Acton Institute Powerblog

On the Relationship between Religion and Liberty

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Earlier this year I was invited to participate in a seminar sponsored by the Institute for Humane Studies and Students for a Free Economy at Northwood University. In the course of the weekend I was able to establish that while I wasn’t the first theologian to present at an IHS event, I may well have been the first Protestant theologian.

In a talk titled, “From Divine Right to Human Rights: The Foundations of Rights in the Modern World,” I attempted to trace the development of the concept of “rights” in the West historically, from the ancient world to modern times. A corollary purpose was to show the students that liberty and religion are not inimical or diametrically opposed.

Shawn Ritenour, a faculty presenter at last month’s Acton University, pursues a similar purpose in a recent post at his blog, Foundations of Economics (after his book of the same name. Timothy Terrell reviews Ritenour’s book in issue 13.2 of the Journal of Markets & Morality). Ritenour writes, “While it is true that many non-believers embrace and promote the free society and many libertarians despise Christ[, i]t does not follow, however, that Christianity and liberty have nothing to do with one another.” He goes on to provide some more resources for this point, particularly arguing that “a close study of God’s Word reveals that social institutions that promote liberty are positively mandated.”

Human rights are one of these social institutions that promote liberty and are positively mandated by the Bible. In my presentation at the Northwood seminar, I drew on some resources from the Acton film, The Birth of Freedom. In particular, I shared this video featuring John Witte Jr. that addresses the question, “How Has Judaism Contributed to Human Rights?”

As Lord Acton puts it, in ancient Israel “the throne was erected on a compact; and the king was deprived of the right of legislation among a people that recognised no lawgiver but God, whose highest aim in politics was to restore the original purity of the constitution, and to make its government conform to the ideal type that was hallowed by the sanctions of heaven.”

Jordan J. Ballor Jordan J. Ballor (Dr. theol., University of Zurich; Ph.D., Calvin Theological Seminary) is a senior research fellow and director of publishing at the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion & Liberty. He is also a postdoctoral researcher in theology and economics at the VU University Amsterdam as part of the "What Good Markets Are Good For" project. He is author of Get Your Hands Dirty: Essays on Christian Social Thought (and Action) (Wipf & Stock, 2013), Covenant, Causality, and Law: A Study in the Theology of Wolfgang Musculus (Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2012) and Ecumenical Babel: Confusing Economic Ideology and the Church's Social Witness (Christian's Library Press, 2010), as well as editor of numerous works, including Abraham Kuyper Collected Works in Public Theology. Jordan is also associate director of the Junius Institute for Digital Reformation Research at Calvin Theological Seminary.


  • I am a student of Dr. Ritenour’s, and I also recommend that recent post on his blog. He has very thorough thoughts on the relationship between Christianity and liberty. And he is very right when he says that “many libertarians despise Christ”. But I have some thoughts on this that, while more practical than theoretical, might help remedy this unfortunate situation. 

    I spend a lot of time in “libertarian circles”, and I find that almost all of those who reject Christ are, as they see it, rejecting just another coercive authority who seeks to arbitrarily restrict their behavior. Yes, many of them do this because they want to live without any moral limitation on their life, choosing to have no higher authority than their own passions (the fatal pride that is the root of all sin). These persons’ rejection of Christ is entirely predictable and understandable (though still wrong). But others, unfortunately, often come to understand Christ’s message as a strange hybrid of emotional fulfillment and American-style political conservatism. And this is due entirely to a failure on the part of well-meaning Christians to present the message of Christ in a sensible and relevant manner that irreligious people can understand.

    It only makes sense that blindsiding an already-skeptical unbeliever with the notion that Jesus is the son of God and must be “accepted” to avoid his wrath (and that sometimes even before understanding what Jesus taught) would produce no fruit in terms of orienting hearts toward the gospel of Jesus Christ. That is why, I think, it is best to emphasize the PERSON of Christ and what he TAUGHT while on earth. Libertarians are often very rational people. They won’t accept someone as authoritative on any matter simply on the basis of personality or a claim to authority (“man looks at the outside, but God looks at the heart”). They often see past fancy rhetoric to instead examine whether or not the orator puts his words into practice (“you will know them by their fruits”). They emphasize respect for the rights of all human beings (“love even your enemy as yourself”). They often do not criticize others for their personal choices, expecting not to be judged in return, and thus are often very friendly people (“judge not, that you not be judged”). They recognize that man is predisposed toward using coercive/violent force to manipulate his fellow man, and experience this temptation themselves (doctrine of original sin).I fully believe that any true and honest libertarian (and I realize that term can be somewhat ambiguous) would accept the teachings of Christ as sound and in accord with their economic/political beliefs. Whether or not they will acknowledge their own sinfulness is another issue, and by no means does an acceptance of the economic/social teachings of Christ mean one is saved. But I think it is useful in terms of reasoning with non-believing libertarians (and other friends, for that matter) and sparking curiosity in their hearts about the person of Jesus Christ.