 132
  • We need leaders who themselves lover the country and the freedoms of this country more than they love themselves and their own careers or reputations or “legacies.” That is why when a leader is caught doing something ignoble, the most noble thing to do, typically, is to resign, knowing that in the scandal that will be dragged out if they don’t, the country will be adversely affected. – Page 153
  • And in a nation where a culture of virtue is crucial to the entire system of self-government, character in our leaders is no small thing. We may again recall John Adams’s statement that the Constitution cannot contain our untoward passions – that will break through the Constitution as easily “as a whale goes through a net.” So we need a culture of virtue, and our leaders have a vital role to play in that regard. – Page 154
  • “More states have perished because of a violation of their mores than because of a violation of their Laws.” …No matter what the parents might say with their mouths, it is their example more than anything that speaks to the child about how to behave. – Page 155
  • But far more important is the use of specific words and phrases like “reputation”, “patient virtue,” “dignity”, “glory”, and “sacred honor.”…What we see in George Washington here is a man who lives in a world in which virtue and honor are accepted as vital to the life they all wish to lead. – Page 165
  • Speaking of the time of William Wilberforce – There was open disregard and even active disdain for public and private morality in Great Britain. In a word, it was fashionable to be immoral, especially among the upper classes. Public drunkenness, en on the very floor of Parliament, was common. – Page 169
  • Wilberforce understood the idea that the law itself is a “teacher” and will lead people toward what it prescribes and away from what it prohibits. But he knew that a debased culture cannot be stemmed through legislation along. Indeed if one wishes to make certain laws, one must change the culture first, else those laws will never be passed. … Regarding Wilberforce’s fight against the slave trade in Britain…He must work outside the law, and within the culture, to change the law. In other words, unless he could create enough of a culture of virtue for people and their parliamentary representatives to want to vote against their immediate best interests and for the best interests of the people they wold never meet and the long term interests of the nation at large, the glimmerings of democracy in Britain would be worthless. – Page 173
  • If at any point in a republic of self-government the people begin to distrust their leaders as somehow corrupt or a more concerned with themselves than with those they serve, the whole skein of self-government begins to unravel and is fatally threatened. …In order for self-government to work, citizens must believe that the larger order to which they are giving themselves is essentially trustworthy and solid. – Page 176
  • As President Truman put it, “Being an American is more than a matter of where your parents came from. It is a belief that all men are created free and equal.” – Page 184
  • John Winthrop, Governor of the new Massachusetts Bay Colony…referring to Jesus’s statement from the Gospel of Matthew: “You are the light of the world. A city that is set on a hill cannot be hid.”
  • In Genesis Chapter 12, God speaks to Abraham about how he will use him to bring the nation of Israel into being, but he makes clear to Abraham that the point of it is that Israel will bless others beyond itself. It is less about Israel than about the God who chose Israel to be his vessel to reach the rest of the world. That is the great blessing and the terrible burden of being chosen by God. So far from being a selfish idea, it is the idea of living for others – of showing them a new way of living – that was a the heart of America. – Page 188
  • The glory of our existence is that we exist for others. It is at the heart of who we are and hope forever to be. – Page 189
  • We are not like others, and we may not judge ourselves as though we were like others. We 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. Reading Kennedy, we understand that we cannot dismiss this as a conservative idea resurrected by Reagan. – Page 193
  • Lincoln…It is there that he calls us God’s “almost chosen people,” a phrase that is a sparkling distillation of the ideas behind what we have called American exceptionalism. This is because it makes clear that Lincoln did not think America’s excceptionalism a mere accident of history. Indeed, a few lines earlier he makes it clear that he sees our special role in history much as John Winthrop saw it and as many min in th etwo centuries connecting them saw it: as nothing less than a holy calling. But this is the point. We were not called by God for ourselves but for the whole world. – Page 211
  • America was indeed great, but precisely because she did not merely exist for herself. She was exceptional because she pointed outward, beyond herself. Her place in history was always to reach beyond herself-and once she forgot this, she would cease to be America. In reminding the men of the New Jersey legislature of their common history, this is the point Lincoln was making. – Page 212
  • Lincoln felt that America had been called by God to fulfill a role and to perform a duty for the rest of the world. It was not something to be giddy about. Far from it. He understood that to be chosen by God-as the Jews had been chosen by God, and as the prophets had been chosen by God, and as the Messiah had been chosen by God- was something that was a profound and sacred and even terrifying obligation. One would not wish to be chosen, but one might nobly be willing to be chosen, despite the suffering that it would surely entail. – Page 213
