Here’s my chat with Os Guinness, author of The Magna Carta of Humanity: Sinai’s Revolutionary Faith and the Future of Freedom, which traces our often imperiled freedoms to the Hebrew exodus and revelation at Mount Sinai.
Tooley: Hello this is Mark Tooley, president of the Institute on Religion & Democracy, with the pleasure today of conversing with my friend Os Guinness, distinguished author of many books and a popular speaker, especially here in the Washington, DC area. His latest book which caught my eye, and I’ll have to read the title because I don’t want to get it incorrectly, The Magna Carta of Humanity: Sinai’s Revolutionary Faith and the Future of Freedom. So, Os, thank you for joining this conversation.
Guinness: My pleasure, Mark. It’s great to be with you, and I’m grateful for all that you do at IRD.
Tooley: Well, I appreciate that. The title itself speaks volumes. Obviously, you are tracing our conception of liberty back to the exodus of the Hebrew people and what they received at Sinai. So, please tell us more.
Guinness: Well, it’s no secret that America is as deeply divided as at any time since just before the Civil War, but why? Some blame social media, some say the coastals against the heartlanders, some say nationalists against the globalists, things like that. And they all have a part to play, but I would argue the deepest division is between those who understand the republic and freedom from the perspective of 1776 and those who understand it from the perspective of the heirs of the French Revolution. Because when you’re looking at things like post-modernism, political correctness, identity politics, the sexual revolution, and all that stuff, right down to critical theory, they are all the heirs of 1789, not 1776. And as you know well, they come out badly. Revolutions in that side never succeed and the oppressions never end, and yet, many Americans have become bewitched by ideas from the radical left.
Tooley: Now I’m sure you’ve read Tom Holland’s recent book on the history of Christianity and how it shaped the modern world. He would say even the French Revolution is a descendant of the Christian Revolution in its ardent demand for human equality, but obviously, it went severely askew. How would you respond to that point?
Guinness: Well, clearly the entire Western world is the child of the Christian faith. So, if you look at the West at large, we owe a lot to the Greeks: philosophy, democracy, many things. We owe a lot to the Romans: governments, central heating, roads. And we owe a huge amount to the Hebrews. But Europe in particular owes everything to the gospel. And it was after the Dark Ages, so-called, when Europe was won back to the Christian faith. So, certainly, France and many other countries, but we’ve got to say you know the statement of Diderot, “We will never be free until we strangle the last king with the guts of the last priest.” In other words, you had church and state thrown in an altar, in collusion, and both oppressive. So, the French Revolution threw off both church and state, and since then every movement coming from the radical left has been anti-Christian, anti-Jewish, anti-biblical, and anti-religious. And the movements still are today. As Solzhenitsyn would say, “Animosity against religion and hostility to God was deeper even than politics and economics.”
Tooley: Now is it fair to say that the Anglo-American political tradition is itself a very particular form of understanding liberty, distinct from the rest of Europe? And perhaps it’s even more Hebraic than other European understandings of governance, thanks to the Puritans?
Guinness: Absolutely, but not just the Puritans. If you go to the average university and ask where does freedom and toleration come from? Oh, they’d say from the French Enlightenment. Nonsense. Historians like Eric Nelson at Harvard or Michael Walzer at Princeton point out that the 17th century was called the biblical century. And what was so fascinating people was wrestling with the “Hebrew Republic.” In other words, through the Reformation, the invention of printing, sola scriptura, there had been a return to the Torah, to Exodus and Deuteronomy. So, the notion of covenant replaced the idea of hierarchical governments. Now go back to the year 380 when Rome declared the Christian faith the official religion. What the church did, for better or worse, was to copy Roman structures, and Roman structures were hierarchical, whereas the biblical structures are covenantal. And the Reformation, not immediately, but in the Calvinistic part particularly, you had Calvin, Zwingli, Bullinger, John Knox in Scotland, Oliver Cromwell in England. Cromwell said that Exodus was the direct parallel to what he was trying to do in England. Now as you know well, the English Revolution is called the “lost cause.” It failed. In 1660, the king came back. But what was the lost cause in England became the winning cause in New England, and that’s the story of course behind the American Revolution. And William Bradford’s Mayflower Compact is a covenant. John Winthrop on the Arbella, a covenant. And John Adams when he writes Massachusetts’ first constitution rightly calls it a covenant. In other word, “We the People,” 1787, goes back to the Jewish covenant at Mount Sinai.
Tooley: And if I recall correctly, it’s not just the New England Founding Fathers, but also Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson as well look to the Hebrews for the origins of their understanding of liberty?
