Acton Institute Powerblog

What is a Christian Libertarian?

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Our friends over at AEI have a wonderful website—Values & Capitalism—devoted to many of the same topics we cover here at Acton: faith, economics, poverty, the environment, society. Values & Capitalism, which is capably managed and curated by my buddy Eric Teetsel, is an excellent resource that I recommend to all liberty-loving, virtue promoting Christians (i.e., all good Acton PowerBlog readers).

Being a huge fan of their work I was therefore grieved to read that one of their bloggers, Jacqueline Otto, took offense at my recent post on religious conservatives and libertarians:

While I found this line of discussion very interesting, and even in part, compelling, Carter’s argument was rather insulting to a key demographic—Christian libertarians.

I have to admit, that’s a fair complaint. In critiquing libertarians (a favorite pastime of mine) I’m often unsure how to apply it fairly to Christian libertarians. The reason I struggle with addressing Christian libertarians is because I don’t really understand what it means to be a Christian libertarian. In this regard, I’m in good company. Last September, Ms. Otto wrote a blog post in which she asked:

Is it contradictory to be a Christian and a libertarian? As Penn Jillette would say, I do not know. But it is certainly a question worth asking.

I agree that it is a question worth asking, and I hope that those who self-identify as Christian libertarians will offer their thoughts on the matter.

In the meantime, I’d like to present an outsider’s view of both the term and the ideology. I think there are five ways that people use the term Christian libertarian:

Type #5 Those who are Not-all-that-Christian and/or Not-all-that-Libertarian — Some people are simply confused about one or both terms, yet insist on self-identifying as a “Christian libertarian.” They hold views that should not really be associated with Christianity (e.g., antinomianism) or that should not be associated with libertarianism (e.g., libertinism). Not too many people fit this description, which is fortunate because those that do are very annoying.

Type #4 Christians who are really conservatives, but don’t like the label conservative — It used to be that if a person called themselves “libertarian” it was a reliable indicator that the person was a bit, well, unusual. As my friend John Coleman, a self-identified Christian libertarian, once explained, the reason people think that libertarians are crazy is because libertarians are crazy:

Most became Libertarians because they have some social quirk that disallows them from participation in normal society—picture excessive drug use, Dungeons and Dragons play or fascination with the word “metrosexual,” for instance. They are strange. You can’t take them home to your parents, unless, of course, your parents are members of some druid cult. They frighten small children.

He is joking, of course (except for the part about how they frighten small children. That’s completely true.). But that was the perception many people had of libertarians before Internet made libertarianism mainstream.

The web radically transformed the popular perception of libertarians. Online culture allowed people to let their freak flags fly, and so when many displayed the banner of libertarianism, many politically inclined folks found it attractive.

If it is true, as Coleman says, that libertarians have a social quirk that disallows them from participation in normal society, that was even more true of early adopters of the Internet. Perhaps that is the reason there was such a significant overlap between the two groups in the early years of the Web. Because they were so closely aligned, when net culture became cool, so did libertarianism.

The result, which is still in effect, is that some people want to be associated with the political view even if they hold mostly non-libertarian beliefs. Many young people (especially Young Republican types) think the terms “conservative” and “libertarian” are all but interchangeable. If they’ve attended Sunday School their entire lives and have one or two libertarianish views, they assume they are “Christian libertarians.” Or at least they prefer to use that term to describe themselves since “Christian conservative” smacks of Jerry Falwell-esque Religious Rightism. And what young person would want to be associated with that?

Type #3 Those for whom the “Christian” in Christian libertarian is a weak modifier – Think of a noun, any noun. Chances are that someone somewhere has at some time slapped the adjective “Christian” in front of it in order to “transform it for Christ.” My own tribe (evangelicals) has made an art of such adjectivalization.

People who use the term Christian libertarian in this way tend to be libertarians until it conflicts with their Christian values—and then they let the modifier do the heavy lifting. In essence, it’s a way for inconsistent libertarians to be able to be both libertarian and Christian based on their political needs.

Type #2 Those who mash the two words together. – This type of Christian libertarian, which is similar to Type #2, thinks that because they considers themselves to be both Christian and libertarian that the two terms must be compatible.

This is a common type of thinking in a country where we can choose our own traditions. Many people think that if they can say “I believe X” and “I believe Y” that X and Y must therefore be compatible. Since internal consistency is not something they’ve ever considered as a requirement for a belief-system, they’ve never given much thought to whether Christianity and libertarianism are compatible. Indeed, since they are able to hold both views without their heads exploding, they assume the two views must be compatible.

Type #1 Those who have developed a consistent philosophy in which libertarianism and Christianity are fully compatible. – Although I’m not sure I’ve ever met a Type 1—and I’m not sure it’s even possible—I believe this is the ideal use of the term.

Of course no one is going to be have a perfectly consistent religio-political worldview. But this should be our goal. And if we find that it’s nearly impossible to resolve the tensions between the two (as with Christian Marxism), then the intellectually respectable choice would be two abandon one or the other.

The trouble with being a Type 1 Christian libertarian is that it appears to limit the types of Christian views you can hold. For instance, I’m not sure it’s possible to be a politically consistent Catholic and politically consistent libertarian since the social doctrines of the Catholic Church are often antithetical to libertarian doctrines. (But I could be wrong.)

The most obvious possibility for integration is a form of Two Kingdoms theology. If I were a libertarian trying to integrate my political views with my faith, that is where I would start.

But that leads me to a primary complaint I have with most libertarians: They often work backwards from a desire or grievance to the development of their core principles. Christians, on the other hand, must start with principles derived from the Bible and/or Christian tradition and work their way forward toward a coherent political philosophy. Again, I may be wrong, but I don’t see how starting from Biblical principles you’d end up with any political philosophy that resembled American-style libertarianism.

I’ll admit that I’m intrigued by the idea of Christian libertarianism. But so far I haven’t seen any strong arguments for the philosophy. For instance, in order to be truly Christian, the Christian libertarian would have to resolve the tension between libertarianism’s focus on the individual rights and Christianity’s emphasis on communal obligations.

Some Christian libertarians attempt to do this, of course, but it is often at the expense of their libertarianism. For all its faults, libertarianism is an internally coherent self-contained political ideology. That is one of its chief selling points. Yet when you try to incorporate an alien worldview (such as Christianity) into the system it waters down the philosophy and short circuits its internal consistency. The result is that you have a form of libertarianism that is ad hoc and confused.

And why would you choose that when there are better political alternatives available?

(Note: In her post, Otto also raised the question about legislating morality. I plan to take up that topic in a separate post tomorrow.)

Joe Carter Joe Carter is a Senior Editor at the Acton Institute. Joe also serves as an editor at the The Gospel Coalition, a communications specialist for the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, and as an adjunct professor of journalism at Patrick Henry College. He is the editor of the NIV Lifehacks Bible and co-author of How to Argue like Jesus: Learning Persuasion from History's Greatest Communicator (Crossway).