August 3, 2012
By Byron Borger
A Free People’s Suicide: Sustainable Freedom and the American Future by Os Guinness (IVP)
Friends of the Center for Public Justice should recognize the name Os Guinness, as he is one of the most esteemed thinkers and eloquent writers working today, famous for his book The Call.
Now, Guinness has given us a new book that some consider his most urgent work, a magnum opus from a “resident alien” extolling the genius of the American experiment and the ideas of the founders and framers.
The China-born, Oxford-educated, Irish-blooded evangelical leader has been lecturing for decades about the American project. Through his prodigious global speaking schedule (among Christian thought leaders and others in the corporate, university and political spheres), Guinness has honed his arguments and advanced his thesis: Those of us living with the exceptional benefits of the U.S. Constitution must be ever vigilant to sustain those freedoms. Authentic democracies are difficult to develop and harder to sustain. This was commonly noted throughout the colonial period, and it is a message that must be voiced in our own serious times.
This book includes an informative overview of the philosophies of the framers and a sweeping bit of robust civic education. Amidst our “crisis of cultural authority,” we must recover the foundations of our political culture, and this is perhaps the finest rumination on these important ideas and arguments that I have seen. From Locke to Adams, Madison to Lincoln and beyond, the best thinkers of the ages are held up for our consideration. Further, Guinness skillfully draws on insights from the best of the Western tradition (Cicero, Augustine, Aquinas, de Tocqueville, Kuyper, Marx, Camus and so many more) to convict us of the urgency of working intentionally to affirm and deepen the principles of our Republic.
Space does not permit a thorough-going discussion of this extraordinary work, but know this: Guinness insists that we ponder and act on what he has called a “triangle of freedom.” For freedom to be sustained, citizens must have the habits of heart that cherish and practice generous freedom. The best soil for these needed cultural habits is religion (see de Tocqueville, of course). Ironically, religious character itself is sometimes eroded in a culture that takes freedom for granted, so the whole construct is precipitous. It can be summarized like this: Sustaining freedom requires virtue, and virtue requires the robust practice of religion, which requires freedom. Yet, as we can easily see, as freedom expands and our cultural success widens, new values militate against religion. The once-sober character of a people no longer bound by tradition and piety may be deformed, and the very ethos that enables strong civic virtue withers. In an earlier book, The Gravedigger File (recently reissued as The Last Christian On Earth), Guinness cleverly warned how evangelical Christians might, through certain streaks of success, dig their own graves. Here, with similarly astute sociological awareness, he shows how the very successes of liberty could be the basis of a drift away from our democratic structures.
Guinness is a master of finding the right quote to make a point, of citing a key thinker to illustrate important truths; he is a great teacher, and this book is quite useful. A Free People’s Suicide offers a reminder of the best thinking about our grand experiment, a call (as Jefferson nearly put it) to keep the revolution alive. He exposes the warning signs of drift and outlines the stages and phases of renewal. He points us to strategies and steps to take to revitalize our democratic conversations and, despite great concerns, remains hopeful.
In a post-modern world of hype and spin with precious little consideration given to the deepest meaning of pluralism and the common good, it is not evident that we are going to easily sustain the American future. Is the title of this provocative book alarmist? Is it a bit extreme? Capital Commentary readers will have to read it for themselves, but I am convinced it is urgent and vital. Serious political theorists such as Jean Bethke Elshtain and Michael Cromartie have commended it. Eric Metaxas remarks, “Sometimes a book is so important and so timely that not to have read it is to embarrass oneself. This is such a book.” He continues, “If you are serious about America, be familiar with its themes and expect to discuss them…its clarion call is both piercing and full of hope.”
—Byron Borger runs Hearts & Minds Books. Capital Commentary readers can get a 20% discount on this book by ordering through Hearts & Minds.