House Divided Déjà Vu

The Plain Choice Before America Today

In 2015, Kevin Briggins's middle-class suburban Georgia church merged with a dying church in the inner city. Several members and pastors moved into town, so they could engage with their new community as neighbors in close proximity to the realities of poverty and racial division. The following year, escalating national polarizations started to create rifts among what had once been healthy, even loving, friendships. So, as pastor of an ethnically diverse congregation, Briggins took a discipleship approach to the discord, in keeping with his oath to faithfully shepherd the people of God's flock.

While most church members fell somewhere in the middle, he tried to mediate the widening estrangements by helping those on either side see where others might be coming from. This meant recounting some history for white conservatives, to help them see how black members might interpret certain happenings as an attack on all blacks, while also relaying to upset blacks the perspectives of whites who interpreted the same things differently. The immediate objective was to affirm valid concerns on all sides, while also pushing back and making appeals to Christian charity where appropriate.

As all this went on, he began to notice a shift in the language coming from one side:

The terms whiteness, blackness, white supremacy, oppressed, privilege, fragility, and hegemonic power filled their vocabulary. And it wasn't just the words. It was how they were used. Even words we were familiar with clearly had new definitions. . . . All I knew is everything had become about race and they all of a sudden were deeming themselves as being oppressed.

Despite his best efforts, those deeming themselves oppressed interpreted his pastoral appeal as a manifestation of whiteness "silencing their voice," never mind the fact that Briggins is black. By now, you've no doubt seen some form of this convoluted logic for yourself.

Os Guinness Magna Carta
America: A House Divided (Again)

Os Guinness was seven years old and living with his medical missionary parents in Nanking, China, when Chiang Kai-shek abandoned the city to the mercy of the Red Army in 1949. His family made it out alive, but the moment remains indelibly etched in his mind. In The Magna Carta of Humanity: Sinai's Revolutionary Faith and the Future of Freedom (2021), Guinness writes that the "great polarization" ravaging America today is alarmingly reminiscent of what befell China in 1949—and Russia before China in 1917. Both trace their roots to Paris, 1789. An Englishman, Guinness wrote the book as "a response to America's crisis by a firm and longtime admirer of the American experiment."

His opening thesis echoes Abraham Lincoln's "House Divided" speech. Delivered in 1858, when America was deeply divided over slavery, the immediate context of the speech had to do with the status of new states as the nation expanded westward. Lincoln's opponent, Stephen Douglas, advocated a kind of "middle ground" policy, whereby territory locals would choose whether their new state would enter the Union as a slave or free state. But Lincoln was wise enough to see that the question of slavery was not a matter amenable to peaceable coexistence. No, the evil of human enslavement was a matter of transcendent moral truth. America needed to make a decision, and like a prophet of old, he clarified for the people the choice that lay before them:

A house divided against itself, cannot stand.
      I believe this government cannot endure permanently half slave and half free.
      I do not expect the Union to be dissolved—
I do not expect the house to fall—but I do expect it will cease to be divided.
      It will become all one thing or all the other.

Guinness applies the House Divided metaphor to America today. Our division isn't over slavery—thankfully, we agree about that, now—but rather traces to two mutually exclusive visions of America: those who understand America from the perspective of 1776, i.e., the American Revolution, and those who understand America from the perspective of 1789, that is, the French Revolution.

The two revolutions, though barely more than a decade apart, are decisively different on almost every point, Guinness notes, including their assumptions, their background narratives, and, most important for our purposes here, what they mean by "freedom." If nations are defined by what they love most, America would be defined by freedom, and the current crisis in America can be understood as a crisis of freedom. What follows is a brief overview of each revolution and Guinness's suggested model for America moving forward.

1776: Covenant

America was quite literally "conceived in liberty," as Lincoln later put it, but there is more that is unique about America than her supreme affection for liberty. As distinct from an organic society linked through kinship, such as an African tribe or Scottish clan, or a hierarchical society founded by force or conquest, such as a kingdom or empire, America was founded by a common binding agreement into which the participants entered freely and voluntarily. From a purely political perspective, this was historically unprecedented, which is why it's sometimes referred to as the American "experiment." (It is true that the slaves from Africa were not voluntary parties to this agreement; we'll return to that point momentarily.)

