Os Guinness, Author, A Free People’s Suicide: Sustainable Freedom and the American Future
Thinking in Public
December 14, 2012
This is “Thinking in Public”, a program dedicated to intelligent conversation about frontline theological and cultural issues with the people who are shaping them. I’m Albert Mohler, your host, and President of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky.
Os Guinness completed his undergraduate degree at the University of London and his Doctor of Philosophy degree in the social sciences from Oxford University. Since coming to the United States in 1984, he has been a guest scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center for International Studies, guest scholar and visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution, and he has served as executive director of the Williamsburg Charter Foundation. Later he served as founder and senior fellow at the Trinity Forum; also a senior fellow at the EastWest Institute in New York City. He is the author or editor of over thirty books. His latest work is A Free People’s Suicide: Sustainable Freedom and the American Future.
Dr. Os Guinness, welcome to Thinking in Public.
Mohler: Os, in terms of your new book, A Free People’s Suicide: Sustainable Freedom and the American Future, why this book; why now?
Guinness: Well it could have come out anytime really in the last ten years, but I think freedom is the central issue today because many of the chaotic things that are happening in this country are because of an excessive libertarian freedom. And I think also there’s a huge amount of talk of sustainability, but no one asks about sustainable freedom. So it’s a very, very important issue. It’s a sort of issue behind a lot of the other issues but it’s one I think that Christians and others need to look at much more carefully.
Mohler: You make the point over and over again, especially in the early chapters of your book, that Americans perhaps more than previous civilizations have been greatly concerned about freedom, seem to have very little concern for the issue of freedom sustainability, and Americans tend to take it for granted as if freedom is just a gift that is possessed and can’t be lost. From your historical perspective, that’s hardly the case.
Guinness: Well exactly; it’s understandable but rather foolish. In other words, you take the three tasks that the framers and the founders set about; winning freedom is the one we all celebrate. That’s the Revolution and everyone celebrates that. Ordering freedom, which is the Constitution, people, you know, but they don’t spend that much time on that one. But the third one the framers were incredibly aware of we ignore altogether, which is how do you sustain freedom? Because, the fact is, freedom never ever lasts. You can say in a world that’s fallen, presence of sin and the passing of time, nothing lasts forever, and especially freedom. Freedom has a habit of undermining itself, and so not to take notice of freedom today and how to sustain it is incredibly foolish.
Mohler: You demonstrate the fact that empires come and empires go and, as a matter of fact, I would say you have a rather unique credibility to that, not only in the fact that you are a scholar of history and of sociology, but also because you really have lived at least the end of one empire, in terms of your own biography, and, whether it’s Tennyson or, frankly, the Old Testament prophets, it has always been clear that everything that is human is temporal and that nothing that is, in terms of human endeavor, will last. Why is that hard for Americans to come to terms with that?
Guinness: Well I think everyone in that time thinks that whatever system they have is going to last forever, but, as you say, I remember as a teenager I heard Winston Churchill saying he was not elected to preside as Prime Minister over the decline of the British Empire, but, of course, that’s exactly what he did. And people tend to go into these theories with extraordinary denial. As you can see today, the President saying blindly, “The best is yet to be.” Well you’ve got to say how that’s so and it’s got to be based on the real analysis of America’s problems today and the things that have to be solved practically if there’s to be a good future, let alone the best is yet to be.
Mohler: Early on in your book you make the case and I read this to you, “Finally, freedom always faces a fundamental moral challenge. Freedom requires order and, therefore, restraint; yet, the only restraint that does not contradict freedom is self-restraint, which is the very thing that freedom undermines when it flourishes.” That’s a rather stark, I think in one sense, irrefutable statement, but it could lead to a form of inherent pessimism about the prospects of freedom.
Guinness: Well it should at least lead to vigilism because that’s the paradox of freedom that the greatest enemy to freedom is freedom. And so you should have the realism that say some of the early thinkers like Cicero and Philippus or more recent people like Montesquieu and Tocqueville, they were terribly aware of what it took and so were the founders. But it’s crazy that modern Americans don’t think of that. And if you look around America today, we have varieties of libertarianism, which are absolutely unsustainable, and they’re going to produce a harvest of cultural and social consequences in the family and many, many other areas, which are going to lead to the undoing of America, and to me that’s very sad. Even Christians are not really addresses the deep issues as they should.
Mohler: Now in terms of that kind of statement, I would suggest you make it even more pointedly a few pages later when you say, “There’s no question about the earlier menace of the Nazis and the Communists and now Islamic Extremists, but in the end the ultimate threat to the American Republic will be Americans. The problem is not wolves at the door, but termites in the floor.” Rather poetic I would credit here, but you do make the point that freedom is freedom’s greatest enemy and America’s greatest enemy is Americans. That’s a very stark statement.
Guinness: Well I think the whole of history is there to back us up, and you can see that. And, again, as you read the Greek classics, they understood this incredibly well, but my strongest statement of that comes from Abraham Lincoln, who many people idolize, rightly, but don’t actually listen to in terms of the content of a lot of his speeches. And I find his speech in Springfield, Illinois, when he was 28, he’d only been in town just a few months—the Lyceum Speech—he chose as his topic for the day, “The Perpetuation of our Institutions.” How are we doing 50 years on? You know, my son is 30. I can’t imagine anyone in his generation asked to address some club, say in New York where he lives, would they take that topic. It’s remarkable that someone so young could have such an incredibly mature view of the transience of societies and civilizations and so on. Al, I had the privilege this summer of giving the talk behind the book in front of the Thomas Cole Painting. Do you know the Cole Painting on top The Course of Empire?
