Os Guinness offers ‘vision of a civil public square’

Posted on April 5, 2012

Os Guinness, right, with Erskine President Dr. David Norman

Writer and social critic Os Guinness spoke to an Erskine audience on “How to be Civil without Compromising Strong Beliefs” in Lesesne Auditorium March 27, declaring that “the vision of a civil public square is the only one in which all are free to be fulfilled.”

As he described the cultural climate of the 21st century, Guinness said, “Entire worldviews and ways of life exist elbow to elbow,” adding, “Everyone is now everywhere.”

Noting that “traditional settlements,” ways of working out the relationship between religion and society, “are floundering under the impact of diversity,” he posed a question that is central to the achievement and maintenance of a civil society.

“How do we live with deep differences when the differences are religious?”

The French Revolution, for example, issued in a strict separation between religion and the state. Today, France harbors a large immigrant population that is mostly Muslim, presenting a challenge to that 18th-century settlement.

“Freedom of conscience and religious liberty are key to a free society,” Guinness said. “Civil society assumes and requires freedom of conscience.”

In the United States, the First Amendment to the Constitution “makes freedom of religion complementary to political civility.”

Rejecting both the “sacred public square” and the “naked public square,” Guinness said Christians should uphold a “civil public square” characterized by “freedom of conscience within a framework of justice and freedom” in which “all have rights and responsibilities.”

Arguing for freedom of religion and striving for a civil public square by the use of law alone, without “habits of the heart,” he observed, is not enough. If we pursue that route, “everything becomes litigious,” he added.

On the other hand, the “vision of civility” is often misunderstood.

“Civility is not niceness, not squishy indifference. Civility is not a matter of moral indifference,” Guinness said.

“The right to believe anything—freedom of conscience—does not mean that anything anyone believes is right.”

Guinness took time to answer questions following his address.

Allowing for robust debate is not incompatible with remaining true to one’s own beliefs. “It’s time for the next generation to stand up,” Guinness challenged his audience.

Christians must avoid trusting politics to do what politics cannot do. Citing the example of William Wilberforce, who fought against slavery for years and was often reviled and even physically attacked, but refused to retaliate, Guinness said we must “do the Lord’s work in the Lord’s way,” loving our enemies.

Just as faith communities are voluntarily chosen, “Civility as a habit of the heart has to be chosen.”

Guinness, a great-great-grandson of Dublin brewer Arthur Guinness, was born in 1941 in China, where his parents were medical missionaries. As a child, he witnessed the climax of the Chinese revolution in 1949 and was expelled along with many other foreigners in 1951. He returned to Europe and was educated in England, where he completed his undergraduate degree at the University of London and his doctoral degree in the social sciences from Oriel College, Oxford.

Since coming to the United States in 1984, he has been associated with several organizations. He was a Guest Scholar and Visiting Fellow at the Brookings Institution. He served as executive director of the Williamsburg Charter Foundation, a bicentennial celebration of the First Amendment, and helped to draft the Williamsburg Charter. He also co-authored “Living with Our Deepest Differences,” a public school curriculum. He is a Founding Senior Fellow at the Trinity Forum, where Erskine President Dr. David Norman formerly served as executive director of Trinity Forum Academy.

Guinness is the author of more than 25 books, including The American Hour, Time for Truth, The Call, and The Case for Civility.