A recent book by Os Guinness (A Free People’s Suicide: Sustainable Freedom and the American Future [IVP, 2012]) raises the significant question whether the great American experiment with freedom has a sustainable future. The title of the book suggests that the endurance of the republic is questionable, and this is what the author believes.

The problem for America, says Guinness, is not external threats but internal. The title of the book builds off a powerful quote from Abraham Lincoln:  “If destruction be our lot, we must ourselves be its author and finisher.  As a nation of freemen, we must live through all time, or die by suicide.” Freedom is sustainable, but only if those who are free give careful and continuing attention to the nature of freedom and those qualities that promote the health of a free society.

Guinness writes from a wide knowledge of classical authors and the writings of America’s founding fathers. He faults contemporary Americans for a lack of historical perspective and an inattention to the character and conditions which allow freedom to flourish. “Freedom can no more take a holiday from history than from gravity, and the plain fact is that it is harder to be free than not to be free, for freedom’s fire has not only to be lit once but must be kindled and rekindled all over again in each succeeding generation.”

One of the great omissions that Guinness finds in the current understanding of freedom is that Americans (both liberal and conservative) generally understand liberty as negative freedom, i.e. freedom from oppression, fear, constraint, tradition, etc.  Negative freedom is a fundamental component of what the Founders fought for, but it is a part, not the whole. Negative freedom must be balanced by positive freedom, which is not merely freedom from but freedom for.  Negative freedom alone ultimately degenerates and becomes bondage for individuals or societies. So unlimited freedom to indulge any and every type of behavior leads to a culture of addictions, and unlimited freedom to buy leads to a culture of debt.

But the founders understood that freedom is not absolute.   Freedom must be ordered; hence, the Constitution and the balance of powers.  But structure alone will not preserve freedom.  To structure must be added character or virtue, both in the private citizen and in the public leader. As Benjamin Franklin formulated it:  “No longer virtuous, no longer free; is a maxim as true with regard to a private person as a Commonwealth.” And John Adams wrote, “The only foundation of a free Constitution is pure Virtue. . . .” Liberty therefore is nurtured among people of character. Guinness states, “Freedom is not the permission to do what we like but the power to do what we should.”

A question then arises: what is the source of virtue? Guinness answers that the framers of the Constitution were clear also on this point:  virtue requires (some sort of) faith. This is true even for Deists like Franklin or Jefferson.  So these three--freedom, virtue, and faith--are intertwined and interdependent; together they form what Guinessn calls the golden triangle of liberty.

In America today a lack of understanding and appreciation for this interdependence puts the grand experiment at risk. We are naïve to assume that freedom will simply maintain itself by a kind of historical inertia. This book is a clear call to reinvigorate the public discussion of “first things” with careful attention to the wisdom of the Founding Fathers.  Much is at stake. Guinness not only warns of decline, but charts a path toward renewal. May the call be heeded!

Dave Dunbar is president of Biblical Seminary.  He has been married to Sharon for 42 years.  They have four grown children and six grand children.


0 # Theodore Moyer 2013-01-15 13:58
Exceptional article - well done. You have stated clearly and pointedly THE missing components (in my estimation), virtue and faith, in most discussions regarding this topic. John Adams said that the constitution, and thus republic, would ONLY survive under the stewardship of a moral and religious people (slightly paraphrased).
Thus, any discussions that forego the relevancy of God and His Word as pertains to establishing the basic moral parameters for such a people, would be akin to discussing the value of a car to transport from point 'a' to point 'b' and leaving the breaks out of the picture. To use them would be freedom 'from' and to not use them would be freedom 'for'.
Thank you Mr. Dunbar for bringing such clarity to an otherwise murky discussion.
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