Q & A: Os Guinness on What Freedom in the Balance Looks Like
This is a fascinating interview with Os Guinness over at Christianity Today, where there is more:
Why as an Irishman do you care so much about the American experiment?
I’m obviously not an advocate of Christian America or a simplistic view of America as “a city on a hill.” But I do think that America as “the first new nation” [the title of an influential book by Seymour Martin Lipset] grappled with many of the issues underlying modernity. James Madison called the American settlement “the true remedy,” and I believe it is the most nearly perfect answer the world has seen so far. When it was first put forward, the world wasn’t interested because it was happily going on with its traditional ways, which were flourishing. But with the explosion of global diversity, the whole world is now experiencing what America experienced 250 years ago, and the world now looks to America.
Why should Christians care about sustaining the American experiment? It isn’t as if we believe America is God’s chosen people or a close approximation to the kingdom of heaven.
Let me be absolutely clear. I don’t believe in Christian America. I believe strongly that this is a time rather like Augustine’s, when he broke the identification of the church with the Roman Empire; so we need to break any suggestion that the kingdom is bound up with Britain or Europe or America.
But all that said, this country has had a greater contribution of Christians and a greater debt to the gospel and a greater freedom for Christians than other countries. Some Christians go from the extreme of [supporting] uncritically Christian America to an overly globalized sense of the world. I give lectures on globalization. I have lived on three continents. I have no quarrel with a global consciousness. But some people go from that to having no real sense of roots, nor a love of place and country that God has given us, for better or worse.
Many today are pessimistic about the future of America and the American experiment. What makes you believe that we can succeed in using history “to defy history,” as you put it.
I’m saying that’s what the framers believed. Their solution is probably the most daring and realistic solution ever put forward in political history. But Americans don’t even know it. The odd thing is the founders didn’t give it a name. I love Alexis de Tocqueville’s term, “the habits of the heart.” My own term, which is probably the most original part of the book, is “the golden triangle of freedom.”
I personally don’t think over the long haul it will work, because of sin and the passing of time. Those two factors will bring it down. But merely to throw it away out of ignorance prematurely is absolutely a folly of monumental proportions.
Why bother if sin and time will bring eventually bring down the American idea?
No empires have lasted. Nations have; empires don’t. But there is a middle possibility, which is renewal. The framers talk about a frequent recurrence to fundamental first principles. In other words, there is the possibility of renewal. It takes leadership, vision, and commitment to do that. There could be another chance for America even now. I believe that. I don’t think many American leaders have the vision the framers did. So I’m not too sanguine about it at the moment, but it’s not impossible.
What exactly do you mean by “the golden triangle of freedom.”
Freedom requires virtue. Virtue requires faith. Faith requires freedom. And like the recycling triangle, it goes around at infinitum.
The word virtue for the framers was a one-word summary of all the ethical things you need: honesty, loyalty, patriotism, and especially character. Freedom requires virtue. The framers are absolutely solid that the character of any leader is crucial. Today that idea completely gone. Take the Clinton impeachment: as the writers of The New York Times put it, the President could have the morals of an alley cat. What mattered was competence, not character. That’s a fundamental change. I think the framers were both realistic and right. Freedom requires virtue.
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