Mohler: I certainly do.
Guinness: Well it was a cocktail party that was put on down in South Carolina in Columbia and people had seen all the paintings, which are there this summer, and the chairman got up rather certainly and said, “Now we’ll have the talk. We’re somewhere between number three and number four.” And if anyone looks him up online, they’ll see what he meant. And that’s sobering, but people don’t take that seriously.
Mohler: Well at least the vast majority it seems do not take that very seriously.
Guinness: No, I know. Obviously people like you—you’re addressing issues daily with a great realism and truth and so on. But I mean the general public still—you know, I go to Europe and Europe, which is worse, is better in one way. There are very few illusions and there’s very little complacency, but in this country there is still a huge amount of complacency and a huge amount of illusions. And we’ve got to burn through those from the President downwards to get people addressing the real state of the union.
Mohler: Well the first thing I thought when I read your book is that only Os Guinness could have written this and written the way that it’s written. And I want to credit you with something that came to me as I was reading this. I am captivated by so many of the same sources and, I’m thankful to say, we read the same bibliography, but you have an amazing gift—and part of this is due to your biography and your background training—in distilling all this. I want to tell you, just to bring up something from your past, I think one of the most important projects you were ever involved in is something from the early ‘80s that was done when you were a part of Oxford Analytica, looking at the United States. You’ve had a long interest in this and, reading your book last night, again, led me to want to go back—I pulled out that volume and so many of the same concerns are there, but many of the things that were foreseen in 1986 (almost 30 years ago) are not only foreseeable now; they’re already in our past. In other words, if anything, America and this process seems to have accelerated from what even you and your colleagues could have seen back there in the 1980s.
Guinness: No; you’re absolutely right. Now it’s funny when I did that volume I was the only one on the team, apart from the chairman—who’s a friend and fine person of faith—who took religion seriously. And when we did that we came over here and we were at the top of the American Express building in New York—I think it was the American Express—and the first question after our presentation, “Could there be a religious renewal and the renewal of America?” And the Oxford dons, who are economists and politicians and so on, were stunned that someone would ask a question like that because they are completely tone deaf. They don’t even put into practice, like faith, into the whole issue, and, of course, many of your American leaders today are the same. They’re tone deaf so they miss the deepest essential issues without which there’ll be no real analysis and without which there’ll certainly be no solution to America’s problems.
Mohler: Well that leads me even deeper into your argument and I want to jump to the middle of your book where you set forth what you call the golden triangle of freedom. I think one of the most difficult challenges we face is in helping people to understand that freedom requires certain preconditions and certain sustainable supports without which freedom not only can’t last, but it can often fall into something worse than the state before. And so whether you’re looking at some of the European examples, more recently, or certainly looking at Rome or, for the matter, looking at every empire that came before, its demise is often truly catastrophic. But just focusing on your argument about what facilitates or is required for freedom, you make three points. You say freedom requires virtue; virtue requires faith; and faith requires freedom. That’s a circular argument of a sort, but one that makes a great deal of sense.
Guinness: That’s one of the most original parts of the American founding, and people ignore it. It’s this sort of 800-pound gorilla in the room, and it’s there, it’s in all the framers’ speeches, you know, right across the board, and yet people somehow ignore it. And I say to people when I challenge them, by all means dismiss the framer’s solution. It happens to be one of the most daring solutions to try to sustain freedom in all history, but, by all means, neglect it, ignore it if you want, but only if you put something better in its place. But people don’t, so they throw that out and they put nothing in its place and, obviously, the only consequence is then the possibility of decline. But the framers’ answer, I think, is absolutely brilliant set over against the Greeks and the Romans and certainly against the moderns too.
Mohler: When you make this first point that freedom requires virtue, you go back to the fact that freedom requires the moral commitment to self-restraint, the only kind of restraint that works in a free society. But the absence of self-restraint means that the very freedom that is claimed on that basis is undermined by the—you don’t argue this, but the anarchy that basically follows, the licentiousness, the extreme libertarianism you’re talking about, that in the name of freedom actually destroys the very freedom that is facilitated by self-restraint. When you talk about freedom requiring virtue, the founders of this nation certainly understood that.
Guinness: Exactly, and so do many of the great philosophers. I was at Oxford with Isaiah Berlin, the great Jewish philosopher who came out of the Soviet Union and so on, and he was famous for his distinction between negative freedom (freedom from) and positive freedom (freedom to be or freedom for). And, obviously speaking, you and I are Christians, our Lord’s freedom was a positive freedom. It was freedom from—from sin and all the forms of oppression—but freedom to be, freedom for—“You’ll know the truth and the truth will set you free.” And so Christians have a very distinctively different view of freedom from the loose, permissive, licentious libertarianism, do-what-you-like kind of freedom that’s running amuck through American culture today. So we do have the answer; the trouble is many Christians are rather like modern secular forms of freedom.
Mohler: I want to come back to Isaiah Berlin in just a moment. And, by the way, I appreciated your use of his distinction between negative and positive freedom, but I also appreciated the fact that you qualified that by saying that as useful as that dichotomy is, actually the one is implicit in the other. In some sense, if you press it too far, it becomes an unhelpful kind of dualism, and with Berlin you also have the hedgehog and the fox, so he evidently loved dualisms, but, as useful as that is, you really can’t have positive freedom without some negative freedom.
