"Soul Freedom" of thought and conscience is only way to keep world safe for diversity, says author and social critic
By David W. Virtue
February 28, 2012
"Soul-freedom" - freedom of thought and conscience -- is one of the keys to our human future and keeping the world safe for diversity, according to renowned social critic, author and evangelical Anglican Christian who spoke recently to several hundred members of the Agora Institute at Eastern University, St. David's PA.
Dr. Os Guinness said the "arc of violence" around the world comes from three sources: Government repression, sectarian violence and, increasingly over the last 50 years in Western nations, culture wars.
"Put together living with our deep differences, especially when those differences are religious and ideological is one of the world's greatest issues of our time," he said.
"We live in a world because of media, travel and mass movements of people, 'That everyone is now everywhere.' There's never been such diversity in so many societies. And [this is] not just a little multiplicity of private religious preferences but entire world views and entire ways of life - elbow-to-elbow - with other entire world views and ways of life within the same society. This is our world.
"The question now is how do we live with our deep differences? Traditional settlements of solving religion in public life are floundering.
"The Church of England finds itself numerically, culturally and above all theologically and spiritually extremely weak and caught between the pincer of an aggressive secularism on one side and a growing Islam on the other side and fading away into relative irrelevance."
Guinness believes the 1791 American Settlement [Ratification of the Bill of Rights] and the First Amendment flourish because of disestablishment not despite it. "But Americans can't congratulate themselves because the last 50 years have seen an increasing deterioration in that settlement so today it's unrecognizable."
Guinness said he, along with many admirers of this country, would agree with James Madison that the American settlement was the "true remedy for religion in public life". But after 50 years of culture warring, from Madeline Murray O'Hair's early school prayer case [1963 Engel verses Vitale Supreme Court decision] right down to the recent controversies over contraception, that the American culture wars have made nonsense of the arrangement that the framers [of the Bill of Rights] set up so powerfully."
The author of The American Hour said we are seeing the emergence of a very rudimentary, but very real, global "public square". "In the Age of the Internet, we're shifting from the physical (for the Greeks, the Agora; for the Romans, the Forum) to the metaphorical and now the virtual.
"If you think of the significance of the "fatwā" [Feb. 14, 1989] against Salman Rushdie, or the responses to the Danish Cartoon Controversy [Sept. 30, 2005], or to the Pope's [Benedict XVI] speech [Sept. 12, 2006] at [the University of] Regensburg [Germany] you can see a very, very simple point - even when we are not speaking to the world. In the Age of the Internet, we can be heard by the world, and the world can organize its response."
Guinness observed that as a result we are seeing the beginnings of a very rudimentary global public square, which raises the issue of how do we live with our deep differences at a level we've never faced before in the humankind?
"First, we need to be clear ourselves as to why 'soul-freedom' or freedom of thought and conscience is so vital. Both religion and religious liberty are under a dark cloud in educated circles today.
"The Framers rightly understood that religious liberty was logically and historically the First Liberty.
"We're told repeatedly that it's invidious to have a Hierarchy of Rights. And that's true. But the Framers understood well that each of the three core freedoms - Freedom of Conscience [Religion], Freedom of Speech, and Freedom of Assembly were interlocking and inseparable. So the relationship between them - Soul Freedom, freedom of thought and conscience is the "First Liberty".
Freedom of Assembly assumes and requires Freedom of Speech, noted Guinness. "Equally, Freedom of Speech assumes and requires Freedom of Conscience. There is a huge difference between modern American Freedom of Choice where we are sovereign choosers and Freedom of Conscience where we are subjects because we are bound. Martin Luther said: 'I can do no other,. and therefore conscience is respected.
"We need to make that argument today at a time when people argue that 'religious liberty' is 'liberty of the religious'. Of the three basic core [Constitutional] freedoms and rights, 'Soul-freedom' - freedom of thought and conscience -- is the first liberty.
"You can see in the recent discussion of contraception issues in the past few weeks. How many people, who are secular and liberal, simply were totally ignorant, not necessarily opposed, but completely ignorant of American history.
"Freedom of Worship is not the same as Freedom of Conscience. Any tyrant can recognize Freedom of Worship and you can practice Freedom of Worship in your heart in the worst cell that a tyrant can provide for you. 'Free exercise' is freedom but that is very different from freedom of worship. Freedom of Conscience underlies civil society.
The reason why it's important is that Christopher Hitchens, and his ilk tell us, '...that religion poisons everything.' But anyone who looks at it fairly, realizes that's simply not so.
"Many of the greatest contributions to human justice, in all sorts of areas, come from faith. When it is free to act into what we now call civil society. Everything shows that's when people are free to do that, that that flourishes above all. Religious freedom, rightly handled leads to social harmony."
Guinness, who was born in China of missionary parents, said the current president, Hu Jintao, often speaks fondly and ardently of what he calls "a harmonious society". "China has extraordinary diversity and extraordinary - relative - harmony. It's no big deal because that's just a silent argument for authoritarian coercion. In other words diversity plus coercion and you get harmony.
"The real challenge is to have diversity with liberty and still achieve harmony and of any great country, America has come closer to that than any nation in history.
"We need to make arguments for religious liberty in the public square and make Americans today re-appreciate what is fundamental to the history and to the genius of this country."
RELIGIOUS LIBERTY AND THE LAW
According to Guinness, one common mistake, and one can see this in Evangelical circles, is to fight the violations of religious liberty by law alone.
"If we go back to Cicero, or to Polybius, on down to modern discussion with Montesquieu, and certainly Alexis de Tocqueville there's a consensus that freedom is protected not only by the "structures of liberty" - such as the Constitution - but by the 'spirit of liberty' in the hearts of citizens.
"It is out of that that Tocqueville says that American freedom is not just protected by law but by, famously, the habits of the heart.
"American society was secularized in the 1920s. And ever since then there is a tendency to legalize things and to litigate things in that sense the law covers everything rather than ethics and so on."
Guinness said that while he was doing the Williamsburg Charter in the 1980's [as lead drafter], the leaders of the ACLU said to him, "There is a simply reason why we will always win the culture wars - we have more lawyers than anyone else." They don't now. Their array of lawyers, their massive defense fund, their endless litigations are matched an equally strong array of lawyers, defense funds and litigations on the conservative side.
""Law" and the "rule of law" and "due process" are a vital protections of freedom, but not by themselves alone.
"And when we fight with everything to protect freedom with law alone we just increase the litigation, and the litigiousness, and law is simply too blunt an instrument - just look at the zigzagging in the Supreme Court in the last 50 years.
"Conservatives are making a very bad mistake thinking we have to fight everything through lawyers and litigation, and sadly, this mentality which the Christian Right started, unwittingly, is now spreading to various European countries and the same alarmism, fear mongering and litigation is entering the Christian spirit in Europe.
"Freedom is never protected by law alone. Law is precious; but you also, and always need, the habits of the heart."
INTERESTS VS. THE COMMON GOOD
A second common mistake is to fight for our interests and not the common good, says Guinness.
"We of all people as Christians should not do that. Our Lord is often described as "a man for others". The Church is often described as "the only club that's here for its non members of the club.
"And we know again and again, from the Old Testament to the New Testament, the problems that come when blessings are turned into us and restricted to those outside. And yet you can see persistently with the Religious Right, they have fought for their own interests and not for the common good.
"But religious liberty is a matter of mutuality and reciprocity. A right for one is a right for another and a responsibility for both. And a right for a Christian ... is a right for a Jew ... is a right for an atheist ... is a right for a Mormon or a Muslim or whatever. When the tiniest community is protected and the most unfashionable community knows they're protected then everyone's rights are protected.
"Merely to fight for our rights at the expense of others is an extremely fatal mistake Christians have made."
FREE SPEECH - GAYS & MUSLIMS
Guinness condemned what he called "phobiazation". "So I don't like your speech - so I describe you as suffering from one phobia or another - and I can silence you that way.
"Gays have picked this up and everyone who disagrees with is a 'homophobe'. Now the Muslims have picked this up and everyone who disagrees with them is an 'Islamophobe'. Sadly, some Christians have been tempted to say: 'Yes, with this culture war on Christians in this country and this general onslaught on Christians worldwide - which is true - we should play the so called "Christophobe" card."'
"That is absolutely disastrous. All it does is to silence the debate, especially for people like myself. We need to challenge the end result. It is highly illiberal even when it is done by liberals and they are playing into the hands of Muslims.
"Another common mistake is to seek to fight the negative only with the negative. Liberals concerned with sensitivity and with hate-speech now have to contend with Muslims who have come in wanting laws against defamation, insult, blasphemy, and apostasy. So liberals and Muslims have this curious alliance at various points but in ways they are now seeing become illiberal."
Sacred Public Square and the Naked Public Square
Guinness observed there are competing visions and modals for religion in public life. "Most of the debate in the world is a duel between two 'grand visions', sometimes called the 'Sacred Public Square' and the 'Naked Public Square'.
"The model of the sacred public square are those who believe that a particular religion should be preferred or established. Now, of course, you can have very mild versions of that. Probably the mildest is the one I mentioned - the Church of England. No one is likely to be burned at the stake by the Church of England. The Church of England couldn't agree on a "'truth' to be a standard for heresy. The Church of England is about as mild as you can get.
"At the other end, you have a very severe form of the sacred public square in Iran or Saudi Arabia, where we know the lack of liberty, religiously and otherwise, that you have in societies like that. We have a whole range, across the world of models of a sacred public square. But, clearly, if any one religion is preferred, let alone established and exclusive and monopolistic, all the others, are to some degree, second class and therefore their liberty may be called into question.
"In other words, at some point, that model becomes unjust and unworkable.
"The other extreme, and again we have a whole range of variations, is the 'naked public square' - probably what the ACLU would like and the Americans United would like - is a relatively mild version of it. It's positively genial and hospitable compared with the Chinese People's Republic.
