I promised in my last post to share some thoughts about my first “bench” reading of the summer: A Free People’s Suicide, by Os Guinness. I’ve devoted quite a bit of time lately to examples of flawed historical thinking, and I’m happy now to switch gears and talk about a non-academic work that is more effective. It’s important to give so much attention to popular, non-academic history for a simple reason: this is the only kind of history most American adults are ever likely to read. I am sure this says something about anti-intellectualism in American culture, but I’m equally certain that it’s also an indictment of academic historians. With a few prominent exceptions, we turned our backs on the general public long ago.
Like the other figures that I have discussed recently (Peter Marshall Jr. and David Manuel, Francis Schaeffer, and Steve Wilkins and Doug Wilson), Os Guinness is a prolific author who often writes about history but is not a trained historian. Unlike the others, Guinness is not primarily a pastor or theologian. Born in China where his parents were medical missionaries, he was educated in England and has lived in the United States for nearly three decades. Although a recipient of a graduate degree in the social sciences from Oxford, he has made his living mostly outside of the academy and would best be described–as he describes himself–as an author and social critic.
As with Marshall and the others, Guinness’s foray into the past is prompted by concern for the present. There’s nothing wrong with that–in fact, I think that’s how it should be. Academic historians are rightfully leery of what we call “presentism”: the bad habit of reading our own values and beliefs into the past so that the individuals we encounter have nothing to teach us. But we have been so determined to avoid this pitfall that we have often gone to the other extreme, so much so that we typically disparage “populizers” who speak to the contemporary relevance of history or identify lessons from the past. I suspect that this is one reason why the surrounding culture so often views us as irrelevant. Not Os Guinness.
Reminiscent of The Light and the Glory, A Free People’s Suicide begins with a critique of contemporary culture. Fifteen hundred years ago, St. Augustine noted that the best way to define a people is by the “loved thing held in common.” Americans, Guinness says, are a people defined by their love of freedom. Surely he is correct. Americans may disagree whether the United States is truly a “sweet land of liberty,” to quote the song, but we are unanimous that it should be such a place. In Guinness’s words, “Freedom is today’s highest virtue, its grandest possibility, its last absolute, its most potent myth, and . . . its only self-evident truth.”
The problem, in Guinness’s view, is that contemporary Americans “are heedlessly pursuing a vision of freedom that is short-lived and suicidal.” We conceive of freedom simplistically as the utter absence of all restraint. Across the political spectrum, we have no higher goal than to escape the power of others over our lives. We exalt freedom of choice rather than wisdom in choosing. We are a nation drowning in debt and obsessed with decadence. Our situation is dire.
Notice that this aspect of Guinness’s argument is not historical. Writing as an outsider not raised in this country, he is simply sharing his assessment of what he sees in his adopted home. Some readers will cry “Amen!” Some will think he paints too dark a picture. Others may find him too optimistic.
It is when he is trying to convince us of how much is at stake that Guinness appeals to history. First, he notes that even the most cursory scan of world history shows that most of the people who have ever drawn breath on this planet have not lived in free societies. Freedom, evidently, is a rare and fragile thing. Second, and at much greater length, Guinness introduces his readers to a centuries-long conversation as to why this should be the case. Americans need this introduction because, as Guinness laments, “the United States demonstrates the distinctively modern obsession with the present and future at the expense of the past.”
One of my favorite expressions of the value of history comes from historian David Harlan’s book The Degradation of American History. “At its best,” Harlan writes, the study of American history can become “a conversation with the dead about what we should value and how we should live.” The Suicide of a Free People, at its core, is an effort to raise the dead so that they can speak into our lives.
The book’s title comes from a speech from a young Abraham Lincoln, who in the 1830s predicted that if America ever fell, it would collapse from within. “If destruction be our lot,” Lincoln declared before the Young Men’s Lyceum of Springfield, Illinois, “we must ourselves be its author and finisher. As a nation of freemen, we must live through all time, or die by suicide.”
Although Guinness accords the Lincoln quote pride of place, his primary historical focus is on the views of the American “founders” of the late-eighteenth century. As Guinness observes, in promoting the cause of independence, these prominent statesmen were themselves drawing on a “great conversation that runs down through the centuries from the Bible and the classical writers of Greece and Rome.”
Distilled to its essence, that conversation, as Guinness sketches it, challenges contemporary Americans with at least four major claims. The first is that it is much more difficult to sustain freedom than it is to establish or order it. Indeed, sustaining freedom is a never-ending task “of centuries and countless generations.” We can never proclaim “mission accomplished.” We can never spike the ball in the end zone and celebrate. Historically understood, the American project of sustaining freedom is even now, and will always remain, an unproven “experiment.”