Guinness: No. Obviously, the Christian view of freedom is comprehensive and deeply balanced. And we begin with freedom from and so whether an external change, like say human slavery today, or whether it’s internal things, like the grip and addiction of sin, and it’s odd that in a country with so much freedom, you’ve never had more freedom in addictions today. So Christians do believe solidly in freedom from negative things and, above all, from sin, but certainly the glory of Christian freedom is the freedom for and the freedom to be. We know the way of Jesus and something. You know, “The truth shall set you free,” is probably the most popular, widespread motto in the university walls across the world, and yet hardly anyone relates it to its real meaning and certainly today that idea is just meaningless.
Mohler: In terms of your point that freedom requires virtue, you document very well the fact that the founders of the American Experiment were very clear about the fact that virtue is required and specific virtues they were glad to annunciate, to articulate, to make very clear were required. Self-restraint at the first of those; a recognition of rightful authority; a respect for the requisite amount of social order required for community; a recognition for human dignity, certainly inherent in what it would mean to recognize one another as something more than what the French Revolutionaries called each other when they said “citizen,” but Americans believed that we were far more than mere citizens; we were actually human beings made in the image of God, and so all those virtues were implicit and explicit in the American founding.
Guinness: And above all is the one about character because you can see there the constant stress on character or someone like Washington who demonstrated it rather than talking about it, but the difference today—I remember when President Clinton was impeached, that letter by various scholars to the New York Times, “Character didn’t matter.” In the modern world what matters is competence. You can see that again and again. It’s not integrity; it’s compliance and so. Well you’ve seen an undermining of virtue. Now, of course, even the term virtue today has got a goody-goody sort of connotation; whereas for the framers it was rooted in courage and included all the things like honesty, loyalty, patriotism, character, and so on, which are necessary for a thriving society. So we need to be unashamed in recovering these things because they’re vital for business, they’re vital for journalism, they are vital for public life, and so on.
Mohler: It’s interesting that you mentioned the Clinton scandals because many Americans alive today, who are certainly coming into young adulthood, do not even remember that as a historical occurrence. But I was constantly in the media during those weeks and I remember a debate I had on national television with a liberal theologian who simply said, “This is another illustration of the fact that human beings can’t draw moral judgments; that judgmentalism is wrong and character is simply an out-of-date issue.” And so I just turned to him and said, “Do you advise people to hire child molesters as babysitters?” And he said, “Of course not, that would be insane.” I said, “Well I know that; I just don’t think you know that. At least it’s incompatible with your statement.” But I think what many people don’t recognize—and reading this point of your book I was very interested, and when I read books I often think, “Okay; I would like to get two or three people in a room.” The historian Gordon Wood I thought would be an interesting conversation partner with you there because, as you may know, Gordon Wood is arguing, quite interestingly, that when you look at the founding figures of the American Experiment their definition of character was inherently public. It’s not to say they had no concern for private virtue, but they were very concerned that the Republic could only endure if its leaders demonstrated a very public commitment to public virtues. And he uses George Washington himself as the greatest example of that, saying that George Washington didn’t claim to be inherently better than his peers only morally superior in terms of his public conduct. And, you know, I think we live in a world in which that’s entirely escaped the understanding of people, so people say now, “Well nobody’s perfect.” Well George Washington knew that no one was perfect and started with himself, but it’s still very necessary to uphold public virtue.
Guinness: No; you’re exactly right. Not many years ago I was at Yale and a student was arguing that it’s worse to judge evil than to do evil, and that’s just typical of the sort of overspill of the recent postmodernism that has undermined the possibility of making genuine moral judgments. And I’m afraid that’s creeping and going further, which is absolutely disastrous. But we need to, you know, as Christians, not just admit the darkness, but point out—we’re talking about public life today, but we could take journalism or business and things as simple as trust and things like that are absolutely vital to the world of international business or to journalism. How do we trust journalism is different from rumors unless you have a strong view of truth and some measure of trust above all that happens with presidents and so on? So I think we as followers of Christ should be unashamed in moving—we’re the great defenders of human dignity, reason, of character and of leadership, and so on, and it’s a great moment as the culture goes crazily down all sorts of other directions.
Mohler: While we’re talking about this with your second point, in terms of this triangle of virtues and foundational issues necessary for freedom, you make the point that virtue requires faith and you said that trust, for instance, is no longer even a shared moral category. I would come back and say that even in a more fundamental level the issue of truth is no longer a shared intellectual category.
Guinness: No; exactly, and you can’t have trust without truth because you’re both referring to the same thing. If you cannot know the truth of it, you’ve got nothing really to put your confidence in. But, obviously, for the founders, it was a simple matter of fact that if you asked, “Why virtue?” in other words, what inspired it, what did virtue actually mean, who spelled it out, and also what were the sanctions of someone not being virtuous—the Christian view of hell, for instance—atheism just didn’t cut the mustard. It was faith which inspired and gave content and provided sanctions for strong virtue. And so someone like John Adams is absolutely clear; of course, atheists have freedom of conscience; of course, no doubt about it. But he was far from sanguine. In fact, he was fearful about a society of atheists because there wasn’t sufficient grounding for their virtue. Now people like Christopher Hitchens would snort today. We’re not saying they can’t be virtuous themselves, but we’re just saying when atheism, secularism, has been applied to whole societies, well we look at Germany, we look at Russia and the Soviet Union, we look at China, it doesn’t give us great confidence and so far Western liberals haven’t demonstrated that yet. So the framers’ point is thoroughly relevant and up-to-date today.
