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Os Guinness: The Christian Public Intellectual After Jacques Maritain

March 28th, 2023 | 18 min read

By John Shelton

“Nothing is possible without men,
But nothing lasts without institutions.”

— Jean Monnet[1]

Christians interested in public intellectual engagement often ask: “who is the next C.S. Lewis? Who is the next Reinhold Niebuhr?” While the words and ideas of both reached the masses well beyond church walls, there were substantial differences in their forms of engagement that often go unexplored. Lewis, for example, sought to remind a historic Christian civilization of the deep logic of its faith — defending the whole of Christian practice in wartime radio lectures on the BBC, and by putting to the proof in dramatic form Christianity’s claim to tell the one true story of the universe and all existence through series like The Chronicles of Narnia and The Space Trilogy. Niebuhr, on the other hand, revived Christian concepts of sin, justice, even eschatology to elevate the public discourse of politics, shattering illusions of utopia and incremental peace with his Christian realism. Unlike Lewis, Niebuhr was not an apologist; his public engagement tended to weave elements of dogma in smoothly enough that his fellow political liberals could be naive to his religious belief; as Whittaker Chambers observed, many thought he was “a solid socialist who has some obscure connection with Union Theological Seminary that does not interfere with his political work.”[2]

French philosopher and statesman Jacques Maritain offers a third, underappreciated model: that of the institution builder. Maritain is similar to Lewis and Niebuhr in many ways — retrieving older modes of thought for the modern world (in his case: Thomism) and wielding literary celebrity for widespread cultural impact. However, Maritain’s legacy goes beyond these typical traits of a public intellectual. Maritain served as ambassador to the Vatican, influenced Pope Paul VI and Flannery O’Connor, and maintained a robust correspondence and friendship with Saul Alinsky — the father of community organizing and, in a certain sense, the vocational grandfather of a young Barack Obama. But in addition to siring, like these others, many intellectual children and grandchildren, Maritain secured a legacy of a different, arguably firmer sort through his role in the drafting of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). His presence and influence at the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) was key to the development and acceptance of this document whose impact is still felt across the world.

Written and ratified in the aftermath of the Second World War’s atrocities, the UDHR affirmed 30 articles on human rights, ranging from the familiar and Lockean (“right to life, liberty, and security of person”) to the more communitarian, likely inspired by Maritain’s Catholic personalism (“everyone has duties to the community in which alone the free and full development of his personality is possible”). It is the most translated document in existence.[3] Since its adoption, almost all countries have enacted human rights language into their laws, with nearly 150 quoting it or language inspired by it in their national constitutions.[4] While not itself legally binding, it is the foundation for “more than seventy human rights treaties, applied today on a permanent basis at global and regional levels.”[5]

While the most celebrated characteristics of a public intellectual simply involve speaking and writing for a broad audience (who doesn’t want to be the next Niebuhr, the next Lewis?), what is most neglected and needed now is a generation of Maritains: leaving behind an institutional legacy to sustain the world well after they are gone. Books have their place — Maritain certainly wrote his fair share — but institutions endure, ensuring that important books continue to be read across time. Apart from educational institutions, there would be no community to sustain the reading of Lewis’ Mere Christianity, Niebuhr’s Moral Man and Immoral Society, or, for that matter, Maritain’s Christianity and Democracy.

So who, then, is the next Maritain — working beyond his own particular religious community and building a lasting legacy to catechize and sustain generations to come? Though it is true, as Alan Jacobs has noted elsewhere, that the cultural conditions necessary to sustain Christian public intellectuals may have disappeared after the 1970s,[6] still one living figure has managed to come close: Os Guinness, the scion of stout. While Guinness is most famous for his writings, especially The Call, it is his involvement with the Williamsburg Charter, the Global Charter of Conscience, and The Trinity Forum that make the comparison to Maritain most apt.[7]

The great-great-great grandson of Dublin brewmaster Arthur Guinness, Guinness was born into a family famous for beer, yes, but also piety. Arthur, the great patriarch, was an “Evangelical and a friend of John Wesley [and] George Whitefield.”[8] Like John Wesley himself, the Guinness family’s piety often took the form of public and political engagement: speaking out for religious freedom, the abolition of slavery, and better labor conditions.

