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An Interview with Os Guinness

Os Guinness is the author of nearly twenty books, the most recent of which is The Case for Civility: And Why Our Future Depends on it. Guinness was kind enough to answer several questions I posed to him after the publication of this latest title. This has already been posted on Discerning Reader, but I wanted to post it here to be sure you were able to read it. Also, I’d like to hear your thoughts on the interview, the book, or the topic in general. The topic we spoke about is somewhat foreign to me (pun intended), as it focuses on the United States. This interview was unique in that it was a Canadian interviewing a Brit about America. Read on…

The thesis of your book is that the challenge of living with our deepest differences—that is, our religiously grounded—differences, is one of the world’s great issues today. The book’s subtitle is “And why our future depends on it.” What is at stake as we look to recover civility in America first and then in the rest of the world?

Two things are at stake in the issue of re-forging a civil public square. The primary issue is the freedom of followers of Christ to be faithful to him in every area of our lives, including our freedom to enter and engage public life. The secondary issue is the health and viability of the American republic. I am a great admirer of this country, but as a European the second issue is obviously secondary. I trust it is secondary too for Americans who love their country, but love Christ first and foremost.

But let me make clear that I am arguing for a civility that is far more than nice manners. I am talking of re-forging a ‘civil public square’ as opposed to the present extremes of a ‘naked public square’ on one side and a ‘sacred public square’ on the other. I am not saying that the issues at stake in the culture wars are unimportant - they are very important - but that the way we are fighting them is wrong and also destructive to freedom in the long run.

Take the simple fact that Europe is the most secular continent in the world, and much of this secularity is in direct reaction to yesterday’s corrupt state churches. The U.S. never had this problem because of the genius of the First Amendment - until recently that is. Yet over the last generation, as the culture wars have intensified and in direct reaction to the perceived extremism of the religious right, we have seen a mounting American equivalent of the European repudiation of all religion, at least among the educated classes (for example, the new atheists). If this reaction hardens in concrete, it spells disaster for Christians and for the U.S.

In the past did other nations look to the United States as the model for living together despite deep differences? Do they continue to do this today? Why do you feel the United States is uniquely able to model civility?

The framers described the United States as a ‘novus ordo seclorum,’ or new order of the ages. More recently it has been described as ‘the first new nation’ in the sense that the U.S. wrestled with many of the key issues of the modern world from the beginning. In the past, most other nations dismissed this claim as American self-congratulation and irrelevant to them. What did the First Amendment mean, for instance, to nations that were happy with their established church? That complacency has been shattered in the last generation. Other nations are now wrestling with issues such as immigration and exploding religious diversity, but without models such as the melting pot and principles such as freedom of conscience. The English and the Dutch, for example, being liberal and tolerant, took immediately to ‘multiculturalism,’ only to breed enclaves of home-bred terrorism. The sad irony, however, is that just as many in the rest of the world begin to appreciate what the U.S. has been wrestling with, mostly successfully, for 200 years, they look across the Atlantic and the U.S. is not doing so well today - for instance, in the endless recently culture-warring.

Are both secularists and those who hold to a religion contributing equally to the breakdown of civility? Or is the breakdown coming more from one side than the other?

It depends who you are talking to. Each side in the culture wars naturally thinks the other is far worse, if not the sole source of the problem. Looked at over thirty years, a rather even balance sheet can be drawn up. At the moment, though, the forces of the ‘sacred public square’ are showing signs of weakening, whereas the forces of the ‘naked public square’ represent the greater danger, above all in the way that ‘civil liberty’ is repeatedly trumping ‘religious liberty.’ For the founders, these liberties were twins and their relationship needed to be negotiated carefully. Today the homosexual movement is using the first to rout the second. All religious believers will be the losers as well as the republic.

Some people, when thinking of a plurality of religions, immediately think of relativism. How is a proper understanding of the difference between pluralism and relativism necessary to restore civility?

The fear of the ‘P word’ (pluralism) has generally been a feature of fundamentalism or the religious right, but it is based on a misunderstanding. Pluralism is simply a social fact and one that is inescapable. We live in a world where, because of travel, the media, and immigration, it is now said that ‘everyone is now everywhere.’ Relativism, on the other hand, is a philosophical conclusion and one with which Christians disagree strongly - the idea that there is no absolute truth and everything is depends on your perspective.” We Christians should come to terms with the fact of pluralism, but we should stoutly resist relativism. Sadly, statistics show that whereas the early church remained absolutely faithful to Christ in a highly pluralistic situation, modern Christians have surrendered to relativism to an appalling extent - especially among the younger generation and among the Emergent Church.

