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

Os Guinness
Published by InterVarsity Press in 2012

Mark A. Noll is the Francis A. McAnaney Professor of History at the University of Notre Dame.

Os Guinness’ A Free People’s Suicide is a vigorous jeremiad that paints a dark picture of contemporary U.S. society while offering an equally dark account of the American presence in the world. Although in a last short chapter Guinness denies that his account of American “decline” leads “only to nostalgia or despair” (192), the tone of the book is unrelievably gloomy. His effort to halt suicidal drift is a brief appeal to restoration—of civic education, of a “civil public square” (194), and of much stronger checks against “the rampant imperialism of the spheres” (195) specified as business, law, education, entertainment, and especially the state.

By contrast, the book expands at length on a full catalogue of contemporary maladies. These maladies, in Guinness’ account, stem from the nation’s flight from the genesis of the American founding: the practices and principles that secured liberty, ordered liberty, and provided for the sustaining of liberty. While he has a few reservations concerning how American liberty was obtained, there are almost no reservations about how that liberty was ordered in a constitutional settlement that balanced federal and local authority, separated the agencies of power, and disestablished the churches in order to allow maximum “soul liberty.” Guinness likewise offers no reservations about how the founders hoped to sustain liberty. That challenge required “the golden triangle of freedom”: “freedom requires vir-tue, which requires faith, which requires freedom, which in turn requires virtue … and so on … ad infinitum” (99).

Through a series of aptly chosen quotations from ancient Greeks and Romans, early modern savants like Montesquieu and Tocqueville, but mostly from the founding fathers, Guinness spells out what he means by each side of his triangle. “Virtue” is the non-coerced, but essential integrity of character that the founders hoped would act alongside constitutional checks and balances to avoid the fatal errors of classical republicanism (relying only on virtue) and what has become the rootless modern obsession with law (constitutionalism without a moral founda-tion). “Freedom” means the negative absence of forced restraint but also, crucially, the positive pursuit of personal and civic excellence. Guinness explains “faith” less exactly than either “virtue” or “freedom,” but roots it in traditional Judeo-Christian values, mentioning once the conviction that all humans bear the image of God.

In a book that intermittently risks falling into an abyss of abstractions, Guinness avoids that fate with a multi-level diagnosis of the errors that threaten sustained liberty and that are leading a free people to suicide:

• the exaltation of public constitutionalism alongside the denigration of personal moral integrity (that is, the relegation of virtue to a private sphere and treatment of morality as irrelevant to public civic performance);
• the secularization of American law;• abortion on demand;
• the lapse of the founders’ insistence on separation of powers;• a “moneyed aristocracy” replacing “the founders’ aristocracy of virtue” (116);
• the conservative insistence on prayer in public schools and on funding of faith-based initiatives (as infected by over-reliance on monopolistic state hegemony);
• the postmodern denial of truth;• the failure of public schools to teach character and to assimilate immigrants to American values;
• the “corruption of custom” respecting marriage and family;
• the definition of freedom simply as ever-expanding choice;• the critically unexamined foundations of secular humanism;
• the libertarian advocacy of complete governmental restraint;• the “overstretched military” (179) in Afghanistan and Iraq;
• the international actions that pay no attention to how others view U.S. power;
• the international actions that violate principles of American freedom; and
• the once-prevalent enthusiasm for subprime mortgages and credit default swaps.

The book, in other words, can be regarded as a précis of Brad Gregory’s recent exposure of “the culture of whatever” in his magisterial The Unintended Reformation combined with Andrew Bacevich’s excoriation of American military adventurism in his biting Washington Rules.1

A Free People’s Suicide demands respectful attention for its effort to trace con-temporary American problems to the abandonment of wisdom that Guinness sees in ancient Judaism, the early American Puritans, and preeminently the national founding fathers. It also offers a convincing general account of the many pathologies that plague contemporary American society, the nation’s current domestic policies, and its misadventures overseas. Above all, the book is convincing about how the American founding fathers attempted to set up a republic that could secure liberty in perpetuity. But the book also prompts unanswered questions.