Mohler: Now to evangelical Christian eyes and ears listening or reading someone like Thomas Jefferson, I think it’s an inconvenient but necessary point of analysis to realize that Jefferson was not a believer in any sense. Some form of rationalist, some form of deist, depending on how you want to define that, but he did believe in the necessity of religion. And you go back to the statement that was recorded by Ethan Allen talking about President Jefferson on his way to church one Sunday and someone seeing that, believing it was entirely incongruous with Jefferson’s heterodox, doctrinal understandings, and said to him, “You do not believe a word in it, sir.” Said Mr. Jefferson, “No nation has ever existed or been governed without religion nor can be. The Christian religion is the best religion that has even been given to man and I as chief magistrate of this nation am bound to give it the sanction of my example. Good morning, sir.” Now to evangelical ears that’s hardly a confession of faith, but to an understanding of the requirements of virtue Thomas Jefferson—we might say, even Thomas Jefferson—believed that virtue could not exist independent of theism.
Guinness: No, you’re exactly right, Al, and I think you go from the framers up into the great range of their faiths—John Jay, Patrick Henry, evangelicals; George Mason, strong Orthodox Anglican; Washington, mostly Orthodox; Jefferson, deist; Franklin, free thinker. As you move across, they were not divided on the point you made. Now some people will say, “Well Jefferson was just hypocritical,” and I think of his slavery Mr. J. was profoundly hypocritical, but when it comes to the point and the question and the story you told, I think he was not so much hypocritical as utilitarian and he knew very well the public wouldn’t survive without religion providing a grounding to values.
Mohler: Well G.K. Chesterton did not quite say this, but he implied this and that is to be a sinner is to be a hypocrite. The only way to avoid hypocrisy is to have no moral or intellectual standards whatsoever, but the question is whether our hypocrisy is fatal to our integrity. And in that sense, I appreciate the fact that Jefferson was honest about this, which means he wasn’t hypocritical, he was simply saying, “Here’s what I believe religion is necessary for and for that reason I will uphold it.” But we’re living in world now in which there is open hostility to this. You mentioned Christopher Hitchens or Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, the New Atheists, but, frankly, amongst the intellectual elites who wouldn’t dare to even do something so gosh as to write a book about it because that would even concede its importance that they live in a world that increasingly is so aridly secular that they can’t even believe that anyone else believes.
Guinness: You’re absolutely right. Well I think, though, Al, that if you look at secularism worldwide, what we’re seeing in the world religiously is an explosion of religion with two great exceptions. The geographical exception is Europe for historic reasons, reactions to the corrupt state churches; the social exceptions are the elites in the educated world, and so you’re talking about that very important factor. Now in my experience, a lot of, say, the growth recently in the so-called nones—a lot of stuff’s written about that—I don’t think many of them are actually becoming atheists or secularists; they’re just fed up with some of the unwise, ugly, extremist forms of religion that they see in Islam, sometimes, sadly on the excesses of the religious right, and that’s the reason they don’t want to declare themselves religious. But when you look at atheism as it is, it’s a very bleak, forlorn faith, and I personally have no fear that in the long run it’s the growing concern. It will always be a minority and, sadly, we increase it when the church is so sick that it creates reactions against itself, but atheism by itself I have no fear for.
Mohler: We both bear a debt to Peter Berger, who has lived long enough actually to go back and revisit some of his theories, but as he has recently revisited the theory of secularization in which he’s played such an important intellectual role, he came back to say that secularization hasn’t happened on the European model in the United States accept on the American university campus where a very European worldview has set in. And, yet, Berger came back later to say, but do not underestimate what that means because where ideas are generated and where the young are formed that’s where the future takes shape. Do you see that as a great threat? I mean I think we should, but it seems to me that is a great threat that is often unseen, thinking about the future of American culture.
Guinness: Well I take it as great challenge certainly. I was in Europe last week at a meeting in Brussels and we had last year’s president of the European Parliament speaking openly of faith and the current chairman, I think, president of the European Commission, equally a strong believer, gave an extraordinary philosophical and apologetic speech. So even in Europe and you look at what is happening in the European campuses, there is a turning around. And the American campuses—I have been to twelve or fifteen the last year—I haven’t been asked a serious postmodern type of question for maybe five years now. And the new openness and the yearning is quite palpable, so I think we’ve got to challenge followers of Jesus to go back to our Lord, make sure the way we’re thinking and living is as close to Jesus as we can, and then move out with great courage. This is an extraordinary moment. I’m far from pessimistic. What you’re describing accurately is a great challenge, but I think it’s actually not as profound and deep and worrying as it looks in the first place.
Mohler: I guess time will tell on that and you’ve always been, I will not say optimistic, but hopeful, in terms of your understanding of the possibilities of recovery, and I share the fact that, as a Christian, our disposition has to be based in hope, but I think one of the great achievements of your book, to be honest, is how carefully you have dissected the problem. And, for instance, I don’t know of anyone else who’s done exactly what you’ve done in the latter portion of your book where you identify three different dimensions of relativism that have greatly undermined the fundamentals of American freedom. You talk about philosophical relativism (I think most of us are quite familiar with that) and then you go on to speak also of consumer relativism, which I think is something most Americans would not even envision, and then, third, relational relativism. Let’s take those in sequence. In terms of philosophical relativism, you just told me that in terms of your engagement on European academic campuses, you’re just not meeting that kind of hardline postmodernism. I’ll tell you, I think on American campuses, where both of us spend a great deal of time, there’s still some of that, but I think what we have to face now is more of a soft postmodernism, a generation that has grown up with those epistemological and philosophical backgrounds and just doesn’t even feel the need to make the kind of arguments that Derrida, Foucault, and others made.
