Os Guinness has performed an act of social ecology. With A Free People’s Suicide: Sustainable Freedom and the American Future, he questions whether the American way of life is sustainable. But when we talk about sustainability in this sense, the question is not whether America will keep its air clean, its water pure, or its forests lush. Guinness is interested in a deeper and more urgent question: Will American freedom continue to thrive, or will it unravel as a result of its abuses?

Guinness’s question is driven by his view that “the greatest enemy of freedom is freedom” (19). A notion of substantive freedom organized around achieving a good life can devolve into nothing more than a selfish and atomistic freedom from constraint. Such freedom will not last, because it cannot sustain itself. Should we set out to write the laws of politics based on experience and insight, surely one of them would look something like this: Freedom and virtue necessarily travel together. If a people possesses virtue, it has the capability to be free. The reverse is also true. If a people lacks virtue, then it will not be free for long. The choice is simple. We may govern ourselves, or we will be actively governed by the state.

Indeed, something like the above captures the thinking of America’s founding generation. These men realized, as Guinness notes, that “freedom depends constantly not only on the character of the nation’s leaders but also on the character of its citizens” (21).

But something has changed for Americans after more than 200 years. Founding principles are ever in danger of appearing abstract and dry to younger generations. The earlier emphasis on character and virtue can seem quaint, outdated, and even obstructionist in the face of magnificent things that might be achieved with a combination of technology and the right expertise guiding government.

Long View

For Guinness, sustaining freedom requires a long perspective that surveys both the past and the horizon. In other words, we should care about and learn from what our ancestors have done. At the same time, we should be careful to respect the future and the people who will live in it. A people with virtue would take care to adopt that long view. We, on the other hand, do not appear to embrace it. Guinness points out that America has become the world’s largest debtor by financing current consumption rather than infrastructure investment. He castigates the recent stimulus plan noting that, “Never has one generation spent so much of its children’s wealth in such a short time and with so little to show for it” (26).

There is little with which one can argue here. And Guinness correctly expresses alarm at the way we spend a great deal of time fretting over matters such as the machinations of terrorists and the rise of China as the next superpower, while failing to perceive that the single greatest threat to America is not “wolves at the door but termites in the floor” (37). Former Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice expressed a similar sentiment in her remarks at the recent Republican National Convention.

A Free People's Suicide: Sustainable Freedom and the American Future

A Free People's Suicide: Sustainable Freedom and the American Future

InterVarsity Press (2012). 224 pp.

Cultural observer Os Guinness argues that the American experiment in freedom is at risk. Summoning historical evidence on how democracies evolve, Guinness shows that contemporary views of freedom—most typically, a negative freedom from constraint—are unsustainable because they undermine the conditions necessary for freedom to thrive. He calls us to reconsider the audacity of sustainable freedom and what it would take to restore it.

InterVarsity Press (2012). 224 pp.

We might be tempted to trust in American exceptionalism, but Guinness, lacking the emotional attachment of the natives, counsels against taking shelter there. As a subject of the British crown, he has seen that movie before. He does not deny that the United States has played an over-sized role in the world for many decades now, but he eagerly debunks American belief that this country’s blessed uniqueness will save it from the fate of other empires.

Guinness’s claims can be overbroad and provoke a defense. For example, he accuses the United States of having been an “extraordinary nation” that now acts “like an all too ordinary empire” (175). Such a statement may give the United States too little credit. The American military could easily turn the Middle East into a parking lot. Instead, our government has attempted (for good reason) to walk a careful line between damaging terrorist capabilities and protecting innocent persons. Our efforts to be proportional and just, in my mind, are somewhat extraordinary. They have also put our soldiers in a terribly difficult position. Empires conquer. And so do their armies. We have tried (but not succeeded so far), at great cost, to surgically attack evil and to leave something better in its place.

Golden Triangle

If mystical American exceptionalism is not the answer, then what is? Guinness points to what he calls the golden triangle. The triangle consists of three points: freedom, virtue, and faith. Freedom requires virtue, which requires faith, which requires freedom. Almost anyone could agree that freedom depends on virtue and that faith requires freedom (what would be the value of a hard-coded robot praying?). Resistance kicks in at the idea that virtue requires faith. Guinness successfully demonstrates that the American founders held such an opinion in the spirit of sober political realism. But is it true? Guinness’s answer on this point is powerful. He says, in brief, that we should let the atheists prove the point on a nationwide scale. Let them shoulder the responsibility of establishing some enduring foundation for virtue and take a break from their ceaseless efforts at deconstruction. He issues his challenge with confidence, noting that “no free and lasting civilization anywhere in history has so far been built on atheist foundations” (120).

How do we restore the triangle? Unsurprisingly, the answer, in part, is education. Guinness provides a brief apologia for the type of liberal education under siege in an America that takes an increasingly utilitarian and professionalized approach to learning. In the past, Guinness has paid attention to the sociological logic of secularization and functional differentiation. He returns to that theme, noting that we have separated out various spheres of human activity, leaving them to run on their own sometimes soulless logic. Though he doesn’t quite put it this way, he hopes to see a transformation from independent, Weberian spheres to the Kuyperian alternative, which respects the individual excellence of various pursuits, but still sees a higher unity for them under the lordship of Christ.

Regrettably, Guinness’s answer shows us the depth of our trouble. If we had the kind of society that cares about things like education for citizenship and the broader paideia of liberal education, we would not be trapped in a cycle of apparent decline. We are running in the opposite direction from the one Guinness recommends. At the primary and secondary levels, we are spending less and less time on history and civics in favor of the current emphasis on math and reading as our schools teach for standardized examinations so as to justify state funding. In our colleges, pressures mount to add more hours to professional majors while cutting the total number of years required to graduate in order to reduce costs. The result will almost inevitably shrink the core curriculum, which is the one place where we might gain a sense of unity between knowledge and virtue. Few want to argue against cutting the core, because many see it as nothing more than a couple of unnecessary years standing in the way of professional training. As our knowledge becomes narrower and narrower, we move further away from the ideal of real citizenship and closer to the political status of mere subjects.

We can only jump out of this track by becoming aware of our need for renewal. This is not some general feeling that will fall unbidden upon us. Rather, such a movement would come (as Guinness notes) in the way the Renaissance and the Reformation did, through a group of individuals pointing back to original sources. Ad fontes. Renewal emerges through rediscovery of those things that spurred us on in the first place.

A Free People’s Suicide has been published at a time when I have begun to hear a consistent refrain among social and political analysts. We don’t need a charismatic politician. We need something like a prophet. It is time for someone to hold up the mirror and to point back to the forgotten sources that once inspired us.

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