Eric Metaxas: Bonhoeffer, Brexit & Backing Trump
Justin Brierley finds out why popular author and broadcaster Eric Metaxas is backing Donald Trump
Eric Metaxas is dressed down in a T-shirt on the day I meet him. The trademark round-rimmed spectacles are firmly in place, but he has forgone his usual outfit: a suit with a pocket handkerchief.
I am similarly attired, as New York, where Metaxas lives and works, is experiencing an unprecedented summer heatwave. The air-conditioned studio on Wall Street in downtown Manhattan – where he records his daily show, syndicated nationally across 300 Christian radio stations – provides welcome relief from the blistering heat outside.
THAT’S THE NATURE OF TRUTH. IT’S WILD AND ALL OVER THE PLACE
This radio role is fairly new. Until recently, Metaxas was primarily known as the witty and intellectual evangelical author of popular William Wilberforce and Dietrich Bonhoeffer biographies. His Socrates in the City events in New York and Oxford, during which he interviews Christian thinkers, have also reached many people.
Yet Metaxas’ interests lie beyond the purely highbrow. His past writing credits include children’s books and scripts for Christian cartoon series Veggie Tales. He also enjoys exploring the experiential dimension of faith alongside the intellectual. His conversion took place when he was 25 and was sparked by an extraordinary dream; a story he tells alongside many other supernatural accounts in his 2015 book, Miracles (Hodder & Stoughton).
Commencing his weekday radio show 18 months ago has given him a fresh outlet for his funny side. The guests he interviews are diverse, but the listeners keep coming back for Metaxas’ gregarious personality and engaging style.
The author’s profile reached a new peak in 2012 when he gave the opening address at the National Prayer Breakfast with President Obama seated next to him. Obama’s policies on abortion and religious liberty had long been anathema to many evangelicals, including Metaxas. That he was able to make Obama laugh while delivering pointed criticisms of the president’s administration is a testament to Metaxas’ rhetorical ability (whatever you make of his politics). He even made sure the POTUS left with a copy of his Bonhoeffer work in hand.
The title of Metaxas’ latest book, If You Can Keep It (Viking), is a reference to Benjamin Franklin’s response to a woman who asked him, as he left the Constitutional Convention in 1787, “Dr Franklin, what have you given us, a monarchy or a republic?” He answered, “A republic, madam, if you can keep it.”
Metaxas fervently believes that America is on the edge of losing that ability to govern itself unless it returns to the common values of freedom and liberty on which the republic was founded. He admits that the current
presidential race represents a “terrible choice”, but he has (along with a handful of other high-profile US evangelicals) chosen to publicly back Trump, believing Clinton will send America teetering over the edge of the precipice.
He acknowledges that it is a messy business and one for which he has drawn criticism, (Metaxas stridently criticised Trump during the nomination process) but, like so many of his evangelical contemporaries, Metaxas believes that loyalty to his country, and the Christian values it was founded upon, means that compromises have to be made for the greater good. Religion and politics are a combustible mixture in the US, and for Metaxas and his fellow countrymen, this year’s election is proving to be no exception.
You grew up in a Christian family, didn’t you?
It was culturally Christian. Everybody who’s raised Greek is raised Greek Orthodox. I didn’t really learn about the faith. I didn’t learn much about the Bible. I didn’t learn how to pray. So when I got to college, I realised that I didn’t know what I believed. I couldn’t defend my faith, and so I really drifted away.
I never was anti-faith, but I was made uncomfortable by evangelical Christians. I thought, “They push it too far.” So I drifted into that neutral area where you basically say, “I don’t think we can really know what is real or what is not real.” But around my 25th birthday I had a rather dramatic conversion experience.
Three of Metaxas’ most popular books
Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy
In this New York Times best-selling biography, Metaxas gives a full account of Bonhoeffer’s heart-wrenching decision to leave the safe haven of America to return to Hitler’s Germany. It also sheds new light on the pastor’s involvement in the famous Valkyrie plot and “Operation 7”.