James Madison famously objected to the word “tolerance” in the draft of the Virginia Declaration of Rights and succeeded in changing tolerance to free exercise. How is the concept of free exercise relevant to the case for civility?

Tolerance is infinitely better than its opposite - intolerance . But it has two weaknesses. First, it is a grant and not a right, and therefore it is patronizing and condescending in essence. It is always the strong tolerating the weak, the majority the minority, and the government the citizens. Second, it has softened and become squishy over time, so that it easily flip-flops into intolerance (under the PC guise, of course, of supposed ‘tolerance’).

Free exercise, by contrast, is a positive right, based on freedom of conscience, which includes behavior as well as belief. Today, free exercise has to be contrasted not just with ‘tolerance’ but with purely negative, and therefore inadequate, notions such as ‘hate speech’ and ‘hate crimes.’ Freedom will never be guaranteed by law alone (as opposed to the civil ‘habits of the heart’) or by negative notions such as hate speech.

In the book you make several mentions of the great English reformer William Wilberforce. As we have just celebrated the 200th anniversary of the abolition of slavery—a triumph engineered by Wilberforce—what can we learn from him?

There are scores of lessons we can learn from Wilberforce, but take just one: his civility. As a follower of the way of Jesus, he loved his enemies and always refused to demonize them. At one time he was the most vilified man in the world, but while he never minced words in speaking about the evils of slavery, he was always gracious, generous, modest, funny, witty, and genuinely loving toward his enemies. When one of his worst enemies died, he at once saw to it anonymously that his widow was cared for adequately. Compare this with the religious right’s demonizing of its foes. The latter is not so much uncivil as unChristian.

The gospels are filled with examples of Jesus’ harsh language against others, and particularly the religious leaders. Can we look to Him as a model of civility?

Jesus is famous for his harsh denunciations of the legalism and hypocrisy of the Pharisees and others. Here he is in the tradition of the prophets, such as Amos, Hosea, and Jeremiah, and there are times when we must be outspoken too - above all on behalf of the oppressed and in opposition to evil. But as his followers, we are also called to love our enemies, to forgive without limit, to speak the truth with love, and to be always ready to give an answer for the hope that is within us ‘with gentleness and respect.’

Put differently, we have deep Christian reasons for a different style of public speech that are different from mere civility. And we always need to remember that civility is not a matter of being nice or squeamish about differences. It is a republican virtue and a democratic necessity that is a habit of the heart that knows how to deal with real differences with robust civility.

What can the person on the street, the average American, do to restore civility to America?

The U.S. is at a stage when the culture wars and the extremism are so bitter and entrenched that it will take a leader of the stature and courage of Lincoln to stand above it and call for a better way. But we must not sit and wait passively. First, we can pray. Second, we can ourselves show a better way - loving our enemies, speaking truth with love, and so on. And third, we can say No to incivility of all kinds and call for a better way - challenging speakers, cancelling subscriptions, and calling for leadership that addresses the ‘better angels’ of our
fellow citizens, rather than addressing fear and hatred.

As you look to the forthcoming Presidential election do you see a leader who inspires you as a potential leader who can match this moment?

A congressman came to me recently and said, ‘America is in decline, and many of our leaders are in denial. What can we do?’ Whether or not you agree with him, there is a widespread sense that the U.S. lacks leadership and that almost no one is addressing the deepest issues we are facing. But as a visitor to this country, I am not going to comment on the current election. That is your privilege and responsibility.

And finally, who should read this book? What are your hopes for this book and how will you know if it has been a success?

Of all the books I have written for the public square, this is the timeliest and most constructive. I hope it will be read by thoughtful citizens and thoughtful Christians. But not having any ‘platform’ or mailing list, and not being in one or other of the polarized camps, it is easy for a book like mine to fall silently like a leaf in the forest. I will know it is a success if some leader and some group step forward and champion the vision, and set in motion a serious sustained effort to re-forge a civil public square. But whether I succeed or not, the issue I raise in the book is a ‘standing or falling’ issue for Christians in America and for the American republic too. If the problem is not resolved, and so far there are not many alternative solutions being proposed, America will soon decline. Make no mistake. This is an issue that demands resolution or the future of the republic is in question. It is that simple and that serious.

Remember where I began. The issue of restoring civility to American public life is not a primary issue for Christians. For me, there are two more important issues. One is the reformation of the church and the restoration of integrity to Christian belief and behavior, and the other is the restoration of credibility to the way we share the Gospel to the educated classes. Civility is far less important than these two grand issues, which are a matter of faithfulness to Christ. But a civil public square is also important because it affects our freedom and ability to bring faith into public life, and therefore to be salt and light in the whole of society as we are called to be.


Click here to Read my review of The Case for Civility