This article is a summary of Os Guinness’s speech title “1776 vs. 1789: The Roots of the Present Crisis,” delivered at the virtual event “Truth. Love. Together.” hosted by the Chuck Colson Center for Christian Worldview and a June 6, 2020 interview by Sebastian Gorka on American First.
Americans today are as deeply divided as at any time since the Civil War. The very principles of our American system of government are under assault. Perhaps nowhere is this more evident than in the nationwide protests and rioting that has followed the death of George Floyd at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer. What began as a cry for justice quickly evolved into a demand that Americans embrace a foreign approach to governance. Some, such as author and social critic Os Guinness, have noted that the leaders of this movement are attempting to replace the ideology of the American Revolution with that of the French Revolution. Fundamentally, they are replacing a biblical model with an expressly anti-biblical model.
The failed English Revolution of 1642 and the subsequent American Revolution of 1776 were rooted in the Judeo-Christian idea that God created order, but man, through sin, creates disorder. Guinness explains, “God is working to restore His world, and as we come to know Him with our gifts and callings, we become partners with Him, covenantally, to help restore the world. So, when we turn the world upside down, we’re turning upside down the status quo of our day in order to turn the world the right way up.”
To ensure the preservation of order, separation of powers, checks, and balances must be established because mankind is inherently flawed. By contrast, the French Revolution of 1789 was rooted in the philosophy of enlightenment thinkers, such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Voltaire, and was “expressly anti-biblical, anti-Christian, anti-religious, and anti-clerical.” It was rooted in the notion that mankind is inherently good and perfectible. Mankind is born free but is everywhere chained by repressions. If these repressions can be removed through politics, education, or psychology, mankind will be free to act according to its inherent decency.
Although the French Revolution lasted only 10 years before Napoleon Bonaparte declared it to be finished, the revolution’s three great ideals—liberty, fraternity, and equality—have continued to influence political movements throughout history. From the ideal of fraternity came revolutionary Nationalism in the 19th Century, and from the ideal of equality came revolutionary Socialism in the 20th Century. Now, in the 21st Century, these ideals have evolved into a political philosophy known as “critical theory” which has produced Neo-Marxism. Os Ginneas explains:
In the 1920s an Italian Marxist called Antonio Gramsci sat in jail under Mussolini and tried to figure out why Marxism had never happened as Marx predicted. And basically shifted the economy to culture and from the proletariat—a revolution in the streets—to what he called the hegemony—the dominance—of the cultural elites, the gatekeepers. His ideas flowed down into the Frankfurt school in America particularly through the thinking of Herbert Marcuse who was very important in the 1960s. And it was in 1967, and then again in 1968, that Marcuse and Rudi Dutschke, the leader of the Red Brigade in Germany, called for a long march through the institutions.
This long march through the institutions involved winning the colleges and universities, the press and the media, and the world of entertainment and Hollywood. Only then would cultural hegemony—dominance—be attained among the gatekeepers of culture. Ideas like political correctness, post-modernism, tribalism, sexual revolution, and socialist ideas would accomplish what a violent uprising of the people could not.
Today we are experiencing the fruit of this Neo-Marxist endeavor. However, none of the above ideas derive from the American Revolution. They hail from the failed French Revolution and its Russian and Chinese revolutionary descendants, whose utopianism was disastrous. Guinness observes, “Whenever there is a gap between ideal and the real, the gap will always be filled with force—violence—and that’s why utopianism is the father of the worst evils and violence.”
Such violence undergirds the way Neo-Marxists address injustice and oppression. In the French style, and according to the understanding of critical theory, society is categorized according to the majority and the minority—the oppressors and the repressed, or those who have power and those who are the victims of that power. Because Nietzsche declared truth to be dead, critical theory becomes a means of exploiting victimhood in order to change the status quo to a new one. However, this new status quo is based only on power, so they become the new power replacing the old power, and this cycle of retaliation of wrong answered by revenge continues indefinitely. This is why talk of reparations, privatizing the police, and redirecting funds to invest in communities of color are doomed to failure. These efforts will not heal our nation.
Os Guinness expounds:
Now compare that with the biblical way of putting things right and addressing wrongs. Evil addressed as evil, but then the possibility of repentance which both in Hebrew, teshuva, and in Greek, metanoia, has an idea of a radical and complete about turn. But then repentance followed by forgiveness, forgiveness freeing and cutting off the past completely, and forgiveness freeing the future from the burden of the past. And so you work toward, finally, a reconciliation in which enemies can be made truly friends, as Abraham Lincoln used to say [and] as we see in the early church.
So, you think of the early church [and] their idea of the pax Christi—peacemaking under God—far better than pax Romana—the Roman peace. The Roman peace, as many of the historians like Tacitus say, is a peace through power. In other words, you have peace when one power or another dominates all the other powers. But of course, you have oppression and dictatorship and imperialism; whereas, pax Christi—the peace of Christ, peace made with God through the blood of the cross—is a completely different understanding.
Whether it be these riots, the 2020 elections, the accusations of Russian collusion, the Kavanaugh hearings, or any number of other social conflicts, we often find this clash between the ideology of the godless French Revolution and the biblical American Revolution. Os Guinness concludes:
To me this country’s done so much for the gospel around the world, and so much standing for principles like religious freedom, that it would be a tragedy of historic proportions if America turns away from the groundings of true freedom and goes a way that will be a disaster for freedom and humanity in the future. … Remember what [Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn] said to the Americans in the 1970s in his warning to the West, ‘Are you prepared to gamble your civilization?’ That’s what America’s doing now. And that’s what this series is about—not for America’s sake, but for the gospel’s sake. Because we are the guardians, not just of truth and love—and highly radical distinctive, rich, deep views of truth and love. We are the guardians of words, of human dignity, of freedom, of justice, of community, and many of the things that are absolutely essential to the world and humanity of the future.
1. “Os Guinness: ‘The Roots of the Present Crisis.’” Truth, Love, Together Virtual Conference. Colson Center video, 24:08, n.d. Accessed June 9, 2020. https://conference.colsoncenter.org/1776-vs-1789-the-roots-of-the-present-crisis/.
2. America First with Sebastian Gorka. “When the Left Chooses the Wrong Revolution. Os Guinness with Sebastian Gorka on AMERICA First.” YouTube video, 30:38, June 6, 2020. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZiUCGBFfbzc.