A prolific author and Christian intellectual calls for a cease-fire in the destructive culture wars.
In 1963, JFK observed that, “If we cannot end now our differences, at least we can help make the world safe for diversity.” Today, with pluralism more than ever a fact of American life, Guinness argues, new strategies are required to help us to live together with our deepest differences. Moreover, because the United States has yet to develop the levels of extremism found elsewhere, it retains the best chance for restoring civility and can act as a model for the rest of the world. In this extended essay, Guinness (Unspeakable: Facing Up to Evil in an Age of Genocide and Terror, 2005, etc.) points to the Williamsburg Charter—which he co-authored in 1988 and immodestly dubs “the leading statement of American religious liberty in the twentieth century”—as an appropriate guide for erecting a modern framework within which important disagreements can be negotiated and settled peacefully. Focusing on the First Amendment’s clause regarding the free practice of religion, he cautions against the resolution of cultural differences by resorting to law (“a cudgel rather than scalpel”) and calls for reasoned political debate and a robust popular civility that relies on the forgotten art of persuasion. In the space between the free exercise and the anti-establishment clauses, he argues, the Founders created a society that fosters both strong religious convictions and strong political civility. This principle of separation of church and state, properly understood, holds the key to our uncivil dilemma. It’s folly, Guinness insists, for atheists or progressive universalists to call for a “naked” public square where religion must go begging for recognition, for there is no evidence to believe increasing modernization automatically means secularization. At the same time, believers cannot demand a “sacred” public square, where any one faith assumes preference or privilege. The rights and responsibilities must be the same for all.
Evenhandedly critiquing left/right political extremes and writing clearly and with unimpeachable good sense, Guinness never quite demonstrates how his worthy proposal will play out as it confronts divisive cultural issues like same-sex marriage or abortion.