Western Civilization’s Fatal Disease: Do You Have It?
As a people, we Westerners suffer from very little. Today, the “Black Death” that once devastated Europe seems more like science fiction than reality. In a matter of decades we cured Polio and have found a way to slow the effects of HIV/AIDS. People are healthier, more prosperous and are living longer lives than ever before.
It makes sense then, that the most crippling affliction to Western civilization is psychological. Used to living such privileged lives, Westerners take countless things for granted. And this frame of mind may be the biggest threat to our future well being. Among other problems, ungratefulness can be credited for the rise of depression and suicide, broken relationships, rampant materialism and spiritual apathy. But for society as a whole, the most troubling example of this mindset is Western civilization’s attitude towards freedom.
In his book, "A Free People’s Suicide: Sustainable Freedom and the American Future," Os Guinness observes that “as time goes by, free people take freedom more and more for granted.” This insight is true for Europeans and Western civilization as a whole, but at the present time, Americans must especially take this truth to heart.
As our country’s history proves, freedom is not easily won. But as Guinness argues, it is even more difficult to sustain. Why? Because like other blessings, freedom is taken for granted and thus, the vital and ongoing task of sustaining it is ignored. The result of such disregard is a disordered liberty that destroys itself.
John Milton once warned, “License they mean when they cry liberty.” Could he be talking about us? In a lot of ways, yes, and we must be willing to call ourselves out for it. We have forgotten how lucky we are, which has made us lazy and entitled. No longer are liberty and the American way of life viewed as privileges to be actively protected. Instead, we think of them as our God-given rights. In turn, liberty has become license—unrestricted and untethered to responsibility. And unfortunately, such freedom will not last.
But there is an alternative. America, at its beginning, was rather unique and exceptional in this regard. Its culture, civil society and government made some thinkers believe that America could be a place where freedom might last. As Guinness explains, the Founders spent their lives exemplifying “how liberty had been ‘combined with government’ and with other institutions and values such as morality, religion, civil and social manners… [For they realized that] order without freedom may be a manacle, but freedom without order is a mirage.”
In the early 19th century, Alexis de Tocqueville marveled at the success of freedom in America. He observed how tradition, morality and religion made it possible for Americans to enjoy “a liberty for that which is just and good.” He continues:
Freedom sees religion as the companion of its struggles and triumphs, the cradle of its infancy, and the divine source of its rights. Religion is considered as the guardian of mores, and mores are regarded as the guarantee of the laws and pledge for the maintenance of freedom itself.
The Founders of our country knew how privileged they were to enjoy such great freedom, but also understood that it would not last without restraint. So, they sought to protect it by investing in civil society and wisely crafting a government that balanced order and liberty.
Today, we need to follow their example in order to carry on their legacy. Guinness puts it best:
There is a choice, there is a challenge, and there are consequences. Liberty is… a marathon and not a sprint, and the task of freedom requires vigilance and perseverance if freedom is to be sustained… [It] is the task of centuries and countless generations, including our own.
Each generation must understand how fortunate we are. Without a posture of thankfulness and urgency, Americans will never have the sacrificial vigilance that it takes to sustain a free and prosperous way of life.
That’s right. We are incredibly lucky, and we must not take it for granted. For as Benjamin Franklin once proclaimed, America has “a Republic, if you can keep it.”