Os Guinness

Os Guinness is a British author and social critic who focuses on Western civilization and literature, cultural issues, the interrelations of worldviews globally, and the importance of the U.S. Constitution to the global public square. He was interviewed because of his ideas concerning freedom, the public square, and America.

This is Os' first interview with Praxis Circle. To watch his most recent interview, click here.

Family Background and Life through Age Ten

Os Guinness:

Well, I’m very grateful to have grown up in a family that comes down from Arthur Guinness, the Dublin brewer, because he’s well known for his product. But in fact, he was a person of very deep Christian faith. And he built in corporate social responsibility into the firm healthcare, education, all sorts of things in the middle of the 18th century. And so my particular branch of the family has carried that on ever since.

My grandfather was one of the first Western doctors to go to China and he treated the last emperor, and before him, the Empress Dowager Cixi. And both my parents were born in China and they got married just as the war with Japan was breaking out. So they were horrendous circumstances in which I was born with my two brothers. And at one stage, we were living in Hunan province with the communist armies above us with the Japanese army on the other side, and they had killed 17 million, and then the nationalist army on the other side.

And we were caught in a terrible famine in which 5 million died in three months, including my two brothers. And we were part of a 10 million strong river of human misery trying to go out and find food. After the war, we were in Nanking, as it was then, which experienced the terrible Rape of Nanking, which was one of the most savage massacres of the 20th century. And that’s the part I remember growing up, say, between 5 and 10.

And so I remember a January day in 1949 when my dad said to me, “Son, we’re in trouble. Chiang Kai-shek has just flown out to Taiwan.” And we were left at the mercy of the communist troops. And three months later, they came in and the reign of terror began. So I had a very dramatic first 10 years, but it’s given me an incredible sense of the realism of life and the importance of things like freedom and particularly freedom of conscience and religious freedom over against things like oppression and injustice and the reigns of terror and so on.

So looking back, I’m incredibly grateful for those 10 years which put a stamp on my life and my thinking, which I would never have had if I’d just grown up, say, as a boy in England.

How Os Came to Christianity in the 60’s

Os Guinness:

My Christian faith is at the very heart of my life and my thinking. My parents were medical missionaries, so obviously, I grew up in a family that took faith very seriously. But when the communists came, my parents were under house arrest, and I was allowed at a certain point to fly back to England and boarding school. So I went through all my teenage years without the immediate influence my parents. And I came to faith at the very end of that time, just before university, and for me, it was a huge intellectual debate.

On the one hand, you had people like Nietzsche and Sartre, and my own hero as a teenager, Albert Camus. And on the other hand, people like Pascal, Dostoevsky, G. K. Chesterton, and C. S. Lewis. And after three years of reading and weighing it up, I was convinced the Christian faith was in fact true. Now I went to London University in the early 1960s, and you had the counterculture, swinging London, all the chaos of the 60s. And then you really had to think through everything back to square one; nothing was self-evident, nothing was taken for granted. So if I believed, I had to know why I believe what I believed and bring into the relationship with all the things going on in the 60s. And my first book was on the 1960s.

Emotional Component of Becoming a Christian

Os Guinness:

My search was the mind, but obviously, the commitment was the whole person. I’m very emotional, intuitive, a whole person, but I certainly think, but it wasn’t purely intellectual. And I was partly enormously helped by one Christian friend who had incredible character. He was also the captain of three or four of our school sports teams, an admirable character. And his life was a witness to me, as well as my own thinking.

Religious Faith Must Be Anchored in Truth 

Os Guinness:

For better or worse, I think God has given me a mind, and I love thinking. So I could never accept a faith that I was not convinced is true. Now, I think, for searchers, there’s always a moment of questions, when you start to think, and you want to find answers to those questions. Now, trouble is many people don’t even start there. Socrates says, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” Most people are living lives not worth living because they’ve never thought enough or cared enough to make sense of life. So the first stage is questions. The second is answers. And for me, that’s comparative. I grew up in a Buddhist culture. I studied, when I was in my 20s, under a guru in India. When I was at London university, I knew Bertrand Russell. And at Oxford, I knew the great atheist philosopher, A.J. Ayer.

So I’ve seen many of the proponents of the other world views. And for me, my commitment to the Christian faith is partly comparative, seeing that it has an adequacy in answering the deep questions of life, which I don’t think atheism or Buddhism or Hinduism and many of the others really have. So that comparison’s important, but the clincher is truth. I think you’ve got to know why something is not just adequate, but true. And that’s the key point.

Freedom of Conscience/Religion – Williamsburg Charter

Os Guinness:

My passion for freedom of conscience goes back to seeing the reign of terror begin in China. I’ve always admired America and the genius of the First Amendment and particularly of religious freedom, is at the very heart of the brilliance of this country. But actually the Williamsburg Charter happened almost by accident. I was at the Brookings Institution and I had a one pager with about 7 to 10 points, I can’t even remember how many, on why the first amendment was so brilliant for America. And through happenstance, actually our three or four-year-old son, and knowing a friend who is the daughter of a senator, it fell into the senator’s hands. And he phoned me and said, “This is interesting. Would you like to meet Chief Justice Warren Berger?” Who’d just been appointed Head of the Bicentennial Commission.

And we had a wonderful lunch and Chief Justice Berger said to me, “I’m embarrassed. We’ve got endless projects celebrating freedom of speech, but there’s nothing worthy of freedom of religion, the First Amendment’s first 16 words, which are the most unique part of the whole thing.” He said, “What would you propose?” And so I’d only been in the country 18 months and I’m an Englishman, still am. And I suggested to him a declaration, a charter, celebrating and reaffirming the brilliance of the First Amendment, but setting out how it should be understood today. Now, I would say looking back and that’s more than 25 years ago, it was a substantive success. We had Christians, Jews, atheists, and other people, and the number of people who signed it, was incredible. Substantively, it was a great success. Politically, it was a failure. There were people in the Christian right who opposed it, although I’m a Christian, and stopped us getting to President Reagan.

And so we were unable to have the rollout that we needed to have so that these ideas came down to the public schools and in all sorts of areas. And I would say 25 odd years later, America is further away from living the genius of her understanding, than she was then. And the tragedy for me is, again, I’m a European, America is squandering her incredible heritage. The issue for the whole world is, how do we live with our deep differences? And America has the answer that’s the most nearly perfect answer. James Madison called it, “The true remedy.”

And yet with the culture waring for 50 years, America today in the early 21st century, is further off from the framers, further off even, from the Bicentennial. And so I’m passionate about that still. And what you referred to as the global charter, is an attempt to take that to the global level, because this is a global issue. How do we live with our deep differences? You have state oppression on one side, sectarian violence on another side and now in the west, mounting culture warring and it’s tragic. America has the answer. She’s throwing it away and squandering it with her present culture warring.

The Big Question – Freedom of Conscience or Culture Warring

Os Guinness:

From the Christian side, and you remember, I am a Christian, we had two objections to what we were doing. The extreme objection was we were standing for freedom of conscience to everybody. And there was a time for six months I got death threats from some of the extreme Christian right, you might almost say survivalists, who object to freedom of conscience for people who are not Christian. Now that is extreme. But then we had political objections. I remember for instance one of the government cabinets said to me, “I will block you from getting to President Reagan while I’m in this position because the culture warring is in the interest of the Republicans.” I said to him ,”Mr. Secretary, at the moment, the culture wars are flowing the Republican way. Sometimes they’ll flow the Democratic way. In the long run, they will not flow America’s way.” And 25 years later, you can see the gridlock, the incredible polarization, the bitterness, the mounting incivility.

And of course it’s aggravated and reinforced now by things like their blogs, anonymous screen names and so on. It’s getting worse. And if only leaders had grasped the nettle then, we wouldn’t be where we are now. But there were strong Christian objections. And we also had a tremendous challenge then finding a Muslim leader who would stand for freedom of conscience for everyone. Elijah Muhammad’s son eventually signed it, but he said he signed it potentially at the cost of his own life. Now he lived to tell the story and there’d be many, many more Muslim leaders today who’d be prepared to make that stand. But that is the issue. Do we grant freedom of conscience, religious freedom, for people of all faiths and no faith without exception?

