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Os Guinness on "A Free People’s Suicide"

It was a dark and stormy night … or, as Os Guinness put it, a “windswept English evening” this past Tuesday as a crowd assembled at the DC National Press Club for a talk hosted by the Trinity Forum. The tornado watch in effect for the mid-Atlantic suited the topic at hand: “A Free People’s Suicide: Sustainable Freedom and the American Future”(also the title of Dr. Guinness’s recent book). “What kind of people do you Americans think you are?” the China-born Englishman posed at the outset. Augustine, he offered, defined a people by their “loved thing held in common.” Without a doubt, America’s supreme love is freedom. And the health of a nation can be diagnosed through the health of its object of affection. We should pause here for a moment to establish what kind of freedom we are talking about. The founders’ definition of freedom includes, but is not limited to, negative freedom, or freedom from external abuse of power. Sustainable freedom, according to Os and the authors of the Constitution, includes negative freedom but it also adds the essential element of vision for a positive way of life. So how fares Lady Liberty these days? Neglected, abused and ripe for suicide watch, says Os. Why? The greatest threat to freedom, he argues, comes not from “the wolves at the door, but the termites in the floor.” We Americans—the enemy within—are the termites. But Guinness doesn’t mean for us to accept such an unfortunate identity; instead he calls us to action, offering a strategy to change the future through a better understanding of our past. The founders outlined three clear tasks required of a free people: win freedom, order freedom and sustain freedom. Brave rebel colonists fought their way through step one. Our most lauded piece of parchment records a masterful version of step two, which remains essential 225 years after being written, as Wesley Gant discussed in his Constitution Day post last week. But then there’s step three, sustaining freedom (cue the gathering clouds), the doubly difficult task of perpetuating formal structures of liberty and cultivating citizens who embody the “spirit of liberty,” as Montesquieu described. Even if our institutions and Constitution remain intact, freedom can still flounder—and even die—if the people lack what Tocqueville called “habits of the heart.” John Adams put it this way: “Avarice, ambition, revenge or gallantry would break the strongest cords of our Constitution as a whale goes through a net. Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.” Adams’s reference to virtue and faith lead to Os’s solution: the “golden triangle of freedom,” a recipe for sustainable freedom derived from the founders’ wisdom. Here’s the triangle, which circulates ad infinitum: 
  • Freedom requires virtue
  • Virtue requires faith of some kind
  • Genuine faith requires freedom
Let’s take the triangle leg by leg.

Freedom requires virtue

The only restraint appropriate for a free people is self-restraint. Therein lies the conundrum of sustainable freedom: Freedom depends upon people invested in its flourishing, but a free people cannot be forced to work toward that end. As Thomas Paine recognized, “those who expect to reap the blessings of freedom must, like men, undergo the fatigues of supporting it.” But as free men, they cannot be forced to comply.

Virtue requires faith of some kind

In a secularized age, this claim stirs controversy. But even the non-religious contingent of the founders recognized that religious beliefs provide the “thick” definitions of virtue and vice that both lay groundwork for citizens’ self-restraint and also cast a vision for the good life. While no citizen is required to acknowledge the creator, we all derive benefits (at the very least, a Bill of Rights) from the claim that “All men are created equal.”

Genuine faith requires freedom

While faith may be intertwined with American institutions, true faith itself depends upon not having been established as an official institution. The unique accomplishment of the First Amendment is to establish freedom of conscience, permitting individuals to hold and express genuine beliefs, whatever they may be. But this accomplishment sets up what Os calls the democratic gamble: “The best, most true, most human, most just, most liberating and most beautiful views must prevail in open debate in generation after generation. If they do not, the American experiment will fail in the end, especially if there is no agreement as to whether there is any such thing as truth underlying the debates.”

Can we sustain our freedom? Looking at the demands of golden triangle and the guidebook of history, our prognosis is grim but not hopeless. Every great society before us has fallen, and freedom “can no more take a holiday from history than from gravity.” But our future is still an open one: The chapter ahead can tell a story of renewal instead of decline. For the way forward, Os offers one more triad—three ways to revive Lady Liberty:
  • Strengthen civic education to add the “Unum” back to the “Pluribus”
  • Re-open a civil public square where we can work through the disagreements that accompany diversity without giving way to gridlock and shouting matches between extremes
  • Cultivate leaders with character and vision (Where are the Washingtons and Lincolns of today? How can we identify—or become—these “indispensable people?”)
Why does Os care so much about America? Before adjourning, Os took a moment to explain why, as an American visitor, he cares so deeply about the American experiment in freedom and the crisis before us. The ideals of freedom, he noted, branch back into English history and far beyond. The fragile bloom of our liberty embodies the thoughts and labors of ages preceding us, which means the path ahead goes far beyond our own. Tocqueville said, “In a revolution, as in a novel, the most difficult part to invent is the end.” Os left the audience with a question and a charge: “Are there enough citizens who are still able to turn aside from the tyranny of the ‘obsessive now’ and consider a restoration of the first things of this great republic—and live up to the unfulfilled potential of America’s great experiment in freedom?” It’s up to our generation to answer.