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Defending Religious Liberty: An Interview with Eric Metaxas

Eric Metaxas is a popular author and speaker. He is the author of the New York Times #1 bestseller, Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy, which was named "Book of the Year" by the Evangelical Christian Publishers Association. Bonhoeffer also won the 2011 John C. Pollock Award for Biography awarded by Beeson Divinity School and a 2011 Christopher Award in the Non-fiction category. Metaxas was the keynote speaker at the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington DC this year. He is also the author of Amazing Grace: William Wilberforce and the Heroic Campaign to End Slavery and Everything You Always Wanted to Know About God among others. Metaxas, who delivered one of the evening talks at Acton University 2012, recently spoke with Religion & Liberty's managing editor Ray Nothstine.

R&L: What interested you in Dietrich Bonhoeffer and William Wilberforce?

Eric Metaxas: In the summer of 1988, I came to faith dramatically. That summer, the man who led me to Christ gave me a copy of The Cost of Discipleship by Bonhoeffer and said, "Have you ever heard of this guy?" He told me how he was a German pastor and theologian and got involved in the plot to kill Hitler.

I said, "What?" He told me because of his faith in Jesus, Bonhoeffer stood up for the Jews, and was killed in a concentration camp. I was stunned at this story. Because of his vibrant Christian faith, he stood against the Nazis. I was annoyed I had never heard it before. My mom is German and grew up in Germany during this time. I was amazed to hear that a German had done the right thing, because I have always been perplexed about what happened in Germany.

All my mom's family were there and lived through this dark time. And so, somehow Bonhoeffer answered some of those questions, that there were people doing the right thing. But why hadn't I heard those stories?

Many years later, somebody asked me if I would like to write a biography of William Wilberforce. I wrote the biography of Wilberforce and then people kept asking whom I would like to write about next. I thought if I were to write one other biography, because I'm not interested in writing biographies, but if I were to write one other, I think it would have to be about Bonhoeffer. Because in the same way that Wilberforce, because of his faith in Jesus, stood up for the slaves of Africa, Bonhoeffer stood up for the Jews of Europe. Both stories are picture of Christian heroism and courage that few people knew about.

You believe Bonhoeffer was shaped by a natural law ethic. Why is that important today?

Bonhoeffer was asking that question as a Lutheran minister and he saw in the Catholic natural law tradition that there was something from which he could draw upon. He was intellectually confident enough and open minded enough to explore that. And that was, to some extent, intellectually courageous for him to do. He was primarily concerned with what is true. And if the Catholics have something that could have helped him figure it out, then of course he wanted to explore that. That is what makes him delightful as a thinker.

Why is Christianity so central to our freedoms today?

For good or for ill, the Christian faith is the one faith, more than any other that encourages intellectual and religious freedom. True Christians throughout history have stood in the vanguard, protecting the religious liberty, not just of Christians, but of non-Christians too. That is not something that we can ignore. We can always caricaturize Christianity, but here I'm speaking of true Christianity, and the tradition of true Christianity has always been that true Christians have understood the idea of freedom of conscience, have understood the idea that actual faith is something that's between an individual and God, and this is something that must be safeguarded and you cannot force it. If you understand this fundamentally Christian idea that faith can't be forced, then you understand that you have to protect it, that you have to allow people to freely choose what they will believe in and will not believe in. This is central to the Christian project. It is also the genius of the American experiment and we as a nation have understood this from the beginning. This is not something that is natural. This is something that we have to fight for and guard. When I say natural, I mean in the fallen order, it is not natural. It is something that we have to recognize and have to fight for, and it is a fragile thing. It needs protection.

There is a lot of debate right now about the role of the state – some would say the over-reach of the state – especially on this issue of religious liberty. What lessons did Bonhoeffer, or even Wilberforce, offer to us?

Well, both of them offer valuable lessons, Bonhoeffer more than Wilberforce. What stands out with Wilberforce is the basic idea that here you have a man, a politician, a devout Christian, who sees that the state, with all of the power that it has, is using that power to crush human beings.

Wilberforce sees that there is something in the English legal and government tradition that allows him to appeal to the Christian conscience of the nation to say that we must do something about the state operating for evil ends. What a beautiful thing that he was able to convince people to rise to the better angels of their nature and to do the right thing. However, it took doing something and it took a great effort.

In the case of Bonhoeffer, it is similar but even more dramatic. You have a state that is not just doing evil, but also consciously doing evil. The parallels to today with Bonhoeffer are unfortunately, dramatic. Bonhoeffer's ability to see the threat is what makes him a prophetic and an important figure. Almost no one saw what Bonhoeffer saw. What he saw was real. Somehow others were not seeing it and it fell on him to try to get others to see it and point out the evil. He was trying to wake his fellow citizens up to see that these threats were threats to everyone, not just to the few people who were specifically threatened, in this case the Jews, but to all. When the state uses its power to oppress an individual or to decimate an individual's freedom, every individual is threatened. The idea that a canny and powerful government almost instinctively looks to pick off minorities is frightening.

