Acton Institute Powerblog

Interview: The Christian case for libertarianism

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daniel-isaacsIs it possible to be both a Christian and a libertarian?

In a forthcoming book, Called to Freedom: Why You Can Be Christian & Libertarian, six Christian libertarians offer an emphatic, “yes,” exploring key tensions and challenging a range common critiques (whether from conservative Christians or secular libertarians). The project is currently seeking funds via Indiegogo, where you can donate or pre-order your copy.

Having already discussed the topic on numerous occasions with two of the book’s authors – Jacqueline Isaacs and Elise Daniel – I asked them a few questions about their latest endeavor, the overarching ideas, and what they hope to achieve.

How did you become libertarian Christians?

ED: I grew up in a Christian, conservative home. Because of my upbringing, I always assumed Christians were also conservatives. Growing up, I didn’t know much about libertarians, other than that they wanted to legalize drugs, so I thought there was at least some sort of moral gap between Christians and libertarians. I grew stronger in both my faith and political convictions in college. I studied economics and attended an economics seminar on free markets. It was there that I was first introduced to Austrian economists like Ludwig Von Mises and Friedrich Hayek. For the first time, I was thinking about economics from a classical liberal framework, and it made a lot of sense to me. During the seminar, I had conversations with students and professors who called themselves libertarian and realized some of my assumptions — like that libertarians were all moral relativists — were false. I came out of that week with serious doubts about the role of liberty in modern conservatism and more respect for the libertarian perspective.

JI: I also grew up as a Christian in a conservative home. I viewed politics as a web of distinct issues, and being pro-life and anti-taxes just seemed to make me a conservative. It wasn’t until I was in high school that I began to understand holistic political philosophies and libertarianism, specifically by reading books like The Law by Frederic Bastiat. I realized that caring about things like free markets and low taxes and the dignity of life didn’t make me a conservative; I cared about those things because of a worldview that valued freedom – and that worldview was informed by my Christian faith.

How do you define liberty more broadly, as Christians?

JI: As Christians, we believe we were created in God’s image, but now exist in a fallen, sinful state where we are not free to express God’s image fully. However, Christ has offered us redemption, through which we are reconciled to him and can again do his work to help restore the world and bring about his Kingdom. We unpack this more in the book and we use this framework of creation – fall – redemption –restoration to discuss our political philosophy. Liberty, understood through this story, is our gift through Christ to overcome our sin and again show God’s image to the world around us. This is why Paul speaks of being free, but using his freedom to be a servant to others. (1 Cor 9:19, Galatians 5:13)

Our co-author, Jason Hughey, gives a broad definition of libertarianism in his chapter, but the important thing about this book is that the six authors represent a wide range of libertarian thought, just as we do a wide range of theological traditions. We don’t all agree on every minute policy issue, but we all agree that liberty is the highest political end. Lord Acton famously said, “liberty is not a means to a higher political end. It is itself the highest political end.” We use the word “liberty” in the same manner as he did. We want people, all of us imperfect image-bearers of God, to be able to create value in society, engage actively in community, and bring glory to God unhindered by the government.

How does that view of liberty lead to or connect with political liberty as advanced by libertarianism?

JI: Our broad view of liberty connects to this libertarian political philosophy by keeping some perspective on what a political philosophy is and is not. We hold worldviews, informed by our Christian faith, that promote liberty. A libertarian political philosophy is an application of that worldview onto the political sphere. In a way, our libertarian political philosophy is a sub-category of our great worldview, but not the totality of it. We see other Christian worldviews, such as ones with a strong justice focus, holding liberal political philosophies. We also see non-Christian worldviews that can hold libertarian political philosophies, such as Objectivism. One of the main points of our book comes from this idea: we are all Christians first and then libertarians.

Given that prioritization — Christians first, libertarians second — do you see any tensions between the two?

ED: It was at the same economics seminar I mentioned earlier that I also first encountered a strong tension between Christianity and libertarianism. During our discussion groups, one student told me I couldn’t be both a libertarian and a Christian because libertarianism was rational and faith in God was not. On another occasion, a student made a case for self-ownership over state ownership, mocking the possibility of God as the owner of mankind. I received foul looks from a philosophy professor when I told him I appreciated the teachings of Saint Augustine and Saint Thomas Aquinas. While I didn’t expect the group of students to be overwhelmingly Christian, I didn’t expect to be met with such hostility either. What may have disturbed me the most, though, was the general support for Ayn Rand’s moral philosophy, which promotes selfishness as a virtue and self-sacrifice as a vice. I realized later that I could still be a libertarian without accepting Rand’s bizarre moral philosophy, but all of these experiences made me question whether or not my faith was truly compatible with libertarianism since I felt like the only Christian in the room.

