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Q & A: Os Guinness on What Freedom in the Balance Looks Like
Q & A: Os Guinness on What Freedom in the Balance Looks Like

Many American Christians are ambivalent about their homeland. We are citizens of another kingdom, after all, so sometimes it's hard to work up enthusiasm for this one. Besides, we're told the church is called to take a prophetic stance against the culture, pointing out its immorality and injustice. We certainly don't want to be caught celebrating America—we may be accused of mixing God and country.

Irishman Os Guinness suggests a fresh path to this conundrum in his A Free People's Suicide: Sustainable Freedom and the American Future (IVP, August). Perhaps we can celebrate the American experiment and hold it accountable to its founding ideals in a way that doesn't compromise our loyalty to the kingdom of God. CT senior managing editor Mark Galli sat down with Guinness in the Christianity Today offices to explore themes from his latest book.

You argue in this book that Americans need to step up to the task of sustaining freedom. Why this book? Why now?

Augustine says that you don't understand a nation by the throw weight of its military or the strength of its research universities or the size of its population, but by looking at what it loves in common. To assess a nation, you look at the health and strength of its ideals. And there's no question that the common love in America is freedom. It is the unarguable universal thing shared by all Americans. The question is, do you want to keep it going? I'm not an American, but I presume most Americans would.

But you think there are some serious misunderstandings of the word freedom now.

Your founders were primarily interested in political freedom, and they had a vision of it that was both negative and positive, to use philosopher Isaiah Berlin's categories. But modern Americans are only interested in negative freedom. So you've ignored the system they've set up, and the way they thought you could sustain freedom.

What's the difference between negative and positive freedom?

Negative freedom is freedom from—freedom from oppression, whether it's a colonial power or addiction to alcohol oppressing you. You need to be freed from negative freedom. Positive freedom is freedom for, freedom to be. And that's what's routinely ignored today.

Why as an Irishman do you care so much about the American experiment?

I'm obviously not an advocate of Christian America or a simplistic view of America as "a city on a hill." But I do think that America as "the first new nation" [the title of an influential book by Seymour Martin Lipset] grappled with many of the issues underlying modernity. James Madison called the American settlement "the true remedy," and I believe it is the most nearly perfect answer the world has seen so far. When it was first put forward, the world wasn't interested because it was happily going on with its traditional ways, which were flourishing. But with the explosion of global diversity, the whole world is now experiencing what America experienced 250 years ago, and the world now looks to America.

Why should Christians care about sustaining the American experiment? It isn't as if we believe America is God's chosen people or a close approximation to the kingdom of heaven.

Let me be absolutely clear. I don't believe in Christian America. I believe strongly that this is a time rather like Augustine's, when he broke the identification of the church with the Roman Empire; so we need to break any suggestion that the kingdom is bound up with Britain or Europe or America.

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Q & A: Os Guinness on What Freedom in the Balance Looks Like