This is an important book; in fact I would go so far to say that this is the best and most important book I have read this year. I would encourage all Americans to read this, and even for American parents to get their high-school-age children to read it. It’s actually...See more
This is an important book; in fact I would go so far to say that this is the best and most important book I have read this year. I would encourage all Americans to read this, and even for American parents to get their high-school-age children to read it. It’s actually remarkably easy reading, and I will be reading it again very soon. “If You Can Keep It,” is sub-titled “The Forgotten Promise of American Liberty,” and it gets its title from an encounter at the close of the American Constitutional Convention in 1787, when Benjamin Franklin emerged from the arduous but yet successful negotiations to be confronted by a woman who asked him what kind of government they were getting – a monarchy or a republic? “A republic, madam, if you can keep it,” was the reply. His words carried both satisfaction and warning. And the bulk of this book is unpacking the reasons for both of these sentiments. We are so used to hearing that America is a government “of the people, by the people, and for the people” that the words don’t resonate the way they did at the Founding of the nation. The idea that people would actually govern themselves, and not be governed by others, was entirely new on the stage of history. Even ancient Greece, which introduced the idea of democracy, was not a true forebear of this experiment because those governments did not extend beyond the level of city-states, and by being sheer democracies could not guarantee liberty and justice for all, but only for the majority. The magnitude of Benjamin Franklin’s concern that from the outset, American liberty hung in the balance and could so easily be lost is far from obvious to us, as it was to Metaxas himself, until he learned as an adult the concept that was common currency at the time of the Founding, but in our day has all but disappeared from our conceptual frameworks and thus from our classrooms. This is the concept of “The Golden Triangle of Freedom, which goes like this: Freedom requires Virtue, Virtue requires Religion, and Religion requires Freedom.” You have a triangle with all three sides requiring the others to be sustained. If any one of them is lost or compromised, none of them can be sustained. Lest we think that this is nonsense, since we have freedom but have without harm jettisoned virtue and religion from the public square, we need to be reminded that freedom as understood by the Founders, is not licence. It is not the ability to do whatever you want, but the ability to do what you ought. If America really does require this “Golden Triangle of Freedom,” and if Freedom, Virtue, and Religion are nowhere to be found in contemporary culture, at least in the public square, then Metaxas is right to sound the alarm that America is in trouble. He reminds us that America and the ideals it embodies are not just for the benefit of Americans, but are for the benefit of the world. And so if they are lost, and America fundamentally changes into something unrecognizable to the Founders, everybody loses. It has become fashionable in the last fifty or so years to become critical of America while portraying patriotism as unsophisticated jingoism. But acknowledgement of America’s shortcomings, Metaxas argues, does not require viewing the country as irredeemable. And love of country need not, and indeed ought not, be uncritical. To love the good in someone encourages the object of that love to strive to be better. And to love the good in America encourages her to repent of her sins and strive harder to live up to her founding ideals. In America we have a republic if we can keep it. It is worth preserving, correcting, loving, and nurturing. It’s future hangs in the balance but Metaxas exudes the confidence that one by one, her citizens can recover the vision of Washington, Franklin, and the other Founders who left such a treasure as a trust to future generations.