"A whole range of models, and to put it mildly, again, in the diversity of today's world, those models inevitably will be unjust and unworkable because they don't do full justice to the diversity we have in the world.
"The way forward is what I call a 'Civil Public Square'. This is a vision of public life in which everyone of every faith is free to enter and engage public life on the basis of their faith - that's Freedom of Conscience and the free exercise [of religion] within an agreed framework of what is just and free for everybody else, too. A right for one is a right for another and a responsibility for both."
"Civility, itself, needs re-exploring today and revaluing. One misunderstanding of civility is that civility is niceness. A sort of Kumbaya hope. If we love people enough and talk to them nicely long enough, finally, we'll all agree. What nonsense.
"Civility is a classical virtue and a duty that is essential for a society with diversity that need to know how citizens get on with each other. And we need to recover that in a strong way today. It is not a matter of tea party manners, dinner etiquette, or niceness.
"The second misunderstanding, and this is far more important theologically, is the ideal that civility is a form of lowest common denominator - ecumenism. In other words, we each dilute our truths in order to find a common core of unity at which point we'll all agree."
Guinness observed that that was a recipe for faithlessness. "It is also a fruitless search, because the simple fact is that the level of our deepest assumptions - religious or ideological - our differences are ultimate and irreducible. And there is no common core.
"We need to combat the Hans Küngs, [liberal Catholic priest]; the Karen Armstrongs, [British author]; even though, I'm afraid, the Tony Blairs, [former British Prime Minister] and people like this who have seen the search for peace and unity at the expense of truth claims with this idea that we'll find the lowest common denominator."
"It's an agreement of what's just and fair - people of all faiths within which people are free to argue their position and trust that their positions will prevail.
"Those who would prevail must persuade. And you can see again a huge weakness among Evangelicals. We're good at protest, pronouncements, preaching, picketing ... all sorts of things. One of our great weaknesses today is public persuasion, which is assumed and required in a civil public square.
"Another misunderstanding of civility, and this is one shared not only by Christian fundamentalists but also by atheist fundamentalists - like Richard Dawkins - is that civility is a form of sloppy indifference to Truth.
"If you have read Dawkins, he is incredibly intolerant, and proud of it. As he says: "I don't just refuse to tolerate extremists, I don't tolerate modernists who tolerate extremists," and so on, and so on, and so on... because he wants to fight for his atheistic view of truth."
Guinness adds they are wrong in misunderstanding civility. The right to believe anything does not mean anything that anyone believes is right.
"The right to believe anything is 'freedom of conscience'. And we respect people's right - God respects people's right. If people choose eternity without Him, God doesn't rape their souls, to use Roger William's term.
"The right to believe anything is absolute, but that doesn't mean that anything they believe is right. Much of what people believe may be muddle-headed, socially disastrous, or profoundly morally evil, and we have the right and the responsibility to challenge them, and we hope to prevail over them in public debate, but only by using persuasion and not coercion."
DECLARATION OF HUMAN RIGHTS
"The Universal Declaration [of Human Rights] is misused. Some people have made it the bible of an atheist concern for human rights. But at its best it has done a tremendous amount across the world and you can see the stages by which it has made that effect.
"Stage One is always declaration. The Universal Declaration, itself, has nothing binding in it at all. It is only a series of 30 ringing declarations of principle - nothing binding. It's a beacon.
"Stage Two is implementation. That came years later in many countries as adopted those principles and put them in their constitution or in their laws. But, even that itself, is not enough.
"Stage Three is the important one, which is the least followed, which is: education. Education is where from parents to children, and from professors to students these things become habits of the heart.
"Only when they are truly habits of the heart, they are in the spirit of the citizens, not just the structures of law, is freedom and justice really protected."
America has these ringing declarations - the Declaration of Independence, the Bill of Rights and the Constitution. Where they have grown very weak is in the area of the third one: civic education, says Guinness.
"It used to be understood clearly, that in free societies everybody is born free but not everyone's equal to freedom. Not everyone is worthy of freedom. So they need to be 'educated for liberty'. It used to be called 'liberal education' but the 'L' word is under a cloud too in conservative circles.
"Liberal education or civic education associated with the full range of rights is not being followed through today. Not surprisingly, many of these profound rights are becoming distant and somewhat alien to Americans growing up.
"But we need declaration ... we need implementation ... and we need civic education to carry it down to the habits of the heart. And if this is true here, it is true all over the world."
Global Declaration of Freedom of Conscience
Guinness added that a Global Declaration of Freedom of Conscience might be published later this year. "If it is we should know that any declaration of freedom of conscience just by itself will do nothing unless it is followed up by implementation then finally followed up with civic education so that it comes down to kids and passes from generation to generation.
"I do not believe there is any one-size-fits-all solution. Every country in the world is different; it has its own history, its own cultural values.
"My own suggestion is that countries, for all their differences - the differences shaped by history and other things - should be challenged to expand the sphere within their settlement in which the three core freedoms, of conscience [religion], of speech, and of assembly are expanded and expanded for people of all faiths and no faith."