Centennial Review - March 2014 | Liberty | Democracy

Principled Ideas from the Centennial Institute Volume 6, Number 3 • March 2014

Publisher, William L. Armstrong Editor, John Andrews

By Os Guinness From the ringing cry of Moses, “Let my people go!” to the heroic stands of the Greeks at Thermopylae and Salamis, to the assassins of Julius Caesar shouting “”Libertas!” with their daggers dripping blood, to the Magna Carta, to the English Bill of Rights in 1689, to the American Bill of Rights and the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen published the same week in 1791, to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, freedom has been a central theme in the history of the West—even if freedom has often had to be won from evils and oppressions that were Western themselves.

1789, the Russians in 1917, and the Chinese in 1949. The second task was ordering freedom—the objective of the U.S. Constitution in 1787. And here the French, the Russians, and the Chinese did not do it. Their revolutions spiraled down to a demonic disorder that was worse than the tyrannies they replaced. The genius of the American revolutionaries was that in the Constitution they gave freedom the political framework in which it could thrive and endure. The third task was sustaining freedom. Many people can quote Benjamin Franklin’s words to a woman who asked what the constitutional convention had achieved: “A republic, Madame—if you can keep it!” Few Americans today can go beyond that, yet many of the Founders gave considerable thought to what they called the “perpetuation” of the new institutions. What the Young Lincoln Knew

Indeed that was the title of his talk chosen by the 28-yearold Lincoln when he was asked to address the Young Men’s Lyceum in Springfield, Illinois, in 1837. If winning freedom ‘Free Always’ isn’t Easy is the work of a few years, and ordering freedom only a few years more, then sustaining freedom is the challenge of the No country has aspired to this ideal and shouldered this decades and centuries. It should certainly be responsibility more openly than the selfregarded as a prime task for American citizens proclaimed “land of the free.” As a European Sustaining today. admirer of the American experiment, I

freedom would argue that one of America’s greatest The Founders’ realism over sustaining freedom contributions to the history of human included a deep awareness of why freedom is our task. freedom is the brilliant and daring attempt was so difficult to sustain. They knew the by the founders to build a free republic that they believed classics well, and had ransacked them in a daring attempt could remain free for all time. “Always free, free always,” as to use history to defy history. They drew on such writers as it was once expressed. the Greek general and historian Polybius and the Roman orator and statesman Cicero, who had each analyzed the Not once in my thirty years in Washington, DC, however, different reasons why the wheel of history kept turning and have I heard anyone, let alone a national leader, talk of no form of government lasted forever. sustainable freedom—and certainly not with the wisdom
and realism that was so characteristic of the Founders or the young Abraham Lincoln. Yet two and a third centuries after the establishing of freedom in 1776, sustainability is the issue of the hour for freedom. The Founders faced three tasks in establishing a free republic. The first was winning freedom—the objective of the revolution in 1776. This was the most glorious of the tasks, but it was not unique. The French won freedom in

Author and social critic Os Guinness has written or edited 30 books. Born of British parents in China, he took his doctorate at Oxford and has lived in the United States since 1984. He spoke at Colorado Christian University on Jan. 31, 2014. Another version of this lecture was given at The Heritage Foundation on Sept. 12, 2013. Centennial Institute sponsors research, events, and publications to enhance public understanding of the most important issues facing our state and nation. By proclaiming Truth, we aim to foster faith, family, and freedom, teach citizenship, and renew the spirit of 1776.

What? Guinness’ book, on which this essay is based, was called “too optimistic” by a concerned congressman.

The first challenge highlighted by the ancients was the danger of external menaces, but this was the Founders’ least concern for obvious reasons. Most of them came from a small protected island, they found themselves on a large protected continent, with the world’s two largest oceans as their buffer, and the nearest serious enemy was three thousand miles away.

running” fifty years after the revolution, and warned of the “silent artillery of time” damaging the walls of the republic in a way that no foreign invader could do. Contrast this with the appalling disregard of contemporary American leaders for the importance of history and their poor understanding of their own political system. From the vantage point of global history, we face a simple but very challenging paradox: Freedom’s greatest enemy is freedom. There are common ways in which freedom undermines itself—when freedom becomes permissiveness and then license; when those who love freedom put such an emphasis on safety and security that they destroy freedom (think NSA surveillance), and when those who prize freedom do anything to defend it—even using methods that contradict and destroy freedom (think Abu Graibh). Golden Triangle of Freedom In essence, the paradox is ethical. Freedom requires a framework and therefore some restraint, but the only restraint appropriate for freedom is self-restraint. Yet selfrestraint is precisely what freedom undermines when it flourishes.

