Let’s start with where we all, I think, can agree:  right now, there is a great deal of conflict and disagreement over what justice requires and what freedom should look like.

The religious liberty throw-down that we’ve recently experienced is only one instance of a wider set of conflicts.  There are questions about what “political correctness” hath wrought, or what kinds of mercies should be afforded those who err in public.  There are disputes about the kinds of liberties college campuses should have. Even our video game “industry” has been in the middle of a convoluted and terrible dispute.

We feel the disagreements very sharply, in other words, and it can be tempting to bemoan the death of any kind of unified civic life that doesn’t have to do with sports or our love of certain movies (as important as they are).  It’s tempting to think we need to have more in common, before we can even begin to speak properly about a common good. 

To these challenges, though, I would add one more:  a steady and unstoppable onslaught of words, which aggravates the problem by making it harder for everyone to find or discover wisdom.  (Yes, I am a part of that problem.  Yes, I do think often about whether I should stop writing.  No, that’s not an invitation for you to tell me otherwise.)

So when we have opportunities to hear directly from the wise, we would be foolish not to take them. On April 30th, at Biola University, there is just such a chance.  Robert George, Cornel West, and Rick Warren are going to be talking about the nature of the freedom we should seek and the kind of people we need to be to discover it, and we have the chance to listen in.  Each are well-known in their own right: to have them talking together, though, is a unique opportunity.

Full disclosure: I am currently being paid by the Torrey Honors Institute to help them market the event, so you can dismiss me if you want.  But I wrote a book that was basically a long sales pitch for the Institute (which they did not ask me to do), and I don’t do work that I can’t entirely, unequivocally support.  What’s more, this is just the kind of thing that the Institute does: host interesting dialogues among people who disagree.

And besides, this is an easy event to get excited about.  I mean, look at Cornel West’s Wikipedia page.  It’s long.  Robert George was once described as America’s leading conservative thinker…by the New York Times. Rick Warren has come as close as anyone to outselling Jesus.  Even if you don’t like any one of them, how can you not be intrigued by the three of them, together, in one conversation?  That’s got to be at least interesting, right?

The Cost of Freedom

If you know someone in Los Angeles, tell them to get a ticket.  If you’re not in LA, watch the livestream.  And join the conversation on Twitter or elsewhere, as we try to think together and–if we’re lucky–talk together about what freedom costs.

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Posted by Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is the Founder and Lead Writer of Mere Orthodoxy. He is the author of Earthen Vessels: Why Our Bodies Matter to our Faith and The End of Our Exploring: A Book about Questioning and the Confidence of Faith. Follow him on Twitter or on Facebook.


  1. Your phrase “unified civic life” is rather important to this whole discussion.

    Evangelicals have a tendency to see the past fifty years’ cultural changes largely through the lens of changes in our sexual mores. But that’s merely one symptom of a much broader cultural change. As we’ve passed from an industrial, brick-and-mortar economy to an information-driven economy centered around intangible property, our society has become more tribal and less unified. But that’s not simply a result of our having become more individualistic. We live in a vastly different economy from that of just 25 years ago. REM was at least partly right. In 1989, it was the end of the world as we knew it, but I’m not sure that we really felt all that fine about the fact.

    My father had one employer during the course of his 40-year career. The same was true of every other father on the suburban cul-de-sac where I grew up. I’m in my early 40s, and have already had a half dozen. Only once have I changed jobs and not been forced to relocate. And I relocated once just to retain a job. I’ve lived in five different states over the course of the past decade (having lived in one state twice, but in two different metro areas within that state). The same is true for nearly all of my colleagues. We go about our lives as serial long-term tourists.

    I feel like we’re struggling to figure out how to carve out greater normalcy in a world where the economic pressures are largely aligned against that. And we need to be able to do that. After all, cheating on your spouse is much easier in a town where you’ve only lived for two years than it is in one where you and everyone else has lived for 3-4 generations. People simply conduct themselves in more socially conservative ways when they’re an organic part of a tightly knit community. We Gen Xers were probably the last generation to have any taste of what that kind of life was like on a large scale.

    The error of social conservatism as a political movement is assuming that we can forestall the social effects of atomization by right ideas and laws that embody those ideas. For the reasons that JDH notes in “To Change the World,” that was a fool’s errand. We continue to pursue it at our own peril.

    We can’t restore a “unified civic life” merely by force, or even by persuasion. We once enjoyed a unified civic life because our daily patters of living were much more interdependent and unified across a whole spectrum of indices, not just religion. That’s much less the case today. We function in a global economy, and give ourselves to companies that may be purchased next week and moved to another state or country. Until we can develop policies that do an effective job of ameliorating the economic factors that contribute to rootlessness and atomism, no amount of moral rhetoric is going to make a difference.

    So, discussions like this one at BIOLA are necessary. There’s a much bigger problem here than loose morals. And we’re going to have to start engaging with folks outside of the evangelical ghetto to see how we can contribute better to finding a solution. In my opinion, much of this ties back to cultural atomism and a pervasive sense of rootlessness. If we can address those larger issues in some effective way, that will go a long ways toward improving the prospects for social conservatism. In other words, we should stop preaching so much about morality, and focus on reconstructing a social environment where people will tend to elect moral values voluntarily (and without being nagged to do so).


    1. They see “fifty years’ cultural changes largely” because those changes are not relevant to the question. On this terribly one small point I am with the Evangelicals [a group to whom I am openly hostile on nearly every other point of intersections with civic issues.]

      “no amount of moral rhetoric is going to make a difference”

      Moral Rhetoric is exactly the problem; on this perhaps we agree.


      1. I would add that I believe that moral rhetoric is problematic as well, as it tends to obscure deeper (and often unwitting) socio-institutional commitments.

        We do probably disagree with the merits of railing against global capitalism. I see it as a rather neutral and largely inevitable force.


  2. What? There is someone who does not like Robert George and/or Cornel West? Then I am very sceptical of them; I’ve seen both these good souls present, and I’ve seen them present together. Both are exemplars of their ‘side’, and entertaining as well.

    Mostly I am disappointed how little the conversation, including here at MO [and outside of these very two excellent souls], is actually about Freedom or how it should/can/cannot function in a pluralist secular society of laws and marketplaces.


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