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,
Os Guinness is an Englishman born in
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
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.