Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Book Review: The Case for Civility by Os Guinness

[Having heard Os Guinness give two presentations yesterday, I am stirred to re-post my review of his excellent book, The Case for Civility. The review was first published in The Denver Post in 2008.]

Os Guinness, The Case For Civility: And Why Out Future Depends on it. HarperOne, 2008. $23.95. 214 pages with index. Reviewed by Douglas Groothuis, Professor of Philosophy, Denver Seminary.

Os Guinness is an Englishman born in China, who has lived in the United States for over twenty years. His many previous books have established him as an astute sociologist and social critic, who is deeply concerned about what has been called “the American experiment.” But this noble experiment is, he believes, now endangered by a rancorous lack of civility in the public square. The 2008 political campaigns give us countless examples of such bombastic infractions, but the deeper problem lies in the national character of the last several decades. Guinness claims that unless America develops a more respectful and thoughtful mode of public conversation it may lose its privileged status. Unless this country becomes more peaceable in debate, it will become less respectable before the eyes and ears of the world.

Guinness offers a wise and compelling vision for civilizing the American public square, one which moves beyond the shouting matches of the culture wars. Quoting President John F. Kennedy, he envisions a “world safe for diversity.” But unlike multiculturalists, Guinness neither vilifies the unique heritage of America nor opts for ethical relativism. He rather appeals to the principles of the American founding, most notably those enshrined in The First Amendment. The five freedoms found there enact a covenant of good will between dissenting parties. This demands the discipline of respecting the rights of those with whom one disagrees, but it by no means excludes the pursuit of objective truth as the goal of such disputes. Unlike tolerance, civility, on the contrary, requires knowledge and courage. Guinness argues that civility is a higher virtue than mere tolerance, which easily devolves into apathy and indifference. Civility is not the fruit of relativism, which despairs of objective moral knowledge. Guinness writes, “Truth and tough-minded debates about truth are the oxygen of a free society.”

While writing as a Christian, Guinness charts a course for "a civil public square," in which citizens of any religion or no religion are allowed and encouraged to let their voices be known and to respect the voice of others. Guinness argues against two popular views of public life: "the sacred public square" and "the naked public square." The sacred public square allows but one religion, which dominates and excludes other dissenting voices, religious or otherwise. Such theocratic arrangements are both un-American and unjust, since conscience must be respected. Yet Guinness equally rejects the naked public square (a term coined by Richard John Neuhaus in 1984), in which religious citizens are not allowed to bring their deepest convictions into civil life. This, too, is un-American, since what the First Amendment disallows is a church established by the state, not a state informed by the religious convictions of its citizens.

Guinness is no partisan politically. He has strong words against the both the Christian Right and the New Atheism of Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and others. These acerbic unbelievers are free to disagree with religious claims, he writes, but their scorched-earth approach to all religion as irrational and unworthy of political representation makes them deeply uncivil. Religious conservatives, on the other hand, have failed to convincingly articulate a vision of the common good, have too often played “the victim card,” have been too narrowly partisan, and have often descended into apocalyptic rhetoric that ill-befits the public square. A civil public square demands better behavior from both—and all other—groups.

Readers of Guinness's previous and much larger work, The American Hour (1992), will find echoes of it in The Case for Civility; but the latter is far more than a digest of the former. It is, rather, a timely and clarion call to principled pluralism tied to the essence of the American experiment. We ignore its message to our own shame and detriment.

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