Christian Consensus v. Freedom of Conscience

Os Guinness:

Now I think the objection to giving freedom of conscience to everyone was religious. Christians had trusted in the Christian consensus for too long and relied on it and they wanted it to stay. They didn’t want others to be granted the same rights, but when it came to the political objections, they were much more political, but culture war looked favorable to Republicans. Now, as we look back, it clearly wasn’t.

Os’ Three Books on Freedom and The Public Square

Os Guinness:

Well, my last three books are all written for American citizens in the public square. The first ones on religious freedom in America. The second one, not on religious freedom, but freedom. And I think many Americans, even gung ho patriotic Americans, don’t understand the genius of how the framers thought they could create a free society that could stay free forever. No one had ever done it. And I think their system is daring and brilliant. And I try to remind Americans of what it was and to tell people who didn’t agree with the framers, you might disagree with them, but if you don’t like their solution, what are you putting in its place? Because the question is today, how is freedom sustained? And people don’t have an answer.

The third book is on religious freedom globally and arguing that the American experiment at its best, not where we are today, at its best provides a key to the world’s situation. And American leaders are really being delinquent by squandering that heritage and going away that’s like the French Revolution or like the chaos in many of the other countries in the world. America should be in the lead and sadly she’s missing it.

The Source of the Western Sense of Freedom

Os Guinness:

I would argue we owe our Western sense of freedom to the Jews, take the Exodus and liberation from Egypt. Also to the Greeks and their passionate stands for freedom. But certainly the Christian faith, as it became the strongest faith in the West. Benjamin Disraeli called it “Judaism for the multitudes.” In other words, it was taking some Greek ideas, and mostly the Hebrew ideas, and bringing them down. Now we’ve got to say much of those stands for freedom in the West, say the reform movements, were against Western oppressions. So John Paul II was right when he confessed on behalf of the Roman Catholic Church, notions like the Catholic idea “era has no rights.” Or the Inquisition, or the forced pogroms, or the forced conversion of Jews. Those were horrendous things.

The Golden Triangle: Virtue, Faith, and Freedom

Os Guinness:

Anyone who looks at history knows that free societies never last. There are simple reasons for that. Freedom becomes permissiveness and license. Or freedom loves safety, and builds such security it loses freedom. One nation under surveillance. Or people who love freedom prize so much, they’ll do anything to fight for freedom, including things that contradict freedom. Think of Abu Grhaib.

In other words, freedom is quickly lost. So if you see what the framers are trying to do, they wanted to win freedom. That’s the Revolution. They wanted to order freedom. That’s the Constitution. But they also wanted, and Americans today forget this, to sustain freedom. And that’s the hard one, because it’s not just a few years, but decades and centuries. And it’s our challenge today. No one has ever done it. Many Americans don’t even know the system the framers had to try to do it. Now they didn’t give it a name.

Tocqueville, a great French commentator, he calls it the habits of the heart. You’ve got laws, but you have the habits of the heart. School children, parents in families passing it on until it becomes second nature. The habit of the heart. My word for it is the golden triangle of freedom. And you can see the framers were very different people and they had very different ideas on lots of things, but they all agreed on this.

And you can put the triangle very simply. Freedom requires virtue. Virtue requires faith of some sort and faith of any sort requires freedom. And like the recycling triangle that goes round and round ad infinitum. Freedom requires virtue, which requires faith, which requires freedom, which requires virtue, and so on, and so on. Now they expanded on it. For example, virtue today is a goody goody word. So rather prim, easily dismissed. But of course the root of virtue is courage.

So it starts in courage, but it includes honesty, and loyalty, patriotism. And of course all these things summed up in character. Now you can see how far we’ve got from the framers. So the framers, John Adams says, the right of a people to know the character of their leaders. And he uses words like inalienable, indefeasible. He piles it up.

Now when President Clinton was impeached, a number of scholars wrote the New York Times and they said today, character’s irrelevant. What matters for a President is not character, it’s competence. The framers would’ve disagreed. Because between followers and a leader, character’s the bridge. If you know your leader has character, you may not always know why he or she is doing what they’re doing, it’s beyond us. But you can trust their character.

Equally, when leaders have such power that nothing appears to stand in their way, character’s the inner bearing, which gives them moral compass that stops them doing things that are wrong when they could get away with. Think of, say, President Nixon.

So freedom requires virtue and you could go on round the triangle, but you quickly see that what the framers set up, modern Americans have either ignored and neglected or openly dismissed. Because of the framers’ views say on slavery, on women, on Native Americans. They were, on those things, wrong. There were real blind spots. But on how they understood sustaining freedom, their solution, I would argue, is probably the best the world’s ever seen and Americans who dismiss it so casually, don’t put anything in its place. And that’s disastrous.

Soul Liberty

Os Guinness:

“Soul liberty” was Roger William’s term for freedom of conscience and religious freedom. It’s a wonderful ringing idea, but you can see, and it’s actually enshrined in the First Amendment, but also in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 18. It’s the idea that you can adopt a faith, you can exercise, freely exercise a faith. You can share, the dirty word proselytism or evangelism, and you can change. Think of how Muslims actually consider that capital punishment. People are free to convert to Islam, but they’re not free to convert from Islam, no.

Soul freedom includes all those things. And that’s why it’s seen as the First Liberty, because it deals so profoundly with who we understand ourselves to be and what we understand the universe to be. And those things together believed according to the dictate of conscience. Now of course, when Roger Williams put those ideas forward in the 1640s, he was considered a nut case. Even heroes like say, John Milton and John Locke, they qualified it, not for Catholics, only for Protestants or not for atheists, just for Christian believers. Williams said, “No,” for everybody, what he called the Mohammedans, the Muslims or the infidels, the atheists, it was for everybody. And what was radical in his day is at the height of America’s brilliance, and sadly being denied today as a human right in many of the issues in our current situation.

Three Public Squares: Sacred, Naked, and Civil

Os Guinness:

If you look at all the settlements the world has, the ways of handling religion in public life, you can see that we’ve got, really, three options. One is what’s called a sacred public square, where some religion or other is established or preferred. Some are very mild, like, say, the Church of England. No persecution at all, barely hanging on by its teeth. Then you have some very… Say Iran, where if you don’t agree with them, you’re in trouble with your life. That’s the sacred public square, where people who don’t share that faith are obviously in deep trouble.

At the other extreme, you have what’s called the naked public square, where all religion is banned from public life. Relatively mild versions, like say the French, laïcité, which is not the American way but the French way. You’ve got very strict versions of that, say like North Korea or China. And clearly, since most people in the world are religious, that is not just unfair for most people in the world.

The answer, I believe, is what’s called a civil public square, where people of all faiths, including atheism, which is a worldview, too. People of all faiths, and if you like, no faith, are guaranteed freedom of conscience, and they’re free to enter and engage public life on the basis of their faith. But, here’s the big but, within a framework, which everyone’s agreed to and taught, of what is just and free for everyone else too. So a right for a Christian is a right for an atheist, is a right for a Jew, is a right for a Mormon, is a right for a Scientologist, is a right for a Buddhist, or a Hindu, or a Muslim. A right for one is a right for another, and a responsibility for both of them. Now, you’ve got to establish that and teach people, as I said, a habit of the heart, school kids, family members, and so that they know how to deal with other people civilly.

Now, civility doesn’t mean we have to agree with people in whatever they believe, no. The way I put it is this: the right to believe anything does not mean that anything anyone believes is right. So you guarantee their right to believe what they believe. That’s precious and inalienable. But one’s also free and responsible to disagree if you think their ideas are muddle-headed, socially disastrous, or even profoundly morally evil. And so civility is not a moral indifference. It actually frees people to be faithful to what they believe, but teaches them how to disagree with other people civilly. Or, as it’s put, disagree agreeably.