The second claim is a “grand paradox”: “the greatest enemy of freedom is freedom.” In order to flourish, humans need both freedom and order, social goods that are in tension with one another. Because of our “human propensity for self-love,” we naturally resist the restraint that order requires, undermining our freedom in our very efforts to maximize it. The founders recognized this, Guinness tells us, and thus advocated an ideal of freedom as “liberty within law” and “autonomy under authority.”
Third, according to Guinness, the founders insisted that freedom was unlikely to survive without some sort of religious faith. If sustainable “freedom requires order and therefore restraint, the only restraint that does not contradict freedom is self-restraint.” This unnatural practice of denying oneself for the common good–what the founders called virtue–was unlikely to flourish in a materialist, secular culture. While he is emphatic that the founders did not advocate a “Christian America” in any formal, established sense, Guinness provides copious evidence of the founders’ belief, in the words of Alexander Hamilton, that “morality must fall with religion.”
The founders’ emphasis on morality pointed to a final broad claim: no structure of government exists that, by itself, can guarantee freedom. The founders’ strategy for sustaining freedom was always two-fold, Guinness stresses. Although they lavished great care on the new federal and state constitutions, they always believed that the values of the people were at least as crucial to the long-term survival of freedom. By itself, as James Madison put it, the new federal Constitution was a mere “parchment barrier” against tyranny. If freedom was to endure, the “structures of liberty” must be reinforced by the “spirit of liberty.”
Guinness leaves no doubt that he views each of these claims as correct. He does not, however, fall into a trap that ensnares so many popular Christian writers. While Guinness clearly admires the founders–he says their “vision charted the course of America’s meteoric rise to greatness”–he does not idolize them. The most common way that we make idols of historical figures is by implying that we are morally bound to follow their example. This imputes authority where God has not granted it, and Christians fall into this trap all the time. To give but one example, we strain to prove that the founders were predominantly Christians, as if establishing that would somehow obligate our own generation.
In contrast, Guinness appeals to the past not as moral authority but as mirror. In reviewing the founders’ understanding of how to sustain freedom, his goal is to show twenty-first century Americans–most of whom are blissfully unaware–just how far they have strayed from the founders’ prescription. Does this mean that we have “sinned” by falling short of the founders’ ideals? Not necessarily. They were fallible human beings, as Guinness repeatedly observes, with their own inconsistencies and flaws.
What is wrong, according to Guinness–“foolish” even–is to wall ourselves off from the ancient conversation about freedom in which the founders were immersed. The founders may have been wrong, but it is the height of arrogance simply to assume so. Instead, we must allow them to ask us hard questions. If as a society we no longer subscribe to the founders’ views, what is our strategy for avoiding the dangers that the founders identified? “If Americans today have no serious interest in the founders’ wisdom and provisions, what are their alternatives?” asks Guinness. “If they have any, they should say so, and they should set out what they are and how they relate to the issues behind the founders’ original discussion.” This is a fair challenge.
In his 1908 classic Orthodoxy, British writer G. K. Chesterton trenchantly observed that “the only thought that ought to be stopped” is a “thought that stops thought.” We need to remember Chesterton’s warning as we consider what it means to think Christianly about the past. Chesterton had in mind early versions of what is now called postmodernism, a radical relativism that, pursued to its logical end, calls into question the validity of all thought. When it comes to history, however, postmodernism is not the only kind of “thought that stops thought.”
One of the things that unifies the popular works that I have reviewed before this is that all of them are guilty of this offense. Marshall and Manuel “stopped thought” by claiming to know God’s special plan for America and by interpreting the past through the lens of that special revelation. Francis Schaeffer offered a breathtakingly superficial interpretation of several millennia of world history and then questioned the theological orthodoxy of Christian historians who disagreed with him. Doug Wilson and Steve Wilkins prefaced their tendentious evaluation of American slavery by rebuking those who would persist in “the sin of believing a lie.”
Although well intentioned, all of these figures insisted that their particular interpretation of history was essential to a faithful engagement with contemporary culture. Whether they intended it or not, all created an environment among their readers in which disagreement constituted disloyalty. While using history in an attempt to engage the broader culture intellectually, their work tended to “stop thought” among their own followers.
I don’t agree wholly with A Free People’s Suicide. I suspect that Guinness has idealized the founders. He may exaggerate the degree to which their values shaped the country at its inception. My point is not to claim that it is a definitive work of history–irrefutably accurate in every detail–but rather to suggest that the way that Guinness has gone about fashioning his argument is fundamentally sound. He has challenged us to combat what C. S. Lewis called our “chronological snobbery.” He has reminded us that those who have gone before us may have had insights that we very much need to hear. He has appealed to the past without imputing authority to the dead, respecting our forbears rather than worshiping them. And he has accomplished all of this without questioning the character of those who might disagree with him. For believers wanting to think Christianly about the past with an eye to the present, there is much in this model to admire.