Freedom in the U.S. is poised to collapse sooner rather than later, according to Os Guinness in his new book, A Free People’s Suicide: Sustainable Freedom and the American Future. The reasons pertain both to external relations—imperial overreach and hubris in particular—but results more particularly from the increasing internal decadence among its people and leaders.
His argument includes a number of moving parts. Central to his argument, however, is the threat to the relationship that he terms the “golden triangle of freedom”: Freedom requires virtue, virtue requires faith, and faith requires freedom.
Of course, every generation has its authors that exclaim that times are worse than they’ve ever been, and that America won’t survive. Guinness concedes that the American framers were imperfect men, some as “distinguished for their vices and hypocrisies as well as for their virtues.” So how much virtue, and what type of virtue, is necessary to sustain American freedom? If all people are imperfect, then we know that republics can work with imperfect people. If one is then going to claim—seriously, at least—that the lack of virtue is an imminent threat to a republic, then some line on a continuum of imperfection needs to be identified.
Guinness of course does not do this. Rather, he circumvents this difficult question—this necessary question—by exaggeration. He essentially claims that Americans are at, or near, the endpoint of the virtue-vice continuum. He argues that Americans are closing in on “no virtue at all.”
To replace “virtue alone” with “no virtue at all” is madness, and what the Wall Street crisis showed about unfettered capitalism could soon be America’s crisis played out on an even more gigantic screen. Leadership without character, business without ethics and science without human values—in short, freedom without virtue—will bring the republic to its knees.
If in fact there was close to “no virtue” left among American leaders or citizens, then I would agree that Guinness has convincingly sounded the alarm of America’s imminent demise as a free country. But any suggestion that Americans are close to the point of zero virtue is transparently false. Guinness treats “virtue” as a seamless garment. While the Church need take every sin seriously, I am unsure that every sin represents a threat to civil society.
Don’t get me wrong, my goal is not at all to “define deviancy down.” Yet the sort of Jeremiad that Guinness produced is hardly unknown. He predicts a near-term, catastrophic consequence to American political life based on what he observes today in the U.S. Asking for a theory and evidence about the location of the boundary between the type and level of vice that is consistent with sustaining liberty and the type and level of vice that is inconsistent with sustaining liberty—and where the U.S. is currently on that measure—would seem to be a reasonable question.
The first link in Guinness’s “golden triangle” is the necessity of virtue to freedom. The second link in his argument is the necessity of faith to virtue. Hence, no faith means no virtue means no freedom.
Despite the tight theoretical link in Guinness’s argument relating the necessity of faith to virtue (and etc.), Guinness demurs on what it would take to revitalize this critical component of the triangle, writing that providing an answer to this pressing question “lies outside my present concerns.”
This is a bewildering demurral given that the “golden triangle” serves as the organizing theory for the entire book:
The liberty of the American republic is not self-sustaining, and it needs a safeguard beyond that of the Constitution and its separation of powers. But what does it take to turn parchment barriers into living bulwarks? What is the catalyst that can bond together the external laws of the Constitution with the internal commitments and duties of citizens—rulers no less than ruled? The framers’ answer was to understand, cultivate and transmit the golden triangle of liberty, and thus the habits of the heart that sustained the citizens and the republic alike (emphasis added).
Guinness devotes his book to a “free people’s suicide.” His central theoretical construct is that the “golden triangle” needs to work to create “sustainable freedom” and avert the catastrophe that he predicts. He argues that the connection between virtue and faith is fundamental to remedying what he thinks threatens American society. His demurral at this point is like an auto mechanic telling you that you can pick up your car from the shop and drive it home because it’s all fixed, except for one critical piece without which the car cannot run.
James R. Rogers is department head and associate professor of political science at Texas A&M University. He leads the “New Man” prison ministry at the Hamilton Unit in Bryan, Texas, and serves on the Board of Directors for the Texas District of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod. His previous “On the Square” articles can be found here.
Os Guinness, A Free People's Suicide: Sustainable Freedom and the American Future
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