Tuesday, April 14, 2009

let's be civil

I recently read an outstanding book, The Case for Civility: And Why Our Future Depends on It, by Os Guinness, the first (and only) book I've read from him. I borrowed it from the library, but I'm convinced I need to get my own copy and keep working on it.

Guinness is Irish and has lived in the States for some time now. So his view is from Europe, so that he sees more clearly than most of us here, the value and worth of America, especially because of the First Amendment.

This is a brief description of something of my understanding of the book in a nutshell. The genius of America which makes it stand apart (and if you know me, you'll know that I've spoken of myself as a European because of issues like health care, but this book has given me a needed perspective) is its insistence, now lived out after decades initially of not doing well that way, but insisting on the distinction between church and state, or in the terms of the founders, religion and the state.

The Secular Left is profoundly in error to think that Jefferson did not want religion to influence the state. What the founders did not want was a state church. What they did want was freedom for people to be completely themselves in the public square. For people and groups to bring their influence to bear, and thus have a vigorous, but civil exchange with all others.

The root of this idea is in a Judeao-Christian ethic which sees limits in what any nation can be. No theocracies, no utopias. But places where God's word has freedom to be proclaimed and lived out before others. Where people can live in faiths of any kind, or in no faith at all. As God's word tells us, we're to let the wheat and tares grow together, and live out what we are in Jesus, as the salt of the earth, and the light of the world.

This goes against the Religious Right who want a "Sacred Public Square", Christian only. And it goes against the Secular Left who want a "Naked Public Square", in other words people neutered and muted, not being able to carry into public what may be most essential to them.

Of course this requires civility both in the sense of how we conduct ourselves, as well as what we actually can do in the public square, in the realms of government and in other voluntary societies. While giving freedom for people to live out fully their beliefs, of course within certain limits (no child sacrifice as in some olden religions, etc.).

And because of this freedom, it has made America for all its many ills (and there are many, and always have been) flourish and be a bastion of freedom and hope for many all over the world. We need to see the good here, and learn to value it. But this book gets to the heart of that goodness and what might be slipping through the cracks, if we're not careful. I would add to this, for the faults of our President, Barack Obama, I do think he exemplifies well what Guinness is seeking to get at in this book. A most marvellous read, and one I'd highly recommend. My thoughts on this book, so read it for yourself to see what he is saying. See also the Willamsburg Charter which Guinness helped formulate.

What would you like to add here?


The Wingnut said...

God's Politics, by Jim Wallis discusses this as well, in a "boots on the ground" sort of way.

Religion was never intended to be a basis for government, but seperation of church and state does not mean absence of religion.

Wallis makes the case that it is, in fact, exactly the sort of Biblical, prophetic visions of justice that we desperately need in government, and that this was one of the goals behind our founding documents.

It's a great read, though quite long!


Ted M. Gossard said...

Yes, Wingnut, I've read that book as I recall, and overall I liked it. I do think Guinness's book, for what it does, is better. My take. It has been awhile since I read Wallis's book. Deb and I did go and hear him speak at Calvin College some time back. I'm not happy with either left or right, and he did seem to me to be a bit one sided. With all due respect to all the good he has done. I've heard his latest book is better, maybe from Scot McKnight or someone else. But I do agree that I thought that book to be quite good when I read it.

nannykim said...

Great points~!

Ted M. Gossard said...

It was a very good read for me, a needed one! Thanks.

Bob Robinson said...

Good post, Ted!
Christians, I believe, are called to be the firsts to live out the kind of civility that Guinness is calling for. If not us, then who?

Ted M. Gossard said...

Thanks. Excellent point. I think the book is important for our day.