First, do the ideas and practices of the founders deserve such unqualified reverence? Guinness acknowledges, but only briefly, the great hypocrisy when patriotic leaders mobilized to throw off the substantially metaphorical “enslavement” of Parliament while maintaining a system of actual slavery themselves. The pertinent concern is whether it is wise to advocate uncritically a political system that at its origin involved a great deal of half-truth and hypocrisy. Guinness does not bring up the question of the justice of the American War for Independence, which at least some Christian believers at that time and since have judged questionable by standards of just cause and due proportionality. Such matters do not mean the achievements of the founding generation were negligible; it does mean that the founders belong firmly within the realm of the ordinary human, with some outstanding features and some questionable features. But they do not deserve to escape the keen moral judgments that Guinness brings to bear so perceptively on the present.

A thought experiment can suggest why the ideals of the founders might be worth viewing in less than absolute terms. Imagine today a polity that did not feature a separation of powers and where the goal was as much freedom as possible but with a higher goal of preserving maximum social order (instead of the American pattern of as much order as possible but with a higher goal of preserving maximum freedom)—and imagine that in this polity it was mandated by law and custom that all children be raised by two adult parents in a life-long covenanted relationship. Would not such a polity promote a much healthier society than we know today with powers at least theoretically separated, freedom prized above all, and society collapsing under the social tsunami of single parenthood? Put another way, at what point is it better to abridge current practices of freedom instead of trying to re-attach those practices to now substantially abandoned earlier standards of virtue and faith?

Second, if the American founding was not as pure as the book suggests, neither has been the course of American history. Without questioning the seriousness of Guinness’ assessment of the present, are its evils in fact qualitatively worse than the evils of earlier generations? Think of the era of Andrew Jackson: a deep depression created by ideologically driven monetary policies, brutal displacement of Native Americans entailing much death and violent theft of property, intensification of a slave system that prohibited human chattel from learning to read even the Scriptures, hyped religions dragooned into supporting divisive public policies, and a war of unprovoked imperialism against Mexico. To be sure, much in American society today is worse—especially respecting marriage and the family—but some things even in our modern secular America are better morally than in earlier eras. The point is that idealizing a past that was itself deeply flawed in its particulars is not the best way to remedy the particular problems of the present.

Third, the book’s reticence about the connection between faith and virtue seems odd. Guinness acknowledges that there is “probably no chance of reordering society effectively unless there is a reforming and successful reordering of the faiths of the citizens too” (197), but he does not take up what such a reordering of faith would look like. It is obvious that Guinness does not stand with advocates of “Christian America” or those who appeal to II Chronicles 7:14 as their antidote for the nation’s ills. And there is very good reason that he does not. Yet such advocates do insist—it seems to me correctly and very much in line with what it takes to make Guinness’ “golden triangle” function—that spiritual renewal is absolutely essential for supporting the virtue without which a republic built on freedom must fail. Guinness seems to say that almost any kind of faith would do—Thomas Jefferson’s deism, Benjamin Franklin’s skeptical moralism, Dwight Eisenhower’s generic “religion,” robust Islam, or some variety of orthodox Christianity. Yet by not specifying what sort of faith would actually support which kind of virtue, there is a void at the heart of the book’s argument. In our current setting there are many options being proposed as the religion without which liberty fails—several varieties each of Catholicism, Protestantism, humanism, Judaism, Islam, among others—and each supporting a distinct ideal of “liberty.” Finding the right one seems imperative for fending off social-political suicide.

Finally, on the question of what should be done there is much practical wisdom in James Hunter’s recent To Change the World.2 Hunter’s argument is that grand Christian aspirations to change the culture are almost always ineffective. Instead, he argues for faithful service in specific localities with persons and groups aiming to carry out their particular enterprises as unto God—with only the most casual attention to altering the gradual drift of modern society. With this type of analysis in mind, a final word on The Suicide of a Nation might be that it is a very good book for understanding the U.S.’s current malaise, but still only a preparatory study for the work that needs most urgently to be done by Christian believers located in their particular places with primary responsibility for their particular day-to-day tasks and relationships.

Cite this article
Mark A. Noll, “A Free People’s Suicide – A Review Essay”, Christian Scholar’s Review, 43:3 , 277-280

Footnotes

  1. Brad S. Gregory, The Unintended Reformation: How a Religious Revolution Secularized Society(Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2012); Andrew J. Bacevich, Washington Rules: America’s Path to Permanent War (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2010).
  2. James Davison Hunter, To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010).

Mark A. Noll

Regent College