Working as we do here at the intersection between economics and theology, the relationship between various kinds of classically liberal, libertarian, Austrian, and other economic modifiers and religion in general and Christianity in particular is in constant view. Sometimes the conversation is friendly, sometimes not so much. Sometimes the differences are less apparent, sometimes more.
Once in awhile a piece will appear on the Acton site or from an Acton writer that brings this discussion to the fore. Last week’s commentary by Anthony Bradley is a great example. Responses to his piece varied, but on a number of fronts his juxtaposition of the external coercive regulation of government and the internal moral guidance of religious faith was attacked.
Some equated religion with government, with the former being “merely unelected.” Others resorted to long critiques of the idea that religion and libertarianism have anything in common, engaging not only the substance of the issues but also delving into rhetorically questionable sidetracks, although some charitably noted, “At no point did Bradley seem to advocate the use of state force to promote Christianity.”
A few recent exchanges over at the First Thoughts blog contribute directly and helpfully to this conversation. Hunter Baker, an adjunct scholar with the Acton Institute and a contributor here at the PowerBlog, posted an excerpt from “a plenary panel session on the question of whether libertarians and social conservatives can get along.” Baker calls the two groups “co-belligerents in the cause of liberty.” Baker’s comments were inspired in part by an earlier piece appearing in Religion & Liberty, “Can Libertarians and Social Conservatives find Common Ground?”
Joe Carter responded by highlighting a piece by Russell Kirk, “Libertarians: the Chirping Sectaries,” (PDF) which Carter calls “the greatest political essay on conservatism and libertarianism of the last thirty years—if not of the twentieth century.” In this acerbic and far-ranging essay, Kirk calls libertarians “the little sour remnant” and contends that beyond a shared opposition to collectivism, conservatives and libertarians have nothing in common.
There is no doubt some truth both to Baker’s and to Kirk’s claims. The question has in part to do with a definition of terms and the corresponding identification of those to whom “conservative” and “libertarian” refer. We must of course recognize that those who self-identify as libertarian or classical liberals are not a uniform party, and the same is true for religious or “social” conservatives. There are at least a half dozen or so schools or varieties of libertarianism, and there is diffusion and disagreement on any number of principles and concrete issues.
Arnold Kling makes a helpful distinction between “civil societarians” and other “strands” of libertarianism. My own way of parsing the terms is to distinguish broadly between libertarianism as a political philosophy and libertarianism as a world-and-life view (Weltanschauung). The former is much more limited in scope than the latter.
For the former, liberty is man’s highest political end. But it is not man’s highest end. Politics and its ends are means towards other, more diverse social and more important theological ends.
For those whose libertarianism is an all-encompassing ideology, as Kirk says, for whom there is a “fanatic attachment to a simple solitary principle–that is, to the notion of personal freedom as the whole end of civil social order, and indeed of human existence,” there can be little if any room for a competing and alternative system of faith and life, e.g. Christianity.
As Lord Acton said,
Now liberty and good government do not exclude each other; and there are excellent reasons why they should go together. Liberty is not a means to a higher political end. It is itself the highest political end. It is not for the sake of a good public administration that it is required, but for security in the pursuit of the highest objects of civil society, and of private life.
That little modifier “political” makes all the difference. Lord Acton limits liberty as the “highest political end,” but immediately proceeds to relate and subsume politics to other spheres of life.
It is only in this latter sense of libertarianism as a worldview, as a competitor with and alternative to other worldviews (including Marxism and Christianity), that Kirk’s conclusion can be judged entirely accurate: “When heaven and earth have passed away, perhaps the conservative mind and the libertarian mind may be joined in synthesis—but not until then.”