Acton Institute Powerblog

Christian Libertarianism Revisited

Share this article:
Join the Discussion:

Last week, in reply to a post by Jacqueline Otto, I wrote an article asking What is a Christian Libertarian? Ms. Otto has written an additional reply entitled, “Four Things Christian Libertarians Believe.”

To address Mr. Carter’s doubts, and to counter Mr. Teetsel’s unbelief, here is my layman’s attempt to articulate four of the fundamental beliefs held by Christian libertarians that synthesize their faith with their political ideology. For a more developed understanding, please visit Norman Horn’s website: http://libertarianchristians.com/.

While I will likely test the reader’s patience by providing a lengthy rebuttal, I believe it is important to take the views of Christian libertarians seriously (even if the views presented are only shared by a small sub-set of the movement).

As I hope to show, of her four points:

#1 is shared by the group of Christian libertarians that I doubt she would want to be associated with,
#2 is not a basis for Christian libertarianism and would be rejected by most members of the movement,
#3 isn’t particularly Christian, and
#4 is an ahistorical reading of both Christianity and Christian libertarianism.

But for now, back to Ms. Otto:

This is why this discussion is so important. This is why Christian libertarians take such issue with and offense to attempts to dismiss their existence. They do not simply “mash the two words together” or “don’t like the label conservative.” For many Christian libertarians, their acceptance of the political ideology of libertarianism came after, and as a consequence of, the acceptance of their salvation through Jesus Christ.

I agree with Ms. Otto that this discussion is important. Clarifying the meaning of terms, especially political terms, can often help us advance the conversation by providing us the means to think more clearly and argue more effectively. What I find curious, though, is that she thinks Eric Teetsel—the program manager of Values & Capitalism—and I are trying to “dismiss their existence.” I think it is Ms. Otto who has dismissed the existence of the largest branch of Christian libertarianism (assuming she is even aware of their existence and historical place in the movement). But more on that later.

2) Christian libertarians believe in individualism because of their own salvation. Eric Teetsel called “radical individualism,” the “libertine ideal.” But to Christian libertarians, individualism isn’t about one individual, it is about two—Christ, and the one who accepts his salvation.

Salvation is voluntary and it is individual. I do not wish to wander into the debate of predestination, but simply to present the scripture.

While this may be Ms. Otto’s reason for believing in individualism, I think it should be obvious to anyone familiar with Christian libertarianism why this is not a view that is widely held: The most infamous and renowned Christian libertarians have been Calvinists (bear with me, I promise we’ll get to this later).

This is not the place to delve into the distinctions between Arminianism and Calvinism, but I will say that no self-respecting Calvinist would agree with Ms. Otto’s formulation. I would be surprised if many Arminians based their view political views on soteriology, but I suppose it’s possible they do.

In any case, I do not think this opinion is all that popular, much less dominant, among Christian libertarians. But since Ms. Otto bases on her own views on this claim, I think it is worth rebutting an additional, related claim she makes:

And as Christians, we believe that when we die, we will not be judged corporately, but that we will be standing individually before God.

Since our very salvation starts individually, and grows into our Christian community working self-sacrificially for the building of the Kingdom of God, Christian libertarians orient their whole lives in the same manner

I think Ms. Otto is half right in that first line. We will indeed be judged individually and, I believe, will be held individually accountable for salvation. But Scripture seems to imply that corporate judgment is also the fate of some, if not all.

Throughout the Old Testament households (the family of Achan), nations (Israel, Nineveh), and cities (Sodom, Gomorrah) were judged by God corporately. Jesus also implies that in the Kingdom corporate judgment will continue (see: Chorazin, Bethsaida, Capernaum). Since God also judges corporately, does it make sense to abandon individualism? I would say no and I suspect most Christian libertarians would agree. So why should a particular version of soteriology be the basis for our belief in freedom? Since God judges corporately, does that lend support to collectivists?

3) Christian libertarians believe that social engagement is voluntary. But is an imperative of our Christian faith and is the course by which we develop individual virtue.

This is another peculiar claim. It’s either meaninglessly true (i.e., since all actions require our free choice, all actions are voluntary) or it is a claim that would be rejected by many Christians. While libertarians may believe that all social engagement is voluntary, Christians are aware that we are required to submit to a broad range of social obligations.

For example, the Apostle Paul commands that slaves submit to their masters, children submit to parents, wives submit to husbands, and believers submit to church leaders. Additionally, the Apostle Peter says we are to submit to “every human institution” whether it be to the emperor, governor, etc.

Since both Peter and Paul command us to submit to authority (which, they claim, is ordained by God), it would be rather odd if we were to assume that they meant that such social engagements were a mere prerogative, something we could do or not do based on how we feel.

But perhaps all Ms. Otto means is that libertarians believe that social engagement is voluntary but that Christians are not required to compel non-Christians into submitting to the authority of Paul, Peter, Jesus, et al. That seems rather unobjectionable and is what most conservatives believe too. But what is the point of being a Christian libertarian when you are required to submit to all types of authority but unbelievers are not? Why is that not just garden-variety libertarianism?