The Relationship of Liberty and Equality

Os Guinness:

The relationship of liberty and equality always has to be monitored. They’re not contradictory, but they’re in competition. Too much liberty can lead to terrible inequities and injustice and there are elements of our modern society that are like that today. Too much equality at the expense of liberty stifles liberty altogether. And you can see the American Revolution put the stress on liberty. The French Revolution put the stress on equality. Now, what’s wrong with equality because we’re seeing a new stirring of that say in the Occupy Movement or the Sexual Revolution with non-discrimination? Well, first, equality is always artificial. Human beings are simply not equal. Intelligence, strength, capacity to make money, whatever, we’re not equal. So to make them equal is artificial. Secondly, it always appeals to envy and that leveling impulse, which is extremely dangerous. Nietzsche calls it “the power of resentment,” and that’s extremely dangerous.

Thirdly, though, you have to have an umpire to say what equality is. So what you do is strengthen the umpire, which in today’s terms is the national state. And so you appeal more and more to the state and you have more and more “equality and non-discrimination” and less and less liberty. So we’ve always got to monitor that relationship very, very carefully. Liberty should always trump equality if we value liberty, which we do in America and in much of the West. And we are not the French Revolution. We’re not Socialists and Communists. But we mustn’t let liberty run rampant and produce such savage inequities and inequalities that it actually leads to a desire for equality that stifles liberty.

The Paradox of Freedom and The Types of Freedom: Negative and Positive

Os Guinness:

There is a paradox about freedom and you put it very simply, freedom’s greatest enemy is freedom. And we need to understand why. The ultimate reason for that is, all freedom requires some framework, freedom within a framework. The only appropriate framework for freedom is self restraint. But of course, self restraint is precisely what freedom undermines when it flourishes, you lose self restraint and become unrestrained and permissive and licentious and freedom undermines itself. So one of the great things today is to get people to think through what freedom is. I was at Oxford with the great Jewish philosopher, Isaiah Berlin, and he’s famous for his argument, there’s two types of freedom, negative and positive. Negative freedom is freedom from, free from colonial oppression, free from alcoholic addiction, free from bullying, you name it. That’s freedom from, that’s essential, but only preliminary.

Positive freedom is freedom for, freedom to be. Now that requires truth, because you got to know what you’re supposed to be, to be really free to be it. Now today you look around America, all freedom is negative. Get the government off my back, say the liberals in terms of their bodies and abortion. Get the government off my back, say conservatives in terms of taxes and other things. It’s a purely libertarian negative freedom. But libertarian freedom will never ever, be sustainable. You’ve got to know what people are free for and free to be. So we need to ignite a fresh debate today on the very nature of freedom.

The Relationship between Freedom and Democracy

Os Guinness:

Put differently, I think we’ve got to examine some of the uncritical notions surrounding freedom. And one of the main ones is the link between freedom and democracy. Anyone who knows history and the history of great thinking knows that the earliest thinkers warn that democracy often leads to tyranny, and say, the George W. Bush idea that freedom and democracy would sweep the world hand in hand is rubbish. It was Plato who was very leery of democracy. They had killed his mentor, Socrates, not the oligarchs, the democrats did. And you can see many democracies are highly illiberal Americans becoming like that, many monarchies are much more liberal than democracies and every totalitarian country proclaims itself democratic.

As you know, Hitler was voted in by 51.4% of the population of Germany. So say when the Arab Spring broke out, we should have been much more realistic. Edmund Burke looked at the French Revolution and knew that what he called the wild gas of liberty would not lead to freedom, but to tyranny. And in the same way, they didn’t have the foundations for democracy or freedom in the Middle East, and the so-called Arab Spring has led to an Arab Winter in countries like Syria. So we’ve got a, speaking earlier of the confusion between liberty and equality. This one’s equally important because of George W. Bush, that link between liberty and democracy needs to be looked at very, very carefully, because it’s not automatic.

Who “invented” Western freedom’s worldview? What is it?

Os Guinness:

Our Western view of freedom obviously comes from the Jews, “Let my people go.” But also from the Greeks, their heroic stance against the Persians at Thermopylae and Salamis and so on. But out of that came a great deep understanding. And certainly freedom requires truth. Freedom requires a framework. Freedom requires a worldview. Freedom, to use the modern jargon, requires a narrative in which to understand it.

And there are different views of freedom. Say Buddhist freedom, stoic freedom, atheist freedom, and Jewish and Christian freedom. They’re all rather different. Now, Jewish and Christian freedom are the same. Freedom is a gift of God that’s discovered in relationships, but it requires truth. We got to know what we’re free to be. As Lord Acton says, “Freedom is not the permission to do what you like. It’s the power to do what you ought,” but you got to know what you ought to be to do it.

Are we just accidents of the universe? Well, freedom will be a bare autonomy, let everyone do what they can in their own freedom. Or are we made in the image of God, and we’re not animals, we’re not accidents? And we have a different view of what it means to be fully ourselves and to be fully free. So, yes, freedom requires truth. It assumes and requires truth. And that obviously is shaped by people’s different worldviews.

So someone like a postmodern thinker, Michel Foucault, the radical, “There is no such thing as truth.” He’s following Nietzsche. Truth is dead. Knowledge is power. So all you look at is the power relationship. That is disastrous, because it lead to power games and to manipulation, and that’s what some liberal rights are becoming. If you disagree with my right, I override your right because my right is the current one, the fashionable one. So this is outrageous. Religious freedom is the first freedom.

But now say in the name of the Sexual Revolution, and there’s a White House person who argues this. Gay rights are zero sum rights. So if anyone disagrees, they got to be wiped out totally. Well, what she’s doing is cutting off the branch on which she’s sitting. She’s saying it’s only a power game. There are no such thing as rights if one right just rules out another right because it’s no longer fashionable. That’s absolutely disastrous. So we need to encourage Americans to think through, what are freedoms? What are rights? And to think through, in a radical way, what they are in order to reestablish them in a healthy way again.

What is a worldview? Do all human beings have a “faith”?

Os Guinness:

I often today use the word faith, or philosophy of life, or worldview to point out that everybody, without any exception, has one. In other words, you can have a supernatural worldview such as the Jewish and Christian faiths, or you can have a secular worldview such as atheism or materialism or naturalism, but they are both a worldview. So I say to my atheist friends, “It’s time for you to stop calling yourselves atheists, we know you are not theists, but what are you?” Because whatever you say you are, naturalists, materialists, or whatever, that is your worldview. And you have the right of freedom of conscience to believe that, but it is just one worldview among many worldviews.

And it’s not that all the others are religious but you’re not, so you escape the challenge. No, yours is a worldview too. And that would be thoroughly acceptable philosophically, thoroughly acceptable sociologically. Many of our atheist friends, they cheat by pretending they’re not a faith, not a worldview, and so they can escape all this talk. So religious freedom they say, “Freedom for the religious.” No, no, we all have different worldviews, we all need to have sense, we all need to find meaning in life and belonging in life, and that’s what our worldviews supply.

Can we remove worldviews or faith from the public square? Are all faiths correct?

Os Guinness:

Sam Harris, one of the New Atheists, talks about the end of faith. And you can see one of the strands in New Atheism is the hope that we’ll get beyond all religion altogether. I happen to be a Christian, but if I was to answer that sociologically or anthropologically, that is extremely unlikely. Because all human beings need meaning, they want to make sense of life, they need belonging, they want to find security in the world. And the deepest answers to those come from their worldviews, their faiths. And of course, the religious ones, at least appear to be deeper. Why? Because the religious see their answers as tied in like an umbilical cord to the very nature of the universe itself. Whereas, every atheist knows in his heart, he’s done it himself. It’s a do-it-yourself faith. Some person, Bertrand Russell, whoever has concocted it, and other people are going along with him.

But it’s very obviously a do-it-yourself invention of certain human beings, which is why it will never have the deep adequacy of a religious answer. And I would say religious answer, even if the answer’s wrong. In other words, if Judaism and the Christian faith are correct, Buddhism is wrong. Hinduism is wrong. There’s no two ways about it. The mushy thinking that they all say the same thing underneath, Karen’s Armstrong’s view, is radically wrong. You can nowhere you can say a Buddhist world view is the same as a Jewish worldview. One of them’s right, one of them’s wrong. They could both be wrong, but you can’t have them both right. And there’s an awful lot of mushy thinking that’s flowing around, so we’ve got to get our atheist friends to see their worldview, that’s a faith too.

