Liberty for All: John Mark Reynolds on Os Guinness

By John Mark Reynolds

A fat nation consumes fattening food to protest libertine sexual morality while libertines bluster about forcing private business to their views.

If you don’t get this, then read Os Guinness’ new book A Free People’s Suicide. He is persuasive in his argument that the American Republic faces a crisis that could end in its decline. This brief book states that the American Founders built on a “golden triangle” of freedom: freedom, virtue, and faith. Each value reinforces the other. He rightly notes that secularism (including especially atheism) has never built a political or moral order not dependent on religion.

Guinness is compelling when he points to the decline in virtue, public and private. He has no tolerance for the public/private distinction foisted on the nation in the Clinton administration. He rightly notes the corrosive impact when the private misdoings of public figures becomes known. That we did not know of Franklin Roosevelt’s affairs prevented them from being harmful to public morality, but weakened the great man at the very least by exposing him to charges of deceit and hypocrisy.

Guinness rightly whips the money changers out of the Temple. There is no place in Christianity for those who favor the rights of the rich over the poor, but Guinness is smart enough to reject the French Revolution’s tyranny of the poor over the rich.

Guinness argues for liberty for all.

Freedom is not absolute and must be sustained by virtue. This obvious to a religious person, but not so obvious to the person reduced to “consumer.” Guinness attempts to liberate the consumer as surely as Washington sought to liberate the colonies.

At times Guinness forces a false equivalence in his book between classical liberals inconsistent to their values (like the more Wilsonian statements of George W. Bush) and the naked secularism and rejection of liberalism by progressives.  Make no mistake Guinness is a conservative and at times it feels as if he is forced by an IVP editor to be “even-handed” in his criticisms.

There is still a case to be made for the Iraq War, but Guinness is right that there is no Christian who should support the torture that came with it. The term “empire” has become so fluid in modern conversation as to become merely a pejorative term for power. Guinness is less nimble in his discussion of empire.

Was the British rule in India really worse than the Mogul rule or raj that came before it? Guinness is unsubtle: empire is bad. Is it? Or is that another bromide of the sophists of our time? This is not to defend colonialism, but to point to the limitation of any short book that deals with many topics quickly.

Traditional Christians struggle to avoid gluttony and consumerism, but rare is the voice on the right that would defend either! It is not the “religious right” (meaning most religious) that rejoices in Ayn Rand, after all.

The Enlightenment gets much undeserved criticism from Christians and Guinness redresses this imbalance by noting what it got right.

For most of American history a Christian ethic sat at the root of our politics, law, and civil affairs. We kept the public square open to other ideas, but listening to the Battle Hymn of the Republic made it pretty plain the unifying vision: a tolerant Christianity. This product of Christian apologist and philosopher John Locke allowed dissent and could even hide itself by claiming just to be “reason,” but to outsiders genteel Christianity permeated the civil religion.

Guinness makes too little, I think, of the vanquishing of this civil religion. Religious extremists hated it for its sunny latitudinarianism, secularists because it was religious, and ideologues because it was an intellectual muddle, but it worked.

Nothing has been proposed to replace it that has any chance of success. Ethics cannot come from science, because “is” cannot come from “ought.” The undergirding ethic cannot just be “reason” anymore than one can build a house by using merely tools.

Guinness take on post-modernism is not very helpful, but then “post-modernism” has become so diffuse that saying anything about it unhelpful. Guinness writes as if there is a thing one can call post-modernism, but when neo-Platonic views can be called “post-modern creationism.”

These are quibbles, however, about a fine book. Americans must stop defining themselves by what they buy (“Apple-man!”), desire (“Gwen Paltrow-man!”), eat (“Thai!”), or drink (“Talisker!”). Christians must reject without equivocation the wickedness of Rand and extreme libertarianism: we are our brother’s keeper. Christians must support moderation as a virtue including moderation in religion!

On all this Guinness speaks a prophetic word: read his book. Americans are right to worry that morality is being supplanted by short term desires. Guinness is right that the largest danger to most Americans is not eating too little fast food, but too much.

Guinness stands with Burke and Lincoln and I, for one, stand with Os Guinness. I will moderate my desires for things, stop objectifying people, eat and drink less and define myself in terms of Jesus.

I will vote for Mr. Romney, but not with the Utopian belief that he will fix all our problems, but in the hopes he will face up to hard truths.

Thanks Mr. Guinness for this great book.