Guinness: Well, they wanted to go back to the Exodus as the symbol of the United States. They were actually turned down. But there’s no question everyone saw Exodus as the founding event of freedom. And, of course, so did the African American spirituals go down Moses, and so on. Or the Liberty Bell, and you can see it across the board. Exodus is the greatest precedent and pattern and principles of freedom ever. And I would argue, you think of what’s a classic politically, well, Plato’s Republic or Machiavelli’s The Prince, or John Stuart Mill, or whatever. And I would argue no, we owe far more to Sinai than to Athens. And the greatest patent of freedom, you can find all the details. Where does consent of the governed come from? Exodus. Where does the separation of powers come from? The covenant. You could go on down the line, and there are so many lessons. My book isn’t just a critical analysis. It is that, but it has chapters on all the different defining features of Exodus that could make a difference today.
Tooley: Now I suppose superficial critics, without reading your book, would say oh, he must be a Christian nationalist or he must be a theocratic reconstructionist. What would you say to these superficial critics?
Guinness: Well, I’d say they’re entirely wrong. If you take the difference of humanity, we have memory and history, and we can think back thousands of years earlier than ourselves. But not only that, we can think forwards. Imagination and vision. So, human beings are distinctive for their ability to think back and think forward. And so is the scripture. In other words, we as followers of Jesus, along with our friends the Jews, we are not just conserving, we are, we are keeping alive the best of the past, but not only that. We are the true, put it carefully, we are the true progressives, because we are pursuing ideals not yet realized, some of which will only be fulfilled when the Messiah comes. But the thrust of our thinking is backwards, yes. We’re remembering, we must never forget, but we’re also moving forward.
Tooley: If I’m recalling your biography correctly, you were born in pre-revolutionary China. Would it be an overreach to say that the strategic competition between the US and the West with China is in essence a competition of ideas between what happened at Sinai and perhaps the Confucian understanding of society?
Guinness: Well, it should be, Mark. You’re exactly right. But I think, unlike the 1950s when say the Soviets were considered godless communists, there was a constant contrast of how and why the West was different, and that’s almost completely missing today. Everything to do with China is in terms of economics and so on, and the West is unable to defend itself today. Now my opening of the book, I remember when I was a seven-year-old in the revolution. My dad said to me in January 1949, “Son, we’re in trouble. Chiang Kai-shek has abandoned the city and we’re at the mercy of the Red Army.” We were living in the capital Nanking. Well, years later, when I was a graduate student at Oxford, I once had dinner with Sir Isaiah Berlin, the great philosopher of freedom. And we found that he had been a seven-year-old in the Russian Revolution in 1917, And I’d been a seven-year-old in the Chinese Revolution in 1949. And as we compared notes, we agreed first that the English-speaking world would always stand against totalitarianism of that sort. But, and here’s the surprising thing, and this was then the early ‘70s, we agreed that that would never come to America, because Americanism, the American experiment, the American Dream, was a surrogate for radical socialism and communism. And yet to see how in 50 years through the long march through the institutions, cultural Marxism has swept over this country and gained the hearts and minds of the cultural gatekeepers. It’s a squandering of freedom almost beyond belief of historic proportions, and yet many people, including many of our fellow Christians, are not even aware of what’s really happening.
Tooley: Is it fair to say that many around the world who contend for liberty, whether it was the now suppressed demonstrators in Hong Kong, or those who are struggling in Burma, or those who have struggled in Belorussia, whether they realize it or not, they probably don’t, they’re essentially arguing for a Hebraic understanding of freedom versus more authoritarian alternatives?
Guinness: Absolutely. Reinhold Niebuhr used to say that bookends of history are authoritarianism on one extreme, all order, no freedom, and the other extreme, anarchy, all freedom, no order. The genius, the novelty of what the Lord gives to Abraham and then Moses above all at Sinai, and then of course through Jesus and his coming, right down to the Reformation and the American experiment, is ordered freedom. That is the rarity. An ordered freedom. For the Jews, a covenantal freedom. For Americans, a constitutional freedom. But we lost almost all the great dimensions and the features of it, and it’s tragic. So, the Constitution is merely a flimsy matter of law today and nothing to do with the hearts and minds of citizens, which it once was. You take a great speech by Judge Learned Hand in 1944 during World War II, he points out, as Madison did, that the parchment barriers would never hold things together. Freedom has to be in the hearts and minds of the citizens, and that morally binding pledge at the heart of the covenant is what makes citizenship. You notice here in Virginia where I live, Governor Northam is ruling out the Pledge of Allegiance in schools. That is literally insanity. It’s suicidal insanity. But, Mark, I’m a great supporter of what you’re doing, because we are members of the Christian Church. We have three great challenges. One is theological revisionism, another gospel. The second is the sexual revolution. And the third is the political revolution of cultural Marxism. Each of these three are dead set against the Church. If you read, say, Wilhelm Reich, who’s the architect of the sexual revolution. He says we will never win until we overcome two people, parents, that’s why you want sex education at three and four to sideline parents, and, of course, the Church. And it’s fascinating that the sexual revolution didn’t start with Playboy and that sort of thing. It goes back to the Palais-Royal in Paris, which is the very place that the political revolution and its ideas were incubated. So, we’re up to a great, great challenge to the heart of our faith, and I’m glad the way you and others are standing so bravely.
