Book Review – A Free People’s Suicide (Os Guinness)

Os Guinness, A Free People’s Suicide: Sustainable Freedom and the American Future, (Downers Grove: IVP Books, 2012), 205 pages plus substantial endnotes.

Os Guinness is becoming one of my favorite authors. He personifies what I consider to be the best attributes in an author: first, he is aware of and interacts with authors who have dealt with the same subject – going back to the classics of Greek and Latin. Second, he does not shy away from calling a turkey a turkey, if that is what he genuinely believes. And third, his prose is beautiful to read. In other words, he is not a contemporary American author.

In A Free People’s Suicide, Guinness asks the question of the sustainability of American freedom. He points out that the founders of America both won and ordered our freedom, but the issue of its sustainability is open to debate. In point of fact, Guinness is rather melancholy about the prospect, although in the concluding chapter he expresses a measured optimism, but only if there are some (rather significant) changes in our current leadership and citizenry.

The book is organized into seven chapters, and I believe the key chapter is the middle chapter (4) where he provides what he calls the “golden triangle” of sustainable freedom. That triangle consists of the conviction that freedom requires virtue, and that virtue requires faith. The exercise of faith then requires freedom, which must must be built on virtue, which then returns to faith, and on and on. Guinness is forceful in his rejection that America will remain free (or great, for that matter) if all its citizens do is rely on the Constitution or our ever-expanding quagmire of laws. His point, which he returns to repeatedly, is that unless the super-structure of the Constitution and our laws is built on a stronger foundation than what he calls “parchment freedom,” all freedom will eventually disappear and America will fall, just as every major empire in the world has ultimately fallen.

It should be noted, and Guinness does make this point, that there is a big difference between what most modern Americans call “freedom” and the much more poisonous concept of “license.” What we see in so much of our domestic debate today is not a discussion of freedom at all – it is an infantile demand for license to do whatever we want, the consequences be damned. Freedom, as Guinness expounds beautifully, demands self-control and the virtue of a people that is rooted deeply in faith. (Spoiler alert – while Guinness does refer to the Judeo-Christian features of so much of our founding documents, he is painstaking in not asserting that our nation is a “Christian” nation. He is far too educated not to know that many of our founding father were deists at best, and some were outright humanists.)

The publication date for the book is 2012 (I thought is was much later), so I would really be curious to know what Guinness thinks of the petulant little toddler that currently resides at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. in Washington D.C. Whatever that opinion might be, Guinness’s observations and warnings are even more critical in 2019 than they were in 2012. The tendencies that Guinness criticized through the G.W. Bush years have only been magnified in the Obama and Trump presidencies, and the “slippery slope” (Guinness never uses the term) that he warns about is on the verge of becoming a national catastrophe. He question is chilling – will a leader stand up who has the courage to put a stop to our self-chosen suicide?

I cannot end without providing Guinness’s three tasks if America is to save itself from a certain demise. First, “… America must strongly and determinedly restore civic education, and education that is truly ‘liberal education,’ or an education for liberty. Conservatives must get over their shortsighted aversion to the ‘L word,’ and liberals must reexplore what liberal  education really means and why it matters.” (p. 192) Basically, what Guinness is calling for is an education in citizenship – and everything that entails. Guinness illustrates this beautifully, but painfully, “With civic education, for example, the clash between backward-looking teachers’ unions  and forward-looking foundations concerned only for educational ‘skills’ leaves the United States industriously turning out students who are deficient not only in global competitiveness but in American citizenship and in Socrates’ examined life.” (p. 196)

Second, “… America must strongly and determinedly rebuild its civil public square, leading to a profound resolution of the current culture warring and a re-opening of public life to people of all faiths and none, so that all citizens are able to play their part in a thriving civil society and a robust democracy.” (p. 194)

Third, “… America must strongly and determinedly reorder the grand spheres that make up American society and its powerful cultural influence in the world.” (p. 194) By this Guinness means reordering the “spheres” of business, law, education, entertainment (and others) to serve the “wider public good,” a system of “checks and balances” that is frequently quoted in terms of our federal government, but rarely (if ever) applied to other aspects of our culture.

There is a fourth task, that Guinness demurs from expanding, that requires a “… restoration of the integrity and credibility of the faiths and ethics of the citizenry, which in many cases in America today are as faithless, flaccid and fickle as the health of ordered liberty itself.” (p. 196). This, he believes, is outside the responsibility of the government to address, and I would agree. If the church is “faithless, flaccid and fickle,” it is the church’s responsibility to address those issues.

A final word to my fellow members of the Churches of Christ. We are heirs of a heritage that is commonly referred to as the “American Restoration Movement.” All too frequently, however, the concept of restoration has fallen into disrepute among our congregations. From the extreme conservatives we hear that the restoration is complete, that there remains nothing to restore. From the extreme left we here that restoration is a folly, that the very idea itself is unchristian. “We cannot look back, we have to look to the future” is the mantra of far too many preachers today. I was dumbfounded to read in Guinness’s closing comments one of the best defenses of restoration I have ever heard – not in the sense of restoring some kind of pristine past (which was never pristine to begin with, and which can never be done in the second place), but a return to the very foundational concepts and practices of our faith. Two quotes must suffice: “But history shows that when it comes to ideas, it is in fact possible to turn back the clock. Two of the most progressive movements in Western history – the Renaissance and the Reformation – were both the result of a return to the past, though in very different ways and with very different outcomes.” (p. 197, bold emphasis mine PAS) And this, “In other words, all three movements – Jewish, Christian and American – share a striking feature that sets them apart from much modern thinking: A return to the past can be progressive, not reactionary. Each movement in its own way best goes forward by first going back.” (p. 198, italics by Os Guinness, bold emphasis mine, PAS). As I have said, and perhaps written elsewhere, the American Restoration Movement must continually remain a restoration movement, or it becomes a statuary monument – an idol.

I cannot recommend this book highly enough. It is a painful read – but Guinness’s words must be heard if health is going to be restored to our republic. I for one believe Guinness’s medicine to be too strong for us to stomach. I tend to be much more apocalypticist in outlook – I just do not think we have the political will to do what Guinness recommends. But, be that the case or not, this book needs to be read and digested by everyone who is concerned about the direction our country is headed.

Author: Paul Smith

Paul Smith was born in Santa Fe, New Mexico. He holds the Bachelor of Science in Youth Ministry, Master of Biblical Studies and Master of Divinity, all from Abilene Christian University; and the Doctor of Ministry from Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California. Paul's passion is in teaching and preaching the gospel. Beyond the study of the Bible, his main academic interest is in the life and theology of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. He is an unashamed mountain-goat, and longs to spend his time with his feet in a cold trout stream.

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