Interview: Os Guinness Warns of Loss of Freedom in America

Americans are failing to accomplish the important task of maintaining their freedom, Os Guinness argues in his new book, A Free People's Suicide: Sustainable Freedom and the American Future.

Guinness was born in China to medical missionaries and raised in England. He holds a doctorate degree from Oriel College, Oxford, has been a guest scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center for International Studies and the Brooking's Institution, and is the author of over 25 books.

In an interview with The Christian Post, Guinness talks about his new book, immigration, the role of religion in a free society, "ordered liberty," and why the tea party and Occupy Wall Street movements have more in common than you might think.

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The following is an edited transcript of that interview:

CP: What was your main purpose for writing this book?

Guinness: I think the deepest issue in America is the crisis of freedom. I'm a strong believer in St. Augustine's idea that you judge a nation by what it loves supremely. And there's no question that, over many centuries, what Americans love supremely is freedom. So I think you can judge the health of a nation by the health of freedoms today.

CP: Throughout the book you talk about "ordered liberty," which sounds a bit like an oxymoron. What do you mean by that?

Guinness: The greatest enemy of freedom is freedom. Now the reason for that paradox is that freedom requires an order, or a framework, and the only appropriate framework for freedom is self-restraint, and yet self-restraint is precisely what freedom undermines when it flourishes. You've really got to consider, what is ordered freedom -- in other words, a framework of freedom? Put differently, freedom is not just negative, freedom from, it is positive too, which means freedom to be or freedom for, but that means you need to know who you're supposed to be. So in a Christian understanding, Jesus says you will know the truth and the truth will set you free -- that is ordered freedom.

CP: Your argument, as I understand it, is that Americans have become complacent and taken their liberty for granted, and thus have not done the important work of sustaining their freedom. By and large, I can travel where I want, buy what I want, do what I want (especially in the privacy of my home). I don't feel like I'm losing my freedom. Why should I be concerned?

Guinness: Well, let's go back. The framers understood well that freedom in society never, ever lasts. Free societies don't have a good track record. So they studied the Greeks and the Romans -- Polybius, Cicero and others -- after a while freedom didn't last, and, they wanted to set up a system that could make freedom sustainable, possibly forever. But Americans have abandoned that system, and, I would say that modern American freedom, which is largely libertarian and negative, the freedom from only, is quite simply unsustainable. So you can see today in a lot of areas that you've got a radical relativism underlying a lot of things and it's creating social chaos in this country.

CP: Can you give an example?

Guinness: You have a relational chaos. You've got to the point now where any possible relationship is legitimate, so long as you have consenting adults. You can clearly see behind the so-called LBGT coalition, you can see people like polyamorists, polygamists, and even supporters of incest and sex with animals all lining up and saying, "we too." And there is literally no moral or legal grounds from which to deny that claim today, in a day when freedom has become so totally relativistic. The result of that, of course, would be extraordinary confusion in the harvest of social dysfunctions in the future.

CP: You write that the tea party movement and Occupy Wall Street movement are more similar than people realize and that they both speak to different aspects of the crisis you are talking about. Could you explain that?

Guinness: The tea party movement, dangering on things like the massive deficit, is really referring to the crisis of the republic, as the framers set it up. Whereas, the Occupy Wall Street movement, with its stress on the savage inequities between the rich and the poor, or the one-percenters and the 99 percenters, is focusing on the crisis of democracy. American democracy in the past has always been known for its large middle class and its relatively few very wealthy people and very few very poor people, but that is gone to today and the middle class is shrinking. You can see that the extremely wealthy are at a distance from most Americans like you've never seen in American history before. So I think both of the movements, with all their failures and flaws, are incredibly revealing.

CP: How would you expect your book to be received by the tea party movement or the Occupy Wall Street movement?

Guinness: I have no idea. But generally speaking, Americans seem to have lost an interest in what it was that made the great experiment so successful. Now the trouble is, the framers had their egregious blind spots, such as slavery and their treatment of women and Native Americans, so many people are ignorant about the framers and some people are opposed to them and they tend to throw out the baby, the bath water and all.