Secularism, Atheism, and the Founders

Os Guinness:

I try and use the word secular and secularist carefully because the original meaning of the word secular just meant this age. And it was Christians who used it. And Christian view of creation, you put a premium on the importance of this age and things like the arts and good food and sex and so on. These are secular things. There’s nothing wrong with the secular. What’s wrong to me is what I disagree with is a secularist worldview, which says there are no gods or the supernatural at all. And that I think is what’s dangerous. If you go back to the framers, they said, yes, freedom requires virtue. Virtue requires faith of some sort. Now they’re absolutely clear atheists have freedom of conscience. There’s no question about that. They guaranteed protected freedom of conscience for everybody, including atheists. But, some of the framers, people like Alexander Hamilton and John Adams, are very leery about having a society of atheists.

Why? Because there’d be no solid grounding for virtue. And if you think the highest inspiration for being virtuous comes from faith, the strongest content saying what virtue is, think of the seven deadly sins comes from faith, and also the toughest sanctions for what happens to people who are non-virtuous, take say the notion of hell, that comes from faith. So the framers were very leery about a secularist-based worldview being adequate. And if you read John Adams, his letters to Davila, he almost predicts without predicting our modern understanding of postmodernism, a world as he puts it without any father, where human beings are no different from the savages. And in that world, he wonders if the secularism can really provide the virtue which will sustain American freedom. And of course we’re seeing the outplaying of that in our own generation.

Islam, Freedom, and Modernity

Os Guinness:

Traditional Islam is deadly in its opposition to freedom of conscience. There’s no question of that, but you can see in our modern world this is changing. The modern situation, I’ll use the technical jargon. People talk about demonopolization, deterritorialization, deconfessionalization. In other words, used to say in the past, Ireland, Catholic, Iran, Muslim. Certain countries had certain beliefs and everyone in those country went along with it. That’s what’s breaking up with this explosion of diversity.

So what you see is more and more Muslims in the modern world, and now in Muslim minority situations. And the huge majority of them adapt well to notions like freedom of conscience. In other words, we see the violence and the terrorism. That’s the tiny minority, and they are people who think, “We’ve nothing left to lose.”

Take, say, the impact of the modern world on Aboriginal people, say the Eskimos, the Intuits, or the Amazon forest rain people, or the Australian Aborigines. Modernity is so shattering. They’ve lost everything. They commit suicide in unprecedented numbers. And that’s what you see in the suicide bombers. In other words, you have a desperado Islam, nothing left to lose. And so they want to take everyone with them, but that’s not the majority of Muslims. So I would say watch modernity.

In the social sciences, it was said that the day that Raisa Gorbachev, Gorbachev’s wife, was seen carrying an American Express card, the Soviet Union was finished. Modernity is like a solvent opening up closed societies. Now the same is true of closed religions. China, it’s only a matter of time before China opens up, whether it’s technology or capitalism opening up.

There was a while 10 years ago, when the most popular television program in Iran, the Iran of the ayatollahs, was Baywatch. In other words, Iran is kind of like a house eaten by white ants. It looks Islamic. Behind it, you can see modernity creating the bubbles of coming freedom. And it’s only a matter of time before Iran goes that way too. So I have no fear of Iran.

Plus you add one more factor. The decline in fertility and population growth in Muslim countries is the fastest in all world history. And when that happens, they don’t have the economy to go through it. Their GDP is something like 10% of Europeans. So Europeans are facing the same challenge, declining population, but they have a much greater economy to take through it without social unrest. That will not be true in the Middle East. So for various reasons, I am not an alarmist about Islam. We’ve got to be thoroughly realistic. The president’s speech in Cairo was utopian. We got to be realistic, but we needn’t be fearful.

On Capitalism and Consumerism

Os Guinness:

The old idea was, everything you could produce, you could market and consume. But with the rise of industrial productions, the inventories were stacked, and you had to have the rise of aggressive selling techniques to get people to buy what they didn’t need, and so on, in order to keep the whole thing going. Now, one of the impacts of this, is the way that consumerism, particularly in the 1960s, was changed as a kind of vehicle for identity. So the clothes you wore, the car you drive, the music you listened to, “This is me,” and it’s an artificial sense of identity, which is absolutely illusory and disastrous. So you can take very practical things like the production of debt, which has been disastrous for capitalism. Or, the spurious freedoms you can create through consumerism.

We’ve got to do a critique of what’s become an idol in the West. We’ve created a disordered consumer-land of desire. Nietzsche predicted this. He talked about the last men, a world of mass hedonism, where people would only care about two things: their own health and their own happiness. And he was what they call the lost men, little people who didn’t have any understanding about the good life and the good society. And we’re in that world today. Much America is in an extraordinary place of apathy, and indifference, and hedonism, because of the impact of the triumph of consumerism. And I think anyone who cares about humanity, certainly Jews and Christians, should have a very powerful critique of the emptiness of the idolatry of consumerism.

Challenge to America: Stop Squandering Your Principles of Religious Freedom

Os Guinness:

When the American founders pursued the dreams of their revolution, they were totally out of step with 1,500, nearly 2,000 years of European ways of doing things, but they knew this was a more free, more just, more harmonious way of going forward. And they hoped that if they were a city on a hill, others would follow. It should be the same today. I see the world religiously in terms of freedom like this, you’ve got America, which has had 200 and a third odd centuries of dealing with these things, way ahead of much of the world, but squandering it today. You’ve got Europe, which has got many of these things there. The first principles are there, but they’ve never developed them like they have here. So they’re way behind the US. And then you’ve got many of the other countries in the world with government oppression, sectarian violence, no freedom at all.

So my challenge would be, Americans, live up to your great past, and help the Europeans to take these first principles and see them blossoming. For example, Europe is thick with laws, but it has nothing of what Tocqueville calls the habits of the heart, which is why the laws, which are laws about freedom, are actually becoming restrictive. And America’s going the same way. Everything’s now to the Supreme Court litigation, and you have a country growing more and more litigious losing freedom. But obviously, it’ll take while for America to regain its position. It’ll be a while before Europe does. And it’ll be a long, long while, say, before the Middle East, which we see today going through a massive convulsion.

The Need for New Vision Beyond Culture Wars

Os Guinness:

At the moment when it comes to religious freedom and the culture warring, we have masses of good academic studies, no need for anymore there. We’ve got hundreds of people protesting what’s wrong, monitoring violations and so on. We don’t need that much more there. We need to keep on doing it. The tragedy is the missing lack of a constructive vision of how to go forward and the trouble is in the bitterness of the culture warring, no one’s interested in that. They’re just interested in how the other side is wrong, how we can use the other side’s error to lift ourselves a bit for the next election or whatever. No one’s interested in the constructive solution.

So, my passion is to try and create a vision of a constructive solution and I would hope at some point some national leader … and America’s greatest problem today is lack of national leadership. Some national leader will be like a Lincoln and say in effect, “A plague on both your houses. Here is a better way forward for America, in the light of our past, but also America showing a way for the whole world.” So I would hope that some leader, now, of course, that would mean that some reviewer, some thinker like a David Brooks or someone like that would pick it up and make the point in The New York Times, The Washington Post, or wherever. At the moment that lack of a constructive answer is the bottleneck.

Os’ Top Three Leaders of Modern W Civ Influencing Freedom

Os Guinness:

It’d be hard to pick just three, but my first would be my fellow Irishman, Edmund Burke, who still I think remains the greatest thinker in understanding the place of freedom and the importance of traditions and moral standards. And essentially a conservative view of freedom that is highly realistic.

Second in this country, I know it’d be offensive down below the Mason Dixon line, one would have to say Abraham Lincoln, for the courage of his stand above the fray and his wrestling through in such an extraordinary way of what the horror of the Civil War meant under God to America and to freedom.

And the third would be my own hero whom I had the privilege of meeting when I was a teenager, Winston Churchill. And he understood instinctively that World War II was a war for freedom. And of course, his genius was not just his leadership, but his incredible ability to articulate freedom in a powerful way, and to inspire people as backs against the wall who were defeatist and apathetic, to really see that this was a struggle for freedom. And if we prevail, this would be, as you put it, their finest hour.

