Acton Institute Powerblog

Murray Rothbard on Christianity, Catholicism, and theology

Ludwig Lachmann, Friedrich Hayek, Walter Block, Murray Rothbard. 1976, Windsor Castle. (Photo credit: Levan Ramishvili. Public domain.)

A hidden gem of Murray Rothbard’s thinking on the “Whig Theory of History” was published by the Mises Institute here in 2010. This publication was excerpted from an edited transcript of “Ideology and Theories of History” (ITH), the first in a series of six lectures on the history of economic thought given by Rothbard in 1986, published here in 2006. ITH also contained hidden gold regarding his thoughts about Christianity and Catholicism in relation to history, economics, and liberty. In fact, the second half of this 40-page, unedited transcript is devoted to that subject exclusively. A dozen of Rothbard’s best quotations from ITH on Christianity, Catholicism, and theology, follow, with commentary.

A friend of mine is writing a college text of readings on ancient, medieval and modern history. They can’t put anything about religion in it. It’s not a question of being for or against it. Anything about it is considered controversial, and therefore has to be killed. It’s absolutely bizarre, because religion has influenced all of thought and all of action, at least until the 19th century, and probably the 20th. So when you talk about the history of anything, especially the history of thought, to leave religion out is to leave most of the stuff out – leave the values and the ideas that motivated them. It’s really crazy. You don’t have to be pro-religion or pro-Christianity to realize that it’s been extremely important, and not to talk about it is absurd. (p. 30)

He was observing a phenomenon in the mid-1980s that had been gathering pace since at least the 1960s, and has now reached fever pitch from mid-2020, i.e., the Orwellian abolition of history. Western academia is nowadays driven by the Cultural Marxists and New Atheists, both of whom are hyper-materialist and anti-Christian. The former recklessly don’t believe in objective truth; the latter arrogantly believe they have a monopoly on it. Both support censorship and cancel culture.

One of the key things which Christianity brought to the world, I believe more than any other religion, is individualism – the supreme importance of the individual. I think that’s [where] the individual stamp of the image of God, and his or her salvation [through Jesus Christ], becomes of extreme importance, and moral choice and all the rest of it. … Even though I revere the Greeks – they’re great rationalists and all that – the Greeks are polis-oriented. What they care about is not the individual, but the polis, the city-state. (p. 31)

One of the standard historical narratives, even by conservatives and libertarians, is that modern Western civilization evolved jointly and equally from a synthesis of ancient Athens and Jerusalem. The former represented secular philosophy and science; the latter represented Judeo-Christian ethics and law. Rothbard seems to be suggesting that, although it may be a collaboration, Jerusalem is the senior partner. Note that Christianity certainly raises up the individual but not individualism per se. It also does the same for free will, which is necessary, but not sufficient, for freedom.

The natural law tradition [of Aristotle and the Stoics] was picked up by [Thomas] Aquinas and the [Spanish] Scholastics. [They] rediscovered [the] use of reason [to] discover natural law [or] laws of reality, which includes laws of ethics, and which also put a firm limit on the state. In other words, the state may not invade a sphere or rights … of each individual. (p. 24)

The Christian version of natural law is perhaps the strongest ethical defense of human liberty, definitely more sound than the ancient Greek version, and the same even goes for Hoppe’s Argumentation Ethic from the late 1980s. The reason is that if a perfect and loving God will not force any individual to obey His will or to believe in Him, even for his or her own good or to stop evil, then how can an imperfect and unloving government be justified in doing in an unlimited manner? That establishes God over government.

In addition to … setting up a sphere of individual rights and limiting the government … if you really believe in natural law, you believe there are natural limits to man’s omnipotence or individuals’ omnipotence. They don’t believe in natural law and anything goes, you can do anything, you can conquer the world or whatever without any ill consequence. That’s another reason why natural law is important. (p. 28)

Following on from #3 above, the Christian version of natural law is also perhaps the strongest economic defense of human liberty. Because of original sin and the fall of the human race, physical entropy and economic scarcity came into play. They assure that humans cannot create utopia or Heaven through their own works; we have a far better shot at creating dystopia or Hell on earth. Free markets not only tend to mitigate human hubris and violence, but also facilitate human understanding and cooperation.

