Os Guinness: ‘We Need a Lincoln-like Leader’
On Wednesday’s edition of “Washington Watch,” guest host Joseph Backholm interviewed Os Guinness, an author, social critic, and senior fellow at the Oxford Center for Christian Apologetics. They covered the Supreme Court’s 303 Creative case, Guinness’s new book “Zero Hour America,” the real meaning of freedom, and more. The interview has been edited for clarity.
BACKHOLM: So glad to have you. [Let’s talk] about the 303 Creative case. There’s this tension in the United States between the freedom of speech, the freedom of religion, and nondiscrimination laws. But that also begs the question about what freedom really is and understanding what freedom is and what freedom isn’t. Why do you think that’s important in that debate?
GUINNESS: It’s important because the heart of America is freedom. You know, Saint Augustine says, “To understand a nation, you see what it loves supremely.” And there’s no question what America loves supremely is freedom. And yet there’s so much confusion today [about] what it is and there’s so much assault on what the Founders understood it to be. So we’re at a very significant moment.
BACKHOLM: Now, this issue is cutting across partisan lines in many cases. David Brooks, he’s a columnist for The New York Times. He holds himself out as a conservative. He had this to say about the conflict between freedom of expression and nondiscrimination laws:
“In this case, you had the right for artistic expression against nondiscrimination, and it was a contest between those two. And the court chose free expression. That strikes me just as someone who lives in American society as doing great harm to American society.”
Do you think it’s a problem if the court values freedom of expression above nondiscrimination laws?
GUINNESS: Now, I think freedom of religion and conscience, freedom of speech and expression, and freedom of association and assembly — they are like light and air and water to the human body. The foundational freedoms without which we’re in trouble. And while David’s a good friend, I must say I disagree with him on that because in this case, those on the Left were targeting the graphic designer. So it was a targeted attack on freedom of speech, and that was very dangerous. I agreed thoroughly with the Supreme Court coming down on the right side.
BACKHOLM: Now, in your book, you note that there are faulty and specious views of freedom. If you would, tell us a bit more about that and how that illuminates these debates that we’re having.
GUINNESS: Well, the simplest one is the one that many, many people say freedom is not license, it’s liberty. Freedom is the capacity to do what you ought to do, not the permission to do what you like. And the wrong sort of freedom always undermines freedom, which is the main reason why freedom is actually the greatest enemy of freedom, because it’s pursued in the wrong way. But I would say something deeper, Joseph. We have all these challenges, protests, scandals, outrages today. And so many people are responding in what I call a “whack-a-mole” style. A ban here and a protest there and a boycott there, whatever. What we miss is an Abraham Lincoln. Because what he did was define reality. America in the 1850s cannot stay half slave, half free. No more can America today stay half the child of the American Revolution, which was largely biblical and half the child of the heirs of the French Revolution, which was anti-biblical. And we need a leader who will spell out the differences between the two revolutions and not just all the specific things that turn up day after day after day. We need a Lincoln-like leader.
BACKHOLM: Do you believe that the American public wants leadership that will tell them that freedom is not the freedom to do what you like, but the freedom to do what you ought? Are we, as a public, prepared for that message?
GUINNESS: That, of course, is the $64,000 question. If you have leadership, will people respond? I at the moment think that they will. But we’re at that moment rather like Moses — “I’ve put before you a blessing and a curse. Life and death. Choose life.” Or Joshua or Elijah. Now we may be closer to Elijah. Will we follow Yahweh, the Lord God, or fail? And of course, he was a strong minority. I don’t know where the whole of the public is, but I think we need such a challenge to the choice between the revolutions.
BACKHOLM: You know, I think it’s an interesting contrast that now the Fourth of July follows immediately Pride Month. So we have a day where we’re celebrating the Fourth of July after 30 days of celebrating pride, which I would say you could accurately describe as the celebration of the idea that I can do whatever I want. Do you think these different views of freedom should inform the way we look at something like June, which for many has been branded as Pride Month?
GUINNESS: I think it was very significant that you had at the White House, the pride flag central and the stars and stripes smaller on either side. And that was a symbol of how the LGBTQ revolution has overtaken so much of the American Revolution at point after point. The inroads — I call it the red wave, the rainbow wave, and the black wave [radical Islamism]. These are expressly against the Jewish and Christian faiths, but they are also deeply against the West. So we’re at a very significant moment.
BACKHOLM: In your book “Zero Hour America,” you have a very provocatively titled chapter, “Freedom is the Greatest Enemy of Freedom.” Now, is that because — and I say this to my kids often when I’m trying to get them to exercise some self-control — the idea that if you cannot control yourself, someone else is going to be required to control you. Is that what we’re experiencing culturally, where a country that is filled with people who cannot control themselves necessarily must be controlled by someone else and that will be most unpleasant?
