Book Review - The Global Public Square

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Os Guinness’ book The Global Public Square: Religious Freedom and the Making of a World Safe for Diversity is an important book … and a frustrating one, too. It’s important because Guinness analyzes the culture wars in light of the eternal need for freedom of conscience for all. It’s frustrating because I have little hope his rousing call for civility, persuasion and responsible engagement in the “global public square” will actually happen. I’m not sure he’s so sure, either.

This book is really an exposition of a document I’d never heard of: “The Global Charter of Conscience.” This document was published in 2012, and it’s designed as an addendum to the United Nations’ 1948 “Universal Declaration of Human Rights,” another document I’d never heard of. Some readers may be put off by United Nations resolutions, and ecumenical documents about freedom of conscience. If that’s you, then don’t go away!

Any Baptist should be interested in this book. If you have visions of poor Felix Manz in your head, or vaguely remember reading about the Acts of Uniformity in Leon McBeth’s Baptist history textbook, then it’s time to broaden your horizons a bit. Guinness’ main concern is to protect the right of soul freedom for everybody:

This book is about … the challenge facing all of us as the earth’s now billions of citizens: Soul freedom for all and its answer to how we are to maximize freedom and justice and learn to live with our deepest differences, especially when those differences are religious and ideological—and in particular the answer to how we are to negotiate those differences in public life, and so create a global public square that is worthy of our heritage as members of free and open societies. (19)

Guinness is a Christian public intellectual in the truest sense. He moves in secular academia just as easily as he does in the Christian arena. To be sure, he writes as an unashamed Christian (pgs. 21-22), but this book is aimed at leaders in academia and politics, from the local community college to the White House. It’s aimed at people who, in their own small way, can implement his vision of civility, respect, persuasion and soul freedom in their own little corner of the public square. He offers a series of propositions throughout the book, which I’ll briefly describe.

Soul Freedom is in Everyone’s Interests

Guinness writes:

The first step in the revaluation is to recognize that soul freedom is for the good of all, down to the very last human person, that educated elites in the Western world must overcome their personal prejudices about religion in order to take it as seriously as it deserves, and that no solution will be possible without a partnership between responsible religious believers and responsible secularists. (27)

He grounds the “long, hard quest for freedom of thought, conscience, religion and belief” (pg. 27) in the Biblical account of man’s creation. The imago dei implies we have the freedom to think for ourselves, and to have our own opinions. What makes Guinness so insightful is the way he forces the reader to use equal scales. Soul freedom is for everybody, not just people of faith. If a Muslim congregation wants to build a mosque, how can a Christian deny them this right, and cry foul when the roles are reversed?

Religious believers often need reminding that freedom of thought, conscience, religion and belief includes the nonreligious and the antireligious, but the nonreligious and the antireligious also need reminding that their secularist beliefs are ultimate beliefs too. (32)

If you coerce conformity, in any context, then individual freedom of conscience and expression will be stifled, and there will be damaging results (33).

We Cannot Ignore Our Differences

Guinness continued,

The second step in the revaluation is to appreciate that the religious and ideological situation in today’s world raises the challenge of living with our deepest differences to an unprecedented and urgent level that can only be ignored by putting the future at risk. (45)

In this age of modern media, everyone is everywhere now. New ideas and fads sweep continents. “[R]eligions in the global era are increasingly becoming demonopolized, deconfessionalized and deterritorialized” (51). We face a clash of civilizations — or, perhaps, better, a clash of worldviews.

The result is the unsurprising crisis of Western identity and the unaccountable permissiveness, the unfettered market forces, the unbounded moral and cultural relativism, the unashamed political pragmatism, the unchallenged philosophical skepticism, and the unchecked scientism that characterize the West today and that work together to undermine the ideals that have made the West the civilization it once was. (54)

How should we (religious, atheist, agnostic, and all points in between) respond to this? Whatever we do, Guinness proclaims, we cannot keep on our current course:

Far from living up to the promise of its past, America is heedlessly indulging in acrimonious culture warring as if its past had never happened and it were any other nation emerging late into the unforgiving conditions of modernity. (61)

Let Freedom Reign

Guinness wrote:

The third step in the revaluation is to restore the primacy and high priority of establishing freedom of thought, conscience, religion and belief for people of all faiths and none, both for the sake of individual human persons and for the common good of humanity itself. (63)

The West’s Judeo-Christian heritage once gave it the moral foundation to ground ideas like freedom of conscience, thought and religion. However, “the Western world now stands as a cut-flower civilization, and such once-vital convictions have a seriously shortened life” (65).

Faith must be voluntary. You cannot brow-beat people into external conformity, or force them to think the way you want them to think. A person must be allowed to think, practice and express himself as he sees it (69).

Death by a Thousand Cuts

Guinness observed:

The fourth step in the revaluation is to recognize the thousand and one small ways by which freedom of thought, conscience, religion and belief is being eroded in the West, and to see how these seemingly trivial incidents add up to a rising constriction on freedom and therefore to a Western failure to assume muchneeded leadership on the issue in the world. (98)

Guinness doesn’t cover anything in this chapter that would surprise anyone who has been paying attention. He narrows his focus to the university systems, and the drive to eliminate religious convictions from the public square altogether. In particular, he sees a parallel between “the more repressive forms of Islam” and the liberal activists “in their common aversion to conversion, proselytism and apostasy” (108). Indeed, Guinness specifically equates Western “hate speech” legislation to Islamic “blasphemy” laws.

