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.
But all that said, this country has had a greater contribution of Christians and a greater debt to the gospel and a greater freedom for Christians than other countries. Some Christians go from the extreme of [supporting] uncritically Christian America to an overly globalized sense of the world. I give lectures on globalization. I have lived on three continents. I have no quarrel with a global consciousness. But some people go from that to having no real sense of roots, nor a love of place and country that God has given us, for better or worse.
Many today are pessimistic about the future of America and the American experiment. What makes you believe that we can succeed in using history "to defy history," as you put it.
I'm saying that's what the framers believed. Their solution is probably the most daring and realistic solution ever put forward in political history. But Americans don't even know it. The odd thing is the founders didn't give it a name. I love Alexis de Tocqueville's term, "the habits of the heart." My own term, which is probably the most original part of the book, is "the golden triangle of freedom."
I personally don't think over the long haul it will work, because of sin and the passing of time. Those two factors will bring it down. But merely to throw it away out of ignorance prematurely is absolutely a folly of monumental proportions.
Why bother if sin and time will bring eventually bring down the American idea?
No empires have lasted. Nations have; empires don't. But there is a middle possibility, which is renewal. The framers talk about a frequent recurrence to fundamental first principles. In other words, there is the possibility of renewal. It takes leadership, vision, and commitment to do that. There could be another chance for America even now. I believe that. I don't think many American leaders have the vision the framers did. So I'm not too sanguine about it at the moment, but it's not impossible.
What exactly do you mean by "the golden triangle of freedom."
Freedom requires virtue. Virtue requires faith. Faith requires freedom. And like the recycling triangle, it goes around at infinitum.
The word virtue for the framers was a one-word summary of all the ethical things you need: honesty, loyalty, patriotism, and especially character. Freedom requires virtue. The framers are absolutely solid that the character of any leader is crucial. Today that idea completely gone. Take the Clinton impeachment: as the writers of The New York Times put it, the President could have the morals of an alley cat. What mattered was competence, not character. That's a fundamental change. I think the framers were both realistic and right. Freedom requires virtue.
Second, virtue requires faith of some sort. The framers clearly granted freedom of conscience to atheists along with believers of all sorts. But they were far less sanguine, particularly John Adams, about the possibility of a republic of atheists, because atheism doesn't have the inspiration for virtue. It doesn't have the content to tell you what virtue is, and it doesn't have the sanctions, such as hell, if people are not virtuous.
But the third part is the most radical. Faith of any sort requires freedom, and that was the First Amendment and the way that the First Amendment makes all faith entirely voluntary.
That's what I call the golden triangle, and I think it is worth pondering. And it is there at the beginning. You have evangelicals like John Jay or Patrick Henry, and orthodox Christians, somewhat orthodox like George Washington, and free thinkers like Ben Franklin and Deists like Thomas Jefferson—but on that they all agreed. They didn't call it the golden triangle, but the teaching is there very solidly.
You call the current culture essentially freedom wars. Why?
Lincoln called the Civil War a freedom war. The North and the South used the same word but had very different concepts. In the same way, if you analyze the culture war, you have very different concepts of freedom.
Jewish and Christian freedom has a number of very striking features. It's derived, not self-created. It's relational; it has to be done in community. It's not atomistic and individualistic. And it has a framework of truth—"The truth will set you free." And it's not boundless.
On the other hand, you have the philosophical revolution that comes out of the Renaissance that humans are capable of creating themselves. You tie that with the scientific revolution, which imagines we can through science create ourselves. And then there is the consumer revolution, where everything is possible through the market and you can be whoever you want to be. You can see how these things have created this incredible sense of infinite possibility. You have profoundly anti-Christian views on freedom underlying so many of the discussions.
So many religious people, particularly conservative Christians, think the way to integrate virtue and a sense of community into the national life is for the government to financially support faith-based institutions, especially when they're doing nonsectarian work. But you are concerned about that.
The First Amendment is what unleashed the greatest spiritual entrepreneurialism in American history. Everyone and his aunt was involved in all sorts of things in the early 19th century. It's precisely when faith was disestablished that people didn't come to Uncle Sam, but instead relied on the faith, vision, sacrifice, generosity, and dedication of their members to do what they wanted to do. Evangelicals of all people are the most entrepreneurial branch of the Christian faith. So it's unbelievable to me that many are talking like establishmentarians.
But some would argue that if I can get a million-dollar government grant to help more people than ever, why shouldn't I?
Inevitably, there are strings attached. It's bad enough with Christian foundations, when the government insists on "measurable outcomes." I call them miserable outcomes. They're making people dance to their tunes in ways that are crippling the spiritual energy and entrepreneurial spirit of the people who have the vision to do these things. For instance, take a charismatic group that helps get people off drugs. Well, if you accept government money, the whole element of the power of the Holy Spirit doing it is pushed to one side. So there are enormous dangers of encroaching regulation, which will undercut the heart of what we're about.
Recently some influential evangelicals signed a common statement urging immigration reform. What role does immigration play in sustaining freedom and the American experiment?
America is in the business of a double transmission all the time, the handing over from the older generations to younger. But the other transmission is from old timers to the newcomers, the immigrants.
Both of those should be dealt with in terms of civic education. Immigration is usually discussed in terms of control of your borders, economic issues, and English as a second language. The missing dimension is civic education. That's why political scientist Samuel Huntington used to say by 2050, immigration will put more of a stamp on America than the Revolution. When people come here they're not taught what it is to be American. It's just the land of plenty. They haven't a clue what that unum is that balances the pluribus. But the trouble is it's not only immigrants. You've got the educated elite who don't even think Americanism is such a good thing.
You could actually take in a lot more people than you do now if, when they came, they were taught what it is they were coming to, what it is to be an American citizen. So again, as Huntington puts it, it's relatively easy to become an American and get your papers. It is very difficult now to know what it is to be American.
What role can churches play in sustaining freedom and this American experiment, and not become merely instruments of the government or culture?
Which, of course, we must not become. Back in the 1830s, Tocqueville said religion is the first of the American institutions. At the same time, he said pastors were not involved in politics. They taught the Word, and their people were the salt and the light in society. The heavy politicization of the pulpit in the last 30 years is actually a sign of weakness of the church, not a sign of strength. In other words, we need a revival in the church first, including preaching. We need churches attending to what it is to be the church of Christ, and following the way of Christ, which will include notions like calling. And if that's healthy, then Christians will be the salt and light in society.
Given your love of American ideals, why haven't you become an American citizen?
I'm actually very proud to be an Irishman. We all have homelands. And for better or worse, that's a part of the world God has put us in.
You seem to understand America better than most Americans.
Rudyard Kipling's line was, "What knows he of England who only England knows?" You often see things fresher as an outsider. I am an admirer of this country, but I'm a pretty unsparing critic of this country, too. Some people say I'm a pessimist and anti-American. Actually I'm pretty even-handed. Of the best of America, I'm a great admirer. Europeans are very anti-American; I tell them they don't understand America. America actually holds the key to many of the world issues today, but she's not living up to her own greatness.
Anything else you want to say to clarify what you're driving at in the book?
It's not in the book, but I have a daily passionate sense that we are rather like Augustine in a transition period. He had the privilege and weighty responsibility to live at the end of 800 years of Roman dominance; he gave an analysis and a vision of the church that was a bridge into the Dark Ages. So we're seeing the division and decline of the West. We're seeing the relative or maybe absolute decline of American power. And we're seeing the deep captivity of the church in the Western world. So we're in an extraordinary moment, and we have to be so faithful in our analysis and faithful in our vision. We may see a revival or a new Dark Ages, or a muddling through somewhere in between. I hope it will be said that our generation was as faithful in this grand transitional moment as Augustine was in his.