Read George Washington’s Farewell Address and Lincoln’s Lyceum speech and they almost disdain what Lincoln calls the threat of some “transatlantic Bonaparte” putting his foot down in the cornfields of Ohio. Needless to say, we can no longer afford such blithe assurance in a day of intercontinental ballistic missiles and terrorists with box cutters. The second classical menace came from what Polybius called a corruption of customs. What was decisive for any nation, he argued, was its constitution. But every constitution rests on a bedding of traditions, customs and moral standards, and if these are corrupted, the best constitution in the world will not hold things together. Such a corruption, Polybius notes, most often happens in periods of power and prosperity. Silent Artillery

How did the founders hope to resist these challenges, and build a society that could become free and stay free? They gave no name to their vision, but I call it Virtue “the golden triangle of freedom.” Its three legs are these: Freedom requires virtue, virtue and faith requires faith of some sort, and faith of any sort are essential. requires freedom. All three are routinely neglected or openly assaulted today. Take the first leg alone. Today the notion of virtue has a prim reputation, whereas virtue for the founders was connected to the notion of courage and included a range of such characteristics as integrity, honesty, loyalty, and of course, character. The contrast with today is striking. During the impeachment of President Clinton, a number of scholars wrote to the New York Times arguing that what a modern president needs is competence and not character. For the Founders, however, character was essential. It is the bridge between leaders and followers, so that followers can trust leaders even when they do not know what the leaders are doing, or why. It is the inner bearings that a leader can rely upon to guide and restrain him or her

The third classical menace is in one word: time. It is striking that the U.S. Constitution came into force the same year that Edward Gibbon published the final volume of his classic The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. In the last chapter he raised the question, why did Rome fall? And his first answer was “the injuries of time.” Such a history-born realism was second nature to the Founders of the American republic and to the young Lincoln. In his Lyceum address, he added up the “accounts

CENTENNIAL REVIEW is published monthly by the Centennial Institute at Colorado Christian University. The authors’ views are not necessarily those of CCU. Designer, Bethany Applegate. Illustrator, Benjamin Hummel. Subscriptions free upon request. Write to: Centennial Institute, 8787 W. Alameda Ave., Lakewood, CO 80226. Call 800.44.FAITH. Or visit us online at www.CentennialCCU.org. Please join the Centennial Institute today. As a Centennial donor, you can help us restore America’s moral core and prepare tomorrow’s leaders. Your gift is tax-deductible. Please use the envelope provided. Thank you for your support. - John Andrews, Director
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when their power is so great that there is little else to provide restraint. There is no question that the Founders had their blind spots— over slavery, the treatment of the Native Americans, the place of women, and so on. But when it came to freedom, there is also no question that they got things very nearly right from the beginning. Their ideas are among the most brilliant and daring in all human history. How foolish if we were now to throw out those ideas, baby, bathwater, and all. There are three main areas in which sustainable freedom is being menaced in contemporary America. First is the marked alienation of leaders in many walks of life. The strength and endurance of any nation is called into question if a significant number of its leaders are at odds with the ideas that have made the nation great. Post modern Scoffers That is exactly condition in America today. Many progressives simply dismiss the Founders by making a sharp break between the 18th century republic and the modern state of the 21st century. Many post modern thinkers go further and debunk the Founders openly, dismissing their ideals as but the hollow rhetoric of the self-serving agendas of the rich and powerful. Second, there has been a breakdown in the transmission of American values. By its very nature, the United States has to be in the business of passing on its values in two ways in every generation—from the older generation to the younger by way of education, and from the older citizens to the new citizens by way of immigration and assimilation. Both forms of transmission have broken down. From the end of World War I right down to the mid-1960s, there were both tight quotas for immigration and a strong insistence on civic education. But the sixties relaxed both the quotas and the insistence on civic education. It is now relatively easy to become an American, but increasingly difficult to know what it is to be an American. The result is that the older American motto, E Pluribus Unum, is becoming impossible. There is no sure sense of unum to balance the virtually exploding pluribus Third, there has been a marked “corruption of customs,” to use Polybius’ term. Contemporary American conceptions of freedom represent something that the Founders would never have recognized. To use Isaiah Berlin’s distinction between positive and negative freedom, we are awash today in varieties of negative freedom (“freedom from”), but lacking the healthy balance of notions of positive freedom (“freedom for” or “freedom to be”). Perversely, “the land of the free” has become a nation of addictions, a nation in which neither liberal nor conservative

