LOPEZ: How is the problem of freedom the “problem of the heart”?
GUINNESS: From St. Augustine to Machiavelli to John Kenneth Galbraith, many commentators, despite their very different worldviews, have blamed the instability of free societies on the restlessness of the human heart. This is made worse today because of the way our consumer societies are deliberately fuelled through stoking restlessness. We have replaced the notion of the good life with our consumer ideal of the life with goods, and in the process we have plunged ourselves deeper and deeper into debt, and we cannot stop. Have you ever pondered the irony of the prevalence of addictions and recovery groups in the land of the free?
LOPEZ: How have Americans become their own worst enemies?
GUINNESS: There are many varieties of freedom in America today, but they share a common characteristic: In Isaiah Berlin’s terms, they are essentially negative and not positive. This means that Americans have both abandoned the Founders’ view of sustainable, negative freedom (the freedom not to be interfered with) and espoused notions of positive freedom (the “freedom” to have various guaranteed benefits) that are unsustainable in their essence. Thus it is only a matter of time before American freedom will undermine itself. If things go on as they are now, the time will come when, as the designer of the Titanic said, it will be a mathematical certainty that the ship will sink.
LOPEZ: How can we be better stewards of freedom? Why should we be?
GUINNESS: In today’s climate of atomistic individualism, we rarely think of our ancestors and even less of our children’s children. (“What has posterity ever done for us?”) But like a precious family heirloom, freedom is not just ours to enjoy, but to treasure, protect, and pass on to future generations. The missing key to sustainable freedom is civic education and transmission. It used to be understood that in a free society, everyone is born free, but not everyone is capable of it. Citizens have to be educated for liberty, which was once called liberal or civic education. Yet this practice has disappeared all over the Western world, and certainly in American public education since the 1960s. Without civic education, freedom can never become a “habit of the heart.”
LOPEZ: You write: “Unless America succeeds in revaluing citizenship, in restoring civic education, and in revitalizing education that proves as powerful as the potency of mass entertainment and consumer advertising, the American unum will no longer be able to balance the American pluribus, and America’s freedom itself will continue to wither.” We can’t exactly do that before November 6, can we?
GUINNESS: No, restoring civic education and forming the habits of the heart will take at least a generation, and it will have to start with serious leadership that America so obviously now lacks. But unless such a restoration happens, the consequences will be severe, for E pluribus unum is not only America’s motto but also its greatest achievement and its greatest need. The American unum has been lost since the Sixties. If this continues, there will soon be no unifying American identity and vision to balance the pluribus, and the days of the Republic will be numbered.
LOPEZ: Does all this matter to Europe in a particular way?
GUINNESS: Your Founders called America the novus ordo seclorum, and historians termed the U.S. “the first new nation,” but the rest of the world went on its ancient way unimpressed. Today in the global era, however, almost all the world is experiencing the gale-force winds of modernity that the U.S. faced and answered — mostly with striking success — more than two centuries ago. Seen this way, never has America been more relevant to the world than now. Thus the European Union now talks of “unity out of diversity” instead of E pluribus unum. But at the very moment when the American model is more relevant than ever, America has lost its sense of identity and lost confidence in its own way. The brilliant settlement between religion and public life, for example, which James Madison called “the true remedy,” is being squandered through the now-50 years of fruitless culture wars. Yet who dares say “a plague on both your houses” and then find a way forward in the interest of all Americans? No one, to my knowledge.
LOPEZ: Could today’s time of testing be as decisive as the Civil War?
GUINNESS: The crisis of freedom touches the very heart of America, and as it is deepened and intensified by the many movements coming out of the 1960s, it will prove more decisive for America than the depression years of the 1930s, and it may even rival the Civil War era for the decisive stamp it puts on America.
LOPEZ: “No self-respecting American will ever be opposed to freedom any more than to love” — you have hit on the problem there, haven’t you? Who is going to believe that the Obama administration is truly eroding religious freedom? Who will believe that the president doesn’t value it as we have in the past? He must obviously value it on some level, by definition.
GUINNESS: The Obama administration has been talking, but not walking its own talk. If you listen to the president’s remarks on religious freedom, and even more to the powerful speech by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, you would hear statements worthy of Roger Williams and James Madison. But their health-care mandates tell a different story. Kowtowing to the LGBT agenda, this administration stands in shame as perhaps the greatest official violator of freedom of thought, conscience, religion, and belief in American history.
LOPEZ: If Americans would immediately appreciate only one thing about our freedom, what would you hope it would be?
GUINNESS: I would hope that Americans would thank God for their freedom and celebrate the achievements of their great pioneers of freedom — with an equally frank admission of the egregious blind spots and shortcomings. But at the same time, they need to reexamine the subtle challenges of freedom, and in particular face up to the tough requirements of what it takes to sustain freedom. The American Founders got slavery and the place of women badly wrong from the start. But the world has never seen a more brilliant and daring answer to the instability and transience of freedom than theirs. The question today is whether, as their heirs, you are worthy of that gift and are able to keep it going. I hope and pray you are and will.
— Kathryn Jean Lopez is editor-at-large of National Review Online.