Making the world safe for conversation



By Os Guinness

HarperCollins, 214 pages, $23.95

In the current international climate, it is easy to point to Muslim extremists as agents of death and destruction. But is such carnage unique to the Muslim religion? And is it the religion itself or its extremism that is the cause?

Scholar and prolific author Os Guinness (Dining With the Devil, Time for Truth) answers these and other provocative questions about religion and secularism and offers a prescription for fostering a world safe for diversity in his new book, The Case forCivility: And Why Our Future Depends on It. The book is long on both organization and on evidence, unfolding like a debate proposition. Nearly every building block in his argument is broken into numbered sub-points. The larger question is whether these blocks form a coherent polemical structure.

Mr. Guinness’ critical investigation of Muslim extremists is followed closely by similar observations of zealots of other religions in the Balkans and Northern Ireland. Lest there be any misunderstanding, the author is equally hard on secularists, listing Pol Pot, Lenin, Stalin, Mao Tse-tung, the Spanish Republicans and, arguably, Hitler, who was anti-Christian but not an atheist.

Mr. Guinness calls his prescription “Let America be America” and breaks his argument down into “five considerations” that address the challenges facing the United States. These include: living with our differences; admitting that the secularization theory, which purports to explain the fate and future of religion itself in the modern world, is flawed and damaging; understanding that we’re living in a new era of the global public square; facing the fact that despite the increasing exposure of our way of life, in many aspects we are hardly capable of being models for anyone; realizing that with recent conflicts over the power of the religious right, we probably are headed toward a backlash.

After laying down these planks, Mr. Guinness proceeds to bolster his platform with several chapters of historical analysis, but not before he explains the genesis of the Williamsburg Charter. This is a document that was drafted in 1986. The charter was signed by 100 nationally prominent figures in commemoration of the 200th anniversary of Virginia’s call for a Bill of Rights. Among the signers were Presidents Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter; the late Chief Justice William Rehnquist; Coretta Scott King; and Focus on the Family founder James Dobson.

This explanation, a detour in the flow of his argument, is oddly placed (nestled near the end of a chapter), especially as the charter seems to be the cornerstone of his proposal. His anecdote about the creation of the charter is fascinating and probably not known to most readers. Subtitled “A celebration and reaffirmation of the First Amendment,” the Williamsburg Charter comprises a lengthy afterword, but might have worked better as a foundation from which to draw subsequent points. As the old journalistic chestnut goes, don’t bury your lead.

Nevertheless, Mr. Guinness goes on to offer a myriad of interesting historical episodes that elaborate on and support his thesis. Bismarck, Tocqueville, Madison, Jefferson, Erasmus and others figure prominently in his arguments for religious liberty. He argues equally against secularism that belittles or demonizes religion and religious extremism that brutalizes both nonbelievers and other religions. As in his opening argument, each example is broken into sub-points and vigorously argued.

There’s a lofty, academic tone to his prose, but his argument is somewhat one-sided. Does anyone really disagree that extremism from every faction is destructive and not what our forefathers intended? Relatedly, is any fanatic able to recognize himself as such? It’s as if Mr. Guinness is more interested in aggressively winning his case than in explaining his positions in accessible language. Thus, in his historical examples, Mr. Guinness does better when he portrays the damage done by extremism in the past than when he attempts to interpret the intentions of our Founding Fathers and other former leaders. Often he leaps from one compound assertion to the next without proving or explaining the initial thought.

Mr. Guinness is on much more solid ground in the final chapters, depicting his vision of “a cosmopolitan and civic public square” and offering a to-do list “starting with ourselves.” Contrasting his civic public square with the two alternatives we currently seem locked into -- “the naked public square” and “the sacred public square” -- he anticipates and responds to possible objections, citing examples from history and the Constitution.

His final chapter offers positive steps for the achievement of this goal in language that is more accessible and, refreshingly, tinged with hope.

By turns thought-provoking and oblique, The Case for Civility is a timely addition to the ongoing public discourse about the First Amendment.

Dave DeChristopher is a novelist and playwright.

National Catholic Reporter May 30, 2008

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