In my first year as a university chaplain I was almost kicked off campus.
A gay-rights activist had it in for me, and for the Christian students I worked with. This gentleman didn’t like the fact we held to the Bible’s teachings (including on topics such as sexuality).
And the University authorities supported him, meaning I had to show-cause why the Christian student group and I should be allowed to stay.
(We managed to stay).
It was a very sobering time for me. A wake-up call, in fact.
In a previous life, I had served in the Australian Defence Force, where I had worked to defend Australia against external threats to our freedom.
But this activist woke me up to the fact that there are also internal threats to our most cherished freedoms.
And it’s these internal threats that Christian author and commentator, Os Guinness, discusses in his recent book, ‘A Free People’s Suicide: Sustainable Freedom And The American Future’.
Although he discusses America, I think there are some important lessons for all free societies, particularly in the Anglosphere.
Here are 2 of his key insights:
1) Freedom Is Fragile
If It Isn’t Sustained, It Will Be Lost.
Guinness takes at look at what the Founders of the USA had to say about freedom. For them, freedom isn’t inevitable, or everlasting: rather, like good health, a healthy environment, or a good marriage, freedom needs to be sustained.
Thomas Paine, one of the Founders, put it this way:
Those who expect to reap the blessings of freedom, must, like men, undergo the fatigues of supporting it.’
In much of the West today, we take freedom for granted: we’ve always been free (at least in modern times), and so, we’ll always remain free, won’t we?
Not so, according to Guinness. He writes:
Liberty is…a marathon and not a sprint, and the task of freedom requires vigilance and perseverance if it is to be sustained.’
So how do we sustain freedom?
2) Freedom Needs To Be Sustained at Two Important Levels
At The Legal Level, And At the Popular (i.e. Citizen’s) Level.
Although freedom has to be protected from the Adolf Hitler’s and IS’s of the world, Guinness’ fear is that the internal threats are more likely to erode and destroy our basic freedoms.
Abraham Lincoln shared this very concern. Speaking to his fellow Americans, he said:
If destruction be our lot, we must ourselves be its author and finisher. As a nation of freemen, we must live through all time, or die by suicide’.
So how do we stop our nation from jumping off the Freedom bridge?
There are 2 important ways:
Firstly, by having a robust legal system that protects basic rights: with built-in checks and balances that keep dictators at bay;
Secondly, by being citizens who value freedom, and who live in such a way that allows freedom to last: what French political thinker Alexander de Tocqueville called the ‘habits of the heart’.
These ‘habits of the heart’ include the following:
- Valuing the rights of others, with whom we disagree, to have a voice in the public square (freedom of speech);
- Valuing the rights of others to freely assemble, and practice their beliefs (freedom of association);
- Valuing others’ freedom of conscience (even when we don’t share their conscientious objections);
- Exercising self-control, so that society remains ordered. If the majority of people don’t control themselves, an ever more powerful government will have to control them, leading to less freedom. (It will surprise many a secular reader to realise that the Founders saw Religion, i.e. Judeo-Christianity, as the best source of self-control, and thus vital to a free society).
If the government maintains a robust legal system, AND if we the people keep practicing these ‘habits of the heart’, then freedom will more likely continue into the next generation.
So how’s this all this going?
Whilst Guinness writes about America, I’ll share some thoughts about the Australian situation.
3) The Australian Legal Framework Is Fragile
Basic Freedoms Are Not Well Defended.
I’ve written elsewhere about how Australian law doesn’t adequately protect religious freedom.
But writing from a broader perspective, Professor George Williams from the UNSW writes:
[A]n extraordinary number of Australian laws now infringe basic democratic standards.
All up, I found 350 such laws in areas as diverse as crime, discrimination, anti-terrorism, consumer law, defence, migration, industrial relations, intellectual property, evidence, shipping, environment, education and health. The scale of the problem is much larger than might be thought, and extends well beyond a few well-known examples.
And then he sounds this ominous note:
In our [Australian] system, rights usually exist only as long as they have not been taken away. This is not an issue if politicians exercise self-restraint, but if that disappears even the most important rights become vulnerable.
Couple these observations with the extraordinary move by the Tasmanian anti-discrimination Commission last November to effectively penalise the Catholic Archbishop of Hobart, Julian Porteus, for circulating a pamphlet within Catholic schools defending traditional marriage, and things are looking a little shaky on the legal front.
What about on the ‘citizen’ front?
Things are looking rather sketchy there too, when it comes to the ‘habits of the heart’ of Australian citizens.
4) Australians Don’t Value Freedom As Much As It Should Be Valued
Especially Among The Younger Generation.
Assuming that most ideas in society have a four generation cycle of decay, the cycle of freedom can be summarised as follows:
The importance of freedom is discussed openly by the first generation, assumed by the second generation, forgotten by the third generation, and denied by the fourth generation.
If I’m reading our culture correctly (particularly the young educated uni-students whom I’ve worked with over the last six years), we’re well past the ‘first’ generation in the cycle; we’re also past the ‘second’; we’re probably in the third, and heading for the fourth.
If you think I’m being too pessimistic, just try holding a pro-traditional marriage event, or a pro-life event, at your local secular university campus – or even public school.
Freedom from speech is more valued than freedom of speech, certainly by the younger generation.
Getting Eaten By Termites
Guinness is right to say that ‘[the] problem for upholding freedom is not wolves at the door, but termites in the floor‘. Unless things change, the ‘termites’ (i.e. a more intrusive government, and an indifferent populace) will further erode the basic freedoms that we take for granted.
UPDATE: It’s now 2017, a year after I wrote this post. Sadly, recent events with the Bible Society and Coopers Brewery show how easy it is for a free society like Australia to develop suicidal ideations.