What They Are, Why They Happen, and How They Can Change Your Life
In this controversial book, Eric Metaxas offers compelling evidence in support of miracles. It is a thoughtful response to the books of New Atheists, such as Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and Sam Harris, who have asserted not only the impossibility of miracles and the supernatural, but the harmfulness of belief in them.
If You Can Keep It
If You Can Keep It is a review of America’s uniqueness and a call for the republic to return to the principles laid out by its founders. Metaxas explains that the US is not bound by ethnic identity or geography, but by a radical idea based on liberty and freedom for all, and that Americans must reconnect with this idea or risk losing the foundation of what made the US exceptional in the first place.
I had a dream, and it was just absolutely extraordinary. I’ve never experienced anything like it in my life. And in the dream, Jesus really makes himself known to me in a rather complex way that wouldn’t make sense to somebody else. If they peeked into my dream, they would have said, “That seems pretty kooky to me. What’s going on…?”
It was very specific to you…
It was, extremely. I say that God spoke to me in what I call the “secret vocabulary of my heart”. It was so extraordinary and I woke up and I thought, “That’s it, game over. What I was sure you could never know I now know, and now I am in the uncomfortable position of knowing this and having to defend it to all of my atheist and agnostic friends, who think I’ve probably lost my mind.”
You’ve been an advocate for the intellectual tradition within Christianity, but you also seem keen to promote the miraculous; the experiential side
I want to scramble people’s categories. I really believe that’s the nature of truth. It’s wild and all over the place, and I’m not going to fit into somebody’s box. I wrote my book Miracles and it made many Christians uncomfortable. I’ve met so many Christians who don’t believe the miraculous can happen today, and I thought, “Listen, I’m going to present these experiences, and make of them what you will.”
One of your best-known biographies was on Bonhoeffer. What attracted you to him?
The summer I came to faith, my friend gave me a copy of The Cost of Discipleship [SCM Press], Bonhoeffer’s most famous book, and he told me the story of this man who, because of his faith, spoke up for the Jews in Nazi Germany and got involved in the plot against Hitler.
I thought, “This is amazing! If this is what Christianity can be like, I’m interested.” So Bonhoeffer was one of the people who helped break down the barrier. If somebody can write this brilliantly and live his life with this much integrity because of his Christian faith, then it’s not the worst thing in the world. Let me look into this more.
IN THE UK, BREXIT WAS SUCH A BRAVE, EXTRAORDINARY THING
What lessons can Christians draw from Bonhoeffer, who obviously took a stand under a type of nationalism that is hard to imagine existing today in Europe?
Everything comes back in different forms. I would say, in fact, that the globalism of today is the parallel. People say, “Nationalism went wrong in the 30s, look what happened”, and so then we think we’ll be careful and we will never be nationalistic in that way again. Well, you can do other things that are just terrible. Globalism today seems to me, at least in the US, to partake of certain elements of fascism. But if you disagree with it, people say, “Shut up. Get with the programme.”
In the UK, the Brexit thing was such a brave, extraordinary thing because people are told, “You’ve got to go along with Brussels; it’s the future. And if you don’t get on board, you’ll be left behind.” And I think one of the things that Bonhoeffer teaches us is: beware of the direction everyone is going in. Everyone was crazy for National Socialism and if you defied the current thinking people looked at you as beyond the pale. And I think that we have to be brave enough to be willing to be beyond the pale.
Donald Trump has been making a lot of news on our side of the pond as well as yours…
Yes, it’s the craziest election ever in the history of the United States. There is nothing to compare it to, and that’s not a good thing. But I think it’s a sign of where we are as a nation.
I’ve been pilloried for this, but I’ve said that I think the real danger in America, without question, is the election of Hillary Clinton. People don’t seem to realise where we’re headed as a culture. Religious liberty is a big issue in America. We’ve always had a history of true toleration of people on various sides, but when you feel that you’re morally right, it’s very tempting to tell the other person, “Shut up. You’re wrong.”
