Os Guinness: Religious Freedom Necessary for a World of Diversity, but America Is Squandering Its Heritage

In a world of people with deeply held differences on the subject of faith, an expansive view of religious freedom is needed to limit conflict and violence and foster human achievement, Os Guinness argues in his new book, The Global Public Square: Religious Freedom and the Making of a World Safe for Diversity. America's strong tradition of respecting freedom of conscience could lead the world in this endeavor, he told The Christian Post in a Friday interview, but Americans are squandering this heritage by failing to live up to the ideals of their Founders.

Guinness uses the term "soul freedom" to encompass many of the core freedoms explicit and implied in parts of the Bill of Rights, especially the First Amendment, such as freedom of religion, freedom of conscience, and freedom of expression.

"Soul freedom is the inviolable freedom of thought, conscience, religion and belief that alone does full justice to the dictates of our humanity," Guinness wrote. "As we shall see, it best expresses human dignity and agency; it promotes freedom and justice for all; it fosters healthy giving, caring, peaceful and stable societies; and it acts as a bulwark against the countless current abuses of power and the equally countless brutal oppressions of human dignity."

The following is an edited transcript of the interview.

CP: You are writing about how humans, with all their deeply held differences, can get along without having to injure or kill each other over those differences. Is that right?

Guinness: Well, as I see it, the challenge of living with our deep differences is a global challenge. When you take many of the grand issues, what underlies them is how on earth we are going to negotiate them and live with our differences.

But, the U.S. had what James Madison called the "true remedy." Now with 50 years of culture war [in the United States, America is] not only failing to provide a good solution for the world, it's almost squandering its own heritage. So, I'm trying to reaffirm the primacy of religious freedom and to help afresh a debate on this very, very important issue for the world.

CP: When you look around the world and see all the conflict going on today, is there a common source we can point to, or many sources?

Guinness: There are two principle sources around the world as a whole. One, state oppression, you think of countries like China and Iran and the way they are oppressing minorities, for instance, the Christians and Bahá'í in Iran. On the other hand, you have sectarian violence. You take Pakistan, Sunni and Shia in the Middle East, or Boko Haram against Christians and others in Nigeria. Those two challenges are the principal sources of the problem. But, again, this country used to have a better solution, and it's squandering it.

CP: You write about expanding this notion of "soul freedom" as a way for humans to live together despite holding deeply held differences. This is an idea for everyone, not just religious people, so an atheistic belief system would be protected too.

Guinness: Absolutely. Any worldview which people are convinced of by the dictates of their conscience should be protected as their human right.

CP: There was a recent debate in Congress over whether there should be atheist chaplains in the military. Would your view of soul freedom support that?

Guinness: Well, America has always had what I am calling soul freedom, freedom of conscience. And the issue for the Framers, for example John Adams discusses it, every atheist should have the right of freedom of conscience. Everyone, without any exception.

But, Adams is very chary of a government of atheists, or a society of atheists. The question is, could atheism be sufficient grounding for the virtue that was needed to guarantee the freedom of the republic?

So, freedom of conscience? Absolutely. But does that mean we think they can produce a secular society? Well, if you look at history since John Adams, where have we seen secular societies? Most of them have been totalitarian with an incredibly poor record of treating human dignity and justice and so on. So, so far, there has been no broad, secularist society that has been humane and just and free, and that is the challenge to our secularist friends. Can they do it? I doubt it. But, they certainly have the right of freedom of conscience.

CP: Atheist chaplains?

Guinness: Why would they want atheist chaplains? They're almost mimicking religious believers there. The atheists I know don't want chaplains.

CP: When we think about the loss of religious freedoms in the U.S., versus the loss of religious freedoms in other places around the globe, I find it difficult to think about those two together, because, being injured, imprisoned or killed for one's faith is so much more severe, than, for instance, being forced to buy a type of health insurance against one's religious beliefs. Should we keep those separate, or think about and talk about them together?

Guinness: There are a number of areas where Christians are in danger of not acting Christianly. One is the whole notion of phobia-ization. We have homophobes, we have Islamaphobes. Now certain Christians are saying we should talk about "Christaphobes" or "Christianaphobes." And that's terrible.

Jesus called us to take up our cross and follow Him. Christians should be broad-shouldered and expect to be attacked and not to try and resist it through dangerous modern notions like phobia-ization.

But equally, we shouldn't for a moment think that the discrimination we are facing today is in any way tantamount to the persecution that people are facing in other parts of the world. I grew up in China. People are killed for their faith. So, Americans who are whining about persecution here have lost all sense of perspective.