Overview

Os Guinness

Os Guinness is a British author and social critic who focuses on Western civilization and literature, cultural issues, the interrelations of worldviews globally, and the importance of the U.S. Constitution to the global public square. He was interviewed because of his ideas concerning freedom, the public square, and America.

This is Os' first interview with Praxis Circle. To watch his most recent interview, click here.

Transcript

Family Background and Life through Age Ten

Os Guinness:

Well, I’m very grateful to have grown up in a family that comes down from Arthur Guinness, the Dublin brewer, because he’s well known for his product. But in fact, he was a person of very deep Christian faith. And he built in corporate social responsibility into the firm healthcare, education, all sorts of things in the middle of the 18th century. And so my particular branch of the family has carried that on ever since.

My grandfather was one of the first Western doctors to go to China and he treated the last emperor, and before him, the Empress Dowager Cixi. And both my parents were born in China and they got married just as the war with Japan was breaking out. So they were horrendous circumstances in which I was born with my two brothers. And at one stage, we were living in Hunan province with the communist armies above us with the Japanese army on the other side, and they had killed 17 million, and then the nationalist army on the other side.

And we were caught in a terrible famine in which 5 million died in three months, including my two brothers. And we were part of a 10 million strong river of human misery trying to go out and find food. After the war, we were in Nanking, as it was then, which experienced the terrible Rape of Nanking, which was one of the most savage massacres of the 20th century. And that’s the part I remember growing up, say, between 5 and 10.

And so I remember a January day in 1949 when my dad said to me, “Son, we’re in trouble. Chiang Kai-shek has just flown out to Taiwan.” And we were left at the mercy of the communist troops. And three months later, they came in and the reign of terror began. So I had a very dramatic first 10 years, but it’s given me an incredible sense of the realism of life and the importance of things like freedom and particularly freedom of conscience and religious freedom over against things like oppression and injustice and the reigns of terror and so on.

So looking back, I’m incredibly grateful for those 10 years which put a stamp on my life and my thinking, which I would never have had if I’d just grown up, say, as a boy in England.

How Os Came to Christianity in the 60’s

Os Guinness:

My Christian faith is at the very heart of my life and my thinking. My parents were medical missionaries, so obviously, I grew up in a family that took faith very seriously. But when the communists came, my parents were under house arrest, and I was allowed at a certain point to fly back to England and boarding school. So I went through all my teenage years without the immediate influence my parents. And I came to faith at the very end of that time, just before university, and for me, it was a huge intellectual debate.

On the one hand, you had people like Nietzsche and Sartre, and my own hero as a teenager, Albert Camus. And on the other hand, people like Pascal, Dostoevsky, G. K. Chesterton, and C. S. Lewis. And after three years of reading and weighing it up, I was convinced the Christian faith was in fact true. Now I went to London University in the early 1960s, and you had the counterculture, swinging London, all the chaos of the 60s. And then you really had to think through everything back to square one; nothing was self-evident, nothing was taken for granted. So if I believed, I had to know why I believe what I believed and bring into the relationship with all the things going on in the 60s. And my first book was on the 1960s.

Emotional Component of Becoming a Christian

Os Guinness:

My search was the mind, but obviously, the commitment was the whole person. I’m very emotional, intuitive, a whole person, but I certainly think, but it wasn’t purely intellectual. And I was partly enormously helped by one Christian friend who had incredible character. He was also the captain of three or four of our school sports teams, an admirable character. And his life was a witness to me, as well as my own thinking.

Religious Faith Must Be Anchored in Truth 

Os Guinness:

For better or worse, I think God has given me a mind, and I love thinking. So I could never accept a faith that I was not convinced is true. Now, I think, for searchers, there’s always a moment of questions, when you start to think, and you want to find answers to those questions. Now, trouble is many people don’t even start there. Socrates says, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” Most people are living lives not worth living because they’ve never thought enough or cared enough to make sense of life. So the first stage is questions. The second is answers. And for me, that’s comparative. I grew up in a Buddhist culture. I studied, when I was in my 20s, under a guru in India. When I was at London university, I knew Bertrand Russell. And at Oxford, I knew the great atheist philosopher, A.J. Ayer.

So I’ve seen many of the proponents of the other world views. And for me, my commitment to the Christian faith is partly comparative, seeing that it has an adequacy in answering the deep questions of life, which I don’t think atheism or Buddhism or Hinduism and many of the others really have. So that comparison’s important, but the clincher is truth. I think you’ve got to know why something is not just adequate, but true. And that’s the key point.

Freedom of Conscience/Religion – Williamsburg Charter

Os Guinness:

My passion for freedom of conscience goes back to seeing the reign of terror begin in China. I’ve always admired America and the genius of the First Amendment and particularly of religious freedom, is at the very heart of the brilliance of this country. But actually the Williamsburg Charter happened almost by accident. I was at the Brookings Institution and I had a one pager with about 7 to 10 points, I can’t even remember how many, on why the first amendment was so brilliant for America. And through happenstance, actually our three or four-year-old son, and knowing a friend who is the daughter of a senator, it fell into the senator’s hands. And he phoned me and said, “This is interesting. Would you like to meet Chief Justice Warren Berger?” Who’d just been appointed Head of the Bicentennial Commission.

And we had a wonderful lunch and Chief Justice Berger said to me, “I’m embarrassed. We’ve got endless projects celebrating freedom of speech, but there’s nothing worthy of freedom of religion, the First Amendment’s first 16 words, which are the most unique part of the whole thing.” He said, “What would you propose?” And so I’d only been in the country 18 months and I’m an Englishman, still am. And I suggested to him a declaration, a charter, celebrating and reaffirming the brilliance of the First Amendment, but setting out how it should be understood today. Now, I would say looking back and that’s more than 25 years ago, it was a substantive success. We had Christians, Jews, atheists, and other people, and the number of people who signed it, was incredible. Substantively, it was a great success. Politically, it was a failure. There were people in the Christian right who opposed it, although I’m a Christian, and stopped us getting to President Reagan.

And so we were unable to have the rollout that we needed to have so that these ideas came down to the public schools and in all sorts of areas. And I would say 25 odd years later, America is further away from living the genius of her understanding, than she was then. And the tragedy for me is, again, I’m a European, America is squandering her incredible heritage. The issue for the whole world is, how do we live with our deep differences? And America has the answer that’s the most nearly perfect answer. James Madison called it, “The true remedy.”

And yet with the culture waring for 50 years, America today in the early 21st century, is further off from the framers, further off even, from the Bicentennial. And so I’m passionate about that still. And what you referred to as the global charter, is an attempt to take that to the global level, because this is a global issue. How do we live with our deep differences? You have state oppression on one side, sectarian violence on another side and now in the west, mounting culture warring and it’s tragic. America has the answer. She’s throwing it away and squandering it with her present culture warring.

The Big Question – Freedom of Conscience or Culture Warring

Os Guinness:

From the Christian side, and you remember, I am a Christian, we had two objections to what we were doing. The extreme objection was we were standing for freedom of conscience to everybody. And there was a time for six months I got death threats from some of the extreme Christian right, you might almost say survivalists, who object to freedom of conscience for people who are not Christian. Now that is extreme. But then we had political objections. I remember for instance one of the government cabinets said to me, “I will block you from getting to President Reagan while I’m in this position because the culture warring is in the interest of the Republicans.” I said to him ,”Mr. Secretary, at the moment, the culture wars are flowing the Republican way. Sometimes they’ll flow the Democratic way. In the long run, they will not flow America’s way.” And 25 years later, you can see the gridlock, the incredible polarization, the bitterness, the mounting incivility.

And of course it’s aggravated and reinforced now by things like their blogs, anonymous screen names and so on. It’s getting worse. And if only leaders had grasped the nettle then, we wouldn’t be where we are now. But there were strong Christian objections. And we also had a tremendous challenge then finding a Muslim leader who would stand for freedom of conscience for everyone. Elijah Muhammad’s son eventually signed it, but he said he signed it potentially at the cost of his own life. Now he lived to tell the story and there’d be many, many more Muslim leaders today who’d be prepared to make that stand. But that is the issue. Do we grant freedom of conscience, religious freedom, for people of all faiths and no faith without exception?