Guinness: No; you’re right. I think at the theoretical level, postmodernism is disappearing, but the cultural level is a kind of huge reinforcement of what’s left of the philosophical. And so we’re going to have postmodernism for quite a while, but we’ve got to challenge it very bluntly. In other words, cultures cannot live; they can’t even defend themselves from the basis of relativism and all these forms of skepticism. So, again, we as followers of Jesus are in an incredibly strong position, not just because we believe the Christian faith is true, which of course we do, and not just because it’s the prime impulse creating the civilization that we live in, but the fact is that in many discussions today, Christians, we’re attacked as being irrational faith-heads, we’re the last great defenders of reason. We’re attacked for all sorts of things. We’re the last great defenders of human dignity. That’s, I think, one of the current issues. You got a Pete Singer with his views of animal rights and so on. You go to various people—one of the crises is human dignity, so many in our culture are talking rightly about human rights, but over a huge chasm they have no foundations, no justification for it. We do. So in many cases we are the last great defenders of the deepest things that matter to human beings and also matter to our civilization, and we should move out with incredible confidence today.
Mohler: I was in a conversation with—I won’t even call her a postmodern philosopher because she is kind of post the post postmodern. Wherever she is now I’m not sure there is any label for it, but she interrupted me at one point to say, “You know,” she said, “I am scared about your confidence in human reason. It scares me.” And I thought that was a very amazing statement. I said, “Well you have no idea what little confidence in human reason over against the need, for instance, of revelation.” But in terms of what she meant, it was scary to her that she believed that someone would believe that truth was, first of all, existent and then that it was knowable and intelligible, and to her that just implies—and you’ve heard all this language before; you know a hegemonistic discourse of totalitarian power against the oppressed. You point out that the founders of this country believed that liberation could only happen on the basis of shared assumptions and shared truths.
Guinness: No; again, you’re absolutely right, but what you’re saying is bizarre. And you listen to Richard Dawkins, we’re faith-heads, we believe against the evidence on no reason at all, and all this other stuff, but, as you say, she’s scared in our trust and reason. Now you rightly say we don’t trust in reason alone; it’s undergirded by revelation, but it’s a good illustration and as the discussion goes way out to the far extreme today, it comes back and the Christian faith undergirds so many of the things that are vital to humanity and vital to the future. So, again, we’ve got to give young Christians, particularly, a great sense of confidence in the gospel and in going out at this particular moment in the cultural crisis. I mean, I was downtown today and watching people lamenting, you know, the marriage crisis, and certainly it’s in an awful state and we’re losing it for lack of persuasive arguments in many points in the church, but, again, in the long run we will be seen as the defenders of the more human way to go.
Mohler: Yes, and quite quickly, I think, in terms of that trajectory. And I want to return to that in a moment, but let me know follow through, again, you’re threefold exposé of relativism. The first was philosophical; the second is something many Americans don’t even recognize as the problem, but you identified as consumerist relativism. Talk about that.
Guinness: Well you think in the world of consumerism—and we need to examine that because it’s one of the big shifts that’s corrupted capitalism in the 20th century, and too many Christians just support capitalism as if it was Adam Smith unchanged. Consumerism’s changed it and other things have to, but in the consumer world nothing is right or wrong; there are only choices and preferences. So you think of the famous cafeteria spirituality, you know, a smorgasbord, you pass down the line; you don’t like lettuce, well then take carrots. You know, this sort of thing, and this comes right down into things like truth and churchgoing. You don’t like that music? It’s too traditional, too contemporary, pass on down the line and take some that you do like. That preference has undermined authority. Al, I love the way you stand—I try to too—for authority, but in our American culture, authority—what Karl Barth rightly in this case called binding address of truth—authority is just melted down into preference. And that’s deeply shaped by our consumer culture, not by Kant, Hegel, Nietzsche, or whatever; it’s just a consumer culture. There are no rights and wrongs; just choices and preferences.
Mohler: Do you see any real corrective to that? You don’t answer the question in the book directly but, in terms of consumerism, it appears to me that this is where the right and the left should have a lot of shared moral concerns. And, for instance, I read Todd Gitlin and other people from the far left and, you know, it’s the same reason why conservatives would read Marx’s critique—should read, and by that I mean true conservatives—should read the critique of Marx and recognize a great deal of truth in the critique, in terms of the excesses of capital without any moral accountability, but when you look at this, America’s conservatives generally don’t want to talk about this.
Guinness: Very dangerous; and if we get people more like Hebrews eleven’s enterprising faith, of all the great questions that need to be tackled, one of the top ten is certainly a constructive critique of capitalism. As soon as you say that people think you are left ear or a Pinko or a Marxist or whatever, but capitalism is almost coming off as losing its wheels today. And we as Christians have tremendous stakes in this because of our Lord’s teaching and the whole biblical teaching. I think we have people who have got the courage. Now when it comes to consumerism, for instance, you go back to the 1915/25/30—that period—the early advertisers were very self-conscious and very open about the fact that their great enemy was what they called the Protestant Ethic: Puritanism, Protestantism, and so on. They had to undermine that to get the debt culture going. Well Christians we didn’t’ resist it then, and now we’re hook, line, and sinker into a consumerist culture, which is actually giving us the culture of addiction and debt and overspending and so on at the national level and at the personal level. So we’ve got to have the courage to tackle these things. I know you do, and certainly I hope I do.