But, I would say, on the other hand, James Madison says it is always important to take alarm at the first assaults on our dignity. And there is in religious freedom a slippery slope. And the current administration, in its time, has done more to undermine religious freedom than probably any administration in American history. That is important. So, it is not what the Iranian Christians are facing, or the Chinese Christians. But, we have got to take notice and stand, not because we are suffering or anything like that, but because we are concerned about it.

CP: I've been struck by how the Obama administration's rhetoric on religious freedom has been so different from its actions, if you look at the Georgetown speech Obama gave early in his administration.

Guinness: Well, the first year, they spoke badly. Many of them spoke of "freedom of worship," which is not religious freedom. It's a shrunken view. Every dictator guarantees freedom of worship, in the sense of what goes on in your head, between your two ears, as long as your mouth is shut.

Then, they started to make really good speeches. And Obama's was not the best. The best of all was Hillary Clinton's and probably no American public official has ever given such a good speech on religious freedom. But they haven't walked the talk.

And now it's not just what the administration has done on the health care mandate, but universities, like, first Tufts, then Vanderbilt, and now the entire University of California state system has derecognized, not just Christian groups, but Christian, Jewish, Muslim groups, in open violation of religious freedom. It's all happening during this administration. So, serious things are happening, but we're not being persecuted.

CP: There is a part of the book where you criticize the Christian Right. There has been much consternation among conservative Christians recently about young people leaving the faith. One of the reasons, some say, is that the so-called politicization of the faith has turned them off. It's a major problem for Christians, because they don't want to turn anyone away from their faith. You wouldn't say withdraw from politics and you wouldn't say just give in and take a political position because it is popular among a certain demographic. So, what is the answer?

Guinness: Let me be clear what my criticism is. There are two major problems in the Religious Right. One is politicization, which is trusting politics to do more than politics can do. Politics is always downstream from where the problems come from.

The second mistake is more Christian. To use 19th century language, they try to, in say, fighting for life and for marriages, do the Lord's work but in the world's way. So, Jesus tells us to love our enemies. They demonize and stereotype their enemies. And, that's just the beginning of so much of the ugliness of the Christian Right, which has turned off [young people]. And you would think much of the younger generation would say, "well, I'm not going to be like them in my politics." But instead, as you know, they're dropping out of the faith altogether. And that is really tragic.

Well, what's a better way? If you look at the last 120 years, for most of the 20th century, Evangelicals were privatized. Privately engaging, publicly irrelevant. In other words, a warm-hearted pietism that was privatized politically. And that was disastrous. In one word, it lacked integration.

Then, with the rise of the Moral Majority, you had some Evangelicals, not all, go to the other extreme – politicization, which lacks independence, looking like the political parties and ideologies around them, rather than as Christians.

We should be engaged politically, it's a free republic, but never equated. In other words, Christians should be the City of God within the City of Man. So, yes, members of the Democratic Party and Republican Party. Engage, but never equated, always thinking and acting Christianly in the midst of the other organizations we are in. And we need to regain that moral position.

CP: In a two party system, if three out of four Evangelicals happen to prefer the Republicans over the Democrats, how do you avoid the appearance that you are part of a political party?

Guinness: You're part of a Party but you should have the courage to break with the Party when it is wrong.

When I speak, say, in the House of Commons, probably the majority will be Labor who are Christians and the minority would be Tory. Here, 98 percent on Capitol Hill would be Republicans who are Christians and maybe two [percent] who would be Democrats. (That's pious [Christians], not [by] identification.)

Same is true of capitalism. Same is true of politics. We should be in, but not of. Engaged, but never equated. We should be the City of God within the City of Man and never equate the two. And you can see, for instance, St. Augustine formulated the City of God notion – we're resident aliens – at a time when, since the Emperor Theodosius declared the Roman Empire [as] Christian, many Christians baptized Rome with the Gospel, and Augustine was breaking with that. He wasn't just answering the pagans, he was breaking with that.

And you can see many Americans have baptized the Gospel into Republicanism, or whatever. And we gotta remember, we are Christian first, Republicans, Democrats, Labor, Tory, whatever, second. Richard Neuhaus says that the first thing to say about politics is that politics is not the first thing.

CP: You wrote, "Those who become obsessed with the pursuit of equality through the principle of nondiscrimination, but at the expense of freedom, end by losing all three." Can you give an example?

