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The Global Public Square: Religious Freedom and the Making of a World Safe for Diversity

Os Guinness
Published by InterVarsity Press in 2013

Reviewed by Nicholas Kerton-Johnson, Political Science and International Relations, Taylor University

Os Guinness is a prolific writer and commentator and in his latest book he also takes on the mantle of prophet, a point noted by William Inboden in his support for the book. Indeed, Guinness issues a powerful prophetic statement: that the freedom of conscience, belief, religion and thought on which modern democracies and international human rights covenants are built are increasingly being eroded, if not destroyed, and that it is in the interests of both the religious and non-religious to protect these vital freedoms. This effort is a massive undertaking for any group of people willing to operate in the media-driven, hate-filled alarmist culture wars, let alone the often-violent relationships between religious, ethnic, and political identities prevalent throughout the world. But we should make no mistake, Guinness argues; all interested in justice and human dignity must explicitly protect these freedoms. This is an important book and it makes a vital contribution to the field. It is characterized by Guinness’ deep concern for civility that runs along that sharp edge between liberal and conservative, religious and secular.

Religious adherents now consist of over 88 percent of the world’s population, but perhaps more importantly, these believers are increasingly interspersed across the world. Christianity for example, often perceived as a Western religion, has more adherents in Africa, Latin America and Asia than North America.1 As Rupert Shortt argues, “…interfaith relations, and the politics of identity that they betoken, will be one of the dominant challenges of the twenty-first (century).”2 Guinness rightly argues that significant cleavages in international relations are caused by our failure to live peacefully with our differences. Moreover, given the centrality of religion to the vast majority of human beings’ identity, the failure to manage diversity successfully can only lead to stifling conformity or conflict – neither of which is able to secure human dignity and freedom. Yet as Guinness points out repeatedly, the resurgence of religion is an anathema for so many Western elites who still await the fulfillment of secularization. Rising religions confront aggressive atheism, totalitarian regimes push back against the competing power structures of religious believers and some religious adherents turn to violent radicalism. A perfect storm continues to gather for the fracturing of international relations. This book is not just a cry for religious freedom but an argument that we have a paramount moral duty to ensure the future of mankind’s interaction is tolerant, peaceful, and progressive.

This future for Guinness requires that we find an answer to this vital question: “how do we create a global public square and make the world safer for diversity?” (13). This question requires a triple imperative: we must support a common human dignity, discover a way to live with difference, and ensure our public debates are based on persuasion and not intimidation and violence (13-14).

In one of the book’s key original contributions, Guinness then proclaims the need for “soul freedom,” which he defines as “the inviolable freedom of thought, conscience, religion and belief that alone does full justice to the dictates of our humanity” (14). International soul freedom in the current international context appears utopian, but Guinness rightly insists that “soul freedom” is now a “dire necessity and an eminently practical solution to the predicaments of our time” (14). Global cooperation is not increasing. Rather, we witness growing infringements of religious freedom for millions of people of all faiths. These infringements stem from a surge of secular and religious fundamentalism which threatens the foundational freedoms that underpin not just western democracies but the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Guinness writes that his book

is a passionate cry for soul freedom for all – for every single person on the earth – and a call to see how its freedom of thought, conscience, religion and belief may be advanced in the world of today and tomorrow for the sake of the true dictates of our humanity. (15)

Without these freedoms the prospects for the increase of human dignity for all will not be realized.

The book begins with a strong argument for universal soul freedom and is then divided into eight further chapters, each of which is one of the eight steps in the revaluation required to secure the foundational rights for religious freedom. The first step argues for soul freedom for all. It also discusses Western educated elites’ prejudice against faith. Step 2 discusses “a war of spirits” and tackles the divergent ideas and differences that characterize the world and necessitate soul freedom. Step 3 emphasizes the need for the restoration of the freedom of thought, conscience, religion, and belief as a primary human right. Step 4 recognizes the many threats to these freedoms that are occurring in the West. None are catastrophic, but together they represent a very worrying trend, particularly given the primacy of the West in securing international human rights. Guinness, like the great British scholar Martin Wight, argues that the human capacity for domination and monopolizing of power makes soul freedom not a utopian vision but a necessity given the increasing interaction of diverse humanity (153). In step 5 Guinness critiques the opposing visions to soul freedom – the naked or sacred public square – neither of which is able to secure the freedoms necessary for human dignity.

