Sustaining American Freedom

Rich Tucker /

It would be virtually impossible to market a product in the United States today unless you could call it “sustainable.” We want sustainable farming, sustainable packaging, a sustainable environment. Yet nobody talks about the importance of sustaining something far more important: freedom.

During a recent address at The Heritage Foundation, author and social commentator Os Guinness discussed the sustainability of freedom and outlined the three steps required to build a free nation. The first is relatively simple: have a revolution. These happen frequently, all around the globe, as Guinness noted. People rise up and overthrow their autocratic rulers.

The second step, however, is far more rare. Guinness calls it “ordering freedom.” The Russians, French, Chinese, and many others tried and failed. Their revolutions devolved into bloodshed and chaos. Not here.

America’s Founders ordered freedom by writing the Constitution. It made clear that legitimate power comes from the people, who remain sovereign and, therefore, free. But that leads to the most difficult of the three steps, Guinness says: sustaining freedom.

As Ronald Reagan put it, “Freedom is a fragile thing and is never more than one generation away from extinction. It is not ours by inheritance. It must be fought for and defended constantly by each generation.” Guinness agrees with Reagan. Defending freedom “comes down to us,” he says, whether we’re 85, 55, or 25.

Guinness uses a famous series of paintings to illuminate where the United States is. Thomas Cole’s The Course of Empire depicts five scenes, from a pre-humanity landscape to a scene of “Desolation” where crumbling buildings, but no people, remain. He notes we’re somewhere between paintings three and four, “The Consummation of Empire” and “Destruction.”

How can this generation protect freedom and steer the United States back toward success? Guinness says one key would be reviving civic education. Too many young people don’t understand the First Principles our country was founded upon, and they therefore have no sense of what it is they’re supposed to be protecting.

In the past, American statesmen such as Abraham Lincoln took up this task and helped sustain freedom through their speeches and actions. Yet Guinness recommends that Americans today shouldn’t wait for a charismatic leader to drive the debate. Instead, he advises everyone to contribute through conversations, blogs, and civic action. If we all do our part, there’s no reason we cannot pass freedom along to future generations of Americans.

Americans today have a large and difficult job ahead of us: nothing less than sustaining the successful revolution triggered by the Founders more than 200 years ago. Whether we’re up to the task is an open question.