I would argue that, while the framers did have their blind spots, they certainly did, we need to acknowledge the brilliance of some of their ideas and their ideas about how freedom could be sustained are incredibly important. Now, they didn't give a name to it. I call it the golden triangle of freedom, but whatever you call it, Tocqueville calls it the "habits of the heart," it's something that desperately needs to be understood today.

CP: Could you explain the role of religion in that golden triangle?

Guinness: The triangle is this: freedom requires virtue, virtue requires faith of some sort, and faith of any sort requires freedom. And like the recycling triangle, it goes round and round -- freedom requires virtue which requires faith which requires freedom which requires virtue, and so on.

You can break down each of those three legs in great depth, as the framers did. For example, freedom requires virtue: virtue was one word that covers things like honesty, loyalty, patriotism, character, and in many ways their discussion was very profound, but we've ignored it. For example, the president said today, they often don't look for character they look for competence, and yet the framers said that character would be decisive.

Or you take the second leg, that virtue of any sort requires faith, the framers are very, very clear that the strongest inspiration, content and sanction for virtue comes from faiths, and, therefore, religion is very important. So they certainly granted freedom of conscience to atheists because they granted it to everyone. But they were not sanguine, for example if you read John Adams, about a society of atheists because they wouldn't have sufficient virtue.

CP: I know that publishers, not authors, choose titles. What do you think of the title? Do you think it's a good reflection of the mood of the book?

Guinness: On the contrary, in this case, I choose my titles and the publishers don't choose it at all. The title comes from Abraham Lincoln. It sounds negative whereas the book is much more hopeful. But even the full Lincoln quote is open-ended. Lincoln says, "As a nation of free men, either we should live free for all time, or die by suicide." In other words, strong, free people always bring themselves down. Americans will never be brought down by Nazis or the Soviets or Osama Bin Laden. Americans will bring America down, and that's the challenge of this book. As I put elsewhere, it's not the walls or the door, it's the termites in the floor -- internal problems will be the deepest crisis in America.

CP: If the message of the book were to resonate with most Americans, what would that look like? How would America change?

Guinness: There would have to be very practical changes. For example, the last chapter mentions some of these, such as the restoration of civic education. Take the American motto, E pluribus unum, that assumes and requires that Americans know, what is the unum? The unity that is achieved nationally by the fundamental first things that are true to all Americans, regardless of their cultural, religious or whatever, background.

But the trouble is, since the 1960s there's been a crisis of civic education. There's no unity being taught. As one scholar puts it, soon immigration will put more of a stamp on America than the Revolution. Or put it another way, in a free society it was always understood that everybody is born free, but not everyone is equal to freedom. They have to be educated for liberty. Liberal education, civic education, has collapsed. So that's one thing that has to be done, if we understand the framers. There's got to be a restoration of civic education at the heart of public schools and other places.

CP: I recently heard a talk by Professor Robert P. George. He said that one of the signs of American exceptionalism is the fact that immigrants can become true Americans in the fullest sense of the word, which is different than, say, an immigrant given citizenship in Greece, who would not be considered a true Greek. Do you agree?

Guinness: I don't think that's exceptional. As Niall Ferguson says, out of seventy-odd great civilizations, every single one of them has seen themselves as exceptional at times. I think the whole notion of exceptionalism is rather dubious.

Now, having said that, Robby George is rightly referring to the power of the melting pot and so on in the American past. So it's true to say that people coming from Europe or Asia shifted in terms of thinking in terms of families and groups to becoming individuals; they went from thinking of the past to thinking of the future; they went from a sense of the ties through blood to ties through beliefs. Those things were terribly important. But here's my point, we have a crisis of civic education. No one today is teaching what it means to be American. As Samuel Huntington says, it's relatively easy to get naturalization papers. That is, to become an American. It's increasingly difficult to know what it is to be American. So what Robby George said rightly about the past is not happening today, and that is a problem.

I'm European, as you know. I often go in front of groups -- universities, churches or business groups -- and say, "tell me what are the six first things, first principles, of the American experiment?" and very few people can say more than one or two.



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