Voi ces of CCU WHO’S THE RACIST? By Bill Whittle
I was at Oberlin College, the most liberal university in America. One student, about 18, blond kid in a flag shirt, challenged me: “You’re a conservative, so I guess you’re against affirmative action?” I said, “Darn right I am.” I could hear him thinking: You knuckle-dragging Nazi, don’t care about black people the way that I do. But all he said was, “Why?” I said, “Well, it’s pretty simple. I’m not a racist like you are. You’re the one who’s in favor of this racist philosophy, not me. You’re the one that thinks a black person needs a 650 to get into a college when a white person needs an 800. You’re the one who believes blacks are stupider than whites. “I don’t believe that for a second. I believe that any black student, who studies as hard as any white student, can clear any bar that a white student can. You’re the racist, not me, and frankly I’m a little embarrassed to be seen in the same room as you.” The point is, we can’t just sit and take this any more. If somebody accuses you of being a wife-beater or a pedophile, and you look down at your shoes and mumble, people will assume you are. The only response to these charges of racism and all the rest is a devastating counterattack. There’s nothing but rubble when you’re finished. Then you turn around and make it their fault.■ Video blogger Bill Whittle of Common Sense Renaissance helped lead the persuasion bootcamp at Western Conservative Summit 2013.
Centennial Institute
Colorado Christian University

E Pluribus Unum may not hold.

forms of negative freedom are sustainable. Freedom once again is becoming its own worst enemy. Faced with these threats, why do so many Americans not seem to care about the state of freedom at all? One reason is the cloud of confusions that surround the issue today. Confusion Compounded Take the uncritical equation of freedom and democracy, as if the two terms are synonymous. Anyone who knows history knows that democracy has not always been the friend of freedom. From Plato and Socrates to Tocqueville and Lord Acton, there have been recurring warnings about the instability of democracy and its eventual links to tyranny. Democracies are often highly illiberal, almost
Centennial Review, March 2014 ▪ 3

Centennial Review
March 2014

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America Today: Has Freedom Become its own Worst Enemy?
Winning and ordering America’s freedom was up to our Founders; sustaining it is up to us. The golden triangle of freedom, virtue, and faith reinforcing each other is threatened by age-old pathologies as well as contemporary confusions. Freedom isn’t a goal, but a means. Toward what end?
By Os Guinness

capable of freedom. Citizens must be educated for liberty. every dictatorship in the modern world has justified itself Yet since the 1960s, civic education has largely disappeared as democratic, and dictatorships from Hitler’s Germany from public schools in this country. to Morsi’s Egypt were voted in democratically. Modern democratic governments have powers over their citizens Third, we must reopen the civil public square, which would have been the envy of the great We’re free restore civility, and encourage citizens of all despots of history. faiths and none to enter and engage public to do what life. Fifty years of culture warring have had the Another confusion is the simplistic equation effect of polarizing public life, reducing public of liberty and equality. The two are always in we ought. debate to endless litigation, and squandering competition and sometimes in open conflict. It the American heritage that was once the most nearly perfect was the stress on equality that helped the French Revolution solution the world has seen. degenerate into tyranny. The leveling that is necessary to enforce equality appeals to envy and resentment, and soon The American Founders wrote a brilliant first chapter of becomes a Procrustean politics that is draconian. Since there the American story, and many stirring chapters have been has to be an umpire to adjudicate between inequalities, the written since then. There is no question, however, that this provider state grows with centralized power and confines generation’s chapter will be one of the most crucial of all. freedom further. Equality-based “non-discrimination” Is freedom sustainable as the Founders believed? Always soon becomes coercive uniformity. free, will Americans be able to remain free always? This Further confusion grows from the corruption of wisdom in generation holds in its hands the response that will decide the age of social media. With the explosion of information that question. ■ and the acceleration of events, wisdom has collapsed into information and then into raw, undiluted emotion. Presidential elections are now popularity contests, opinion polls and blog-battles have replaced reasoned debate, and the wisdom of the self-governed is whatever the public This Summer in Colorado: “likes” it to be. “America at Its Best” Averting a New Tyranny The slipway seems greased for some new descent into tyranny, even in the land of the free. How imminent is it? Only God knows, and I will not hazard a guess. But let me suggest what needs to be done to remedy the situation. First, we must reassess the nature of freedom. Freedom is not a goal in itself, but a means. Towards what end? If freedom is not the permission to do what we like, but the power to do what we ought, what does that mean for today’s widely accepted libertarianism? Second, we must restore the place of civic education. Everyone in America is born free, but not everyone is born
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