Conversations can haunt you. One that haunts me took place years ago in a park with a friend while our children played. He said that with the recent spat of political correctness he did not think it would be long until it was used against the Church in serious persecution. Shocked at the thought, I insisted that as long as we have the First Amendment, there was nothing to worry about. Call it the Ghost of Naivete Past.
Os Guinness’s A Free People’s Suicide: Sustainable Freedom and the American Future addresses exactly why my friend was right, I was wrong, and America is in trouble. I hate to admit all three.
By Os Guinness / Inter-varsity Press
Two things are worth mentioning about Os Guinness at the outset. First, Guinness freely admits that he writes as an outsider observing America. He is from Ireland but now lives in the United States. He quotes often from Alexis de Tocqueville and it is no stretch to say A Free People’s Suicide is in the same tradition. Second, Guinness is a Christian writer and philosopher but this is not a Christian book per se. He will land on some ideas that all Christians will readily accept but the book is intended for a larger audience.
Guinness begins by explaining why freedom must be sustained. Our vaunted Founders had the pluck to win and organize (second effort was better) the freedom they secured. But being mortal they could only sustain it during their lifetimes. After that, it’s up to each generation to maintain what they secured and organized.
What does it take to maintain liberty? More than an occasional oil change on your Jeep Liberty. It’s hard, uncomfortable, and widely misunderstood. And dangerous because it’s under attack.
Guinness brings back an understanding of freedom by defining what freedom meant to the Founders. The misunderstandings about liberty are staggering in a culture that prides itself on preserving, promoting, and protecting the very thing. But the arguments have slowly been shifted over a period of decades so that suddenly (or so it seems) people accept an incorrect premise. I suspect many people know something is wrong but cannot put their finger on what.
Case in point: what’s the first thing you think of when you think of freedom? Most people will immediately think of the right to do whatever they want. On the left it’s the ability to do as they please with their genitals and “reproductive freedom” (I call it killing defenseless unborn babies, but whatever). The right fights just as vigorously for keeping others from interfering with their guns and funds. Both argue on the basis of individual liberty. Both argue what Guinness calls “negative freedom.”
While negative freedom is important, it is only half of the equation. Negative freedom must be paired with positive freedom in order to work and, more importantly, to last. Guinness does us a tremendous service by reviving this more robust view of freedom. “Positive freedom is freedom for-in essence, freedom for excellence according to whatever vision and ideals define that excellence.” Genuine liberty goes well beyond stopping interference into allowing people to succeed or fail based on their own ambition and abilities. In other words, positive freedom is the freedom afforded by opportunity. That’s why the United States used to be called the “Land of Opportunity.” When is the last time you heard anyone say that?
Political correctness has attacked the very idea of opportunity for all to succeed or fail. We hand out trophies to everyone regardless of the outcome of the game because our kids are too small to fail. Businesses are too big to fail. The spectrum between is littered with a thousand examples where political correctness has stripped opportunity in the name of fairness and it’s terribly unfair to us all. It’s the opposite of liberty. Guinness convinced me of that.
Read through A Free People’s Suicide and you will wonder how do we get liberty back? What would it take for Americans to reject the bad medicine they have been spoon-fed for the last one hundred years to restore freedom? The answer lies in what Guinness calls the “Golden Triangle of Freedom.”
The Golden Triangle of Freedom is freedom, virtue, and faith. Each of the three depend on the others and they go around “like the recycling triangle, ad infinitum.” Take a look at those three things and ask yourself which of them is still celebrated in America? Once freedom is defined as the lack of any constraint, then virtue and faith become viewed as unnecessary personal constraints and are done away with as quickly as possible. So popular culture attacks virtue as old-fashioned and faith as blind. All the while it is freedom that is eroding away.
Here Guinness makes a point that both startled me and ultimately changed my mind. We conservatives are prone to thinking that the rule of law is there to protect liberty, thus our constant appeals to the Constitution. So what happens when someone violates the Constitution and usurps it? The answer is nothing. The Constitution is merely a piece of paper. Defense of liberty requires people willing to stand up for it. It takes men and women in each branch willing to work within the limits of their power. Without such men and women liberty is a mirage.
That’s what my friend was trying to tell me all along. I believed that the First Amendment would always be there to protect religious speech. It may always stand as a testament to the ideal but if men and women who do not agree with my worldview hold the reigns of power in the legislatures and executive offices of this fair land, it is entirely conceivable that they could vote to limit the freedom of religious speech in the name of “fairness” or “equality” or some other tyranny in freedom’s clothing. Stack the courts with people of similar persuasion and there really is no hope.
Guinness, though, does not allow his reader to despair. He rings the constant refrain “unless…” Hope is gone unless people can be shown the better way, shown from history how to avert this future. This is where my heart begins to beat again.
There is one hope for America. It starts with the faith leg of the Golden Triangle. To put it more bluntly than Guinness does, what America needs is revival, a complete and overwhelming return to God in our values and beliefs. Without revival America is in trouble as values erode. Most Americans do not know that revival has broken out in America almost every 50 years. By that standard we’re overdue. I’m not a numbers guy so I won’t read into the lack of revival in our day except to say that I wonder sometimes if God tarries in pouring out the Spirit because we do not ask Him for it (James 4:2). What are we afraid of? Losing our liberty to do as we please? Maybe. But I think that’s coming either way. And I’d rather be free to serve my Spirit-pricked conscience than bound to serve the Nanny State.
Guinness is absolutely spot on with a message Americans need to hear. Still, I disagreed with him on U.S. foreign policy and the way the United States was perceived during the Iraq war. I will always believe there were good reasons to go into Iraq and one day this will be understood more fully at which time “world opinion” (whatever that is) will be proven wrong. Guinness uses the war as an example of American hubris and as an illustration to prove that America can do better as an example of freedom to the world. That liberty cannot be imposed is obvious. Whether America’s presence in Iraq was for the purpose of imposing an American way or liberating others is still a matter of dispute. The historians will decide and let’s hope a conservative or two gets the upper hand.
Books can haunt you. A Free People’s Suicide is a challenging read that will stir you to think about America’s future and what role you might play in it. It’s worth every page if it wards off the Ghost of Naivety Future.