Christian libertarians understand that any social obligation put forth in the New Testament is voluntary. There are no calls for governments or even church leaders to force servitude, only encouragement to voluntarily serve others.

Well, Paul’s command for slaves to submit to their masters certainly seems like a case of a church leader forcing servitude. But since that is not really applicable today, the question we have to ask is what would classify as “servitude?” Is taxation a form of servitude, since we are giving the government the monetary equivalent of a portion of our labor and property? LibertarianChristians, a site Ms. Otto recommends, says that “Taxation and government spending are always bad.” But that is not a view that Jesus held.

While not a theologian, the father of free markets, Adam Smith, was foremost a moralist. Before he wrote the much-famed Wealth of Nations, he wrote a lengthy book on ethics, called The Theory of Moral Sentiments. Smith strongly believed that free markets were capable of cultivating morality within individuals. Capitalism, by design, marries a man’s moral and material growth so that both will be fully achieved.

It is true that Smith believed that free markets were capable of cultivating certain virtues—a view shared by all good free market conservatives, classical liberals, and libertarians. But let’s not overstate Smith’s view by implying that he thought that markets alone were capable of cultivating morality. I’m sure that is not what she meant, but Ms. Otto should have made that more clear.

Christian libertarians believe that freedom is engaging and experiential. It is through social and market interactions that relationships with fellow human beings are built. In turn, it is these relationships that foster within individuals virtues including honesty, civility, prudence, restraint, industry, frugality, sobriety and reliability.

Well said. But this is not a view that is limited to Christian libertarians. Classical liberals and conservatives believe that too.

4) Christian libertarians take a very literal position on Christ’s message of liberty. There is no way to ignore the significance of liberty in the message of Jesus Christ.

This raises an interesting question that I’ve never heard a Christan libertarian fully address: If libertarian principles flow so obviously out of Christian doctrine, why are libertarians the intellectual descendants of the atheist John Stuart Mill rather than, say, Augustine, Calvin, or Wesley?

The reason, I suspect, is that there is a critical difference between acknowledging the “significance of liberty in the message of Jesus Christ” and thinking that this leads to libertarian principles. But there is no obvious connection. Loving liberty no more makes a person a libertarian than loving society makes one a socialist.

A peculiar tic I’ve often noticed—especially in young libertarians—is the presumption that a love of liberty is the sole province of libertarians. If pressed, they usually admit that, sure, other political persuasions can love liberty too. But because they believe that liberty is the highest political aim (and perhaps the chief end of man) they tend to treat liberty as if it were a principle only they cherished. That is where they differ from conservatives, who would say that liberty is a necessary, though not sufficient, condition for human flourishing. (And if pressed, we conservatives usually admit that, sure, other political persuasions can love human flourishing too.)

Christian libertarians believe that a civil society must do as much as possible to encourage choices, and must do as little as possible to separate the choice from the consequence.

Myself and V&C podcast host, RJ Moeller, have blogged before about the saying, “Capitalism without bankruptcy is like Christianity without hell.” Christian conservatives and libertarians could agree on that. But Christian libertarians extend that principle to social issues as well.

While it’s a trivial point, I can’t help but notice that the claim above seems contradictory. If Christian libertarians believe they “must do as little as possible to separate the choice from the consequence” then they should oppose, not support, bankruptcy laws. Bankruptcy laws are put in place for the sole purpose of “separating the choice from the consequence”: by filing the right paperwork, a capitalist can avoid the worst consequences of his bad choices. This is good and necessary for the advancement of capitalism. But bankruptcy protections should make hardcore libertarians cringe.

Christian libertarians believe that people should live wholesome, productive lives because they have a conviction to do so. They also believe that people should be able to choose not to live in such a way, and those people will suffer the consequences in their lives and before God.

The flaw in this thinking is the idea that the  people who are engaging in the illicit behavior are the primary ones or the only ones that suffer the consequence. But that is rarely the case. One of the reasons why libertarianism is popular among middle/upper income whites and not viewed as favorably by the poor and minorities is because the former often have resources that allow them to avoid the bad consequences of their own actions and of the actions of others.

Take, for example, the issue of drug use. If a middle-class college-educated married mother and corporate executive gets hooked on oxycotin what will be the result? She can take medical leave, go to rehab and get cleaned up, and when she gets out her life can carry on much the same as it did before. There may be some emotional anguish, embarrassment, and strain on the family. But it won’t be the end of her life and her children and community are not likely to suffer too much from her actions.

Now consider a working-class divorced mother and high school dropout who lives in a poor neighborhood and has no familial support structure. What happens if she get addicted to oxycotin? If she goes to rehab, she may lose not only lose her job, but she could also lose her home and her kids. When she gets cleaned up, her life is likely to be even worse than before. She will probably have to rely on government welfare and will be pushed further down the economic ladder. The consequences of her actions affect not only the woman, but her children, her community, and everyone who pays taxes.

