C.S. Lewis once said that the writings of George MacDonald, which he encountered years before his conversion to Christianity, “baptized” his imagination. This description has long stuck with me, captivating me with its provocative imagery. It helps me describe my own experience, albeit of a different sort.
When I think of the writings of sociologist Os Guinness, a similar phrase comes to mind. I recall myself sitting enraptured on my couch at Yokota Air Base, Japan, late into the night, as I read the closing pages of Guinness’s book A Free People’s Suicide: Sustainable Freedom and the American Future. If MacDonald’s writing, in particular his book Phantastes, baptized Lewis’s imagination, then this book by Guinness baptized “my civic consciousness.” I saw for the first time both the wonder and the fragility of liberty. This indeed seemed like something worth “fighting” for.
Guinness has written prolifically in recent years on topics related to civic health. Recently, I discovered the following passage in his 2008 book The Case for Civility: And Why Our Future Depends on It. It’s a long passage but important enough to quote in its entirety. It comes as the second of five steps Guinness outlines for promoting civility in our world. Hereafter, all words are Guinness’s.
“[R]estoring sustainable freedom means starting with ourselves.
“This is no moment to wait for others and above all to wait for some great leader. All who live in this country, along with the citizens of all the world’s democracies, are the beneficiaries of this great heritage of ordered freedom, or ‘federal liberty.’ We are each the living links between our parents and our children, and it is our task to keep the precious flame alive. We each have the freedom to speak and act in our open society. We are each citizens who are primary stakeholders in our worlds. We each have spheres of influence in which our voices can be heard and in which our authority counts. We are each the ones whose power to choose determines the quality of our community and public life in a thousand small but vital ways.
“It is therefore up to each of us to think long and hard about the present state of things, to consider the outcome of current attitudes, to challenge the grip of dominant ways of thinking, to model the civility and persuasion we should like to see in public life, to switch off programs or unsubscribe to magazines that further the problem, to stop voting for leaders or donating to political parties and organizations whose short-term tactics undermine the long-term good, to demand a leadership worthy of America and its world responsibility at this hour, and to determine that destructive incivility may flourish, ‘but not through me.’
“The fact is that culture warring will not preserve American freedom any more than lies will foster truth and litigiousness will guarantee rights. But if we would like a society of truth, freedom, justice, and decency, we must be people of truth, freedom, justice, and decency. If we would like our views and our deeply held faiths to be understood and respected by those who differ from [us], we must understand and show respect to them and theirs. If we would like to be treated decently and fairly, we must be decent and fair to others. If we would engage with rational and fair arguments from others, we must argue rationally and fairly ourselves. If we would like others not to be taken in by lies and falsehoods spread about us, we must not fall for lies and falsehoods spread about others.
“Most especially, if we are either liberal or conservative, we must be vigilant to see that we ourselves are liberal in our free and generous attitudes toward conservatives, or conservative in maintaining the great traditions of past civility in our attitudes toward liberals. If we wish civility to be a robust and freely chosen virtue, we ourselves must be dedicated to it as a covenant rather than a contract, as a matter of justice as much as power, and as a life-giving habit of the heart rather than a dead and deadening letter of any law.
“Above all, we must not only decry the darkness but spread the light. We must not only protest the letter of the First Amendment but live the spirit of its principles–people of conscience in our faiths, who respect the right of freedom of conscience for others; people of truth in our speech, who recognize the right of others to speak freely, too; and people of love in our communities, who recogniz[e] the right of freedom of assembly for all, including those whose same freedom of conscience leads them to speak and assemble in order to disagree with us.
“In sum, the responsibility for restoring a civil and cosmopolitan public square does not rest solely with the White House, Capitol Hill, the television network president, the newspaper owner, the company boss, the school principle, or the grassroots activist leader. It begins and ends with us.”