Mohler: Well just in the last several weeks several things have brought this to mind. For instance, just before the last Christmas season here in the United States, a company called Urban Outfitters scandalized many by coming out with a catalogue that included all kinds of profanity and morally objectionable material and, as I dealt with in a previous conversation, the amazing thing is that the advertising world seemed uniformly to champion this as a brilliant idea. It accomplished what advertising is supposed to do, it caught the attention of consumers, and perhaps it reached out—especially as it said, one expert I cited in this had made the statement, “This is a real breakthrough. This is a new way of reaching younger Americans,” as if that were a good thing.
Guinness: Well, Al, I’m sure you know Roger Shattuck’s The Culture of Transgression.
Mohler: O yes.
Guinness: That’s not the title, but something like that. Always people want to cross the line, flout the boundaries, defy the conventions, and that’s how you sell the new things and so on and so on. Well we’re getting to the end of that where you just eventually, as he said, on the one hand we make evil cool and, on the other hand, we just produce a culture of mediocrity that’s spinning its wheels on all sorts of things. And we’ve got to say, “The Empire has no clothes.” But we really need Christians who look at consumerism from top to bottom, analyze it, and then show how we as followers of Jesus have got to live a different way.
Mohler: You know, I also love Shattuck’s insight when he says that the people who open the door to these things when what comes to the door later happens, they take no personal responsibility for it. They do not trace the trajectory of their own misbehavior and of their own moral shifts in terms of what comes later. The third relativism you talk about, I think, is a very interesting way of getting at the issue of marriage you raised earlier and larger issues related to human sexuality and even community. You mention philosophical relativism, then consumerist relativism, and then you mention relational relativism.
Guinness: Well you can see that all around us today with the marriage issues and the gay issue and so on: “Thou shalt not judge;” “Do no harm;” “Do anything with anyone so long as you’re both consenting adults.” And that’s where we are today, so there are no boundaries at all and so this is towards the point of real cultural chaos, which will be decadence. You know, Churchill used to say, quoting Alexander the Great, that the Persians—of his time—the Persians would always be slaves because they didn’t know how to say the word no. And Americans have lost the capacity to say no. I know twenty years ago we had the “Just Say No” campaign, but that was pretty ineffective. But you have to have moral categories that are strong in order to be able to say no. And so today the gays; tomorrow polyamory, polygamy, bestiality, incest, you name; there’s no stop to this now because we’ve lost the capacity to say no. And you can see that relational relativism just running riot today.
Mohler: I want to press a couple of questions that certainly came to me in reading the book, and they’re all part of the larger question, “So what?” And you write this largely to a Christian audience. I would say that the book, I think, would be profitable and I would hope even prophetic read by those who are not Christians, but it’s published by University Press. Its likely main readership is going to be persons who have some Christian commitment. What would you say to Christians in the United States is the answer to the question, “So what?” After all of this incredibly powerful analysis, what do we now do?
Guinness: Well you’re raising a somewhat different thing, but on the political level I’ve mentioned some things that need to be done to see a restoration of the American Republic, but I think that doesn’t touch the deepest thing. You’ve asked a different question. I’m trying to address that in the book I’m writing now. The deepest thing is the church itself. The fact is that most of the Western church is in profound cultural captivity to the advanced modern world, and we’ve got to go back—sounds like a cliché—to let the church be the church; to get as close to our Lord; to live the way of His truth and His life as close as we can. We’ve got to put our house in order. We are the central problem and that’s nothing to do with the other American citizens. We are the central problem. Liberals, gays, lesbians, many others create huge problems; we’ve got to say bluntly before the Lord we are the central problem and address that across the board. We need revival, reformation.
Mohler: And before those things the church has to know what the church is and what the gospel is in order to even know its own existence. You mention it in terms of the contemporary challenges, going from the founding to the contemporary era and in a way that is consistent with some of your previous writings, especially your call for stability in an earlier book. You say that America, if it is to create civil space and a cohesive civil society that will be able to sustain freedom in the future must—and to use your word—get over its cultural warring. How would it do that? Given how deep the divide is between incommensurate and incompatible moral positions in America, how would cultural warring come to an end?
Guinness: Well what do I mean by the warring in the Christian side? Well take two things, Al. First, I think these are both underlying the failure of the Christian Right. One is politicization. They trusted politics to do what politics can’t do. Politics is downstream—you’ve said that. The rot comes from idea in universities, from Hollywood—whatever. Politics is downstream. Politics is vital, but it can’t do what it can’t do, and as Richard Neuhaus used to say, “The first thing to say about politics is that politics is not the first thing.” So we must get out of this constant reliance on politics and seeing every election as the great hope of turning things around and now we’re disappointed, let’s try again. The second problem is even worse and that is—to put it in 19th century language—much of Christian activity in the public square has been doing the Lord’s work—and it was the Lord’s work—say fighting for life or whatever—the Lord’s work, but in the world’s way. I mean our Lord calls all of us to love our enemies. That is, I think, the toughest thing he calls us to in the whole of the gospels. Wilberforce did that. I mean, he always loved his worst enemies and his enemies attacked him physically as well as his reputation and so on. He was probably the most vilified man in the world at one stage. When you look at the Christian Right stereotypes it demonizes, it plays on fear, it gets very close to playing on hatred, these are sub-Christian things as tactics for which we’ll pay, and there’ll all part of the cultural warring. So you look at the culture warring today—sound bites, blogs which are barbarian—we’ve got to forswear all that sort of stuff and stand for the truth with love, demonstrate truth with grace, and so on and so on and so on, as our Lord calls us to do and as the great evangelical leaders like Wilberforce always did. That’s what I mean.