All who love freedom and human rights must watch with care how certain activists, aided and abetted by certain government departments and certain judges, are coldly and determinedly disemboweling freedom of thought, conscience and religion as a fundamental principle, let alone as the first freedom. No fish caught in any river or ocean was ever gutted with such clinical efficiency as these activists are intent on gutting freedom of thought and conscience now. (117-118)

Opposites Repel

Guinness continued:

The fifth step in the revaluation is to analyze and assess the two major models on offer today, and to face the uncomfortable fact that, over the issue of living with our deepest differences, there are not only two competing visions but two extremes of the visions. (121)

A just society cannot ever exclude religion from the public square (e.g. China, North Korea), and it also cannot privilege one religion over another (e.g. Iran). “The blood and tears of humanity cry out that there must be a better way” (124). Guinness calls for a middle ground between these two extremes.

Stop Looking for Answers in the Wrong Places

He wrote:

The sixth step in the revaluation is to examine the weaknesses of many of the present responses to the problems of religion in public life, and to see why they will never succeed because they are looking for answers in the wrong place by disregarding the nature of freedom of thought and conscience. (132)

Many intellectuals and “elites” have no real idea what religious belief is; their worldviews won’t allow it. This “tone deafness” will not create a solution (133f). Moreover, religious belief is growing in the world at large, not shrinking, as various Enlightenment worldviews led secularists to believe — this fuels their “their rage and irrationality” (138). And, Guinness observed, the “separation of church and state” in American public life has been reinterpreted in the past 60 years:

When he first used the term, Roger Williams had in mind the protection of the church from the state and not the other way around. What the principle summarily forbade for the American founders, a century later, was any official establishment of religion. In other words, the Establishment Clause was in the service of the Free Exercise Clause, and both were unambiguously in the service of freedom. (138)

Conservatives cannot respond by throwing red meat to their base, and defending only their own religious views. “[T]he real test of freedom of thought and conscience for all is when the rights of the smallest community and the most unpopular community are just as respected as the rights of the powerful and the fashionable” (145). Likewise, they cannot fight this battle through the courts (145f). The idea of soul freedom, in the end, cannot be guaranteed by legal decisions but by “habits of the heart.”

The Solution – A Civil Public Square:

The seventh step in the revaluation is to explore the vision of a civil public square that provides the greatest realization for the greatest number of people of a genuine soul freedom for people of all faiths and none, and offers the surest road to civility and stability in the global public square. (180)

Here, in his thesis, Guinness advocates a public version of the Golden Rule – people should treat others like they want to be treated. This principle rests on three pillars; (1) moral suasion, through a comprehensive document like the “Global Charter of Conscience,” (2) legal implementation of the document which enshrines these rights, and (3) civic education about the responsibilities and importance of these rights (204).

Guinness knows many people will scoff at these suggestions; “such talk is apt to sound like hot air and to produce a smirk from the cynics, and with good reason” (181). I believe his vision is the appropriate one, but I don’t think it will ultimately succeed — because it depends on citizens acting like responsible grown-ups. His first two pillars are useless without the third, and that is where the breakdown has occurred in Western society.


The curious Christian should read the “Global Charter of Conscience” and then, if he’s interested enough, pick up Guinness’ book to see how these principles can be fleshed out. His book is a primer on soul liberty, a sobering assessment of where we are now, and a visionary call for leaders (of all faiths and none) to band together to implement a vision of soul liberty for the good of all involved, and our global society.

This past year, The Benedict Option was all the rage in some circles. Guinness’ book takes the opposite approach — engagement through winsome persuasion. We shouldn’t cede the public square to the secularists. We have the right to be heard, and we must be heard. There is a place for a civil public square, and this book explains what it is, and how we can begin to get there.

Whether we will get there is another matter.


Thanks for the review. In general, I like what Guinness seems to be saying. The trouble with withdrawal and “what’s the use?” approaches is that every good gift is from God is not random. The gift of religious liberty ought to be defended, not mainly because it’s a right we own and should strive to retain (see Paul’s use of his Roman citizenship) but because it’s a sovereignly bestowed good gift, and that brings responsibility with it — the responsibility of stewardship.

So, it’s irresponsible to just let our legal standing decay without a fight.

On the other hand, there’s only so much you can do by external restraint (legal coercion). There’s an even more important need to be genuinely persuasive. So it’s a tricky thing, to fight legal battles and at the same time not be repulsively obnoxious. Can’t say I know how people of influence should pull this off, but one thing I do know: other things being equal, people tend to respect competence, intelligence, and fairness. So, stupid and lazy never helps the cause… though smart and diligent doesn’t always either.

Views expressed are always my own and not my employer's, my church's, my family's, my neighbors', or my pets'. The house plants have authorized me to speak for them, however, and they always agree with me.

This book is a breezy, intellectual and informed take on what soul liberty is, and how responsible adults must go about making this dream a reality. I’m just not confident many people, in our age of FaceBook and Twitter, are interested in being grown-ups. But, if you want an adult take on how to begin to solve our current problems, this book points a way forward.

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and works in State government.