Book Review: “Last Call for Liberty” by Os Guinness

Os Guinness argues—rightly, I think—that America today is really two nations with incompatible views of fundamental ideas. And while until now these two views have lived in a sort-of uneasy (or even a friendly) peace, our cultural has hit a critical point where open collision between these two views is inevitable, if not already underway. Guinness consequently believes it critical that we stop and take stock of ourselves and adjust our nation and our culture in order to put it back in its historical place as a defender and beacon of a certain kind of freedom.

Image: IVP

And if that all sounds familiar to readers of Os Guinness’s books, in some ways Last Call for Liberty: How America’s Genius for Freedom has become its Greatest Threat is the political/American version of his earlier book Renaissance. The latter called for a renewal of the creativity of the Christian tradition in the modern world. The former calls for a renewal in the modern world of a specific kind of freedom found in the American tradition. And of course Last Call for Liberty is a direct successor to A Free People’s SuicideThe Global Public Square, and Impossible People.

Specifically, Guinness sees our current cultural conflict as a conflict between two visions of liberty, which themselves are the outgrowths of two different worldviews:

“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.
It could be argued that the clash is simply between the old, classical American liberalism and the new Left/liberalism that emerged from the 1960s. But it is deeper than that. The fundamental clash is between the spirit, the heirs, and the allies of 1776 and the ideas that made the American Revolution versus the spirit, the heirs, and the allies of 1789 and the different ideas that made the French Revolution and seeded the progressive liberalism of the Left…
The pressing clash is therefore a life-and-death conflict between two Americas, two revolutions, and two futures.” (3)

There is no doubt which of these approaches Guinness prefers:

“The outcome [of this conflict] is crucial for both America and the world. It calls into question the American republic as it was founded, and it calls into question the United States as the world’s lead society and the champion and exemplar of human freedom for the world. As history underscores, the way of 1789 (aided and abetted by the heirs of 1917, the Russian revolution, and 1949, the Chinese revolution) has led and will always lead to catastrophe for the cause of freedom and a liberal political order, whereas the way of 1776—for all its shortcomings—has led to some of freedom’s greatest successes, however much maligned today.” (3)

In other words, we are currently stuck in a war between the classical liberals and the progressive liberals, between the spirit of the American Founders and the spirit of Rousseau and the radical revolutionaries. The former has a view of freedom that involves the protection of the conscience from government intrusion and the least possible coercion by the government against that conscience, as well as the freedom of the individual to live the life of virtue and truth. The latter, Guinness argues, has a view of freedom that cares little or nothing for the conscience, truth, or virtue and instead values the freedom of the government to pursue power and unity. The process of this pursuit of power and unity ultimately leads to the destruction of both traditional restraints on government and of individual liberty.

Guinness believes that it is necessary for us to ask (and answer) ten questions as a part of our reflection on the role of freedom in the state of our cultural conflict:

“Do you know where your freedom comes from?
Are there enough Americans who care about freedom?
What do you mean by Freedom?
Have you faced up to the central paradox of freedom?
How do you plan to sustain freedom?
How will you make the world safe for diversity?
How do you justify your vision of a free and open society?
Where do you ground your faith in human freedom?
Are you vigilant about the institutions crucial to freedom: Republicanism or Democracy?
Are you vigilant about the ideas crucial to freedom: Which revolution do they serve?”

Each chapter explores the answers to these questions from the perspective of 1776 and 1789, and then declares in favor of 1776.

All told, Last Call for Liberty is a fine enough book. Guinness asks some important questions and gives answers that I think are generally correct (though he leans a bit more libertarian than I’m comfortable with at times). Unfortunately, the book is occasionally a bit scattered (though I am reviewing an advance reader copy, so maybe it will be cleaned up a bit?). In part this is because Guinness has tackled such a large range of topics. This range of topics, in turn, has meant that a lot remains assumed rather than clearly and extensively argued. Perhaps the biggest omission is any extended discussion of why exactly the French Revolution was so terrible, and why it is the foundation/type of all later mass movements. Much ink has been spilled on this topic from a conservative perspective (I recommend especially Babbitt’s Democracy and Leadership and Schama’s Citizens), but the Evangelicals that are most likely to read this book aren’t going to be familiar with these earlier works.

Still, if someone makes a good-faith effort to answer the questions Guinness asks, including understanding the historical development of the answers to those questions, then that person will find out for himself just why the French Revolution is such a horrendous-but-useful contrast to the American Revolution.

One final criticism of the book: I think the sharp contrast Guinness draws between 1776 and 1789 is a good articulation of much of the cultural conflict we have today. But I also think that American history is much more of a jumble of these two viewpoints than Guinness suggests. That is, we’ve always had both our conservatives and our radicals—including in 1776. Granted, there were fewer radicals in the past, and they often existed in at least some degree of harmony with the conservatives. But both groups have always been around. It’s only in the past few decades (largely starting with the rise of the much more uncompromising New Left and the New Right in the 60’s and 70’s) that the two have begun to be more than just rhetorically at odds. Whether or not Last Call for Liberty will do any good at restoring harmony between these factions remains to be seen.

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