Mohler: Well, and I understand that; I would just have to push back a bit to say that I don’t think that’s fair of all who would be categorized, by any means, in terms of the Christian Right.
Guinness: Of course not.
Mohler: Unfortunately we live in a media culture that is drawn to the statements that are more hateful, most reductionistic, most sensationalistic, and so, you know, forswearing all of those things and being committed to operate speaking to every other person as a human being made in the image of God and understanding in humility our own fallibility, even as we seek to articulate what we believe to be revealed truth. The reality is that we’re living in a culture in which we are looking at public policy decisions that are being made in a democratic context, republicanism to be sure, but it’s not a direct participation by citizens but citizens do have to vote their conscience, including Christian citizens. In other words, I think we’ve got to find some way of saying that even though politics is certainly not the first thing, I think not only Neuhaus, but Niebuhr would remind us of that immediately. But it is, nonetheless, an inescapable responsibility and I think Conservative Christians are rather desperate to find a way. And you’re right when you talk about the excesses of the Christian Right; certainly an almost idolatrous confidence in politics. And then you said something very interesting. You said, “Building every election as the greatest opportunity to turn this thing around.” I’ll tell you, I think right now it’s actually a very different pattern. I think it’s every election becoming a matter of obsessive fear for evangelicals that it’s disaster that’s imminent.
Guinness: Well I knew a lot of people in this election, you know, who thought this one could do it. And even three days before they were coming up to me in church and saying, “Watch for the surge, brother.” I think they just watched too much Fox News and lived in a bubble, and sadly I would have to say the election was no surprise to me, and that many of us have been saying what happened. America’s turned a point culturally. That’s why I said they’re doing the Lord’s work: fighting for life against abortion; fighting for marriage against the corruptions today. You’re absolutely right they’re doing the Lord’s work; don’t misunderstand me. In the evangelical manifesto we put it: Christians should be engaged politically without ever being equated with ideas or ideologies. We are Christ’s people first and last, and we’re never swallowed up by whatever else goes on. Al, I couldn’t agree with you more; we’ve got to be engaged.
Mohler: And if we’re going to do a sophisticated and honest indictment of the political process, the other things we’d have to throw in would include such matters as the fact that many people are in it actually for reasons that are not so apparent. I mean, there are institutions, indeed, there’s a political-industrial complex we might call it, that exist out there that actually would fall apart and lose its profits if these issues were ever to be resolved, and are building mailing lists by the most sensational kind of arguments because that’s how they thrive on continually manipulating and propagandizing on these things. The political situation is just a disaster, but, you know, looking at the founding era of the United States, and a very interesting book was just writing in which someone spent months and months doing nothing but reading the newspapers of the colonial and revolutionary era, I have to say in sobriety that was a pretty confused and extreme age itself.
Guinness: Yep. And you know the election of 1800 was one of the ugliest in all of American history. There’s no question; I don’t have any illusions about that. There’s no baseline that was perfect against which we’ve fallen away disastrously; it was bad at the beginning. But the point is the way we’re going now is disastrous and has set the stage where America will decline unless there’s some recovery. That’s the point. We’re at a different stage; we’re not in the early days.
Mohler: No hardly. In terms of your book, have you been pleased, surprised—what is your response to the response to the book?
Guinness: Well on the whole encouraged. You’ve read some of my books, Al. I’m not exactly a hugely popular writer because I try and address truth pretty realistically, but there has been a good response to this one; although, it’s intrigued me. I was asked to give a response to an eminent historian and in his review of it he said that I was hopelessly gloomy. “Unbelievably gloomy,” he said. But when I came back, when the book was published I was invited into Congress, and a veteran congressman said to me, “I like your book, but I only have one problem: you’re overly optimistic. America doesn’t have five years before the problems are irreversible.” So I was kind of amused that some people see me as inveterately gloomy and others see it as far too optimistic, but generally it’s been a very good response.
Mohler: Good. Well just to add to that confusion, I recall the fact I was in a conversation lately with someone else—and we’d been reading many of the same books and many of us find ourselves in conversations like that—and my friend said, “I think how I read a book has something to do with the year in which I read it.” I said, “I have a feeling it has a lot to do with the day or the hour in which you may actually have been reading it.” I could find reasons for both pessimism and optimism in your book, but, again, I recall the fact that as Augustine in his own way made very clear neither are alternatives for the Christian. The Christian lives in humble hope.
Guinness: Exactly. I call it realism with hope; exactly. You mention Augustine. My conviction, Al, is just as he had that awesome responsibility of living the very end of 800 years of Roman dominance, he witnessed the fall of Carthage and heard of the fall of Rome, so we are at the end of 500 years of Western dominance, you know, relatively and maybe absolutely. And so we are at a very important for followers of Jesus and I think we’ve got to be aware of all the factors creating this hour. And I thank God for you. People like Chuck Colson going, you are one of the few voices that’s courageous and clear and holds to the full authority of Jesus and Scriptures and so on—would there were more voices like yours, but it isn’t just cultural warring, we’re at an extraordinary age in history. We’ve got to move out with that humble hope you mentioned.
