America is deeply confused about freedom. You might be thinking, “Wait a minute, America is the land of the free. If anyone understands freedom it’s us!” We are certainly a nation who has historically fought for freedom, and we do have greater freedoms than many nations in the world, but as R.R. Reno points out in his recent book Resurrecting the Idea of a Christian Society, we have abandoned classical freedom and embraced a new understanding that will, in the end, bring tyranny.
Historically, Americans pursued a freedom that was aimed at serving the higher good and void of government overreach. There was a sense of collective responsibility and solidarity. Our freedom came from God and was based upon aligning ourselves with nature. We certainly fell short as a nation in living this ideal (e.g., racism and eugenics), but it’s the freedom we valued in principle and fought for.
But today we are embracing an entirely new understanding of freedom. Moral relativists encourage young people to be nonjudgmental. Students are encouraged to accept all lifestyles as equal and not to judge others. The only “sin” is to consider one’s lifestyle superior to another. Moral relativists talk about freedom, but it’s not the kind of freedom that encourages courage, forbearance, and sacrifice but the freedom to define moral truth for oneself. In other words, to the moral relativist, freedom means having no moral constraints.
The new understanding of freedom can also be seen in our cultural trend towards individualism. In The Beauty of Intolerance, my father and I describe the trend this way: “Moral truth comes from the individual; it is subjective and situational. This truth is known through choosing to believe it and through personal experience.” SCOTUS judge Anthony Kennedy famously expressed this individualistic view in Planned Parenthood vs. Casey: “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.”
Such a view seems liberating, but unchecked by God, nature, and custom, it will only lead to tyranny. In fact, untethered by any restraints, freedom becomes merely about freedom itself rather than what is best for the collective good. Reno observes:
“In a society without clear sex roles, without taboos against cohabitation, illegitimacy, and divorce—which is to say, without powerful social norms governing individual behavior—governmental and quasi-governmental support (and therefore control) necessarily expand. The triumph of nonjudgmentalism has created a cultural vacuum. The void is now filled by laws, lawyers, and courts that adjudicate the conflicts that arise in the private lives of ordinary people. Moral deregulation brings a certain kind of freedom, but someone has to pick up the pieces. More often than not, that ‘someone’ is the government.”
This is the weakness with libertarianism, which promises unfettered freedom. By redefining the family, a pre-political reality that governments are meant to recognize, the state has now become the source of our freedom. And if the government can redefine marriage, it can effectively redefine every other area of private life as well. Again, Reno explains:
“The redefinition of marriage by the state turned the most effective limitation of government power, the family, into a creature of government. It does not matter whether this government takeover of private life is the work of unelected representatives, unelected judges, or popular referendum. If government can define marriage and parenthood as it sees fit, the personal is the political, which is one of the definitions of tyranny.”
How far can our culture take this new understanding of freedom. And what’s next? There have been sympathetic movements in favor of incest, bestiality, and for the view that people should be able to understand themselves as dogs. If the individual really is supreme, and there is no objective moral truth binding on us all, then on what basis can we criticize such behavior as wrong? In fact, in our nonjudgmental culture, the only “sin” is not praising such behavior.
Reno raises an additional possibility I simply had not even considered before:
“If we really can live in a way free from our maleness and femaleness, then the horizon of our freedom is almost limitless. Why should my future be limited by my body’s subjection to disease and decay, any more than by my nature as male or female? I fully expect that within a few years academics will advance the view that mortality, like sex, is socially constructed. Such a view provides the anti-metaphysical foundation for a right to doctor-assisted suicide, euthanasia, and abortion. I can easily imagine the argument: There’s no such thing as death; it’s a construct imposed on us by traditional ways of thinking that sustain the interests of the powerful.”
I fear he may be right.
In contrast, Reno argues that real freedom requires truth. We are most free, he claims, when we orient our lives around truth rather than seek godlike independence from all restraints: “Freedom comes when we bind ourselves to something worth serving…A culture of freedom requires legitimate authority. Freedom is fullest now when it serves truths freely held.”
Our culture really is divided over its view of freedom. Will we embrace classical freedom rooted in custom, nature, and the divine? Or will we embrace a freedom untethered by any limits beyond the whims of the individual? It is not an overstatement to declare that the future of our nation depends upon what we choose.
Sean McDowell, Ph.D.is a professor of Christian Apologetics at Biola University, a best-selling author of over 18 books, an internationally recognized speaker, and a part-time high school teacher. Follow him on Twitter: @sean_mcdowell and his blog: seanmcdowell.org.
Resources for Greater Impact
 Sean & Josh McDowell, The Beauty of Intolerance (Uhrichsville, OH: Barbour Publishing, 2016), 19.
 R.R. Reno, Resurrecting the Idea of a Christian Society (Washington DC: Regnery Faith, 2016), 127.
 Ibid., 19.
 Ibid., 35.
Free CrossExamined.org Resource
Get the first chapter of "Stealing From God: Why Atheists Need God to Make Their Case" in PDF.