Arthur’s grandson, Henry Grattan Guinness, was a revival preacher responsible for the training and sending of countless missionaries across the world, much like Hudson Taylor, the founder of the China Inland Mission. In fact, the Guinnesses and the Taylors were friends; some of them even cemented that friendship through the bonds of marriage. Henry’s son Gershom “Whitfield” Guinness, a member of Taylor’s China Inland Mission, survived the slaughtering of many missionaries and Chinese Christians during the Boxer Rebellion. Nevertheless, the Guinnesses persisted in their ministry to China, with Whitfield begetting Henry W. Guinness, who served as a medical missionary, and Henry in turn begetting Os.

Os Guinness was born squarely in the middle of World War II and the Second Sino-Japanese War. The day after Os turned eight, Mao Zedong announced the formal establishment of the People’s Republic of China from Tiananmen Square. In the ensuing years, the hostile communist regime drove Guinness, his family, and other foreigners out of the country. (Guinness explicitly links his later writings on revolutions — particularly America’s in 1776 and France’s in 1789 — to this revolutionary experience.)

Flung from China, Guinness picked up his life and education in austerity-era England. It was there that he first rubbed elbows with giants like Winston Churchill (whom he met as a schoolboy) and John Stott (first, hearing his preaching; later, becoming close friends). At the end of his college days at the University of London, Guinness would meet a man less famous than either of them and yet far more influential on the course of his life: Francis Schaeffer.

By Guinnesss’ own description, Schaeffer was a “strange little man in Swiss knickers, with a high-pitched voice, terms all of his own such as ‘the line of despair,’ and appalling mispronunciations and occasional malapropisms.”[9] And yet for all his eccentricities, Schaeffer has had a profound impact on the global Evangelical movement through his founding of L’Abri, inspiring countless people and institutions in turn “to think Christianly” (which is, fittingly, the title of a recent book about L’Abri and its enduring influence).[10]

L’Abri, the French word for “shelter,” was founded as part spiritual retreat, part philosophical community in the Swiss Alps. This “shelter for honest questions” has served as a Mecca, not just for lay evangelicals but also bona fide celebrities like Vogue cover girl Jenny MacDonald (whom Guinness would later marry after meeting in the 70s) and Eric Clapton.[11] In 1960, just a few years before Schaeffer and Guinness first met, Time covered L’Abri, Schaeffer, and his wife, Edith, in an article titled “Mission to Intellectuals,” observing that “the European intellectual is the single object of the Schaeffers’ mission.”[12]

Guinness, not then a full-fledged European intellectual, was nevertheless a perfect student for the Schaeffers and L’Abri. Having come of age through reading “Nietzsche, Sartre, and Camus,” Guinness ultimately came to faith through the works of “Pascal, Dostoevsky, G.K. Chesterton, T.S. Eliot and C.S. Lewis.”[13] Schaeffer stood out to Guinness as someone who, like Chesterton, Eliot, and Lewis, “was able to relate his faith to anything and everything, and connected the dots between all the crazy events then going on.”[14] Their first meeting in 1965 went well enough that Guinness would stay at L’Abri in 1967 for three weeks, and then return again to spend three years living and working with the Schaeffers.

Guinness made his first visit to the United States in 1968, joining Schaeffer on a tour of more than a dozen American cities on the condition that Guinness carry Schaeffer’s bags and pay his own way. As unglamorous as the terms may have been, the trip proved fortuitous. When Schaeffer fell ill in the middle of a lecture series at Westmont College, Guinness was asked to step in for him and “give what [Schaeffer] would have said.”[15] While Guinness refers to it as “the most inauthentic talk of [his] life,” the speech would inaugurate Guinness’ journey to become (in the words of historian John Fea) “one of Schaeffer’s most prominent disciples.”[16]

But 1968 was a bleak year for the United States: with the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy, the ensuing riots left more than one hundred cities burning, and the summer gave way to controversial black power salutes at the Olympics. There is no doubt that the timing of this visit would shape Guinness’ experience of the United States and its politics (especially later in life, his interpretation of our National Anthem controversies, Black Lives Matter protests, and the brutal back-and-forth killing of cops and black Americans). Indeed, 1968 in conjunction with the painful memory of the Chinese Communist Revolution, makes the abiding concern throughout his writings about forms of protest rooted in Marxist analysis all the more poignant.