Recall that 1776 is tied to a document. It contained fine-pointed moral logic grounded in the commonly understood soil of natural law, and it bore the signatures of men willing to stake their lives on it. The best way to understand 1776, then, is not merely as the founding of a novel political order, though it was that, but as the founding of an order based on covenant. A covenant is more than just an agreement. It involves mutual pledges of obligation and responsibility based on trust. In a solemn binding and bonding, the men of 1776 mutually pledged "to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor."

1789: Romantic Rebellion

The French Revolution, by contrast, would be better characterized as a rebellion, but not one grounded in reason, despite all the vaunted talk about "reason" at the time. While there were legitimate grievances the disaffected Parisians could have articulated in 1789, what they did instead was to launch a romanticist rebellion.

According to British historian Bamber Gascoigne, creator of the online encyclopedia, romanticism has no definable standards. It's more like a mood, hard to nail down except in terms of opposites. Mostly, it's characterized by repudiation, the rejection of rules. "The romantic temperament responds to emotion rather than reason, is excited by mystery rather than persuaded by clarity, listens more intently to the individual conscience than to the demands of society, and prefers rebellion to acceptance." It is fueled by emotion, usually anger, but lacks moral clarity. Think of an adolescent temper tantrum, and you'll be on the right track.

Whereas 1776 began by reference to reason, 1789 began with a mob storming a military garrison. Whereas the Americans sought to create a commonwealth of self-governing, self-controlled people, asserting their right to live free based on "the Laws of Nature and Nature's God," the French revolutionaries tried to free themselves from God. In their zeal to expunge God from public life, church property was expropriated, Notre Dame was renamed the "Temple of Reason," and the longstanding, traditional calendar was replaced by one that eliminated the seven-day week and did away with Sundays.

Both were responses to the human abuse of power, but the Americans knew that to live free, people must first master themselves and restrain their inordinate passions. The French, by contrast, cast off restraint and gave full vent to their furies. What followed was a decade-long Reign of Terror that ended in military dictatorship. The Russian and Chinese revolutions similarly set off decades of militant anti-liberty.

Sinai: The Exodus Revolution

Guinness is admittedly partial to the American Revolution, but he points to something prior to 1776 as its inspiration and our model to follow. The greatest liberation of all history, he says, is the divine one that took place when the God of Israel confronted Pharoah saying, "Let my people go." He calls it the "Exodus Revolution," because in the Exodus, God himself censured the human abuse of power and set captives free that they might enter into covenant relationship with him.

What does Sinai have to do with America? Exodus was an event for all people and all time, Guinness writes, and was the precursor and model for 1776. He calls it "the master story of human freedom," the "once and future key to our human freedom," and nothing less than "the Magna Carta of humanity."

Returning to the black slaves who were not voluntary parties to the 1776 covenant, Guinness notes that, paradoxically, the 1776 document contained the key to their future freedom. This is why Martin Luther King, Jr., called the Declaration of Independence "a promissory note." When the signers tied themselves to the idea that all men had been endowed by their Creator with unalienable rights to life and to liberty, they laid the groundwork for the events that would follow and make good on the promise. The power of the Declaration lay in its ideas, and it was these ideas that ultimately freed the slaves. But the ideas, Guinness says, trace back to Sinai.

Toward a Post-Oppression America

Those who are re-racializing everything say racism was America's original sin, but Dr. Jason Hill, author of What Do White Americans Owe Black People? Racial Justice in the Age of Post-Oppression, puts it differently. America was born with a birth defect, he says, in that the state upheld slavery. But with the subsequent developments of the Civil War, Lincoln's Gettysburg Address, and the 1964 Civil Rights Act, America has delivered on the "promise of full freedom, full recognition of equality before the law." And that's as far as a constitutional republic can go.1 Yet he also thinks the Civil Rights Act caused some blacks to face an identity crisis. Not knowing how not to be victims, some (not all) still cling to a sense of victimology that the left is exploiting.

The best we can do for someone who's adopted a victimhood identity is to encourage and demonstrate what it means to live free under God. It is not required that people be Christian to live free under the 1776 covenant, but to live free, it is required that men and women accept the responsibilities of freedom and master themselves. If too many of us fail to do that, we will go the way of 1789. There is no middle ground, and Guinness says we must make a choice. "America cannot endure permanently half 1776 and half 1789," he writes. Either we go forward best by going back first, or the American experiment will go the way of the French, Russian, and Chinese revolutions.


 is Deputy Editor of Salvo and writes on apologetics and matters of faith.

This article originally appeared in Salvo, Issue #60, Spring 2022 Copyright © 2024 Salvo |


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