So how do you address that? One critique of libertarianism is that it’s too individualistic to square with the sacrificial and communal obligations of Christianity. How does your view of Christian libertarianism frame the individual in relation to community?

JI: This is one of the biggest arguments that I hear from conservative Christians, and it’s important to all of us that we address this concern. As libertarian Christians, we believe that Christians need to take on more responsibility as individuals, families, and communities. Freedom requires more of us, not less of us. The free society that we dream of requires that we are radically involved in our communities. Again, as imperfect image-bearers of God, we are charged with imitating Him in our world. The way I like to frame this, and how I say it in the book is, “God created everything out of nothing, and we can create economic value out of scarcity. God redeems us from our sins, and we work towards redeeming others from poverty, ignorance, and disease. God respects our freedom, even to reject Him, and we respect the freedom of others in our society.”

Given that many conservative Christians see liberty as a central part of what they’re conserving (at least in the American political system), where does libertarianism diverge from conservative principles and priorities?

JI: Earlier, and throughout the book, we talk about experiencing a tension between our faith and political liberty. I argue in my chapter that this tension is a result of the fall. While we were made to exist in perfect relationship with God and in perfect liberty, we are no longer able to do so because of the fall. Experiencing this tension is not wrong, it is a fact of our fallen lives, which is a major theme of our book. While this may be an oversimplification, when traditional Christian values and individual liberty come into tension in our political conversations, conservatives tend to default towards protecting our values and morals, while libertarians will default towards protecting liberty. This is another example where we say liberty requires more of us, not less of us. We believe that Christians should aim to protect or “conserve” both our values and liberty.

Why did you all decide to write this book? What do you hope for it to accomplish?

ED: We all met in 2012 in a young professionals book club in the D.C. area that focused on the intersection of Christianity and economic freedom. We read books like Defending the Free Market by Father Sirico, A Humane Economy by Wilhelm Ropke, even a book by Jim Wallis about the financial crisis (that one was opposition research). The group members ranged from conservative to libertarian, igniting a dynamic conversation about the compatibility of political liberty with Christianity. When I was offered an opportunity to fill a panel at the International Students for Liberty Conference in 2014, I wanted to bring this very conversation about the role of faith and political liberty to a libertarian conference, so I threw out an open invitation to the book club and the authors of the book are the five panelists who joined me.

We called ourselves “The Jesus Panel” and it drew more attention than we expected — every seat was filled and dozens of students stood packed in the back of the room. After our presentation, we talked to several students, both Christians and non-Christians, who thanked us for being there. Some of them reminded me of myself when I was at that first seminar, wondering if I was the only Christian among so many agnostic libertarians. The students inspired us to get our ideas down on paper so that the next time we speak with a someone caught in the middle between Christianity and libertarianism, we can hand them a tool that will help them articulate their beliefs and remind them they aren’t alone in wrestling with these ideas. On top of that, I hope this book helps change the perception of libertarians in Christian circles. I believe the success of the “liberty movement” in drawing in conservatives hinges on welcoming and embracing the Christian faith.

For more on Called to Freedom, see the Indiegogo page.

Joseph Sunde is an associate editor and writer for the Acton Institute. His work has appeared in venues such as The Federalist, First Things, The City, The Christian Post, The Stream, Charisma News, Juicy Ecumenism, Ethika Politika, Made to Flourish, and the Center for Faith and Work. Joseph resides in Minneapolis, Minnesota with his wife and four children.

Comments

  • Philosophical Actuary

    What is the perfect liberty that exists in perfect relationship with God? If perfect liberty is consistent with perfect relationship with God and implicitly Christian values, why is there a tension between liberty and Christian values?

    • Elise Daniel

      We explain a little more about the tensions in our indiegogo campaign video: https://www.indiegogo.com/projects/called-to-freedom#/ and much more in the book!