Mohler: Well, let me give you a word of encouragement. I appreciate the very kind words you just said, but I have to tell you the great encouragement to me is that there is a generation of young Christians coming who have been burned by all the acids of modernity and by all the relativisms you mentioned. Many of them bear all the scars of their own young lives of all of those behaviors and thought patterns, but they’ve come to an unswerving allegiance to the Gospel of Christ and the authority of God’s Word and they are ready to live in that kind of humble hope. And that’s a great encouragement to me.
Guinness: Now that’s terrific. You referring to people like the Gospel Coalition and so on?
Mohler: Yes, and I have to say quite honestly I’m talking about so many of the young students on my campus. I get to speak all over the country and in other nations to especially young ministers and, I have to tell you, I’ve been in this current role for 20 years now, and there is a market, revolutionary, shocking change in all the right directions. All is a little bit too much, but in terms of these issues, yes, in all the right directions that give me hope.
Guinness: With many of the right directions, and I agree with you and what you’re referring to, but equally there’s great sadness that in the millennial generation of the younger people, there is also that drift and defection from the faith.
Mohler: Well there’s no doubt, yes, because in that generation what’s disappeared is what we might call nominalism or cultural Christianity and so you really do have a clear distinction between the believers and the unbelievers. But I think what’s hopeful, in especially the sense that you so well depict in your book, is that this generation, knowing the issues and holding so firmly to these truths, nonetheless, doesn’t hate the world and doesn’t feel the antipathy of, for instance, early fundamentalism, doesn’t live in those Manichean categories, and I think there’s reason for hope in that. But they’ve had to learn how to negotiate the culture because otherwise they couldn’t come to class and have to take the earbuds out of their ears in order to listen to a lecture. They live in both worlds.
Guinness: Yeah, that’s right. I am with you thoroughly on that.
Mohler: Well I want to give you a word of encouragement. I think that you have one of those very rare gifts and that is both in terms of your ability to articulate these things orally also in terms of your writing. You do a very necessary work in giving intellectual framework and I think you have an amazing gift of popularize—and I don’t mean that at just the superficial level, but to make accessible to a generation, the kind of people who’d read this book, some of the most serious, sociological, and philosophical, and historical kinds of readings. And I never miss one of your books. My Os Guinness section on the shelf continues to expand, going all the way back to The Dust of Death and your time of Francis Schaeffer and then through Oxford Analytic into the present, so let me just give you a word of encouragement. Next time you write a book I want to be signed up in advance for the next conversation.
Guinness: Well thank you so much, Al; I appreciate it. That is encouraging. It’s often a lonely furrow to hold, so that’s really encouraging. And let’s hope some time I can come down your way and actually see you and visit you.
Mohler: Well we will have to make that happen and, until then, God bless you, and thank you for joining me today.
Guinness: God bless and keep on.
Mohler: As Os Guinness makes very clear, and candidly represents in this book, there are those are on the Right who can over-claim in terms of the Christian identity of America’s founding generation. But the far more prevalent issue and more dangerous to our social compact are those on the Left and others who would seek to deny the essentially biblical and Christian worldview of those who founded this nation and who established a project of freedom and ordered liberty precisely, intentionally, and self-consciously upon an understanding that only makes sense within the larger framework of a biblical worldview.
Well you now know what a conversation with Os Guinness is like. It’s a conversation that ranges across an entire field of intellectual endeavors and, of course, it’s also a conversation that models a very serious and thoughtful way of trying to understand a reality and come to terms with it. There’s something else that is modeled in this conversation and in the writings of Os Guinness, and that’s a basic Christian humility. There is no triumphalism here. There’s a very firm set of Christian convictions, a very firm understanding of Christianity’s truth behind all of this. There’s also an affirmation of the basic sovereignty of God in historical process that guides the understanding of why we would not be pessimistic when considering so many of the things that we now face. But Os Guinness also helps us to understand that as Christians we face a very acute contemporary responsibility. We must avoid, on the one hand, the kind of dangerous politicization that has marginalized Christian influence in many sectors of this society. On the other hand, we have to avoid the ringing of the hands, in terms of the political process, as if we have no responsibility in terms of the public square. We also have to understand that we as Christians engaged in an ongoing conversation, a responsible and civil conversation, have to be very careful of the language we use. And as we show up as people of conviction, those who are very much concerned not to see a free people commit national and societal suicide, we also have to understand that our words have to have staying power. We have to be willing to stand behind them over time; to make arguments we’re willing to say and to sustain, to posit in the society and then to stand behind; and to represent with our lives and our churches as well as with our arguments.
Os Guinness is something of an outsider to the United States, coming with an academic background and a pedigree in Great Britain, but he also comes as one who deeply loves what America represents. And he comes to us as one who is a Christian, is ready to offer a Christian analysis of what he sees. For that reason and many more we’re indebted to Os Guinness for his book, A Free People’s Suicide, and for the entire library of works he has contributed to our intellectual discussion.
Thanks again to my guest, Dr. Os Guinness for thinking with me today. Before I close, I want to direct your attention to my new book, The Conviction to Lead: 25 Principles for Leadership That Matters. My concern is to develop effective leaders who have more than mere administrative skill, who develop more than just vision. Leaders need to be able to change the hearts and minds of those they lead. In other words, they must develop the conviction to lead.
Thank you for joining me for Thinking in Public. Until next time, keep thinking. I’m Albert Mohler.