Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

Politics and Prose

Byron Borger


By Byron Borger

September 20, 2013

A year ago, Os Guinness wrote A Free People’s Suicide, examining the clause within the US Bill of Rights that assures US citizens freedom of and freedom from religion. He evaluated the nuances and implications of such freedoms and proposed guidelines for more profound conversations on these themes. He insisted that a culture of responsibility for the common good is needed to make all this work, and such values emerge most robustly from a culture that is religiously open. Through an illuminating reading of history and the ideas behind the US Constitution, Guinness argued passionately and eloquently that religious freedoms can create religious habits among people, sustaining a democratic society. I was glad to commend his book here for CPJ friends.

This year, Guinness has graced us with another thoroughly-researched, cogently-argued, passionately-written treatise on the significance of this “first freedom.” The Global Public Square: Religious Freedom and the Making of a World Safe for Diversity explores how religious tolerance might be advanced within the complexities of twenty-first century international settings.

Even a cursory reading of The Global Public Square will reward readers with a profound appreciation for why human rights matter and how religious liberties have been codified into international law and conventions. Guinness is eloquent and passionate about why such convictions must be attended to for the sake of civic health and global peace, and it is difficult not to be moved by his grand vision and compelling treatment of the topic. Fortunately, several international treaties have confirmed religious freedom as a basic human right and the human rights community has given some attention to this. Still, much more insight is needed into the role of religion, how to best understand religious diversity, and the blessed, if volatile, consequences of a religiously free and pluralistic culture.

This book explains the principles that could undergird a structural, multi-national project of codifying greater commitments to religious freedom across the globe. Using the language of the famous colonialist Roger Williams (who called freedom of conscious “soul freedom”), The Global Public Square makes a sustained argument for social policies and practices that protect diversity, looking squarely at the very real obstacles, even in developed and pro-democratic nations, and pointing us in meaningful directions.

The eminent sociologist Peter Berger writes of this new release that it is important “in the face of murderous persecution as still exists in many places, but also with the more subtle threats by political orthodoxies in Western democracies.” With religious persecution mounting, people of faith might understandably shrug, or worse, mock Guinness for creating such an idealistic strategy for promoting international religious freedom. “Tell that to the Taliban or the Boko Haram" one might reasonably smirk.  

But that would be a cheap reply for several reasons.  First, Guinness himself is internationally seasoned and intimately acquainted with the horrors of persecution. He has been with the oppressed and dialogued often with many leaders around the globe. He is not only a public intellectual, but a citizen diplomat, and he is familiar with the great challenges that he addresses in the book.

Second, The Global Public Square, while humanly idealistic, is offered as a gift of faith. Even though this book builds on the quiet successes of the Williamsburg Charter and the small significance of a religious freedom document in the Global Charter of Conscious, endorsed in Brussels last year, it does indeed present an audacious hope. Guinness knows well how history works, how dedicated groups can shift the ways in which cultures unfold, and how God’s own purposes may be advanced in our age. The Global Public Square offers a strategy towards greater understanding of the role of faith in public policy and the subsequent liberties such appreciation could create. As Thomas Farr (of the Religious Freedom Project of Georgetown University) writes, “Guinness sets a soaring goal for this book: establishing a vision of religious freedom that accommodates competing truth claims about who man is and why he exists, guarantees freedom and justice, and builds stability amidst a fragile world order.” 

Each chapter ends with the same challenge, set off in italics: Again, it is time, and past time, to ponder the question. What does it say of us and our times that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights could not be passed today? What does it say of the future of freedom of thought, conscience, religion and belief if it can be neglected and threatened even in the United States, where it once developed most fully...

 - Byron Borger runs Hearts & Minds Books. Capital Commentary readers can get a 20% discount on books listed here by ordering through Hearts & Minds.

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