- - Monday, October 22, 2012

By Os Guinness
IVP Books, $16, 224 pages

“What do you want with me?” asks a quivering Ebenezer Scrooge of the apparition of Jacob Marley, his former business partner. To which Jacob’s ghost tersely responds, “Much!”

In his timely new book, “A Free People’s Suicide: Sustainable Freedom and the American Future,” philosopher Os Guinness advocates that much is required if America is to carry its unique and valuable liberty into the foreseeable future.

Informed by cogent quotes from myriad philosophers and statesmen both past and present, “A Free People’s Suicide” posits arguments for America’s future throughout seven potent chapters. Each chapter concludes with the ominous, recurring stanza, “Americans must never forget: All who aspire to be like Rome in their beginnings must avoid being like Rome at their ending. Rome and its republic fell, and so too will the American republic.” Following this rebuke, the staccato word “unless” launches the reader into each successive chapter, crescendoing into the author’s final admonition to this nation.

Symbols also play key roles to illustrate complex concepts. For example, Mr. Guinness likens America’s founders’ focus on freedom, virtue and faith to the interdependent sides of a triangle, indispensable to America’s sustainability. “Freedom requires virtue, which in turn requires faith of some sort, which in turn requires freedom. Only so can a free people remain ‘free always.’”

While Americans favor freedom, varying segments of the country’s fractured society define freedom quite differently. Discussing balance between the negative and positive sides of freedom, Mr. Guinness explains “negative freedom” as freedom from restrictions on one’s actions or who one chooses to become.

Mr. Guinness sees “positive freedom” as necessarily performing a tempering check-and-balance to “negative freedom.” That is, man is free to choose wisely, unselfishly. True liberty requires boundaries, especially when more than one person — as in the life of a family, community or nation — is involved. If one cares little how his actions impact society at large, the “every man for himself” mentality results in a country having no “shared culture.” What is it today that makes America America? How do Americans see themselves? How are they seen by other nations?

Mr. Guinness offers three solutions for America’s road to “sustainable freedom” and the avoidance of “suicide.” First, he calls for a restoration of the teaching of citizenship in public classrooms and to immigrants. A citizen who comprehends the principles on which his country has been founded can better appreciate and defend those principles. Second, Mr. Guinness explains that civil discourse must return to the public square so that all ideas can be reasonably debated (e.g., leaving out faith-based ideas is antithetical). Third, he discloses the necessity of “re-ordering of the different spheres to serve the common good.” Spheres here refer to America’s places of influence locally and globally in matters of governance, business, education, entertainment, science and technology and so forth.

Another crucial restoration necessary for America lies in the responsibility of the individual to return to “the integrity and credibility of the faiths and ethics,” the values that influenced the founders’ construction of our Constitution. “If the power of the Jewish and Christian faiths is discarded and the power of the Enlightenment is pronounced dead,” Mr. Guinness writes, “what would be the authority that authorizes freedom, human dignity, rights, democracy and, finally, meaning itself?”

Mr. Guinness further solidifies his points by writing, “Integrity and order in the spirit of the citizens are as vital as they are in the structures of the commonwealth.” The founders fought valiantly to win freedom. They debated and collaborated wisely to order freedom. In the long run, however, the hardest challenge of all — sustaining that freedom — is in the hands of each successive generation of citizens.

Addressing Americans directly, Mr. Guinness prophetically intones:

“You have turned from your founders and their vision of lasting freedom, and from the deeply held Jewish, Christian and classical beliefs that made their vision both necessary and possible. You have turned to alternative visions of freedom that are seductive but lazy-minded and empty, and are now proving disastrous. And all the time you are turning yourselves into caricatures of your original freedom in ways that are alternatively fascinating and repellent to the world.”

Finally, and with sincere hope, Mr. Guinness asks: “Will America go forward strongly by going back wisely?”

“A Free People’s Suicide” challenges each and every citizen concerned about America’s diminishing role as a beacon of liberty not only to comprehend the urgency, but also to participate comprehensively in freedom’s preservation.

What is to be gained for those willing to work to sustain freedom? Jacob Marley has that answer.

Albin Sadar is a writer living in the New York City area.

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