Christian Consensus v. Freedom of Conscience

Os Guinness:

Now I think the objection to giving freedom of conscience to everyone was religious. Christians had trusted in the Christian consensus for too long and relied on it and they wanted it to stay. They didn’t want others to be granted the same rights, but when it came to the political objections, they were much more political, but culture war looked favorable to Republicans. Now, as we look back, it clearly wasn’t.

Os’ Three Books on Freedom and The Public Square

Os Guinness:

Well, my last three books are all written for American citizens in the public square. The first ones on religious freedom in America. The second one, not on religious freedom, but freedom. And I think many Americans, even gung ho patriotic Americans, don’t understand the genius of how the framers thought they could create a free society that could stay free forever. No one had ever done it. And I think their system is daring and brilliant. And I try to remind Americans of what it was and to tell people who didn’t agree with the framers, you might disagree with them, but if you don’t like their solution, what are you putting in its place? Because the question is today, how is freedom sustained? And people don’t have an answer.

The third book is on religious freedom globally and arguing that the American experiment at its best, not where we are today, at its best provides a key to the world’s situation. And American leaders are really being delinquent by squandering that heritage and going away that’s like the French Revolution or like the chaos in many of the other countries in the world. America should be in the lead and sadly she’s missing it.

The Source of the Western Sense of Freedom

Os Guinness:

I would argue we owe our Western sense of freedom to the Jews, take the Exodus and liberation from Egypt. Also to the Greeks and their passionate stands for freedom. But certainly the Christian faith, as it became the strongest faith in the West. Benjamin Disraeli called it “Judaism for the multitudes.” In other words, it was taking some Greek ideas, and mostly the Hebrew ideas, and bringing them down. Now we’ve got to say much of those stands for freedom in the West, say the reform movements, were against Western oppressions. So John Paul II was right when he confessed on behalf of the Roman Catholic Church, notions like the Catholic idea “era has no rights.” Or the Inquisition, or the forced pogroms, or the forced conversion of Jews. Those were horrendous things.

The Golden Triangle: Virtue, Faith, and Freedom

Os Guinness:

Anyone who looks at history knows that free societies never last. There are simple reasons for that. Freedom becomes permissiveness and license. Or freedom loves safety, and builds such security it loses freedom. One nation under surveillance. Or people who love freedom prize so much, they’ll do anything to fight for freedom, including things that contradict freedom. Think of Abu Grhaib.

In other words, freedom is quickly lost. So if you see what the framers are trying to do, they wanted to win freedom. That’s the Revolution. They wanted to order freedom. That’s the Constitution. But they also wanted, and Americans today forget this, to sustain freedom. And that’s the hard one, because it’s not just a few years, but decades and centuries. And it’s our challenge today. No one has ever done it. Many Americans don’t even know the system the framers had to try to do it. Now they didn’t give it a name.

Tocqueville, a great French commentator, he calls it the habits of the heart. You’ve got laws, but you have the habits of the heart. School children, parents in families passing it on until it becomes second nature. The habit of the heart. My word for it is the golden triangle of freedom. And you can see the framers were very different people and they had very different ideas on lots of things, but they all agreed on this.

And you can put the triangle very simply. Freedom requires virtue. Virtue requires faith of some sort and faith of any sort requires freedom. And like the recycling triangle that goes round and round ad infinitum. Freedom requires virtue, which requires faith, which requires freedom, which requires virtue, and so on, and so on. Now they expanded on it. For example, virtue today is a goody goody word. So rather prim, easily dismissed. But of course the root of virtue is courage.

So it starts in courage, but it includes honesty, and loyalty, patriotism. And of course all these things summed up in character. Now you can see how far we’ve got from the framers. So the framers, John Adams says, the right of a people to know the character of their leaders. And he uses words like inalienable, indefeasible. He piles it up.

Now when President Clinton was impeached, a number of scholars wrote the New York Times and they said today, character’s irrelevant. What matters for a President is not character, it’s competence. The framers would’ve disagreed. Because between followers and a leader, character’s the bridge. If you know your leader has character, you may not always know why he or she is doing what they’re doing, it’s beyond us. But you can trust their character.

Equally, when leaders have such power that nothing appears to stand in their way, character’s the inner bearing, which gives them moral compass that stops them doing things that are wrong when they could get away with. Think of, say, President Nixon.

So freedom requires virtue and you could go on round the triangle, but you quickly see that what the framers set up, modern Americans have either ignored and neglected or openly dismissed. Because of the framers’ views say on slavery, on women, on Native Americans. They were, on those things, wrong. There were real blind spots. But on how they understood sustaining freedom, their solution, I would argue, is probably the best the world’s ever seen and Americans who dismiss it so casually, don’t put anything in its place. And that’s disastrous.

Soul Liberty

Os Guinness:

“Soul liberty” was Roger William’s term for freedom of conscience and religious freedom. It’s a wonderful ringing idea, but you can see, and it’s actually enshrined in the First Amendment, but also in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 18. It’s the idea that you can adopt a faith, you can exercise, freely exercise a faith. You can share, the dirty word proselytism or evangelism, and you can change. Think of how Muslims actually consider that capital punishment. People are free to convert to Islam, but they’re not free to convert from Islam, no.

Soul freedom includes all those things. And that’s why it’s seen as the First Liberty, because it deals so profoundly with who we understand ourselves to be and what we understand the universe to be. And those things together believed according to the dictate of conscience. Now of course, when Roger Williams put those ideas forward in the 1640s, he was considered a nut case. Even heroes like say, John Milton and John Locke, they qualified it, not for Catholics, only for Protestants or not for atheists, just for Christian believers. Williams said, “No,” for everybody, what he called the Mohammedans, the Muslims or the infidels, the atheists, it was for everybody. And what was radical in his day is at the height of America’s brilliance, and sadly being denied today as a human right in many of the issues in our current situation.

Three Public Squares: Sacred, Naked, and Civil

Os Guinness:

If you look at all the settlements the world has, the ways of handling religion in public life, you can see that we’ve got, really, three options. One is what’s called a sacred public square, where some religion or other is established or preferred. Some are very mild, like, say, the Church of England. No persecution at all, barely hanging on by its teeth. Then you have some very… Say Iran, where if you don’t agree with them, you’re in trouble with your life. That’s the sacred public square, where people who don’t share that faith are obviously in deep trouble.

At the other extreme, you have what’s called the naked public square, where all religion is banned from public life. Relatively mild versions, like say the French, laïcité, which is not the American way but the French way. You’ve got very strict versions of that, say like North Korea or China. And clearly, since most people in the world are religious, that is not just unfair for most people in the world.

The answer, I believe, is what’s called a civil public square, where people of all faiths, including atheism, which is a worldview, too. People of all faiths, and if you like, no faith, are guaranteed freedom of conscience, and they’re free to enter and engage public life on the basis of their faith. But, here’s the big but, within a framework, which everyone’s agreed to and taught, of what is just and free for everyone else too. So a right for a Christian is a right for an atheist, is a right for a Jew, is a right for a Mormon, is a right for a Scientologist, is a right for a Buddhist, or a Hindu, or a Muslim. A right for one is a right for another, and a responsibility for both of them. Now, you’ve got to establish that and teach people, as I said, a habit of the heart, school kids, family members, and so that they know how to deal with other people civilly.

Now, civility doesn’t mean we have to agree with people in whatever they believe, no. The way I put it is this: the right to believe anything does not mean that anything anyone believes is right. So you guarantee their right to believe what they believe. That’s precious and inalienable. But one’s also free and responsible to disagree if you think their ideas are muddle-headed, socially disastrous, or even profoundly morally evil. And so civility is not a moral indifference. It actually frees people to be faithful to what they believe, but teaches them how to disagree with other people civilly. Or, as it’s put, disagree agreeably.

