The Global Public Square: Religious Freedom and the Making of a World Safe for Diversity

Written by Os Guinness Reviewed By Jordan J. Ballor

Os Guinness’s The Global Public Square is a full-throated, compelling manifesto for the recognition of the central place of religious liberty, or “soul freedom,” in the contemporary world. As Guinness puts it, “Soul freedom is the inviolable freedom of thought, conscience, religion and belief that alone does full justice to the dictates of our humanity” (p. 14). Contrary to the accounts of many academics and policy analysts in the twentieth century, religious adherence is increasing across the globe, and leaders in governments, churches, businesses, universities, and media outlets must come to grips with this phenomenon.

Guinness effectively points to both the short-term benefits and the long-term need for increased respect for the foundational significance of soul freedom for free societies. Soul freedom, as Guinness understands it, following leading lights such as Roger Williams, John Milton, and the American founders, comprehends the widest possible variety of belief and practice: “Soul freedom includes all ultimate beliefs and worldviews, whether religious or nonreligious, transcendent or naturalistic” (p. 29). More recent touchstones for Guinness’s argument include the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) and the Global Charter of Conscience (2012). The former serves as a constant reference for Guinness’s study, while the text of the latter is included as an appendix in the volume. Guinness closes each chapter by asking a series of recurring and penetrating questions, including, “What does it say of us and our times that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights could not be passed today?” (e.g., p. 44).

The vision that Guinness articulates and defends is that of a hearty, generous, and powerful future for the global community. And yet it is only a possible future, one fraught with danger from religious zealotry and secularist fanaticism. Guinness calls his readers of goodwill to the responsibility “to lay the foundations for what could be history’s first truly multifaith, international society of nations, and a genuinely new world order that is worthy of the global era” (p. 46). This international society must, contends Guinness, be founded upon the bedrock of soul freedom, recognizing the inherent dignity of the human person and his or her free response to the deepest convictions of the human heart. Thus, writes Guinness, “Freedom of religion and belief affirms the dignity, worth and agency of every human person by freeing us to align ‘who we understand ourselves to be’ with ‘what we believe ultimately is,’ and then to think, live, speak and act in line with those convictions” (p. 69).

One of Guinness’s recurring strains is that one person’s right is also the right of the other, and both together share a responsibility to recognize and exercise those rights in ways that foster community and civility. Guinness wades bravely into the treacherous waters of modern rights discourse, acknowledging the complexity of the difficulties and sharing a starting point with U.S. Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, who once said, “The right to swing my fist ends where the other man’s nose begins.”

If The Global Public Square is long on principle for the truly pluralistic respect for religious liberty, it is rather short on practical guidance for adjudicating conflicts of rights claims and religious practice. At one point, for instance, Guinness describes the limits of toleration in a liberal society by observing, “Someone is free to believe in paganism, for example, but not to sacrifice an animal or another human being” (p. 70). Here Guinness helpfully distinguishes between belief and practice, the former of which cannot be circumscribed from without but the latter of which must be bounded in some kind of legal structure. There is no explicit description of any principle, however, that would allow us to distinguish why a truly liberal (free) society could not allow animal sacrifice. According to Guinness’s own program, the society that respects soul freedom the most would in principle allow the greatest diversity of religious activity, stopping short of “the other man’s nose,” so to speak. This would include practices that many, if not most, of a population would find odious, superstitious, or otherwise disgusting or uncivilized. It is easier to see how a system of rights might disallow human sacrifice than animal sacrifice, for instance. “No free exercise for Aztecs,” as William Galston of the Brookings Institution has put it. But on what principled basis are we to make such judgments?

This is not a book where one will find much guidance for making such judgments, which are in any case the subject matter of endless pages of academic debate. What one will find in this study, however, is a powerful articulation of why such serious and sustained deliberation is absolutely essential to a free and flourishing society. Thus, writes Guinness, “We are the heirs of the many centuries of determined if never fully successful experiments in freedom and justice, and we would be careless beyond all excuse if we were to turn our backs on both the present and the future, and squander such a heritage in the present generation” (p. 194). In the end, it seems, we must have faith not only in God, but in the system that respects soul freedom itself, in order for us to be responsible stewards of the modern legacy we have inherited.

Jordan J. Ballor

Jordan J. Ballor
Acton Institute for the Study of Religion & Liberty
Grand Rapids, Michigan, USA

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