Acton Institute Powerblog

Os Guinness on Virtue in a Free Republic

Share this article:
Join the Discussion:

Right now I am reading an advanced copy of Os Guinness’s A Free People’s Suicide: Sustainable Freedom and the American Future. The book will be released by IVP on August 6. It’s an essential read and I pledge to publish a future review for our PowerBlog readers. Guinness was interviewed in Religion & Liberty in 1998.

In my recent talks around town I have been asking questions about our capacity and desire for self-government as a community and nation. I recently gave a local presentation on President Calvin Coolidge and he helped inspire a greater desire to ask the foundational questions. In my view, Coolidge saw public service as a chance to educate Americans in civics, elevating the greater truths from our revolutionary and founding period.

Below is a great excerpt from Guinness’s forthcoming book:

Beyond any question, the way the American founders consistently linked faith and freedom, republicanism and religion, was not only deliberate and thoughtful, it was also surprising and anything but routine. In this view, the self-government of a free republic had to rest on the self-government of free citizens, for only those who can govern themselves as individuals can govern themselves as a people. As for an athlete or a dancer, freedom for a citizen is the gift of self-control, training and discipline, not self-indulgence.

The laws of the land may provide external restraints on behavior, but the secret of freedom is what Englishman Lord Moulton called “obedience to the unenforceable,” which is a matter of virtue, which in turn is a matter of faith. Faith and virtue are therefore indispensable to freedom – both to liberty itself and to the civic vitality and social harmony that go hand in hand with freedom.

Burke wrote in full agreement, “Manners [or moral standards] are of more importance than laws.” Rousseau had written similarly that mores, customs, and traditions, which are “engraved neither in marble nor in bronze but in the hearts of the citizens” form “the true Constitution of the State” and the “Keystone of the Republic.”

Tocqueville emphatically agreed. His objective in writing Democracy in America was not to turn Frenchmen into Americans, for liberty should take many forms. “My purpose has rather been to demonstrate, using the American example, that their laws and, above all, their manners can permit a democratic people to remain free.”

Ray Nothstine is opinion editor of the the North State Journal in Raleigh, North Carolina. Previously, he was managing editor of Acton Institute's Religion & Liberty quarterly. In 2005 Ray graduated with a Master of Divinity (M.Div) degree from Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Ky. He also holds a B.A. in Political Science from The University of Mississippi in Oxford.


  • A seldom-mentioned aspect of this link between morality and law is that earlier Americans saw certain laws as unthinkable and immoral. They were willing to apply the lens of morality to legislators, in a way which is foreign to today’s faux “moralists.” 

    For all the pretense of morality, today’s legislators believe in nearly untrammeled use of the force of government; they recognize no moral authority superior to their own. They may sometimes bow to such an authority to rationalize their use of force, but make no mistake about it – they recognize no moral limits on their own use of force. Today’s appeals to religion are, more often than not, mere excuses.

    Notice how wannabe moralists squirm when asked “Is it really moral to point a gun at a person to force him or her to do or not do X?” This will tell you the depth of their attachment to morality, and the degree of their hatred of freedom.

  • John Hartung

    Except their understanding of custom was essentially Humean. Once this idea is internalized, there is no lasting incentive to follow custom.

  • Pingback: FRC Blog » The Social Conservative Review: May 24, 2012()

  • Pingback: Os Guinness on Separation of Powers | @ActonInstitute PowerBlog | @ActonInstitute PowerBlog()