NATIONAL HARBOR, Maryland — The Church in America is at the "low ebb" of society when it comes to its overall impact on today's culture and is in need of "reformation" so that it can once again be the "salt" and "light" that Jesus called it to be, evangelical author and social critic Os Guinness said.
Guinness, who has authored numerous books and is a senior fellow at the Oxford Centre for Christian Apologetics in England, gave a Friday address during the opening session of Wilberforce Weekend 2017 hosted by the Colson Center at the Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center just a few miles outside of Washington, D.C. The annual conference is held to "equip Christians in Christian worldview and cultural renewal."
Explaining that America has gotten away from its founding as a "covenantal" society, Guinness, who has lived in the United States since 1984, declared that "we are in the midst of the gravest crisis of the American republic since the Civil War" and added that the world is witnessing the "decline of Western civilization [being] crucially shaped by the Gospel."
Guinness, who authored the 2016 book, Impossible People: Christian Courage and the Struggle for the Soul of Civilization, spent time explaining that there are parts of the Sinaitic Covenant made between God and the Israelites in the Old Testament that "resonated down through history and are behind so much of American freedom."
"In a covenantal society, each one is responsible for each other one and there is much more there that needs to be thought through carefully and above all, the notion of transmission," Guinness said, comparing covenantal societies to organic and hierarchical societies. "It has to be passed down from generation to generation. As the Jews point out, what did Moses talk about on the night of the Passover? All these hundreds of years in captivity and cruel bondage in Egypt and this night, they are going free. What does Moses talk about? Freedom? No. The promise land of milk and honey? No. The dangers of the wilderness they might go through? No. He talks about children. In that Jewish understanding, the school is far more important than the army — parents to children, teachers to students, leaders to followers. The transmission of it is absolutely critical."
Guinness explained that in America today, that transmission of understanding what it takes to keep the "covenant" alive is "broken down."
"Constitutional government requires civic education. What used to be done in the public schools collapsed in the [1960s] and you can see now a big vacuum," he warned. "Which of course, leads us to where we are today — the repudiation of the founders and the founding."
Guinness highlighted factors contributing to today's widespread "repudiation" of America's founding ideals. One of which, he said, is "progressive philosophy."
"You can see from the gentleman whose names are on these [ballrooms], Woodrow Wilson, right down to Barack Obama," Guinness contended. "There are many people who say the framers were brilliant in their time but we are in different times."
Guinness added that much of the "deepest divisions" in American society are occurring between the "heirs and allies of 1776 and the heirs and allies of 1789," or the American and French revolutions.
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"You can see how many of the movements, such as multiculturalism, political correctness, the sexual revolution, they go back, not to the ideas of the American Revolution undergirded by the Jewish and Christian faiths, but to 1789 and Enlightenment ideas which lead in a very, very different direction," he said. "Which brings us to where we are tonight."
Guinness said that Americans are facing a moment similar to what the people of Israel faced when prophet Elijah defeated the prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel in the Old Testament.
"He faced his country — led by the king and queen, Ahab and Jezebel and all the court prophets of Baal [who were] all in favor of Baal. And here he was, standing for the Lord," Guinness said. "And the people? Sitting on the fence. You notice [Elijah's] argument, 'If Baal is God, follow Baal.' He has the courage of knowing Baal is not God. The fastest way for them to try and discover would be to follow Baal, in this case, over prayer and they hit their heads against the wall of reality."
"America today, in many places, is sitting on the fence," he added. "Although the elites — recently in the White House, many in the universities, many in the press and media, many of them unwittingly are espousing philosophies closer to the French Revolution than to the American Revolution and they will end in disaster."
Guinness asserted that not only does America need a "new birth of freedom," but added that "the Church needs reformation too."
"We need to recover that wonderful reformation truth semper reformanda — 'We all always go wrong,'" he said. "The church is [at] the low ebb of America today. ... The scandal of the American church, unlike almost every European country except Poland, is that in this country, the church is a huge majority, yet culturally, uninfluential."
Guinness explained that even though the Jewish and LGBT communities, for example, are only a small percentages of the American population, they tend to "punch way above their weight with cultural influence."
"And we who are a huge majority as followers of Jesus are not the salt and the light that our Lord called us to be," Guinness asserted. "So yes, we speak and I hope we all speak out with courage and with clarity and with compassion, as in the words of our [Wilberforce Weekend] ideals. But at the same time, we have to say, 'Lord, restore this nation, yes. But Lord, revive Your church. And Lord, in Your mercy, revive me.'
"Covenantalism, if you have time to explore it, is the forgotten key to American greatness," he concluded. "If we live it again in our own circles and show what it means wider, it could be a key to the restoration of this country and of freedom."