The Relationship of Liberty and Equality

Os Guinness:

The relationship of liberty and equality always has to be monitored. They’re not contradictory, but they’re in competition. Too much liberty can lead to terrible inequities and injustice and there are elements of our modern society that are like that today. Too much equality at the expense of liberty stifles liberty altogether. And you can see the American Revolution put the stress on liberty. The French Revolution put the stress on equality. Now, what’s wrong with equality because we’re seeing a new stirring of that say in the Occupy Movement or the Sexual Revolution with non-discrimination? Well, first, equality is always artificial. Human beings are simply not equal. Intelligence, strength, capacity to make money, whatever, we’re not equal. So to make them equal is artificial. Secondly, it always appeals to envy and that leveling impulse, which is extremely dangerous. Nietzsche calls it “the power of resentment,” and that’s extremely dangerous.

Thirdly, though, you have to have an umpire to say what equality is. So what you do is strengthen the umpire, which in today’s terms is the national state. And so you appeal more and more to the state and you have more and more “equality and non-discrimination” and less and less liberty. So we’ve always got to monitor that relationship very, very carefully. Liberty should always trump equality if we value liberty, which we do in America and in much of the West. And we are not the French Revolution. We’re not Socialists and Communists. But we mustn’t let liberty run rampant and produce such savage inequities and inequalities that it actually leads to a desire for equality that stifles liberty.

The Paradox of Freedom and The Types of Freedom: Negative and Positive

Os Guinness:

There is a paradox about freedom and you put it very simply, freedom’s greatest enemy is freedom. And we need to understand why. The ultimate reason for that is, all freedom requires some framework, freedom within a framework. The only appropriate framework for freedom is self restraint. But of course, self restraint is precisely what freedom undermines when it flourishes, you lose self restraint and become unrestrained and permissive and licentious and freedom undermines itself. So one of the great things today is to get people to think through what freedom is. I was at Oxford with the great Jewish philosopher, Isaiah Berlin, and he’s famous for his argument, there’s two types of freedom, negative and positive. Negative freedom is freedom from, free from colonial oppression, free from alcoholic addiction, free from bullying, you name it. That’s freedom from, that’s essential, but only preliminary.

Positive freedom is freedom for, freedom to be. Now that requires truth, because you got to know what you’re supposed to be, to be really free to be it. Now today you look around America, all freedom is negative. Get the government off my back, say the liberals in terms of their bodies and abortion. Get the government off my back, say conservatives in terms of taxes and other things. It’s a purely libertarian negative freedom. But libertarian freedom will never ever, be sustainable. You’ve got to know what people are free for and free to be. So we need to ignite a fresh debate today on the very nature of freedom.

The Relationship between Freedom and Democracy

Os Guinness:

Put differently, I think we’ve got to examine some of the uncritical notions surrounding freedom. And one of the main ones is the link between freedom and democracy. Anyone who knows history and the history of great thinking knows that the earliest thinkers warn that democracy often leads to tyranny, and say, the George W. Bush idea that freedom and democracy would sweep the world hand in hand is rubbish. It was Plato who was very leery of democracy. They had killed his mentor, Socrates, not the oligarchs, the democrats did. And you can see many democracies are highly illiberal Americans becoming like that, many monarchies are much more liberal than democracies and every totalitarian country proclaims itself democratic.

As you know, Hitler was voted in by 51.4% of the population of Germany. So say when the Arab Spring broke out, we should have been much more realistic. Edmund Burke looked at the French Revolution and knew that what he called the wild gas of liberty would not lead to freedom, but to tyranny. And in the same way, they didn’t have the foundations for democracy or freedom in the Middle East, and the so-called Arab Spring has led to an Arab Winter in countries like Syria. So we’ve got a, speaking earlier of the confusion between liberty and equality. This one’s equally important because of George W. Bush, that link between liberty and democracy needs to be looked at very, very carefully, because it’s not automatic.

Who “invented” Western freedom’s worldview? What is it?

Os Guinness:

Our Western view of freedom obviously comes from the Jews, “Let my people go.” But also from the Greeks, their heroic stance against the Persians at Thermopylae and Salamis and so on. But out of that came a great deep understanding. And certainly freedom requires truth. Freedom requires a framework. Freedom requires a worldview. Freedom, to use the modern jargon, requires a narrative in which to understand it.

And there are different views of freedom. Say Buddhist freedom, stoic freedom, atheist freedom, and Jewish and Christian freedom. They’re all rather different. Now, Jewish and Christian freedom are the same. Freedom is a gift of God that’s discovered in relationships, but it requires truth. We got to know what we’re free to be. As Lord Acton says, “Freedom is not the permission to do what you like. It’s the power to do what you ought,” but you got to know what you ought to be to do it.

Are we just accidents of the universe? Well, freedom will be a bare autonomy, let everyone do what they can in their own freedom. Or are we made in the image of God, and we’re not animals, we’re not accidents? And we have a different view of what it means to be fully ourselves and to be fully free. So, yes, freedom requires truth. It assumes and requires truth. And that obviously is shaped by people’s different worldviews.

So someone like a postmodern thinker, Michel Foucault, the radical, “There is no such thing as truth.” He’s following Nietzsche. Truth is dead. Knowledge is power. So all you look at is the power relationship. That is disastrous, because it lead to power games and to manipulation, and that’s what some liberal rights are becoming. If you disagree with my right, I override your right because my right is the current one, the fashionable one. So this is outrageous. Religious freedom is the first freedom.

But now say in the name of the Sexual Revolution, and there’s a White House person who argues this. Gay rights are zero sum rights. So if anyone disagrees, they got to be wiped out totally. Well, what she’s doing is cutting off the branch on which she’s sitting. She’s saying it’s only a power game. There are no such thing as rights if one right just rules out another right because it’s no longer fashionable. That’s absolutely disastrous. So we need to encourage Americans to think through, what are freedoms? What are rights? And to think through, in a radical way, what they are in order to reestablish them in a healthy way again.

What is a worldview? Do all human beings have a “faith”?

Os Guinness:

I often today use the word faith, or philosophy of life, or worldview to point out that everybody, without any exception, has one. In other words, you can have a supernatural worldview such as the Jewish and Christian faiths, or you can have a secular worldview such as atheism or materialism or naturalism, but they are both a worldview. So I say to my atheist friends, “It’s time for you to stop calling yourselves atheists, we know you are not theists, but what are you?” Because whatever you say you are, naturalists, materialists, or whatever, that is your worldview. And you have the right of freedom of conscience to believe that, but it is just one worldview among many worldviews.

And it’s not that all the others are religious but you’re not, so you escape the challenge. No, yours is a worldview too. And that would be thoroughly acceptable philosophically, thoroughly acceptable sociologically. Many of our atheist friends, they cheat by pretending they’re not a faith, not a worldview, and so they can escape all this talk. So religious freedom they say, “Freedom for the religious.” No, no, we all have different worldviews, we all need to have sense, we all need to find meaning in life and belonging in life, and that’s what our worldviews supply.

Can we remove worldviews or faith from the public square? Are all faiths correct?

Os Guinness:

Sam Harris, one of the New Atheists, talks about the end of faith. And you can see one of the strands in New Atheism is the hope that we’ll get beyond all religion altogether. I happen to be a Christian, but if I was to answer that sociologically or anthropologically, that is extremely unlikely. Because all human beings need meaning, they want to make sense of life, they need belonging, they want to find security in the world. And the deepest answers to those come from their worldviews, their faiths. And of course, the religious ones, at least appear to be deeper. Why? Because the religious see their answers as tied in like an umbilical cord to the very nature of the universe itself. Whereas, every atheist knows in his heart, he’s done it himself. It’s a do-it-yourself faith. Some person, Bertrand Russell, whoever has concocted it, and other people are going along with him.

But it’s very obviously a do-it-yourself invention of certain human beings, which is why it will never have the deep adequacy of a religious answer. And I would say religious answer, even if the answer’s wrong. In other words, if Judaism and the Christian faith are correct, Buddhism is wrong. Hinduism is wrong. There’s no two ways about it. The mushy thinking that they all say the same thing underneath, Karen’s Armstrong’s view, is radically wrong. You can nowhere you can say a Buddhist world view is the same as a Jewish worldview. One of them’s right, one of them’s wrong. They could both be wrong, but you can’t have them both right. And there’s an awful lot of mushy thinking that’s flowing around, so we’ve got to get our atheist friends to see their worldview, that’s a faith too.