Guinness: Well, Christians should think carefully. There has always been a competition between liberty and equality. Too much liberty without equality, you can have terrible injustices at great extremes, which we have partly.

But, ever since the French Revolution, those who stress equality at the expense of liberty usually end up disastrously, as the French Revolution did, and as many of the advocates of the Sexual Revolution are now doing.

And, if you look at equality, first, it is artificial. We humans are not naturally equal. Some are faster. Some are stronger. Some are better at making money. Etc., etc. Secondly, the stress on equality always appeals to envy, and it ends by a leveling of society, including excellence. And thirdly, you have to have an empire to make things equal, which is today the state and so the stress on equality leads to a greatly expanded state.

So, the advocates of the Sexual Revolution, that's what has ruled out religious liberty. Southern California non-discrimination law – no group can say my beliefs are critical to my group. Well, that's just plain stupid. Do you want Muslims who are going to lead the Hillel society for the Jews? Do you want men to run for leadership of sororities? This is just stupid.

There is a competition, sometimes, a clash between liberty and equality and we have got to think it through much more carefully. Today, many liberals have become highly illiberal in their pursuit of equality, which is closer to the French Revolution than the American Revolution, and it was disastrous there.

CP: Some conservatives get squeamish when talking about global communities and the United Nations. You cite the UN's Universal Declaration of Human Rights often in the book. Might some conservatives be turned off, and what role do you think global organizations can play on the world stage and in advancing soul freedom?

Guinness: My point in the title is, we have the beginnings, rudimentary at the moment, of a real global public square. In other words, the Agora, which is a physical place in Athens, the forum in Rome, House of Commons in Britain, Congress here, which is a physical place, and we've shifted from that to a metaphor. So, The New York Times is, in its op-ed pages, a public square. And now in the age of the Internet, clearly, when someone is not speaking to the world, they can be heard by the world and the world can respond. We have the emergence of a global public square, and the question is: how do we communicate in that without destroying each other?

Obviously, the Muslims are doing a very bad job – in response to Salman Rushdie, issue a fatwa. No, that is not the way to do it. But equally, you look at American blogs. As soon as you have anonymous screen names on the blogs, the rhetoric quickly descends to something that is barbaric – hatred, prejudice and all these sorts of things. So, we have the beginnings, very rudimentary, of a global public square. It's not a question of do we or not, we're beginning to have it. But at the moment, it's just a free for all in a very ugly way.

CP: America has a strong isolationist tradition going back to George Washington – leave the rest of the world's problems to the rest of the world.

Guinness: You can't be the world's number one superpower and be disengaged, you simply can't. And Americans can't, on the one hand, trumpet their greatness – you have the greatest military ever, and all this sorts of stuff – and not be involved. You can't have it both ways. You are the world's superpower, for better or worse.

I understand Americans today are war weary, with good reason. And the framers talked about "no entangling alliances." Clearly, George W. Bush was naive and foolish in the things he did.

On the one hand, America did not understand the Middle East. On the other hand, his notions of democracy taken to the Middle East were naive. Democracy is much, much more that ballot boxes. The idea that you look at the purple on their wrists and this is democracy breaking out because they've been to the ballot box is just plain stupid. Edmund Burke warned against that centuries ago with the French Revolution. When people hailed the French Revolution, he said this, "wild gas," what was going on in Paris, would not lead to liberty. They did not have the framework to make it possible. And the Arab Spring was like that, and Americans were naive about democracy, naive about the Arab Spring, and it has bounced back to bite them. You've got to be much more Christianly realistic in ventures like that.

CP: So, would you like to see Americans much less squeamish about being on the world stage and promoting soul freedom on the world stage?

Guinness: No. My call – we've got to practice it before we promote it. We are losing it here in America.

And the double argument is, on the one hand, we're not showing leadership to the world, but the other argument is we're taking our own heritage (I'm not American, our heritage here) and throwing it away.

As I said, Madison called this the "true remedy." And I would argue it's the most nearly perfect solution we've seen. In the last generation, Americans are just throwing it away, they don't even understand the system, let alone its importance.

So, we practice it here, maybe then the Europeans will pick it up. They have the principles in their history, but it never flowered. Many of America's greatest ideas were English ideas – Roger Williams. But it never flourished in England, it blossomed here. Now America is discarding them. If we practice them here, maybe Europe will catch the vision, and if America and Europe did, maybe, you know, in 50 years time, the Middle East will be practicing things like freedom of conscience and other important things.

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