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Sustainable Freedom and the American Future
By Os Guinness
IVP Books (2012) 224pp

Reviewed by David W. Virtue
January 2, 2013

Freedom. Americans are in danger of losing it, says author and social critic Dr. Os Guinness. Americans today are heedlessly pursuing a vision of freedom that is short-lived and suicidal. Once again, freedom without virtue, leadership without character, business without trust, law without customs, education without meaning and medicine, science and technology without human considerations can end only in disaster, writes one of America's prophetic voices and cultural observers.

Guinness, a committed Anglican and the founding Senior Fellow of the Trinity forum, offers up that, "The ultimate threat to the American public will be Americans. The problem is not wolves at the door but termites in the floor."

Guinness argues that the greatest challenge to nation-states is not in winning freedom, but in sustaining it - which is becoming an increasingly urgent dilemma for the American experiment in ordered liberty.

Guinness points to the current international economic crisis which is due not to hostilities between European countries, but within them - perhaps most notably, a refusal on the part of one generation to curtail current benefits or entitlements even if it bankrupts those around them - which is as much a matter of character as of economics.

"A second debate concerns the difference between negative and positive freedoms," writes Guinness. "Negative freedom is freedom from - in essence, freedom from interference and constraint. Positive freedom is freedom for –in essence, freedom for excellence according to whatever vision and ideals define that excellence. [Constitutional] framers' position is clear and balanced, but contemporary Americans have abandoned it. They have voted unambiguously for negative freedom rather than positive and have therefore exalted freedom as an essentially private matter, for where else can a person be truly free from all outside interference."

Guinness believes Americans are in ways subtle, gradual, and almost unrecognizable undermining the same freedoms attacked directly just over a decade ago.

As a reviewer of this book I can do no better than cite quotes from A Free People's Suicide.

"American stands before the world today under the judgment of her own ideals. Again and again it is Montesquieu and Madison, rather than Marx and Muhammad, whose principles boomerang back on America in world reactions to America's superpower actions."


"The postmodern mind, in contrast to the modern, is obsessed with relativism and fragmentation. In this view time is neither linear nor cyclical. It is pointillist - like truth and certainties of all kinds, it is pulverized into a thousand scattered points, each unrelated to the others and to the past and future.

"All of today's preachers of freedom, from the presidents down, should ponder what their founders built knowingly into the foundations. The ultimate test of freedom is not the economy or the military, but time. Freedom's ultimate trial is mortality, and the essence of mortality is flawed human nature.

"For Americans must never forget: all who aspire to be like Rome in their beginnings must avoid being like Rome at their ending and its republic fell, and so too will the American republic - unless..."


"Two things continue to surprise me...that the sole American answer to how freedom can be sustained is the Constitution and its separation of powers and that the rest of the founders' solution is now almost complete ignored.

"There is a deep irony in play today. Many educated people who scorn religious fundamentalism are hard at work creating a constitutional fundamentalism, though with lawyers and judges instead of rabbis, priests and pastors. Constitutional and unconstitutional have replaced orthodox and heretical.

"What the framers believed should complement and reinforce the Constitution and its separation of powers is the distinctive moral ecology that is at the heart of ordered liberty.

"Together with the Constitution, these habits of the heart are the real, complete and essential bulwark of American liberty. A republic grounded only in a consensus forged of calculation and competing self-interests can never last.

"If liberty is to endure, the twin bulwarks of the Constitution and the golden triangle of freedom must both play their part. 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.

"The empire of consumerism has undermined the Protestant ethic, and virtues such as delayed gratification have been shouldered aside by the clamor for instant gratification."


"America must strongly and determinedly restore civic education, an 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 re-explore what liberal education really means and why it matters.

"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 robust democracy.

"Third, America must strongly and determinedly reorder the grand spheres that make up American society and its powerful cultural influence in the world. A key feature of the modern world is differentiation...

"These three restorations-the renewal of civic education, the restoration of a civil public square, and the re-ordering of the different spheres to serve the common good---must be accompanied by a fourth---restoration of the integrity and credibility of the faiths and ethics of the citizenry."

Guinness has outlined for all Americans a blueprint for how this deeply divided country could move forward. Even as I write, Americans wrestle with gun ownership, the recent massacre of innocent children, divisiveness, lack of morality, and economic holocaust should the debt ceiling not be reined in.

This book is must reading. You can obtain a copy at Amazon at this link: http://tinyurl.com/azvrcwy You can see a Vimeo here of Dr. Guinness speaking on A Free People's Suicide: http://vimeo.com/49954525


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