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The Case for Civility

Os Guinness (HarperOne: Jan 22, 2008), 224 pages.

In a world torn apart by religious extremism on the one side and a strident secularism on the other, no question is more urgent than how we live with our deepest differences — especially our religious and ideological differences. The Case for Civility is a proposal for restoring civility in America as a way to foster civility around the world. Influential Christian writer and speaker Os Guinness makes a passionate plea to put an end to the polarization of American politics and culture that — rather than creating a public space for real debate — threatens to reverse the very principles our founders set into motion and that have long preserved liberty, diversity, and unity in this country. Guinness takes on the contemporary threat of the excesses of the Religious Right and the secular Left, arguing that we must find a middle ground between privileging one religion over another and attempting to make all public expression of faith illegal. If we do not do this, Guinness contends, Western civilization as we know it will die. Always provocative and deeply insightful, Guinness puts forth a vision of a new, practical “civil and cosmopolitan public square” that speaks not only to America’s immediate concerns but to the long-term interests of the republic and the world. ~ Product Description

Table of Contents

    • Chapter One: A World Safe for Diversity     1
    • Chapter Two: The True Remedy     29
    • Chapter Three: The Broken Settlement     59
    • Chapter Four: Say No to the Sacred Public Square     77
    • Chapter Five: Say No to the Naked Public Square     107
    • Chapter Six: A Cosmopolitan and Civil Public Square     133
    • Chapter Seven: Starting with Ourselves     165
    • Afterword: The Williamsburg Charter      177
    • Acknowledgments      199
    • Notes     201
    • Index     209


Chapter One

A World Safe for Diversity

It would be a safe but sad bet that someone, somewhere in the world, is killing someone else at this very moment in the name of religion or ideology.

Currently, the world’s newspapers give us each day our daily read of the Sunni Muslims ferociously slaughtering Shia Muslims in Baghdad, and of Shia Muslims ferociously slaughtering Sunni Muslims in revenge. Elsewhere it might be Muslims and Hindus killing each other in Kashmir, or Buddhists and Hindus in Sri Lanka, or Muslims and animists in Sudan. Earlier it would have been Protestants and Catholics in Ulster, and Muslims, Orthodox, and Catholics in the Balkans. These are just some of the infamous examples of the carnage, and the devil is usually in the detail of the images and words. As one radical Muslim’s placard declared with a stunning lack of self-consciousness: “Behead those who say Islam is a violent religion.”

But before anyone drifts off into the well-rehearsed litany of blaming it all on religion, we should remember that modern “terror” began in France in 1789 in the name of secular Reason, killing several million in its wars and committing a near-genocide in the Vendée on its first outing. Nearer our own time, close to a hundred million people were slaughtered in the twentieth century by secularist regimes, led by secularist intellectuals, in the name of secularist ideologies—far more than the deaths from all the religious persecutions and repressions in Western history combined.

In the world’s most murderous century, about one hundred million humanbeings were killed in war, another hundred million under political repression, and yet another hundred million in ethnic and sectarian violence.1

Unquestionably, religion can be divisive, violent, and evil. But, also unquestionably, secularism can be oppressive, murderous, and evil, too. Leaving aside Hitler, who was anti-Christian but not an atheist, Lenin, Stalin, Mao Tse-tung, Pol Pot, the Young Turks, and the Spanish
Republicans were all secularist, though cut from the same cloth as Osama bin Laden and Abu Mus’ab al-Zarqawi. When priests and nuns were slaughtered by the thousands and churches sacked and destroyed in the Spanish Civil War, a Republican wrote: “These burnings were the autos da fé necessary for the progress of civilization.”2

This is no moment for crowing by either side, or for cheap attacks and mindless finger-pointing by anyone. There is enough blame to go around to sober us all, and the urgent need is for solutions, not scapegoats. As Ambrose Bierce pronounced with bitter accuracy in The Devil’s Dictionary, “The defining feature of humanity is inhumanity.”3

But the point at which we must begin to respond is to face up to the core of the dilemma today: How do we live with our deepest differences, especially when those differences are religious and ideological? The place at which we must begin to search for answers is the United States. Not because the problem is worse here than elsewhere—on the contrary—but because America has the best cultural resources, and therefore the greatest responsibility to point the way forward in
answering the deepest questions.

This short essay is a proposal for restoring civility in America, as one model for fostering
civility around the world and helping to make the world safe for diversity. But civility must truly be restored. It is not to be confused with niceness and mere etiquette or dismissed as squeamishness about differences. It is a tough, robust, substantive concept that is a
republican virtue, critical to both democracy and civil society, and a manner of conduct that will be decisive for the future of the American republic.4

Let America Be America

“Let America be America.” That maxim is not a statement of jingoism or empty bombast when written by a foreigner. Yet if ever there was a time for Americans to live up to the saying and save it from becoming a cliché, let alone a form of rank hypocrisy, it is now. The alternative is to
let things slip, and accelerate the moment when the need will be to save America from herself.

As history’s first new nation and the current lead society in the modern world, the United States is distinctive for the way it was founded by intention and by ideas. American ideals and institutions do not trail off into the mists of antiquity as do those of many nations. They were born in an unprecedented burst of brilliant thinking and political building, and from the very beginning they engaged constructively with many of the central challenges and characteristic features of the modern world.

Freedom, equal opportunity, the rule of law, mutual responsibility, representative government, the separation of powers, freedom of religion, freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, justice grounded in due process and the presumption of innocence, universal public education—as words, these ideals trip off the tongue lightly; but as principles, they form the bedrock on which the greatness of America has been built.

Earlier, many people around the world were blind to the significance of what George Washington called “the great experiment” and the founders declared “the new order of the ages.” Unlike Alexis de Tocqueville, such people did not see the meaning and importance of the rise of democracy in America. And while their traditional ways of life endured, they could afford to ignore it.

That is no longer the case. The global era has thrust almost all the world into the same avalanche of change and choice, so that many formerly traditional countries are now scrambling to come to terms with modern problems for which their traditions and customs have not prepared them.

Witness, for example, the once-homogeneous British and Dutch scrambling to adapt their traditional views of tolerance to a whirlwind of disruptive diversity undreamed of a generation ago; or the hauteur of the French at being forced to renegotiate their strictly secular way of public life under the impact of Muslim immigration while still pressing to keep any reference to
Europe’s two-thousand-year Christian past out of the preamble to the European Constitution. Both of these are the sort of challenges that the United States has wrestled with from the very beginning; and for anyone willing to learn, the American experience is highly instructive.