By John Fea
About twenty years ago Os Guinness published The American Hour: A Time of Reckoning and the Once and Future Role of Faith. In that book, written in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union, Guinness warned against the temptation of letting our international triumph blind us to the moral and cultural decay occurring at home. He argued that America was facing “its own time of reckoning, an hour of truth that will not be delayed.” He called it the “American Century’s American Hour.”
Guinness’s latest book, A Free People’s Suicide: Sustainable Freedom and the American Future, also suggests that we are in the midst of the “American hour.” As he did in 1993, he reminds us that Americans won their freedom (in 1776), ordered their freedom (in 1787 and 1791), and is now faced with the task of sustaining their freedom. Two decades later, the issues remain the same.
A Free People’s Suicide turns to the founding fathers for wisdom in how to save American civilization. For Guinness, the founders’ ideas are not the product of the “foreign country” of the eighteenth century, but offer real guidance for our political problems in the present. We thus hear echoes of these famous founders throughout the book. At times Guinness sounds like George Washington on the need for character, Samuel Adams on the evils of consumerism and luxury, Thomas Jefferson on virtue, John Adams on ordered liberty, and James Madison on religious freedom.
What binds all of these ideas into a coherent ideological whole that can be applied to our twenty-first century problems is civic humanism. According to Guinness, the United States will go the way of the Roman republic unless its people learn to be virtuous. In what he calls the “Golden Triangle of Freedom,” Guinness argues that freedom requires virtue, virtue requires faith (of some sort), and faith requires freedom. He rails on a humanism that glorifies narcissistic autonomy, a scientific world view that undermines the limits of human understanding, and a consumer revolution that celebrates desire, choice, and excess. The answer to this crisis lies in ideas that Guinness has been preaching for most of his career as one of Evangelicalism’s foremost cultural critics. He calls for a renewal of civic education, a more robust public square defined by civility, and an international posture balanced by ethical consideration.
So whether it is 1993 or 2012, Os Guinness’s message remains the same. Democracy is a wonderful thing, but it can easily degenerate into license, selfishness, and a failure to recognize the common good without a healthy dose of the kind of morality that is, at the very least, compatible with the Judeo-Christian tradition. All Americans should take heed. But I wonder: Will he need to write the same book twenty years from now?
John Fea chairs the History Department at Messiah College in Grantham, PA. He is the author of Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?: A Historical Introduction, which was one of three finalists for the 2012 George Washington Book Prize.