After leaving L’Abri, Guinness studied for his Doctor of Philosophy at Oxford University. He belonged to a generation of truly great minds: He dined and attended tutorials with one of the 20th century’s finest philosophers, Isaiah Berlin (a fellow first-hand witness of communist revolution), and was classmates with the now-titan of New Testament studies, N. T. Wright. He was one of the first to dissertate on the premier sociologist of religion, Peter Berger (whom he would also later befriend). Upon graduating, Guinness took a job as a freelance reporter for the BBC, working on a documentary that explored the role of religion in the election of Ronald Reagan. That work eventually resulted in his permanent residence stateside, as he moved to the United States to do research on the role of religion in American public life for think tanks like the Wilson Center and the Brookings Institution.[17]

While at Brookings, he helped to draft a public document that could have had the domestic impact of a Universal Declaration of Human Rights if events had only unfolded differently. Aided by the likes of Richard John Neuhaus and George Weigel, Guinness led the drafting of the Williamsburg Charter for the bicentennial celebration of the First Amendment in 1988. The document called for a “reaffirmation and reappraisal of its vision and guiding principles.”[18] Signed by a broad coalition of religious faiths and politicians across the aisle (including presidents, chief justices, and members of Congress), the charter spelled out the importance of the First Amendment’s twin guarantees of religious liberty: the No Establishment and the Free Exercise clauses. Both clauses work together to protect religious liberty, not limit it.

Enshrining these at the heart of the Constitution as America’s “first liberty” was necessary, as the document spells out, because

[our] form of government depends upon ultimate beliefs, for otherwise we have no right to the rights by which it thrives, yet rejects any official formulation of them… The result is neither a naked public square where all religion is excluded, nor a sacred public square with any religion established or semi-established. The result, rather, is a civil public square in which citizens of all religious faiths, or none, engage one another in the continuing democratic discourse. … The Framers’ intention is indisputably ignored when public policy debates can appeal to the theses of Adam Smith and Karl Marx, or Charles Darwin and Sigmund Freud but not to the Western religious tradition in general and the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures in particular.

The document was commemorated with a signing ceremony in the Hall of the House of Burgesses in Williamsburg, and many smaller events, including a conference that featured papers from intellectual luminaries like James Davison Hunter, Michael Sandel, Charles Taylor, and Peter Berger. Even still, it never made quite the impact it could have in reframing the conversation about the place of religion in society (a shame especially in light of recent controversies: e.g., Christian groups being kicked off campus, religious monuments being stripped from public locations, and the debated ‘failures’ of classical liberalism).

The Williamsburg Charter’s failure came down to the absence of a single signature: that of the sitting president, “whose backing was crucial to the practical rollout of the Charter.” At the end of the day, “strong opposition from the Religious Right blocked the participation of President Reagan.”[19] “The culture wars are in the interests of Republicans so you will only get to the president over my dead body,” one of Reagan’s cabinet secretaries told Guinness. This destroyed any opportunity to articulate why Americans needed to bring their faith with them into the public square.[20] While Guinness’ campaign has continued on in the work of John Inazu and that of others, the cultural capital it once had within arm’s reach is spent.

More than two decades later in 2012, Guinness would publish another, equally ambitious document: the Global Charter of Conscience, this time repristinating not the First Amendment but the international adaptation of it in Article 18 of the UDHR, the very same document indebted, at least in part, to Maritain’s life and work.[21] Most notably, the 18th article of the UDHR affirms “the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion… and freedom, either in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship, and observance.” Guinness’ reaffirmation, published with the endorsement of the United Nations’ rapporteur for religious freedom (the Human Rights Council’s official expert on the matter), calls for a “global public square” founded upon the freedom of thought, conscience, and religion, because these freedoms serve “both as a protection for individual citizens and as a prerequisite for ordering the relationship of religions, ideologies, and public life.”

These reaffirmations of our fundamental freedoms’ historic articulations are not just ceremony. Without each generation’s renewal of their commitments, the documents risk becoming no more than what James Madison called a “parchment barrier,” easily breached by powers and personalities who no longer assent to being limited by them.[22] Or as John Adams put it, “We have no government armed with power capable of contending with human passions unbridled by morality and religion. Avarice, ambition, revenge, or gallantry, would break the strongest cords of our Constitution as a whale goes through a net.”[23]

But such a reaffirmation to uphold these parchment barriers and corded nets requires a people, it cannot be made by rogue prophets. And unfortunately for Guinness, the Global Charter of Conscience seems to have been far more akin to the cries of a prophet in the wilderness than even the earlier Williamsburg Charter: aside from Sari Essayah (a former member of the European Union’s legislature and the president of one of the smaller parties holding seats in Finland’s parliament), the absence of support by international political leadership has been conspicuous.