In possibly the most important chapter in terms of its critique of the polarizing positions of the liberal and conservative positions in America, step 6 revaluates the problems with the current responses to religion in the public square. It is here that Guinness makes a strong addition to this discussion, critiquing conservative approaches to religious freedom, a group to which many would say he belongs. In particular Guinness strongly criticizes a Christian defense of religious freedom that is ultimately focused only on Christians, which “is not only counterproductive but egregiously wrong and hypocritical” (145). Guinness also correctly points out that law and litigation have misguidedly dominated the conservative response to challenges to religious freedom. The United States has a wonderful constitution, and religious liberty should and must be defended in the courts, but this strategy is always of secondary importance, for the courts will eventually follow society and culture. As Guinness notes, the law is a bulwark for freedom and justice but they are more firmly guaranteed when “cultivated as a second nature and a habit of the heart” (147). The conservative instinct to rush to the courts only embeds the idea that religious freedom is a legal right, and not a universal human right that is ultimately beyond the laws of the state.

What Guinness does not note however, is that this reliance on law can have a distorting effect on the western Church as Christians can be tempted to delegate protection of religious freedom to lawyers rather than recognizing the Church itself as also a primary tool for the defense of religious freedom. This defense must not only be undertaken by lawyers and judges, but also by the body of Christ, who through their application of the gospel demonstrate the love, sacrifice, and service to which it is called, creating good will, improving the common good, and cultivating an environment in which the habits of the heart can flourish. Such engagement presents the gospel for what it is and not for what the Christian community can too often become known: self-serving, hypocritical, and judgmental. Is the conservative Christian community willing to compete in the marketplace of ideas? Do we truly believe that the gospel is powerful? It is not our job to “Defend Christ” as one Christian freedom organization boldly states, as if God needs our protection! It is our job to live out the gospel, and as Guinness points out, it is hypocritical to fight for anything else but the freedom for all people to choose and express their faith.

Steps 7 and 8 describe the need for a civil public square and the required partnership and prompt leadership necessary to secure soul freedom. Guinness argues we need men and women who are willing to respect the integrity of the other and work together for human flourishing, but they must be willing to pay the price that will inevitably follow the need to “step in between the culture warriors, the fear-mongers, the alarmists and the fomenters of hatred and call for the fighting to cease” (203). Occasionally courageous leaders will emerge, like Pakistan’s Shahbaz Bhatti, but his assassination only indicates the dangers of arguing for tolerance. The book concludes with the Global Charter of Conscience, published at the European Parliament in June 2012 and endorsed by the UN rapporteur for religious freedom. The Charter is a clear attempt to provide further detail to the nature of the vital freedoms of conscience, belief, thought, and religion.

Although not explicitly stated, what this book presents is the clear opportunity for all Christians to engage in the promotion of “soul freedom.” While Guinness calls for leaders to join together to produce a safe public square for soul freedom, this is a task that is essentially open to every person. And few are as well positioned as Christian scholars, who regardless of their fields of study, are able to mold in their students an attitude toward their faith, the world, and the vast differences amongst the people that helps them realize the worth in supporting and defending a safe public square for the full implementation of Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. We should all, like Guinness, be deeply perturbed by any threat to this foundation of human freedom.

Guinness concludes with a clear statement of what is required for the successful implementation of a global civility and soul freedom: “the moral suasion of a declaration… legal implementation of the rights expressed in laws… [and] ongoing education and transmission of the rights and responsibilities from one generation to the next” (205). We must make no mistake – the world was, is, and will be ordered according to some principle and before us lies a world of increasing diversity in which many claims for preeminence are being made. Civility, rooted in the protection of foundational freedoms and the international institution of a strong soul freedom, will go a long way to ensure strong, open, and harmonious relations. If not, one group’s vision of truth, progress and the future will continue to compete for power with the next, seeking domination. Ultimately, we have a choice. A peaceful future will not be determined by domination but by the creation of a public square in which differences can be contested with civility. Difference and political struggles cannot and should not be extinguished, but we must work for a world in which they are contested within a civil political sphere and not through ideological and identity-based culture wars and violence. The support for soul freedom and its ideals will secure the foundations of democracy, liberty, and wider human rights, as well as the continued prosperity of nations. The next generation, regardless of faith, of race, of location, must boldly work for nothing less than international soul freedom.

Cite this article
Nicholas Kerton-Johnson, “The Global Public Square: Religious Freedom and the Making of a World Safe for Diversity”, Christian Scholar’s Review, 43:4 , 430-433


  1. Todd M. Johnson, Brian J. Grim, and Peter F. Crossing, eds., “Worldwide Adherents of All Religions by Six Continental Areas, mid-2013,” in Encyclopedia Britannica Book of the Year (Chicago: Encyclopedia Britannica, 2014), forthcoming.
  2. Rupert Shortt, Christianaphobia: A Faith under Attack (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2013).

Nicholas Kerton-Johnson

Taylor University
Nicholas Kerton-Johnson is Associate Professor of Political Science and International Relations at Taylor University.