Secularism, Atheism, and the Founders

Os Guinness:

I try and use the word secular and secularist carefully because the original meaning of the word secular just meant this age. And it was Christians who used it. And Christian view of creation, you put a premium on the importance of this age and things like the arts and good food and sex and so on. These are secular things. There’s nothing wrong with the secular. What’s wrong to me is what I disagree with is a secularist worldview, which says there are no gods or the supernatural at all. And that I think is what’s dangerous. If you go back to the framers, they said, yes, freedom requires virtue. Virtue requires faith of some sort. Now they’re absolutely clear atheists have freedom of conscience. There’s no question about that. They guaranteed protected freedom of conscience for everybody, including atheists. But, some of the framers, people like Alexander Hamilton and John Adams, are very leery about having a society of atheists.

Why? Because there’d be no solid grounding for virtue. And if you think the highest inspiration for being virtuous comes from faith, the strongest content saying what virtue is, think of the seven deadly sins comes from faith, and also the toughest sanctions for what happens to people who are non-virtuous, take say the notion of hell, that comes from faith. So the framers were very leery about a secularist-based worldview being adequate. And if you read John Adams, his letters to Davila, he almost predicts without predicting our modern understanding of postmodernism, a world as he puts it without any father, where human beings are no different from the savages. And in that world, he wonders if the secularism can really provide the virtue which will sustain American freedom. And of course we’re seeing the outplaying of that in our own generation.

Islam, Freedom, and Modernity

Os Guinness:

Traditional Islam is deadly in its opposition to freedom of conscience. There’s no question of that, but you can see in our modern world this is changing. The modern situation, I’ll use the technical jargon. People talk about demonopolization, deterritorialization, deconfessionalization. In other words, used to say in the past, Ireland, Catholic, Iran, Muslim. Certain countries had certain beliefs and everyone in those country went along with it. That’s what’s breaking up with this explosion of diversity.

So what you see is more and more Muslims in the modern world, and now in Muslim minority situations. And the huge majority of them adapt well to notions like freedom of conscience. In other words, we see the violence and the terrorism. That’s the tiny minority, and they are people who think, “We’ve nothing left to lose.”

Take, say, the impact of the modern world on Aboriginal people, say the Eskimos, the Intuits, or the Amazon forest rain people, or the Australian Aborigines. Modernity is so shattering. They’ve lost everything. They commit suicide in unprecedented numbers. And that’s what you see in the suicide bombers. In other words, you have a desperado Islam, nothing left to lose. And so they want to take everyone with them, but that’s not the majority of Muslims. So I would say watch modernity.

In the social sciences, it was said that the day that Raisa Gorbachev, Gorbachev’s wife, was seen carrying an American Express card, the Soviet Union was finished. Modernity is like a solvent opening up closed societies. Now the same is true of closed religions. China, it’s only a matter of time before China opens up, whether it’s technology or capitalism opening up.

There was a while 10 years ago, when the most popular television program in Iran, the Iran of the ayatollahs, was Baywatch. In other words, Iran is kind of like a house eaten by white ants. It looks Islamic. Behind it, you can see modernity creating the bubbles of coming freedom. And it’s only a matter of time before Iran goes that way too. So I have no fear of Iran.

Plus you add one more factor. The decline in fertility and population growth in Muslim countries is the fastest in all world history. And when that happens, they don’t have the economy to go through it. Their GDP is something like 10% of Europeans. So Europeans are facing the same challenge, declining population, but they have a much greater economy to take through it without social unrest. That will not be true in the Middle East. So for various reasons, I am not an alarmist about Islam. We’ve got to be thoroughly realistic. The president’s speech in Cairo was utopian. We got to be realistic, but we needn’t be fearful.

On Capitalism and Consumerism

Os Guinness:

The old idea was, everything you could produce, you could market and consume. But with the rise of industrial productions, the inventories were stacked, and you had to have the rise of aggressive selling techniques to get people to buy what they didn’t need, and so on, in order to keep the whole thing going. Now, one of the impacts of this, is the way that consumerism, particularly in the 1960s, was changed as a kind of vehicle for identity. So the clothes you wore, the car you drive, the music you listened to, “This is me,” and it’s an artificial sense of identity, which is absolutely illusory and disastrous. So you can take very practical things like the production of debt, which has been disastrous for capitalism. Or, the spurious freedoms you can create through consumerism.

We’ve got to do a critique of what’s become an idol in the West. We’ve created a disordered consumer-land of desire. Nietzsche predicted this. He talked about the last men, a world of mass hedonism, where people would only care about two things: their own health and their own happiness. And he was what they call the lost men, little people who didn’t have any understanding about the good life and the good society. And we’re in that world today. Much America is in an extraordinary place of apathy, and indifference, and hedonism, because of the impact of the triumph of consumerism. And I think anyone who cares about humanity, certainly Jews and Christians, should have a very powerful critique of the emptiness of the idolatry of consumerism.

Challenge to America: Stop Squandering Your Principles of Religious Freedom

Os Guinness:

When the American founders pursued the dreams of their revolution, they were totally out of step with 1,500, nearly 2,000 years of European ways of doing things, but they knew this was a more free, more just, more harmonious way of going forward. And they hoped that if they were a city on a hill, others would follow. It should be the same today. I see the world religiously in terms of freedom like this, you’ve got America, which has had 200 and a third odd centuries of dealing with these things, way ahead of much of the world, but squandering it today. You’ve got Europe, which has got many of these things there. The first principles are there, but they’ve never developed them like they have here. So they’re way behind the US. And then you’ve got many of the other countries in the world with government oppression, sectarian violence, no freedom at all.

So my challenge would be, Americans, live up to your great past, and help the Europeans to take these first principles and see them blossoming. For example, Europe is thick with laws, but it has nothing of what Tocqueville calls the habits of the heart, which is why the laws, which are laws about freedom, are actually becoming restrictive. And America’s going the same way. Everything’s now to the Supreme Court litigation, and you have a country growing more and more litigious losing freedom. But obviously, it’ll take while for America to regain its position. It’ll be a while before Europe does. And it’ll be a long, long while, say, before the Middle East, which we see today going through a massive convulsion.

The Need for New Vision Beyond Culture Wars

Os Guinness:

At the moment when it comes to religious freedom and the culture warring, we have masses of good academic studies, no need for anymore there. We’ve got hundreds of people protesting what’s wrong, monitoring violations and so on. We don’t need that much more there. We need to keep on doing it. The tragedy is the missing lack of a constructive vision of how to go forward and the trouble is in the bitterness of the culture warring, no one’s interested in that. They’re just interested in how the other side is wrong, how we can use the other side’s error to lift ourselves a bit for the next election or whatever. No one’s interested in the constructive solution.

So, my passion is to try and create a vision of a constructive solution and I would hope at some point some national leader … and America’s greatest problem today is lack of national leadership. Some national leader will be like a Lincoln and say in effect, “A plague on both your houses. Here is a better way forward for America, in the light of our past, but also America showing a way for the whole world.” So I would hope that some leader, now, of course, that would mean that some reviewer, some thinker like a David Brooks or someone like that would pick it up and make the point in The New York Times, The Washington Post, or wherever. At the moment that lack of a constructive answer is the bottleneck.

Os’ Top Three Leaders of Modern W Civ Influencing Freedom

Os Guinness:

It’d be hard to pick just three, but my first would be my fellow Irishman, Edmund Burke, who still I think remains the greatest thinker in understanding the place of freedom and the importance of traditions and moral standards. And essentially a conservative view of freedom that is highly realistic.

Second in this country, I know it’d be offensive down below the Mason Dixon line, one would have to say Abraham Lincoln, for the courage of his stand above the fray and his wrestling through in such an extraordinary way of what the horror of the Civil War meant under God to America and to freedom.

And the third would be my own hero whom I had the privilege of meeting when I was a teenager, Winston Churchill. And he understood instinctively that World War II was a war for freedom. And of course, his genius was not just his leadership, but his incredible ability to articulate freedom in a powerful way, and to inspire people as backs against the wall who were defeatist and apathetic, to really see that this was a struggle for freedom. And if we prevail, this would be, as you put it, their finest hour.

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