People who may be against same-sex marriage are not just being told, “That’s not the fashionable way to think.” They’re being told, “You mustn’t share your thinking on that.” Hillary Clinton has been very clear that people of religious conviction ought not to have those convictions. Every American should be scared of that.
If I allow Hillary Clinton to get into office, I have to accept that I will lose my religious liberties and that America will become a different place.
We don’t tend to hear so much about the criticism of Clinton in the UK
The press in the US has always been very, very liberal, and so whatever Trump says (as bad as it is) will be magnified. But, Hillary Clinton has done things that I’m staggered that the press has not thrown at her. I mean, the level of corruption and cynicism is staggering. It makes Nixon look like a boy scout, and by giving it a pass they make her seem mainstream, but I don’t think she is.
THE REAL DANGER IN AMERICA, WITHOUT QUESTION, IS THE ELECTION OF HILLARY CLINTON
Are you saying Trump is the lesser of two evils?
I’ll say that. It is the lesser of two evils. Donald Trump is no George Washington, and I can speak for at least an hour on telling you what I think is not good about him, but I could speak for an hour and 20 minutes about Hillary Clinton.
Significant US evangelicals such as Wayne Grudem have made a moral case for voting for Donald Trump. But others have said, “However much you dislike Hillary, you should not be voting for someone as morally questionable as Trump.”
His morality doesn’t come into governance in the way that hers does. In other words, it’s not about private morality.
I think they would also point to some of his polices, like banning Muslims from entering the US
What fascinates me is how everyone takes him literally, and they don’t seem to understand that he has always spoken hyperbolically and impressionistically. That’s what he does. The idea that he is a racist or a xenophobe, I think that’s simply not true, but if you say something enough people believe it.
What about Trump’s rhetoric on Muslims and Mexicans?
If people think that he could bring xenophobic legislation into the United States of America, I just don’t believe that we would stand for it. I think what he is really talking about, which ought to be common sense, is that we’ve got to protect our borders.
This is not the European Union, we don’t have a situation with Mexico where people can come and go. We’re a sovereign nation and we have allowed tremendously negative things. The drug traffic alone would make any reasonable government say, “Hey, we’ve got to figure out who is coming and going. This is no longer any good.”
But people have made this such an emotional issue that they say, “We don’t ever want to exclude anyone.” That’s just ridiculous. You’re obliged to exclude people, because if somebody from England says, “I want to become a US citizen”, we make them jump through all kinds of hoops. We don’t just say, “Hey, come on in.”
Would you go as far as to say that Christians who vote for Hillary are actually voting against their own Christian principles?
Oh, absolutely! But you have to understand; Christians aren’t supposed to worry about themselves. We Christians are supposed to worry about others.
If Christians in America lose religious liberty, that will have a tremendous effect on the entire nation. Once you abrogate freedom of conscience and tell people that the state is going to tell you what you can and cannot do, and if it violates your faith, “Tough luck!” that is a new place and that is going to be a bad place for American liberty, and I think, at that point, it’s effectively game over for the United States of America. We become America in name only.
Whether Trump or Hilary, your latest book, If You Can Keep It, says the American people are forgetting the virtues their republic was founded upon
We are here now with this terrible choice, because for 40 or so years we’ve not kept the republic, which is why I wrote the book. This is not a left/right, conservative/ liberal divide; this is every American. This is the first nation in the history of the world that’s an idea – it’s not an ethnic group – and these ideas are vital ideas, and we want to share them, and we have shared them with the whole world.
In the Bible, people are always blessed to be a blessing. You’re not supposed to heap up your own blessings, and I feel that America, with all of its warts and tough spots, has generally been a country that has been tremendously blessed and that it has tried to bless others. It has helped others during times of adversity and war and earthquakes and so on. That has been who we are, and once we lose that outward focus, that sense that we want to bless others, we lose our blessing.
Hear the full interview with Eric Metaxas (@ ericmetaxas) on Premier Christian Radio on Saturday 1st October at 4pm. Or listen again at premierchristianradio.com/theprofile
In Premier Christianity magazine next month, Tony Campolo tells us why he’s backing Hillary Clinton