GUINNESS: Well, that’s the beginning of it, Joseph. You’re right. So people quote Abraham Lincoln, “Government of the people, by the people, for the people.” They forget he’s quoting Theodore Parker in the 19th century, who was quoting of all people, John Wycliffe in the 13th century. And Wycliffe is saying, when we put the Bible in the hands of ordinary people, then you have a chance of government, of the people, by the people, for the people, because the Bible will be the foundation for self-government and self-rule. And without that, freedom will be impossible. Yeah.
BACKHOLM: We’ve talked a bit here about the debate over what freedom actually is. There’s another word that seems to be misunderstood where people are operating from different definitions, and that word is “patriot.” And of course, following the Fourth of July, a lot of people feel patriotic, describe themselves as patriots. But in many circles in America today, that term isn’t necessarily seen as something you want to be. It’s seen as something extremist and alarmist and right-wing. How should we think about this idea of patriotism from a biblical perspective?
GUINNESS: Remember that the battle between the revolutions is a battle for words and language as well as reality. But the idea that a patriot — someone who loves their country, it doesn’t mean right or wrong — is negative today is part of the whole problem. And you have in Christian circles certain scholars who say that any love of one’s country is “Christian nationalism.” Now, patriotism is good. Every human being needs a place. We need a place for belonging. So patriotism is good. Nationalism as an idolatry can be very dangerous. So we should be patriots but not uncritical, but never nationalists in the sense of idolizing our country, right or wrong. Now, the reason that’s dangerous today is because we have the globalists and they, in terms of transnationalism, are attacking patriotism and nationalism together. So we’ve got to defend these things, but we’ve got to clear up the meaning of the words.
BACKHOLM: Yeah, I think that is an important exercise. So how would you distinguish between patriotism — love of country, which can be healthy; it’s the way we love our home because that’s where our family lives — and nationalism, which you think can be dangerous? Where’s the line between those things?
GUINNESS: Well, I would follow in this case George Orwell, who was an atheist. But he points out patriotism is good. You love the place you’re a part of. Nationalism — my country, right or wrong, whatever — can be very, very dangerous. Now, of course, people attack nationalism because of, say, Hitler National Socialism. But Hitler’s problem was a nation that wanted to become an empire. So it wasn’t actually the nationalism that was wrong. It was the imperialism in the nationalism. And so we’ve got to really be careful of what we mean. But patriotism, absolutely. Love your country. Pray for your country. I’m not American, but I’m a great admirer of this country at its best and would stand every day for its views of freedom as being the highest, richest, deepest the world has seen so far. Now, of course, they’re in trouble today and they need to be reformed and renewed.
BACKHOLM: Yeah. As you mentioned there, that you’re not American. You are British, born in China. Do you think you see America differently than those of us who were born here and have always lived here?
GUINNESS: Well, it certainly helps to be born abroad. So anyone who comes from, say, Eastern Europe, who’s lived under communism, is never naive about what we’re seeing here. I grew up, I saw as a boy the Chinese revolution. I will never be naive about Marxism. But many Americans, you know, Rudyard Kipling put it, “What knows he of England, who only England knows?” Now, as you see things freshly, when you see them as an outsider, and that’s certainly true for those of us who come from other parts of the world. So I’m an admirer of this country, but not uncritical. There are things that need to be put right. But of course, that’s at the heart of the Constitution itself.
BACKHOLM: I don’t know if you follow women’s professional basketball at all, but you probably know the story of Brittney Griner and her experience in Russia. And I think it’s relevant to the point you were just making where she had a position that she wasn’t even going to be on the court during the playing of the national anthem. And that was her position for a while. She went to Russia, experienced the Russian “judicial” system, spent 10 months in a Russian prison, was fortunately released, comes back to America, and now she finds reason to stand and celebrate and honor America. Because I think she got some context. You describe the context you have as being born in China and your experience with Marxism. Do you think that’s what America needs is just some context to appreciate what we have?
GUINNESS: Well, I wouldn’t wish an experience of communism or Marxism or Russian totalitarianism on anyone. But that said, we need history and we need travel to give people a perspective on where we are today. And too many Americans just don’t have any sense of history and hardly have any sense of the world to look back on this country. If you compare it with other countries, you come back incredibly grateful.
BACKHOLM: Os Guinness, we’re about to run out of time here, but your recent book is called “Zero Hour America” and Ecclesiastes encourages us to remember that there is a time for everything and to everything there is a season. What time is it in America now, do you think?
GUINNESS: Well, I think it’s very late in the evening in terms of the inroads of neo-Marxism, cultural Marxism, and wokeism. And so we’re facing a time to choose. And I said we can’t just tackle it like whack-a-mole — a boycott here or a ban there. No, we need leadership that will put the big choice between the revolutions. We’re rather like Paul’s letter to the Galatians: “Who’s bewitched you? You came to faith in one gospel and now you’re following a different gospel, an alternative gospel.” America is in danger of following an alternative revolution. And it’s a revolution of the Left, which has never succeeded. And its oppressions have never ended. And so this is a time to choose. And I’m so glad to be there at the Pray Vote Stand Summit in September. Because now is the time for people to wake up and make that choice between the revolutions.