Bad Book: Religious Right ‘Historian’ Says An Evangelical Revival Is Needed To Save America

Here at Americans United, we often write about the Religious Right’s favorite phony historian, David Barton, because he so badly distorts American history. But Barton is not the only “scholar” popular with far-right fundamentalists. So we’d like to introduce you to Eric Metaxas, another prominent writer with a large Religious Right readership.

First, a little background on Metaxas: He is from New York City and has a degree from Yale University. He has spoken at far-right institutions like Jerry Falwell Jr.’s Liberty University and he is a lecturer at King’s College, a Christian liberal arts school in New York that was once headed by the controversial Dinesh D’Souza.

In 2011, he received an award from the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, a fundamentalist Catholic legal group that works to limit Americans’ access to contraceptives in the name of “religious freedom.” And in 2012, he spoke at the National Prayer Breakfast. During his remarks, he defended the Fellowship Foundation, a shadowy far-right Christian group that organizes the breakfast and ran the now-infamous “C Street House” for lawmakers in Washington, D.C.  

Despite what the Religious Right says, the Pilgrims were no model of religious tolerance.

Metaxas has written multiple books on a range of topics. These include theology: Miracles: What They Are, Why They Happen, and How They Can Change Your Life, as well as history, such as his popular biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a Lutheran pastor who was executed by Hitler in 1945 for his alleged knowledge of a failed plot to kill the Nazi dictator. (Bonhoeffer also worked as a spy for Germany’s secretive Abwehr intelligence agency).   

Metaxas’ latest history book is If You Can Keep It: The Forgotten Promise of American Liberty. And even though it’s climbing The New York Times Bestsellers list, it’s full of the usual bad history you get from the Religious Right. As noted by John Fea, a professor of American history at Messiah College in Pennsylvania, Metaxas “is flat-out wrong” in his ideas about life in colonial America. Indeed, Metaxas claims that, “since the Pilgrims came to our shores in 1620 religious freedom and religious tolerance have been the single most important principle of American life.”

While religious freedom is a noble principle that is deeply important in the United States, apparently Metaxas doesn’t know much about early American history. After all, the Puritans booted Roger Williams (founder of Rhode Island) from Massachusetts because he advocated for church-state separation and general religious tolerance. The Puritans also executed Mary Dyer, a Quaker, in 1660 because of her religious beliefs.   

“While several colonies embraced the kind of religious freedom Metaxas preaches, others, including Plymouth and Massachusetts Bay, held very different views of religious freedom,” Fea wrote in a piece for Religion News Service. “As I sarcastically tell my students, people who came to these colonies were ‘free’ to practice the religion of the Puritan settlers or else be removed from the colony, fined, imprisoned or, in a few cases, executed.”

From there, If You Can Keep It only gets worse. Fea said “Metaxas believes that the United States is an exceptional nation because it has been given a divine mission from God to shine like a ‘city on a hill’ in the sinful darkness of the rest of the world.”

While lots of people may debate whether or not the United States is exceptional, it can be said for certain that the United States was not set up to be an officially Christian nation. The 1797 Treaty of Tripoli, which was ratified by the U.S. Senate and signed by President John Adams, says so: “As the Government of the United States is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion….”

And yet, Metaxas doesn’t seem to care about facts. He says in his book that America can only be saved from its present period of decline by a revival of evangelical Christianity. I doubt that millions of Jews, Catholics, Hindus, Muslims, Buddhists, atheists, Pagans, humanists, Wiccans and other non-evangelicals who live in this country would share that sentiment. Plus, does Metaxas actually think that forcing everyone to share a narrow religious viewpoint will increase religious freedom?

Given Metaxas’ historical inaccuracies and bad ideas, Fea is not a fan of If You Can Keep It.

“Frankly, ‘If You Can Keep It’ is an intellectual mess,” Fea said. “Is this the best that so-called evangelical public intellectuals can do?”

It might not be the best evangelical intellectuals can do, but Metaxas and his allies have little interest in truth; they care only about spreading their radical agenda. Of course this sort of far-right propaganda is nothing new, which is why Americans United has been tracking the Religious Right – and debunking their claims – for many years. If you’d like to learn more, we have some great resources available.