Nevertheless, Guinness’s work has not let up. Besides those public documents already mentioned, he also drafted the Evangelical Manifesto in 2008 (which received enough signatories and attention to merit a write-up in the pages of the Wall Street Journal) and the American Charter for Freedom of Religion and Conscience in 2018, a kind of combination of the earlier Williamsburg Charter and Global Charter of Conscience, which included signatures from several former congressmen, a U.S. ambassador for religious freedom, a solicitor general, and an attorney general.

Guinness has also published more books than I can bother to count, some of them on the same “chartered pluralism” he articulated in the Williamsburg Charter (elsewhere called “principled” or “confident pluralism”), other books calling into question the excesses of capitalism or reviving the idea of “ordered liberty” (the freedom for fulfilling our duties and pursuing public goods), and still others, including many of his latest works, on the necessity of virtue and appreciating the Hebraic origins of republicanism (“the politics of freedom was born at Sinai”). But as important as these ideas are for ensuring “that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth,” it is institutions that sustain them in human hearts.

And it is for that reason that even the most grandiose efforts of Guinness’ career (the Williamsburg Charter and Global Charter of Conscience) have paled beside an initiative far humbler in scope: the Trinity Forum, which aims not at global consensus on international rights, but simply the work of educating leaders “to think, work, and lead wisely and well.” Founded in 1991 by Guinness and Alonzo McDonald, its mission statement is “contributing to the renewal of society by cultivating and promoting the best of Christian thought.” Its evening events feel something like a collision between Washington, D.C.’s love of cocktail receptions and the Christian community of ideas of Schaeffer’s L’Abri.

Led by the winsome Cherie Harder since 2008 (a former special advisor to President George W. Bush), a typical Trinity Forum event might bring a leading intellectual or statesmen (e.g., the itinerant Cornel West, New York Times’ Ross Douthat, CNN’s Kirsten Powers, or former Tennessee governor Bill Haslam) to address a room full of senators, bureaucrats, thinktank bigwigs, lawyers, and lobbyists, Christian or otherwise (in fact, in addition to catechesis of the faithful, the forum is rumoredly responsible for the coming-to-faith of several high-profile people). Its leadership makes frequent reference to the importance of the Clapham Sect, the historic community of collaborators that made possible William Wilberforce’s elimination of the slave trade in Great Britain, a community which the forum self-consciously tries to replicate.

Members regularly receive abridged works of the classics in the mail: the works of Cicero, Augustine, Aquinas, Tocqueville, and Lincoln, not to mention Dorothy Sayers, Wendell Berry, Frederick Douglass and countless others. And with the help of generous funding for their sabbaticals provided by the Trinity Forum’s co-founder McDonald, Christian intellectuals like Jean Bethke Elshtain, Sarah Coakley, and Stanley Hauerwas have written some of the greatest theological books of the last fifty years.

Perhaps Guinness’ career simply confirms Jacobs’ argument that this day and age is no longer ripe for Christian public intellectuals; after all, for all of the inimitable characteristics of Guinness’ life that made him nearly succeed with the Williamsburg Charter, it was nevertheless still not enough. The scion of stout, for all his pedigree and professional networks, was stymied in getting the signature that mattered most and the Williamsburg Charter now is tragically only remembered by a few. And for all the success of the Trinity Forum with its laundry list of VIPs and policymakers in attendance, it cannot quite claim to be a fully public mode of intellectual engagement. While most of its events do take place in the capital city of the world’s leading superpower, its reach beyond D.C. is indirect, even if some of the ideas disseminated and relationships established there have driven policy abroad, as they likely have.

Were this gloomy analysis correct, then the best that we could do, as philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre describes it, would be to “[turn] aside from the task of shoring up the Roman imperium” (or, as it were, the American political order) “to achieve instead… the construction of new forms of community within which the moral life [can] be sustained so that both morality and civility might survive the coming ages of barbarism.”[24]

But, if we are not convinced, regardless of our slim chance for success, that the task of sustaining the American project is something that we can simply choose to walk away from (and many of us are not so convinced), then we would do better to follow other advice. Rather than worry whether we live in the right moment for public Christian intellectuals to flourish, we can simply choose to offer Christianity’s gifts to a public that may prove indifferent, or even outright hostile. After all, even many of Christianity’s greatest “failures” in just such environments have still proven to be gifts. Consider Bartolomé de las Casas’ fight for the rights of indigenous peoples, or Karl Barth’s denunciation of Nazi Germany in the Barmen Declaration. Neither “succeeded” in the sense that Barth and Bartolomé most probably hoped, but Christians continue to draw encouragement from their examples, and the onlooking world cannot help but be curious about their causes.

