Only a Virtuous Nation is Capable of True Freedom
“If we do not love America and teach our children to love America – as God loves her – we can never love the world beyond our shores and can never teach our children to do the same.”
Some days, it’s easy to become disheartened, to lose hope for America’s future.
Eric Metaxas, author of Miracles and biographies of Dietrich Bonhoeffer and William Wilberforce, has written a book, If You Can Keep It: The Forgotten Promise of American Liberty. The title comes from the eyewitness account of a delegate to the Constitutional Convention, held in 1787 in what is now Philadelphia’s Independence Hall. As Benjamin Franklin emerged from the building on the last day he was accosted by a woman who wanted to know the outcome. “Well, doctor,” she asked him, “what have we got? A republic or a monarchy?” Franklin shot back, “A republic, madam – if you can keep it.”
In a letter to friends before the start of the Constitutional Convention Franklin wrote that “Only a virtuous people are capable of freedom.” And as if by explanation he went on to add this: “As nations become corrupt and vicious they have more need of masters.” Metaxas points out that the word “vicious” literally means “full of vice.”
The founding fathers knew that the freedom intrinsic to our democracy depended on the virtue of its citizens, and that virtue depended on faith. President John Adams wrote this on the subject: “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.” As Metaxas puts it, “That he wrote these words in his official capacity as U.S. president is itself remarkable to our modern sensibilities.”
Metaxas argues that “We the People” must work to keep America sound, and part of that work is relearning how to love our country. Starting in the 1960’s in the aftermath of Vietnam and the divisions it created, there was a lot of focus on the negatives about America, causing us to split into two camps. “One side seemed only to be able to see the bad things America had done, and seemed to have become enamored of the negative narrative that cast us as the great villain on the world stage; and the other side seemed only to be able to 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.”
Metaxas believes that we need to recognize both the good and bad about America. We need to acknowledge the sin of slavery and continuing racial injustice, along with the heroism of America’s soldiers in World War II and the firefighters who gave their lives running into the burning twin towers on September 11, 2001.
He also believes we must love our country, not in a jingoistic or nationalistic way, but in a way that embodies America’s original intentions. We can start by telling what he calls our “darker truths,” but without hopelessness and cynicism. We can seek out hopefulness about America in the arts, in poems such as “Paul Revere’s Ride,” paintings like Washington Crossing the Delaware, in sculptures like the Iwo Jima statue in Washington, D.C., and in films like Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. We can celebrate holidays like July 4th, Memorial Day and Thanksgiving in ways that incorporate their true meaning.
Metaxas writes that as people of faith we are called to love what is good, true and beautiful about America. “If we do not love America and teach our children to love America – as God loves her – we can never love the world beyond our shores and can never teach our children to do the same. And that, precisely, is our promise. That is the promise of America. It is why we came into existence and it is why we have flourished and why we must continue to do so.”
A version of this story originally appeared at the Register on July 12, 2016.