We had the honor of attending our son’s graduation from Hillsdale College last week on a picture-perfect May day with chairs lined up in tight rows on the east lawn of the beautiful campus. In addition to the joy of watching our eldest son walk across the stage to receive his diploma, we were blessed to hear the insightful commencement address from author Eric Metaxas. In addition to sharing stories from his youth and his faith journey, Metaxas, author of Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy, discussed at length the connection between faith, virtue, and freedom. You’ll find the video of the speech at the end of this post.
Here are ten incisive quotes from Metaxas’ address, “The Role of Faith in the Story of Liberty”:
1. Real faith is never something that can be forced by the state.
Real faith is never something that can be forced by the state. It’s something that either be encouraged and smiled upon or discouraged and frowned-upon. Or, simply crushed, as it has been in every Communist country…Religious freedom, which was at the very heart of the Founders’ vision for America, cannot be compromised without all our liberties being compromised and America as we know her being redefined into non-existence.
2. Just as the state must not pick winners in the economic sphere, it must not pick winners in the sphere of religion.
[The Founders] said the government must not establish a religion. This did not mean the government was anti-religion — on the contrary, they wished to protect religion from all state intervention. And just as the state must not pick winners in the economic sphere, it must not pick winners in the sphere of religion. It must keep back and let the people decide and let the free market of ideas do its work. The people would decide with no help or hindrance from the government, thank you very much.
3. They have “freedom of worship” in China and it is meaningless and it is vile.
[The Founders] talked also about the free exercise of religion. So let anyone using those weasel words “freedom of worship” know, they have “freedom of worship” in China and it is meaningless and it is vile. “Freedom of worship” says you may do what you like in that building on Sunday mornings or whenever you like, but when you come out you will bow to the secular orthodoxy of the state. That is the antithesis of what the Founders meant in guaranteeing “freedom of religion.” They knew that a robust exercise of religion was necessary for America to survive. That people exercising their religious convictions was vital to the success of this fragile experiment in liberty called America.
4. Religion is the most fragile of all freedoms because it is the most threatening to those in power.
On Os Guinness’ golden triangle of freedom:
So how are the people to govern themselves if they have no virtue? If we have no virtue, won’t we just vote to line our own pockets and elect people who will give us what we want? What about actual stealing? Isn’t it obvious that the more virtuous a people is, the fewer policemen we need? Virtuous people police themselves. Even the Constitution is not sufficient by itself. We need self-governing people…virtuous citizens who govern themselves because they believe it is the right thing to do and so they do it freely…
…Virtue requires religion. Well, certainly not always. There are people who are religious and corrupt, many who have no religion and who are virtuous. But generally speaking, those who acknowledge a higher power and the laws of that higher power tend to be more virtuous than those who do not — than those who believe they themselves can make whatever laws they like and are beholden to no one…
…Religion requires freedom. How then does religion require freedom? Well this is the simplest of all to understand. Today we need only consdier the Middle East or, God help them, North Korea. Religion is the most fragile of all freedoms. And that’s because it is the most threatening to those in power.
5. State power fears those who wish to exercise their faith.
Hitler despised the Christians in Germany who actually wanted to live out their faith. Those who merely went to church and kept their faith to themselves were no threat. But Bonhoeffer and Niemoller and all those who took their faith seriously were a tremendous threat and he knew it. State power fears those who wish to exercise their faith. And let me add that if one is not exercising one’s faith, perhaps that’s because one actually has none. When faith becomes a private thing, a thing that is not lived out in action, it is no faith at all. And the Founders knew this. Religious liberty and the free exercise of faith was at the heart of the American experiment and we’ve had so much religious freedom in this nation that we’ve really forgotten what it is, just as the fish hardly knows what water is. It has been everywhere, and in such great abundance, that we’ve taken it for granted.
6. The market will give us what we want, not what is good for us, unless what we want is what is good for us.
A free market is, of course, indispensable to true liberty. But to those who suppose it’s sufficient, let me remind you that the invisible hand of the market gives consumers what they want. And if they’re not virtuous and consumers merely want better and cheaper pornography and drugs, that is what the market will deliver. The market will give us what we want, not what is good for us, unless what we want is what is good for us. And for that, one requires a virtuous people.
7. Democracy and liberty can only flourish when virtue has been inculcated into the people.
And what about democracy and free elections? Of course, this is also indispensable to true liberty. But any idea that this can exist apart from these other things [virtue and faith] — any idea that freedom is innate — is naive. I won’t tell you what that idea has cost us in American blood and treasure. Democracy and liberty can only flourish when virtue has been inculcated into the people who vote when they are first prepared for that liberty as, by God’s grace, we were prepared in 1776.
8. For liberty to flourish, the church and faith must flourish or the whole thing falls from the sky like Icarus.
We must remember that [the Founders] instituted that famous wall of separation between church and state to protect the church from the interference of the state. For liberty to flourish, the church and faith must flourish or the whole thing falls from the sky like Icarus.
9. Lincoln understood that we were chosen by God to represent God and God’s purposes in history.
For a long time, for the time that we as a nation were ascending to greatness, the story we told ourselves was that we were uniquely chosen by God. Abraham Lincoln called us the “almost chosen people.” This was not a jingoistic Manifest Destiny variety of pride. No, it was a holy burden to be chosen to shine the light of liberty as a beacon to the whole world as a symbol of hope. Lincoln understood that we were chosen by God to represent God and God’s purposes in history and he was very explicit about that.
10. If we push God out of American public life we, in our silence and ignorance, will be complicit in extinguishing the hope of the world.
If we push God out of American public life, we — you and I — in our silence and ignorance will be complicit in extinguishing the hope of the world. If America forgets God we will kill what Lincoln called “the last, best hope of earth.” God forbid.