If nations are to be understood by what they love supremely, then freedom is and always has been the key to America. But the question facing America is, what is the key to freedom? The present clash is not between Republicans and Democrats, conservatives and liberals, rich and poor, urban and rural, heartlanders and coastals, or even globalists and nationalists, important though those differences are. The deepest division crosscuts these other differences at several points. At the core, the deepest division is rooted in the differences between two world-changing and opposing revolutions, the American Revolution of 1776 and the French Revolution of 1789, and their rival views of freedom and the nature of the American experiment.
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There is no escaping the coming showdown, for Americans are fast approaching their Rubicon. Is 1776 to be restored (with its flaws acknowledged and remedied) or is it to be replaced by 1789 (and its current progressive heirs)? The outcome will favor one view of freedom or the other, or perhaps the abolition of freedom altogether. For the two main rival views are far more contradictory than many realize, and with their scorched-earth attitudes and policies, they cannot live with each other forever. The middle ground is disappearing. A clean sweep of the cultural landscape is what each wants, and neither will talk of compromise or allow anything to stand in its way. Either the classical liberalism of the republic will prevail and 1776 will defeat 1789, or the Left/liberalism o f 1789 will defeat 1776, and the republic will fail and become a republic in name only. The American republic divided in this way cannot stand. The United States can no more continue half committed to one view of freedom and half committed to the other than it could live half slave and half free in the 1860s.
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Needless to say, the issues between the different sides are for Americans to debate and resolve. But such are the stakes for all humanity, particularly when the debate turns to the future, that perhaps an outsider may raise some questions. What is freedom, and what are the terms of the American experiment? Which of the two rival views of freedom best serves the interests of human flourishing? Which of the two grounds the vision of a free and just society for all citizens, based on the dignity of every human person and allowing for disagreement and opposition? Which view allows a free people to sustain their freedom under the challenging conditions of the advanced modern world and the global era? How will the American experiment survive in the world of posthumanism? Statements about freedom are often deceptively simple, though profoundly consequential, yet they are the issues at the crux of the American crisis. The outcome of the struggle will determine the future of the American republic. It may also determine the future of humanity itself.Os Guinness, Last Call for Liberty: How America’s Genius for Freedom Has Become its Greatest Threat, p. 3-5
Is Os Guinness right?
Last Call for Liberty was published in 2018, and at that time I thought his rhetoric was provocative and bombastic, exaggerated to make a point. I agreed with Guinness about the nature of freedom, how difficult freedom is to sustain, how a constellation of commonly held ideas about freedom are absolutely critical for the overall well being of a nation, and how institutions must be healthy and well-functioning if a people are to flourish and thrive. I agreed with him about the uniqueness of the American experiment and the importance of knowing America’s history. I also agreed that America contained within her Constitution and her history mechanisms and systems for reform and refinement toward “a more perfect union,” and while flawed, that America was and is a good place to live.
The debate that Guinness foresaw is now here. Now is a time of testing, not only for individuals, but for communities. Guinness writes, “The personal and the interpersonal precede the political.” While most of us think of America firstly as a democracy, Guinness argues for its standing as a covenantal or constitutional republic whose well being depends on the health of our formal ties in marriages, families, schools, churches, and other voluntary associations. While many of us look to the national debates and the news media as a barometer for our societal health, that might just be the wrong place to look. We might be wiser to look to our city governments, churches, neighborhood associations, and civic life as a means of determining where we’re getting it right and where change needs to be enacted.
And as we engage, we need to do so as informed citizens, as people who are familiar with both our national triumphs and our national sins. To deny either would be naive. But we must also be clear on the ideas about freedom and liberty by which we would like to shaped, where they come from, and where they may lead us. As Guinness clearly states, no less than the future is at stake.