What then should we do? Perhaps a better guide for those who would not despair, T.S. Eliot suggests that we simply “[try] to arrive at the truth and to set it forth… without being downcast or defeated when nothing appears to ensue.”[25] By continuing to build Trinity Forum-type institutions (MacIntyre’s “new forms of community within which the moral life [can] be sustained”), we ensure that future generations of Christians are sufficiently prepared for the public task of “penetrating to the core of the matter,” as Guinness has.[26] These tasks–both internal catechesis and public witness–are not competing priorities, but mutually supporting, like the breathing in and breathing out necessary for our bodies to live.

Whether or not Christian intellectuals succeed in their bid to speak, to serve, and guide the public, we nevertheless ought to continue to internally cultivate our ability to produce such Christians who try, endeavoring to provide society with the gifts that come from Christian belief and practice. Without these, as many of our founders and greatest statesmen understood, the American political order cannot stand. And if one day, God forbid that the republic fails for such a rejection, it will be through the ongoing communities of belief, sustained by institutions like The Trinity Forum, from which civilization is rekindled.

Who, then, will build these institutions?

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  1. Guinness provided comments on an earlier draft of this article. While this final version benefited tremendously from his fact-checking and suggestions, all opinions expressed herein remain the author’s own.
  2. Whittaker Chambers, “Faith for a Lenten Age,” TIME, March 8, 1948,
  3. “Most Translated Document,” Guinness World Records, accessed May 15, 2022, The world records organization is only tenuously connected to the brewing company, started by several Guinness employees. N.b., the UDHR is not more translated than the record-holding book (the Bible) or the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ record-holding website (
  4. Nihal Jayawickrama. The Judicial Application of Human Rights Law: National, Regional and International Jurisprudence (Cambridge University Press, 2017), 40.
  5. “Universal Declaration of Human Rights,” United Nations, accessed May 15, 2022,
  6. Alan Jacobs, “The Watchmen: What became of the Christian intellectuals?,” Harper’s Magazine, September 2016,
  7. Guinness clarified that he does not like to think of himself as an “intellectual,” as he’s not a scholar or an academic, and “intellectuals are too often people who live more in their heads and their theories than in the real world.” Email correspondence with the author, May 2022.
  8. Nathan Martin, “Where Have All The Evangelicals Gone,” First Things, December 28, 2009,
  9. Justin Taylor, “An Interview With Os Guinness on the 25th Anniversary of Francis Schaefer’s Death,” The Gospel Coalition, May 8, 2009,
  10. The term actually comes from Harry Blamires’ 1963 work, The Christian Mind, which makes no mention of the Schaeffers or L’Abri, but for good reason has come to be associated with them.
  11. MacDonald modeled under the name “Windsor Elliot” in the 1960s and 70s.
  12. “Mission To Intellectuals,” TIME, January 11, 1960,,33009,894666-1,00.html.
  13. Anita Palmer, “Os Guinness: The Art of Christian Persuasion—Part 1,” March 24, 2016,
  14. Ibid.
  15. Os Guinness, “Chapel: Os Guinness, March 5, 2018,” Youtube,
  16. John Fea, “Os Guinness: What is an Evangelical?,” Current, December 12, 2009,
  17. Palmer, “Os Guinness: The Art of Christian Persuasion—Part 1,”
  18. Charles Haynes and Oliver Thomas, Finding Common Ground: A First Amendment Guide to Religion and Public Schools (First Amendment Center, 2007), 287,
  19. Os Guinness, The Case for Civility: And Why Our Future Depends on It (HarperCollins, 2008), 28.
  20. Os Guinness, Last Call for Liberty: How America’s Genius for Freedom Has Become Its Greatest Threat (InterVarsity, 2018), 143.
  21. While Maritain’s presence is felt throughout the UDHR, Charles Malik, a Lebanese Christian statesman, was the drafter of Article 18. Guinness knew Malik in his old age and was inspired by Malik, in part, to draft the Williamsburg Charter.
  22. James Madison, Federalist 48, February 1, 1788,
  23. John Adams, “Letter To Massachusetts Militia,” October 11 1798,
  24. Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory (University of Notre Dame, 2007), 263.
  25. T. S. Eliot, To Criticize the Critic & Other Writings (University of Nebraska, 1965), 144.
  26. Ibid.

John Shelton

John Shelton is the policy advisor for Advancing American Freedom. He received degrees from Duke University (M.Div.) and the University of Virginia (B.A), and lives in Washington, D.C., with his wife, Katelyn, and their children.