      • Philosophical Actuary

        Thank you for your response. I didn’t hear much explanation in the video, but allow me to flesh out my thoughts.
        My first question is related to a Medieval question regarding the nature of heaven where we will be in perfect relationship with God. The question was what does the freedom of heaven consist and particularly, can the saints sin in heaven. One answer was that they possess the freedom to do so, bu they don’t. The other answer is that the perfection of freedom consists in the perfect ordination to the supreme Good, namely God, such that there is not even the possibility of deviating from Him anymore. I was curious if others had given this thought, because the first option related to Voluntarism has implications for politics and anthropology.
        My second question really goes to the nature of the liberty that libertarians and all political liberals. This goes to the questions based on the origins of liberalism in Hobbes and Locke and related to the above Voluntarism wherein the will is over the intellect, such as will political justice is grounded in the will of the govern rather than truth of the common good. I suspect that the notion that the end of political activity is liberty is intrinsically incoherent as all political acts are essentially restrictive and contract potential activity to a set of activity. The recent gay marriage decision as a political act was not a passive allowing people to do as they please, but a real enforcement of a new type of contract and all that entails.
        With this intrinsic incoherence and voluntarism in hand, I suspect that any attempt to unite Christianity as a true doctrine to libertarianism or any form of liberalism left or right will involve some sort of incoherence and unprincipled exception. To me it does not seem to be a tension between different modern philosophies as they’re irresolvable due to the intrinsic incoherence, but to return to the roots and principles of political philosophy and start afresh.
        I’m not entirely sure and I’m working out the details. I like thinking out loud and asking what others think.

        • Elise Daniel

          For your first question, we only address liberty on earth and the authors might have differing views on what you are describing. For your second question, we do not try to unite Christianity as a true doctrine to libertarianism – that effort will never be perfect. What we are saying though is simply that you can be a Christian and a libertarian without any major philosophical conflicts.

          • Philosophical Actuary

            In attempting to arrive at a political position consistent with Christianity, did you look into the political writings of early Christians such as Augustine?
            Part of the impetus of pursuing and now defending libertarianism was the search for a third way beyond the left and right which seem contrary to Christianity. Would it be a worthy question to ask if there is no third way and rather it is not right, left or center that is contrary to Christianity but the liberal philosophy that undergirds them all?

  • Good points! There are several different types of libertarians. The Ayn Rand types are like her: anyone who doesn’t agree on every detail is an evil socialist. Rand called Mises a socialist. Rothbardian libertarians are very much the same. If you allow for any state at all, even a night watchman type, then you’re evil and need to be destroyed. Those “true believers” don’t want Christians among them tarnishing their perfect rationalist/atheist image.

    The best essay on conservatism is Hayek’s “Why I Am not a Conservative.” But Hayek and Mises could never be libertarian because of their acceptance of a minimal state. Mises wrote that the state is a necessary good, but a minimal state. Christians have a similar problem. For Rand and Rothbard libertarians taxes are theft. Christians have to accept at least minimal taxes and respect the state.

    I think the Christian position should be that the state is God’s wrath against rebellious people. As shown in the book of Judges, God intends his original “libertarian” government only for believers. He will never allow a nation of atheists or other rebellious people to enjoy freedom. So until we achieve a majority, we can’t expect to have freedom of the kind that Israel enjoyed in the book of Judges with no human exec or legislature. Meanwhile, we have to respect the state and pay taxes. Atheist libertarians will never accept that.

    • Kyle Hanby

      I’m fairly certain that they are familiar with LCI given that one of the writers in this book is Norman Horn who is the founder of the Libertarian Christian Institute.

      Also, you can be a libertarian and still believe in a minimal state and you can be a Christian and believe in no state. I know one of the authors in this book who is a Christian anarcho-capitalist.

      • Yeah I agree that you should be able to be a libertarian and accept a minimal state. But the Randians and Rothbardians will harass you endlessly. They’re not interested in expanding the circle. Like Pharisees they want only ideological purity. Rothbard was still a student of Mises when he formed the Circle Bastiat and boasted that he would demonstrate that Mises was a socialist. You can’t get along with people like that. Libertarians rejected both Hayek and Mises.

        Hayek didn’t like the term “libertarian” and called himself a classical liberal. Because of the differences I mentioned I prefer to call myself a Christian Capitalist.

    • Elise Daniel

      Yes we are familiar with them! We recently spoke at the Christians for liberty conference in Austin. Thanks for your thoughts Roger. If you’d like to pre-order your book or donate to our campaign, you can do so here: https://www.indiegogo.com/projects/called-to-freedom#/