A Free People’s Suicide: Sustainable Freedom and the American Future
Os Guinness, a graduate of Oxford University, is an author and social critic. He lives with his wife Jenny in the Washington DC area.
All publicity, it is said, even bad publicity, is good publicity. How much more so is it an honor for one who is not a scholar to be reviewed by Mark Noll, a wise and judicious historian from whose own writing I have always benefited – whatever he says about my book. In fact, Noll’s review is an eminently fair account of A Free People’s Suicide, though I would wish only to engage further with his three concluding reservations, or “unanswered questions.”
First, Noll writes, “do the ideas and practices of the founders deserve such unqualified reverence?” Reverence for the founders is a slightly odd charge to level against an Englishman, especially when I have been a serious and longtime critic of civil religion, and several times in this very book I have clearly specified the founders’ blind spots – on the one hand, their well-known flaws of character, and on the other hand, the egregious evil of their treatment of the slaves, Native Americans, and women. “Mr J,” for instance, I have described bluntly as a hypocrite of the first order. So to describe my treatment of the founders as viewing them on “absolute terms” is quite wrong and rather unfair.
That said, and I am glad Noll did not put me down with the advocates of “Christian America,” I am always irked by the widespread practice of citing the founders’ flaws and dismissing them entirely, as so many do today. For as a European, who has read as much as I can of the long-running debates over human freedom, I truly admire the founders’ attempted solution to freedom’s biggest challenge: the problem of how freedom is to be sustained. For all the current vogue for sustainability, contemporary American freedom – for example, in its libertarian forms – is quite unsustainable and the harvest of consequences is ripening fast. Yet most modern Americans either ignore or dismiss the founders’ solution, which is arguably the most brilliant and daring in history, and they have nothing at all to put in its place.
Europeans have traditionally been smug and unimpressed by American claims to be the novus ordo seclorum. But among the features of the American experiment that deserve fresh reexamination today is the founders’ notion of sustainable freedom. It is ironic that, as with certain other distinctive features of the American republic, there is sometimes more appreciation from outside the United States than within.
Second, Noll writes, “if the founding was not as pure as the book suggests, neither has been the course of American history.” Pure as the book suggests? Not on a single page or for one second did the book suggest that the founding was “pure.” The book spells out many examples of the founders’ blind spots, and in other books I have detailed descriptions of the very evils Noll enumerates, such as Andrew Jackson’s displacement of the Cherokees and their “trail of tears.” But the fact is that this book is about sustainable freedom and not the blind spots, so the latter are mentioned only to give a sense of the fuller picture, while the former is the main focus of consideration. For all who love freedom, scholars included, it is incumbent on all who dismiss the founders’ solution for sustaining freedom to suggest a better one.
Third, Noll claims that “the book’s reticence about the connection between faith and virtue seems odd,” in that I do not “take up what such a re-ordering of faith would look like.” To this I plead guilty. On the one hand, my last book dealt with that topic. On the other, I wrote the book as an argument to thoughtful Ameri-can citizens of all faiths, knowing that in today’s political and cultural climate any suggestion of “Christian America” would lead to the book’s being dismissed out of hand. It is therefore true that the three “restorations” I proposed would only create the setting in which American renewal might take place, and I mentioned far too briefly that there would also need to be a profound renewal of faith itself.
I have had differing reactions to that brief and incomplete mention of the renewal of faith. Some, who obviously do not know me, have inferred that I have a faith too vague to be specified in more detail. Some, like Noll, would appear to urge me to have gone further in this book. I may have been wrong, but the decision not to go further at that point was taken for tactical reasons. The explicit nature of what is required in a renewal of faith would have gone beyond the argument of this book, and it would alienate many people who might have agreed with the argument in general terms up to that point. I am in fact writing a book now that answers the question Noll raises, and gives my own view of the issues James Hunter addresses in To Change the World.
Apart from Noll’s three reservations, the only other point to which I take friendly exception is his description of my book as “unrelievedly gloomy.” I am certainly no cheerleader for the state of the Union in 2012, and I doubt that Noll would be either. But as point of Christian principle, I always endeavor to temper realism with hope. To be sure, the title of the book by itself suggests doom and gloom. But I point out that the term “suicide” comes from Abraham Lincoln, and in its context it is open-ended and raises a responsible moral choice that is America’s equivalent of Israel’s choice between the “blessing” and the “curse.” In the words of the twenty-eight-year-old Lincoln: “As a nation of freemen, we must live through all time or die by suicide.” Could Isaiah, Jeremiah, Edward Gibbon, David Hume, Arnold Toynbee or Christopher Dawson said it more succinctly?
That choice in fact goes all the way back to John Winthrop and behind him to the Book of Deuteronomy and Moses. At the end of my book I argue that the choice can be answered well, and not only badly, so that renewal is as possible as decline – in short, that there could still be a restoration of the American experiment. So ironically, while Noll hears only gloom, others say I am too sanguine. When the book was published, I was invited to discuss it in the Congress, where a veteran member of the House said to me, “I have only one quarrel with your book. It is too optimistic. The United States has less than five years before the decline is irreversible!”
Only God knows exactly where America is today and what the future holds. But it has long been my conviction that in the biblical sense of kairos, if we have been in the “American Century,” we are now in the “American hour.” The nation is facing a moment that is ripe with crisis and opportunity, which must be answered without ducking or evasion. Only history will show whose analysis of the present moment proves to be correct, but in the meantime the challenge for all of us is to seek to “read the signs of the times,” to face the worst of what we see and to work for the better under God.
I am deeply grateful for Mark Noll’s thoughtful review, as for all his work, and I am confident that he and I are in far closer agreement than a line or two of his review might suggest.