So in the case of the HHS Mandate, it is as if the Obama Administration is asking: how many divisions does the Pope have? Who are these hyper serious, ridiculous Catholics who care about contraception? The administration doesn't care about them. These faithful Catholics do not matter to the state. They act as if they don't need their support. They are probably not going to vote for us anyway, so we can pick them off, and we can confuse the theologically ignorant Catholic population and the Protestant population into thinking that this issue does not matter to them.

This is where we have to say no. The government is making a mistake, a terrible mistake which threatens America itself, not just religious freedom. We have to do what Bonhoeffer said is the role of the church. We have to hold the state accountable and say to the state, this is what it means to be a state and if you are not doing your job, we have to call you into account. We have to say that there is a line here and if you cross this line, you are over-stepping your legitimate bounds as the state. This is encroaching on things that are God's, that belong to the individual who has freedom of conscience, and they're making a terrible mistake. The church has to wake up and has to say that everyone needs to be concerned about religious freedom. In this case of the HHS Mandate, this is a minority that represents all of us, because this is one case where you may not agree, but what about the next thing that's going to come up? If we do not stand as one, we will certainly hang separately, to quote the founders.

At the National Prayer Breakfast, you talked about dead religion, which is the subject of your new book.What does the phrase "dead religion" mean to you?

Dead religion is the default mode of fallen human beings. Since the fall, mankind has tried to find a way to God that avoids God. We want to find a way to Heaven that avoids the cross. Dead religion is any religion, including bastardized counterfeit Christianity, of which there has always been plenty, in which we, through our own acts, can earn our way to Heaven.

Moreover, what that does is it inevitably sets up a pecking order where some of us are morally superior to others. That is not true Christianity. True Christianity is where we recognize we are fundamentally unable to get to Heaven, to connect with God. Therefore, we must humbly ask Him to come to us. We must ask Him to do what He wants to do, which is to bridge the gap between humanity and the divine. So dead religion is any time you have something that is counterfeit. I would say that which is counterfeit of God's real desire for us is opposed to humbling ourselves and asking Him to save us.

Why is a free economy important and what are a few ways proponents of a free market can strengthen their case?

I think that a free market is essential to other kinds of freedom. The two are inextricably intertwined. We must never forget that. People who are passionate about free markets better know that freedom of religion is fundamental and crucial to free markets. Likewise, people who are passionate about socially conservative issues ought to know that economic freedom is inextricably intertwined. You cannot separate one from the other. The enemies of either will try to divide the proponents of both and we will all lose.

What is the most effective way to reach people today?

For me, without a doubt, humor is a big part of how I communicate. That has a lot to do with how I am naturally, but I know that there is more to it. I think that honesty, transparency, and humor are a big part of that.

We have to be transparent and honest about what we know and what we don't know. It gets to the heart of what we were talking about with true religion and dead religion, which of course, I talked about in my National Prayer Breakfast speech. It's this idea that we want to fool people or fool God, and sometimes fool ourselves, with these fig leaves and God says, "No." You cannot fool me with a fig leaf. I see your nakedness, so admit your nakedness and your shortcomings, and I will feed you and I will fill you and I will cover you," as He covers Adam and Eve with the skins of animals that had to die. If we are honest, somehow God comes in and helps us. I think there's a temptation, as a speaker, to put on some kind of a front. This doesn't mean that we don't need to prepare or that we don't need to have something to say, but the point is that honesty is the best policy, as a speaker, to be transparent, to be clear and to enjoy that.

There is tremendous freedom in transparency and honesty. There is a great freedom, peace, and a joy that comes with that and I think the audience recognizes that. For me, that is paramount.

What concerns you most about our society today? What is America's biggest challenge?

America's biggest challenge is surviving. We are a fragile experiment and survival is in no way guaranteed. I think that some of the threats that we have seen recently, to who we are as a free people, are some of the most serious threats we have had in our nation's history.

Understanding who we are is central to being American . We are an idea. If American citizens do not understand what that idea is and don't buy into that idea, there is effectively no America. At that point, we become a cut flower society where everything looks fine, but it's only a matter of time before we vanish. Americans have to educate other Americans on who we are, what these ideals are, why they are exceptional, why they are important, why they are vital to the rest of the world. If we don't do that, if we do not know who we are and fight to maintain our identity, then we will inevitably cease to be. Suddenly these things are more serious than they have been in a long time and I would warn my fellow Americans to take these things seriously and to understand that our existence hangs in the balance. That is not overstating the case.