Tooley: Well, I appreciate that, and I very much appreciate your book. Beyond reading your book, Os, and, obviously, reading the Bible itself, what are other key resources that those who went to better appreciate the Hebrew origins of our liberty, where should they look?
Guinness: Well, you have books by Eric Nelson and Michael Walzer. But currently my book is dedicated to Rabbi Jonathan Sacks. I showed him the draft, and sadly before it was published, he died last November. But the book is dedicated to him. And if you just read his series on the Torah, called Covenant & Conversation, and the one on Exodus, Covenant & Conversation Exodus: The Book of Redemption, is incredible on a biblical view of freedom. Or another book literally out this month is Leon Kass’s Founding God’s Nation. And so, we can see in the Jewish understanding of their history, the once and future key to American freedom. Is there still time to turn around? We need leaders and people across the board who will stand against the present insanity and articulate a better way. So much of the church, so many Americans, they’re responding ad hoc, outreach here, a scandal there, whatever, rather than thinking as Lincoln did. He addressed slavery in the 1850s, but in the light of the Declaration, and in the light of what he called “the better angel of the American nature.” So, President Biden talks of restoring the soul of America, and President Trump used to talk of making America great again, but neither of them, and I say neither of them, articulate what made America great in the first place. So, we need Lincoln-like leadership that does that and calls the country back, while there is still time.
Tooley: Well, this reminds me of a recent conversation with a young person who was telling me her fellow young conservatives, she was disturbed that many of them were articulating their politics with a dismissive attitude towards America’s founding. So, this is a problem that is across the ideological spectrum.
Guinness: Well, obviously, slavery and racism have to be dealt with. Are they in America’s DNA or are they America’s original sin? We don’t rule out God’s creation because Adam and Eve fell. We acknowledge the importance of sin, and all the results that came in. And in the same way, slavery faced up to rightly, confessed and put right, does not rule out America. But the Howard Zinn view of history, the 1619 Project view of history, are clearly again suicidal, and the republic will be finished if they flourish further. You note the time, 1776, people in Europe could see the hypocrisy. In other words, slavery was a contradiction of the Declaration of Independence. And Samuel Johnson, who was a great old conservative, he said something I’ll quote in front of me, “Why is it that those who are yelping about freedom, his word, are the drivers of slaves?” You could recognize the contradiction an ocean away. But William Wilberforce, my family, I come from the Guinness brewery family as you know, we supported and were friends with Wilberforce. But Wilberforce pleaded, first with Thomas Jefferson and later with President James Monroe, that England and America form a consort of benevolence to resist slavery. Now, of course, as we know, he was turned down. He was rebuffed. If America had faced up to that and listened to voices like Samuel Hopkins from the beginning, the awful stain that we have in the South and led to the Civil War and so on need never have happened. It’s a tragedy, and it needs to be faced. But it doesn’t rule out the best of the brilliant American experiment in ordered freedom.
Tooley: And finally, Os, looking to your final chapter, as a Christian, obviously, you’re always hopeful, but how would you manifest your faith in the American political experiment?
Guinness: Well, the book shows, as I said, the different defining features that need to be recovered. You take the notion of trends, let me pick up one, Mark. As Rabbi Sachs said, what did Moses talk about the night of Passover? 430 years of slavery. Does he mention freedom? No. They’re going to the promise land, the land of milk and honey. Does he mention it? No. Three times he talks about children. In other words, as Sachs put it, if you have any project that lasts longer than a single generation, you have to have schools and you have to have history. And the Jews did it. The reason why, despite the appalling persecution and scattering, they’ve survived as a people. Now just apply that to American civic education. Unum, E Pluribus Unum, it was thrown out the 1960s. We’ve done the opposite of what the Jews did, and both the church and America are suffering from a breakdown in transmission. Now I’m an optimist, always an optimist, and I believe we should look reality in the white of the eye so we are realists, but always with hope. Not optimism, hope. Obviously, because God is sovereign, but also you take the fact that the deepest problems today for humanity, at the most incredible moments in human history, the deepest problems have no answers at all outside the scripture and outside the good news of Jesus. So, we need to get Christians off the back foot, no longer defensive, and with confidence moving out to bring the good news, the best news ever, to people who desperately need it today.
Tooley: Os Guinness, author of The Magna Carta of Humanity: Sinai’s Revolutionary Faith and the Future of Freedom, thank you very much for an instructive conversation.
Guinness: Thank you, Mark, and God bless in all you’re doing.