When I was in college, Free Speech Alley was held every Wednesday from noon to 1:30 p.m. outside the student union. The space was literally an alley, but it was open and wide, with aggregate benches to sit and listen to (or talk about) virtually anything. It was a no-holds-barred kind of event, and I can remember David Duke speaking frequently – wearing his Nazi uniform and armband. The far left was also well represented, and in fact was far better represented than the right (this was the early 1970s, after all). Anything went, and usually did. Sometimes the discussion degenerated into screaming matches, but usually there was rather lively debate.
Vietnam, President Nixon, the environment, race, religion, the military draft, corporations, the need to protest something – any topic was allowed. As crazy as it could get, it did serve one purpose – most of us could figure out who was legitimate and who was a kook.
Today, the kind of speech that happened at Free Speech Alley back then would be shut down immediately by college administrations. The weekly event in no way resembled anything like a “safe space,” and the wild discussion that happened then would undoubtedly offend a multitude of groups and individuals today. We used to be citizens. Now we’re all victims.
Writer and radio show host Eric Metaxas is a hopeful man. He believes this republic we call America can be saved. And he believes Americans can find it within themselves to save it.
Metaxas is perhaps best known for his biographies of the German Lutheran pastor and Nazi victim Dietrich Bonhoeffer and William Wilberforce, the man who dedicated his life to ending the slave trade and slavery in Britain and its colonies. Metaxas also caused not a small amount of outrage when he posted this past summer an article on why Christians should vote for Donald Trump (a lot of Christians disagreed, not to mention non-Christians).
In If You Can Keep It: The Forgotten Promise of American Liberty, Metaxas makes his case for the idea of America. He describes where the idea came from, and includes an extended discussion of Great Awakening of the late 1730s and 1740s and the role played by George Whitefield and his friends Charles and John Wesley. He talks about venerating heroes and the heroic. He tells stories about George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and Nathan Hale. He considers Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem “The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere” – which few self-respecting poets would consider reading today (after all, it actually rhymes).
He makes a case – a solid one – for the “golden triangle of freedom:” freedom requires virtue; virtue requires faith; and faith requires freedom. Force faith into some tiny little box, reduce its influence, ridicule it (much like the British upper classes did during Wilberforce’s lifetime) – and you just may destroy freedom in the process.
He explains the need for moral leaders. He points out that America was the first country to be founded on the basis of an idea, and idea that has inspired the world for 239 years. He talks about the idea of American exceptionalism, and what it really means (and it’s something different from what we today from both the right and the left). And then he finishes with a discussion about how we citizens can love America – not in a blind, “my country right or wrong” way, but in a loving way, including tough love.
And I should point out that he is not ignorant of the problems this country has and has often caused.
If You Can Keep It is about what we have lost, and what we can regain. Metaxas is a realist, but he is also an optimist. And he makes a good case for hope. If you believe this country and the idea of it is worth keeping, this is the book to read.
Top photograph by George Hodan via Public Domain Pictures. Used with permission.