In America, the impact of bad consequences often depends on how many resources a person or their family can muster to avoid them. This is true for communal consequences too. Imagine if a developer decided to tear down a neighboring house and build a liquor store or strip club next to the home of a Christan libertarian. If you have a difficult time picturing such a scenario it’s because it would be nearly impossible to do something like that in the white middle-class neighborhood where the typical libertarian lives. (Whatever their view on zoning laws in the abstract, I can’t help but suspect that most libertarians would favor them when it came to protecting their own neighborhood.)

Conservatives will say that there are negative externalities in a society if these aspects of social order are not enforced by government. Christian libertarians absolutely agree. But they believe that those negative externalities are the consequences of our own moral decay. They believe the answer isn’t in government action, enforced by violence and financed by plunder. But in the kingdom-building actions of the church, enforced by love and financed by self-sacrificial giving.

As I mentioned above, it’s easy to dismiss talk of “negative externalities” when you have the resources to avoid them. But this also shows why so few people embrace libertarianism, whether Christian or secular. The idea that society must live with negative externalities just because it is requirement to live consistently with a particular political philosophy strikes most people as absurd.

Even most libertarian sympathizers would not really follow the ideology to its conclusions. But I could be wrong, so let’s put it to the test. I call this “The Nudist Test”:

Roger is committed Christian, ardent libertarian, and unapologetic nudist. Since the laws about wearing clothes in public spaces impinges on his ability to do what he wants (i.e., be naked 24/7), he considers them to be a “threat to liberty.”

He respects the right of private businesses to enforce a “clothes-only” policy at their establishments, but he thinks that government agencies and state-supported functions (such as the DMV, elementary schools, etc.) should be clothing-optional. Also, since being naked doesn’t violate the non-aggression principle, he doesn’t understand why there are laws against public nudity.

My contention is that all true and consistent libertarians—including Christian libertarians—would agree with Roger that there should be no laws against public nudity. I also contend that very few people who call themselves libertarian would be willing to live by such a standard. While they might claim to be fine with it in principle, they would balk when they encountered a few dozen nudists on the subway or discovered their child’s elementary teacher wore nothing but a birthday suit to work. After a few such encounters, they might have second thoughts about coercing people to wear clothes.

But as I said, I may be wrong. I’d be interested in hearing from those Christian libertarians who would be fine with not forcing people to wear clothes in public about how they square allowing this behavior with their faith.

Finally, in her conclusion, Ms. Otto states:

Lest there be any doubt remaining, Christian libertarians have not only developed a consistent philosophy in which libertarianism and Christianity are fully compatible, but have a developed a philosophy in which their libertarianism is dependent upon their Christianity.

Although I think Ms. Otto made a valiant effort, I don’t think her version of Christian libertarianism is sufficiently developed or consistent. I also think it is extremely limiting and revisionist, since it leaves out the largest, most fully developed, and consistent members of the Christian libertarian movement: the theonomists.

Theologian Andrew Sandlin once described Christian libertarianism as the view that “mature individuals are permitted maximum freedom under God’s law.” This, rather than Ms. Otto’s formulation, has historically been the perspective of self-described “Christian libertarians” (as opposed to Christians who just happen to be libertarians, like Rep. Ron Paul).

As Rousas Rushdoony, the godfather of both theonomists and Christian libertarians, once wrote:

Few things are more commonly misunderstood than the nature and meaning of theocracy. It is commonly assumed to be a dictatorial rule by self-appointed men who claim to rule for God. In reality, theocracy in Biblical law is the closest thing to a radical libertarianism that can be had.

And as theonomist Bojidar Marinov claims,

In my libertarian activities in Bulgaria I often had to confront questions by secular libertarians about the connection between Christianity and libertarianism. My reply was that one can not be a libertarian without the true source of liberty. And the true source of liberty is Jesus Christ. Therefore I can not be a libertarian without Christ. I wrote about it in an earlier article, “Can I be a Libertarian Without Christ?”

I also showed in other articles that there is no true libertarianism without Christianity.

As a school of political thought, the theonomists have developed the most consistent and thoroughly integrated version of Christian libertarianism. Anyone who calls themselves a Christian libertarian should be able to explain why their version differs from the theonomists who, I can assure you, have thought about it longer, harder, and more systematically than almost anyone. Whatever you may think about them (and, to be honest, they scare me), their version of Christian libertarianism is as close to being a “developed a consistent philosophy in which libertarianism and Christianity are fully compatible” as anyone has ever devised.

Now I’m sure Ms. Otto finds the political views of the theonomists to be as repugnant as I do. And I’m in no way saying that to be a Christian libertarian requires one to be a theonomist. But the new class of Christian libertarians can’t simply read the old school CLs out of the movement. They were there long before these young whipper-snappers came along. And if you are going to write an article about “Four Things Christian Libertarians Believe” you should really make sure that your claims apply to one of largest and oldest groups of Christian libertarians in America, the theonomists.

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).

Comments