  • For them it was God who had the idea in the first place and who had called America as a people to accomplish this task. It was for his purposes in history, to bless the whole world with the freedoms we had enjoyed. So the idea that America was to be a blessing to the rest of the world and to the future was inextricably intertwined with the God of the Bible, whom these people believed had led them to do what they were doing. – Page 214
  • And if we turn away from the moral law, we forfeit the blessings of God. …Lincoln new when he faced the crisis of the Civil War that what America was doing had everything to do with that moral law. Could we keep it and continue to be favored by God? – Page 217
  • Referencing a quote in Lincoln’s inaugural speech, “mystic chords of memory”. We cannot avoid it: Lincoln is talking about love of country. That’s what the appeal in his inaugural speech is about. It is about coming together as a people over those things that truly bind us together. Lincoln is saying that the love of country is necessary, that America cannot and will not survive without it. – Page 223
  • Ronald Reagan once said, “If we forget what we did, we won’t know who we are.” – Page 225
  • But the real problems arose when somehow we split into two camps over this and fell into a perpetual ideological battle. One side seemed only to be able to see the bad things America had done, and seemed to have become enamored with the negative narrative that cast us as the great villain on the wold stage; and the other side seemed only to be able so see the faults with that narrative, and seemed to have become enamored of the positive narrative that cast us as the great savior of the world. This perpetual ideological battle has become a dangerous thing for America and for the wold both. To truly love America, one must somehow see both sides simultaneously. – Page 226
  • The only question is whether, having seen both, we can repent of the one and rejoice and be inspired by the other. Or whether we will let one of them tempt us so far away from the other that we have a deeply distorted view. – Page 227
  • We must choose what we look at; and we must choose what we look beyond. But if our focus is on what is ugly and evil and dark, we will strangely strengthen the ugly and evil and dark. – Page 231
  • To love someone is to see the best in them and to act toward them as though they were that best. To call them higher. To treat them with respect and love is to call them to be worthy of that respect and that love. And we can say that to love someone is not to avoid seeing their flaws, but to avoid so focusing on them that the person gets a feeling of hopelessness about changing them. – Page 233
  • So those of us who have adopted a cynical view of this nation and who have a dour, negative view of it are doing our part in making sure that our negative view of America is what America becomes. Somehow, with our views and words and actions, we are guaranteeing that America does not become what she should. You might even say that when we do this we are cursing America, in our won way making sure she fail.s. Of course, this is the opposite of love and is wrong. It not only harms America but harms the world beyond America, which, as we have said, America exists to bless. On the other hand, those who in response to this negative attitude toward America swerve across the road into the ditch on the other side are equally wrong. To pretend that America can do no wrong is just like the parent who refuses to deal with the issues that are clearly problems in their child’s life. To so ignore them that one helps them to continue is also cursing that child, that country. Bot sides are not saying “God bless America” but are really calling on God to curse America, a country that Lincoln called “the best great hope of Earth.” – Page 234
  • God repeatedly instructs the Israelites to do things on certain dates and to create monuments, precisely so that they will never forget what they have experienced. He knows that if they remember these things it will be that much harder for them to stray, and so every year, among other things, Jews celebrate Passover, with many specific rituals about how and what to eat and what prayers to recite. Every culture must have rituals and in America we have a few, but even in celebrating them we often forget why we are celebrating them. ….Making every Fourth of July, or every Thanksgiving , or every Memorial Day, a day on which we specifically remember something historical about that day would be a way to begin. – Page 238
  • It’s the love of God, a love that loves even though it is not reciprocated. It is a love that simply gives and gives, and in so doing it breaks our hearts. We even saw it in the firefighters with their heavy gear, marching into the towers that morning, up and up and up as everyone else was racing down and out and away. It is a picture of goodness and it breaks our hearts every time. – Page 251
  • After all that had happened to America she was still there, saying: Welcome. We want you. You are why we are here. You are America. You who are not yet Americans. You are our future. Come. there she was, still standing and still holding out her torch. – Page 252

Thank you Eric for reminding us of who we are, how we got here, what was done for us, for sharing your story and for your work to pass the torch to the next generation. Join me in praying for our America and that we as citizens of this great nation will keep the promise that has been passed on to us. May God bless America.

The Pledge of Allegiance:
I pledge Allegiance to the flag
of the United States of America
and to the Republic for which it stands,
one nation under God, indivisible,
with Liberty and Justice for all.

The following video is from Eric’s sermon on his book If You Can Keep It to Second Baptist Church on Saturday July 1, 2019.

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