‘Like a precious family heirloom, freedom is not just ours to enjoy, but to treasure, protect, and pass on to future generations,” says Os Guinness in an interview with NRO’s Kathryn Jean Lopez. Guinness, great grandson of that famous Dublin brewer, has recently written a book, A Free People’s Suicide: Sustainable Freedom and the American Future. Here, the social critic helps remind us of what’s special about the United States.
KATHRYN JEAN LOPEZ: What concerns you about freedom in the United States as you watch us right before a presidential election?
OS GUINNESS: I am a longtime admirer of the U.S. and its enormous significance for the world. But as your presidential elections have become more and more of grand popularity contest, dominated by money to an obscene degree, they have less and less to say about the real “state of the Union.” One of the recent conventions, for example, was well described as “more Pat Boone than Winston Churchill.” The present condition of American freedom is only one of many themes that are conspicuous by their absence in this election.
LOPEZ: “Suicide,” in the title of your new book, is a bit strong, isn’t it?
GUINNESS: The title comes from Abraham Lincoln: “As a nation of freemen, we must live through all time, or die by suicide.” On the one hand, he was referring to the open-ended challenge of what George Washington earlier called “the great experiment” — and experiments are always open-ended. On the other hand, he was echoing a point made by many historians: Strong free peoples bring themselves down. It won’t be the Nazis, the Soviets, or Islamic extremists who bring America down, but Americans and American ideas.
LOPEZ: From an outsider’s perspective, are you saying, “Who do you Americans think you are”? Do you think we overestimate our importance in the world?
GUINNESS: I would caution against the tone of hubris that is so common in American rhetoric, especially after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989 — hubris being not only overweening pride but also the illusion of invulnerability. References to “American exceptionalism,” the “second American century,” and the like roll off the tongue easily and send patriotic shivers down the spines of American audiences. But when they are used as a litmus test of patriotism, they inoculate Americans against thinking seriously about the real health of the Republic and America’s true standing in the world in the global era.
LOPEZ: “Freedom must be guarded vigilantly against internal as well as external dangers,” you say. How can we do this?
GUINNESS: Awareness of domestic dangers was a characteristic emphasis of the Founders, and they learned it from their reading of classical writers, such as the Greek historian Polybius and the great Roman orator Cicero. Curiously, the Founders actually downplayed the danger of external enemies and emphasized the menace of internal enemies, such as Polybius’s notion of “the corruption of customs.” The present generation of Americans, on the other hand, has done the opposite, and so concentrated on external menaces (Homeland Security, and so on) that it has almost completely ignored internal dangers. In the long run, the internal dangers will prove the more important.
LOPEZ: How is freedom the greatest enemy of freedom?
GUINNESS: The rewards of freedom are always sweet, but its demands are stern, for at its heart is the paradox that the greatest enemy of freedom is freedom. There are several reasons for this, but the deepest concerns a simple moral fact: True freedom requires ordering, and the only ordering appropriate to freedom is self-restraint, yet self-restraint is precisely what freedom invariably undermines when it flourishes. So the most common way to lose freedom is to allow it to slide down into permissiveness and then license.
LOPEZ: What do mean when you say that freedom could prove to be “America’s idol”?
GUINNESS: By “idol,” I mean the Jewish and Christian understanding of the term as something of great human importance and value that is elevated into being a supreme ground of trust and then an object of devotion, when it should not be asked to bear that weight and it will always disappoint its devotees. Freedom is often idolized like that in the U.S., as if it were supreme, self-evident, and self-sustaining. I refuse to take part, for example, when Americans sing the hymn about freedom’s “holy light.” I have lived under totalitarian Communism, so I prize freedom as much as anyone and have long fought for freedom of conscience and speech. But freedom must be understood and guarded with great realism, and we must never forget its limits and its duties.
LOPEZ: What is “sustainable freedom”? It sounds as if it might have something to do with green jobs.
GUINNESS: “Sustainability” is a vogue term today. People talk about sustainable pretty well everything — sustainable development, sustainable capitalism, sustainable environments — but curiously no one talks about sustainable freedom. The American Founders, in contrast, knew that they faced three tasks in establishing this great Republic: winning freedom (the Revolution), ordering freedom (the Constitution), and sustaining freedom (or “perpetuating our institutions,” as they put it). Needless to say, the third task is ours today, but I have only ever heard one American (John Gardner), and not a single national American leader, address the need to renew freedom in every generation. That is amazing because the Founders’ view of how to sustain freedom is probably the most brilliant and audacious proposal the world has known, but at the very moment they most need it, modern Americans ignore it.
LOPEZ: What do you mean by the “golden triangle of freedom?”
GUINNESS: “The golden triangle of freedom” is my term for the means by which the Founders believed they could create a free society that could stay free forever — which, if you think about it, was and is an extraordinarily daring idea. Alexis de Tocqueville called it “the habits of the heart,” but the Founders themselves never gave it a name. It runs like this: Freedom requires virtue, virtue requires faith of some sort, and faith of any sort requires freedom — which in turn requires virtue, and so on ad infinitum. From orthodox and conservative Christians such as George Mason right across to deists and freethinkers such as Thomas Jefferson and Ben Franklin, there was virtual unanimity over this emphasis. But it nearly goes without saying that all three legs of the triangle are either contested or openly dismissed today. But if the Founders’ system is abandoned, what will go in its place? I have never heard anyone give a moment’s thought to that question.
