I’ve been a faithful reader of Os Guinness for years, and most of his more recent titles have concerned themselves with America specifically or the West more broadly: Impossible People, The Case for Civility, A Free People’s Suicide, Last Call for Liberty, The Magna Carta of Humanity, and now Zero Hour America: History’s Ultimatum over Freedom and the Answer We Must Give (InterVarsity Press, 2022)1. I heard him speak at The University of Kansas in 2006. He was one of several speakers in a series called “Difficult Dialogues on Knowledge, Faith, and Reason.” I met him briefly after his presentation and asked him to sign a copy of Time for Truth: Living Free in a World of Lies, Hype, and Spin. He was winsome and kind.2
In his latest book, Guinness is very concerned for America and for the state of the American experiment. Guinness writes, “America will fall–unless.” He says this book is not a “doomsday pronouncement” but a wake-up call to the internal movements, ideas, and forces that will lead to America’s implosion if left unchecked. Guinness warns that the enemies are already inside the gates. Sounds like gloom and doom to me.
In these types of rhetorical political debates gloom and doom is pretty common, and memory is always pretty short. If we’re in a battle for America’s future, the stakes are high. I think Guinness rightly diagnoses the paradox of freedom as a major source of America’s strife (“the fact that the greatest enemy of freedom is freedom“), that freedom is understood more in negative than positive terms in this country (freedom from and not freedom for), that apart from faith we are under-resourced in the forgiveness and reconciliation department, and that civics education is important (not the self-loathing kind, but the sober and judicious kind that acknowledges past wrongs while maintaining and preserving good and central truths and traditions). I think these are all worthwhile points of concern and debate. I just don’t think these fault lines mean that it is “zero hour,” the absolute moment of decision. It is quite possible that zero hour has already passed, and may soon come again.
Besides, it is always zero hour.
In his final chapter, Guinness cites Friedrich Hegel’s famous statement, “What experience and history teaches us is this–that people and governments have never learned anything from history, or acted upon any lessons they might have drawn from it.” That’s a dramatic overstatement. But Hegel gets away with it because, as Guinness observes, “nothing lasts forever, and each society contains the seeds of its own destruction.”
In Top Gun: Maverick, Captain Pete “Maverick” Mitchell is told by an admiral, “The end is inevitable, Maverick. Your kind is headed to extinction.”
Maverick replies, “Maybe so, sir, but not today.”3
America, as an experiment in ordered liberty, must say something similar every day. There are 330 million people in this country. We are geographically enormous and regionally diverse. We’re not nearly as bad as our critics say, nor as spotless as our apologists claim. But we’re a pretty good place. Millions of people migrate to this country each year, most of whom wish to stay. And plenty of our citizen go about their lives quietly, doing their jobs, going to Little League games, and playing Bunko with their friends. But I guess Bunko doesn’t test well in focus groups, while apocalyptic messaging does.
While it might be politically advantageous and rhetorically effective to claim that the end of the world is near, isn’t it always so?
Yes, it is. We just don’t know how near. Which is why reading a prophet like Guinness is helpful, at least for me, in understanding our times, tracking intellectual currents, diagnosing problems, and assisting me in thinking through America’s history, ideals, values, and possibility, and advocating for a vision of our common life that aligns more closely with what is best about this place, while also works to address present wrongs and move us toward a greater approximation of justice.
That’s the work of politics. We all have a part to play. I try to play mine, not only as a voter, and not only as a citizen, but also as a person of Christian faith.
1. Amazon affiliate link.
2.He also signed a copy of Time for Truth to Molly and I. We attended the talk together.
3. I’m really glad I saw this movie. You should see it, too.