Book Review: The Global Public Square by Os Guinness

By Benjamin Kafferlin

Os Guinness takes on one of the most challenging – and largely unresolved – questions of history: How are we to live with our deepest religious and ideological differences without harming each other? The answer, the “golden key,” he says, is “soul freedom.”

By “soul freedom for all, and for the good of all,” he means, “all ultimate beliefs and worldviews, whether religious or non-religious, transcendent or naturalistic,” or, as Lord Sacks put it, soul freedom realizes the “dignity of difference.”

Dr. Guinness is an author of over two dozen books, a popular teacher and speaker, and acclaimed social critic and theologian. Having largely authored the Williamsburg Charter and the Global Charter of Conscience, he is highly qualified to write on the subject of tolerance.

Just a year ago, Dr. Guinness published A Free People’s Suicide: Sustainable Freedom and the American Future (Intervarsity, 2012), an excellent summary on the centrality of religious liberty in America (The Clapham Group summary by Benjamin Kafferlin by clicking here). He has already published his next book, entitled The Global Public Square: Religious Freedom and the Making of a World Safe for Diversity (Intervarsity, 2013).

The world very much needs a solution to the perpetual culture warring and regressive government intervention into the sphere of faith. Both of Dr. Guinness’ books come at a crucial time in history. They map the way forward, complete with the insights to save our society (both American and global) from continued human rights violations and the road to destruction.

The outlook of civilization is on a collision course due to conflicting worldviews. Now, in The Global Public Square, Guinness says, “Anything to do with religion and public affairs is messy at best and repugnant at worst.” In order to address this, Guinness first recommends three points:

  • First, a vision of soul freedom for all, the foundational freedom of thought, conscience, religion and belief that reflects, promotes and protects the inviolable and alienable dignity and worth of all human begins.
  • Second, a proposal for cultivating civility and constructing a global public square that maximizes soul freedom for people of all faiths and none, and shows how such a vision can do justice to the integrity of diverse truth claims while also guaranteeing freedom and building stability.
  • Third, to support these two goals, a Global Charter of Conscience that reaffirms Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and sets out its significance for establishing and protecting soul freedom in the world of today.

Guinness makes several fascinating points related to why we must do this, and protect soul freedom:

First, if we don’t successfully protect soul freedom, the “escalating culture warring” in the modern countries will only increase – the only response the government can take is to restrict people more, violating the first principle of western civilization.

Second, soul freedom is “foundational and precious to all human beings. It touches on the deepest roots of the meaning and belonging that makes life livable in ways that science alone can never satisfy or even address.” In other words, restricting people’s freedom of conscience makes them feel purposeless.

Third, it is in the interest of all – whether fervent religionists or ambivalent ‘nones’ – to settle the problem of restricting the soul. As Guinness puts it:

…vital secular interests are at stake in settling this issue—such as peace, social harmony, stability, political liberties, favorable business conditions, economic prosperity, success in handling immigration, democratic development and longevity, and even lower infant mortality. Correlation between freedom of thought, conscience and religion and these social goods does not mean causality, but what links many of these issues and makes a successful outcome important is the fact that they depend on how diversity is managed. Coerce conformity and stifle diversity and there will be damaging consequences, even in nonreligious spheres.

To have any lasting freedom, all faiths must collectively agree to a certain kind of toleration and reaffirm the priority of religious freedom as the first freedom. Only then can we avoid pointless culture warring and repressive government action.

Guinness warns that the window of opportunity is closing and we must act now. Protecting soul freedom is a dire necessity for any society and only becomes increasingly needed as the world becomes more and more of a global community.