LOPEZ: How is the problem of freedom the “problem of the heart”?
GUINNESS: From St. Augustine to Machiavelli to John Kenneth Galbraith, many commentators, despite their very different worldviews, have blamed the instability of free societies on the restlessness of the human heart. This is made worse today because of the way our consumer societies are deliberately fuelled through stoking restlessness. We have replaced the notion of the good life with our consumer ideal of the life with goods, and in the process we have plunged ourselves deeper and deeper into debt, and we cannot stop. Have you ever pondered the irony of the prevalence of addictions and recovery groups in the land of the free?
LOPEZ: How have Americans become their own worst enemies?
GUINNESS: There are many varieties of freedom in America today, but they share a common characteristic: In Isaiah Berlin’s terms, they are essentially negative and not positive. This means that Americans have both abandoned the Founders’ view of sustainable, negative freedom (the freedom not to be interfered with) and espoused notions of positive freedom (the “freedom” to have various guaranteed benefits) that are unsustainable in their essence. Thus it is only a matter of time before American freedom will undermine itself. If things go on as they are now, the time will come when, as the designer of the Titanic said, it will be a mathematical certainty that the ship will sink.
LOPEZ: How can we be better stewards of freedom? Why should we be?
GUINNESS: In today’s climate of atomistic individualism, we rarely think of our ancestors and even less of our children’s children. (“What has posterity ever done for us?”) But like a precious family heirloom, freedom is not just ours to enjoy, but to treasure, protect, and pass on to future generations. The missing key to sustainable freedom is civic education and transmission. It used to be understood that in a free society, everyone is born free, but not everyone is capable of it. Citizens have to be educated for liberty, which was once called liberal or civic education. Yet this practice has disappeared all over the Western world, and certainly in American public education since the 1960s. Without civic education, freedom can never become a “habit of the heart.”
LOPEZ: You write: “Unless America succeeds in revaluing citizenship, in restoring civic education, and in revitalizing education that proves as powerful as the potency of mass entertainment and consumer advertising, the American unum will no longer be able to balance the American pluribus, and America’s freedom itself will continue to wither.” We can’t exactly do that before November 6, can we?
GUINNESS: No, restoring civic education and forming the habits of the heart will take at least a generation, and it will have to start with serious leadership that America so obviously now lacks. But unless such a restoration happens, the consequences will be severe, for E pluribus unum is not only America’s motto but also its greatest achievement and its greatest need. The American unum has been lost since the Sixties. If this continues, there will soon be no unifying American identity and vision to balance the pluribus, and the days of the Republic will be numbered.
LOPEZ: Does all this matter to Europe in a particular way?
GUINNESS: Your Founders called America the novus ordo seclorum, and historians termed the U.S. “the first new nation,” but the rest of the world went on its ancient way unimpressed. Today in the global era, however, almost all the world is experiencing the gale-force winds of modernity that the U.S. faced and answered — mostly with striking success — more than two centuries ago. Seen this way, never has America been more relevant to the world than now. Thus the European Union now talks of “unity out of diversity” instead of E pluribus unum. But at the very moment when the American model is more relevant than ever, America has lost its sense of identity and lost confidence in its own way. The brilliant settlement between religion and public life, for example, which James Madison called “the true remedy,” is being squandered through the now-50 years of fruitless culture wars. Yet who dares say “a plague on both your houses” and then find a way forward in the interest of all Americans? No one, to my knowledge.
LOPEZ: Could today’s time of testing be as decisive as the Civil War?
GUINNESS: The crisis of freedom touches the very heart of America, and as it is deepened and intensified by the many movements coming out of the 1960s, it will prove more decisive for America than the depression years of the 1930s, and it may even rival the Civil War era for the decisive stamp it puts on America.
LOPEZ: “No self-respecting American will ever be opposed to freedom any more than to love” — you have hit on the problem there, haven’t you? Who is going to believe that the Obama administration is truly eroding religious freedom? Who will believe that the president doesn’t value it as we have in the past? He must obviously value it on some level, by definition.
GUINNESS: The Obama administration has been talking, but not walking its own talk. If you listen to the president’s remarks on religious freedom, and even more to the powerful speech by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, you would hear statements worthy of Roger Williams and James Madison. But their health-care mandates tell a different story. Kowtowing to the LGBT agenda, this administration stands in shame as perhaps the greatest official violator of freedom of thought, conscience, religion, and belief in American history.
LOPEZ: If Americans would immediately appreciate only one thing about our freedom, what would you hope it would be?
GUINNESS: I would hope that Americans would thank God for their freedom and celebrate the achievements of their great pioneers of freedom — with an equally frank admission of the egregious blind spots and shortcomings. But at the same time, they need to reexamine the subtle challenges of freedom, and in particular face up to the tough requirements of what it takes to sustain freedom. The American Founders got slavery and the place of women badly wrong from the start. But the world has never seen a more brilliant and daring answer to the instability and transience of freedom than theirs. The question today is whether, as their heirs, you are worthy of that gift and are able to keep it going. I hope and pray you are and will.
— Kathryn Jean Lopez is editor-at-large of National Review Online.