Falling Away from its Founding
A Free People's Suicide: Sustainable Freedom and the American Future (InterVarsity Press) is what the old Puritan divines used to call a jeremiad. Which means that it is a thundering indictment of a congregation—in this case, modern Americans, all 300 million or so of them—for backsliding from their first principles, tinged with glimpses of what horrendous results are likely to follow, but closing with the assurance that because only those who have grace can fall from it, restoration is possible if a specified regimen of repentance is followed.
Surprisingly for author Os Guinness, who wears the mantle of his one-time mentor, Francis Schaeffer, as an evangelical cultural critic, this is not a book about restoring Christianity. (Jesus Christ is actually remarkable for his absence from it.) It is about what Guinness calls sustainable freedom, and restoring the republican political vision of the 18th century. What Guinness means by sustainable is easier to discern than what he means by freedom, since it's not until fully one-third of the book has passed us by that a workable definition of freedom appears. Even then, it's couched simply in terms of the polarity described by Isaiah Berlin, of negative and positive liberty (negative liberty being freedom from restraint, and positive liberty being the freedom for accomplishing what is right). What has created a crisis—a "day of reckoning"—for the American political system has been a falling-away from the intricate balance of negative and positive liberty embodied in the U.S. Constitution.
On the one hand, argues Guinness, the Constitution created a negative framework of laws which was designed largely to prevent massive and threatening concentrations of power in the new federal government (whether in the executive, the legislature, or the judiciary). But the authors of the Constitution also expected that citizens of the republic would infuse the negative-liberty scaffolding of the Constitution with a positive-liberty sense of civic obligation and self-denying virtue. The first would prevent concentrations of power; the second, by popular agreement, would prevent any remaining concentrations of power from becoming morally leprous. All this has now gone by the boards, Guinness complains. Freedom has now become exclusively construed as negative liberty, in the form of an enervating moral hedonism and a rampant consumerism which conceals its lust for power behind a bleat for "free markets."
This neatly positions Guinness to call a bipartisan pox down on all the modern political houses—Democratic, Republican, Libertarians, Occupiers—and to a small degree, he does lay the switch heavily on big corporations, the imperial arrogance of "regime change," government-sponsored "faith based initiatives," and even credit cards. This much will gladden the hearts of Jim Wallis and Tony Campolo. But the real fire in Guinness's boilers is lit by his heartfelt resentment at the slow drift of Americans from a democratic republic into the "soft despotism" of the nanny-state. He has no use for the cultured despisers of the Constitution and American history, and even less for the secularists who struggle to create the perfect social democracy where everybody has to be fed and nobody has to be good. And though Guinness names no names, Left evangelicals, for whom compassion serves mostly as a vehicle for acquiring elite prestige and good bookings, will understand that Guinness sees them as a problem more than a solution.