Obviously, there’s been trade in every civilization, but real [market] capitalism … comes in only in Western Europe, and what is it that made it so? [Jean Beckler] pinpoints the fact that power was decentralized [under the] feudalists. … Beckler says, “The expansion of capitalism owes its origin and its raison d’etre to [this] political anarchy.” … And particularly, it’s no coincidence, according to Beckler, that the real expansion of capitalism comes in the 11th century … which coincides with [Pope] Gregory VII’s magnificent smashing of the power of the state. (pp. 25-26)

He not only correctly challenges one of the sacred cows of mainstream leftist thinking, he also does the same to mainstream right-wing thought. On the Left, he challenges the notion that it took the Renaissance followed by the rise of modern science to then bring forth capitalism. On the Right, he disputes the parallel view that it instead took the Reformation followed by the rise of the Protestant work ethic.

Catholicism had a firm check on state power throughout the Middle Ages and later. And the other, I think, important thing is the Catholic Church was a transnational check on state law. … I don’t want to go out on a limb, but I think it’s the only case in history where the church and state were not the same. … And most intellectuals throughout history have been churchmen. The idea of a lay intellectual comes only in the last couple hundred years. … [After] the Protestant Reformation … many of the Protestant churches become state churches. The Anglican Church of course being a total state church. (p. 25)

Following on from #5 above, he challenges the common belief amongst most economists and many others that the Catholic Church was some sort of timeless bastion of anti-capitalist thought or, at least, compared to the Protestant churches. Both Catholic and Protestant thinkers have made major, positive contributions to liberty and economics – the former for much longer, from Thomas Aquinas and Augustine through to G.K. Chesterton and Fulton Sheen. The latter for much shorter, including from the English Levelers and American Revolutionaries through to C.S. Lewis and John Lennox.

It’s only [amongst] the Calvinists that [the] labor theory of value flourished. Calvinists believe in a divine obligation for labor. In other words, almost that labor is an end in itself. Catholic thinkers tend to be in favor of consumption, moderate enjoyment, and labor as a means to an end, which is more of the economic way of looking at it, so to speak. Whereas the Calvinists tend to be anti-enjoyment, and want to keep consumption limited to a minimum. … As we’ll see, the first real Labor Theory of Value person was [Adam] Smith [who was allegedly a Neo-Calvinist]. (pp. 23-24)

Following on from #5 and #6 above, the atheist Left has often portrayed Christianity (both Protestant and Catholic), in a broad sense, as being anti-intellectual, whilst the atheist Right has often portrayed Christianity (mainly Catholicism), in a more narrow sense, as being anti-economics. He not only (plying an overused and abused word by today’s Left) debunks the latter assertion; he further weakens the former.

I find theology fascinating because it’s sort of a deductive system, something like praxeology, except of course the axioms are different. But once you have the axioms, you can spin almost the whole thing out. And you can talk about coherent deductive systems versus incoherent. … [O]ne slight difference in axioms – another thing about theology as a deductive system – one seemingly unimportant difference in the axioms can cause tremendous differences in political or social conclusions. … [That includes both] creatology, the science of the first days … [and] eschatology, namely [the] science of the last days. (pp. 30-31)

Just like the false choice between nature or nurture, better understanding the natural or spiritual realm requires both deduction and induction, as well as abduction. Having said that, C.S. Lewis wrote in his all-time classic Mere Christianity: “There is one thing, and only one, in the whole universe which we know more about than we could learn from external observation. That one thing is Man. We do not merely observe men, we are men. In this case we have, so to speak, inside information.” He wrote those words in 1952, around the same time that Ludwig von Mises published Human Action (1949).

The orthodox Christian position is that [a perfect] God created the universe out of pure love. … The mystical approach is that [an imperfect] God created the universe out of felt need, out of what Mises would’ve called felt uneasiness – God was lonesome. … [The latter view is] progressive, because God then can develop his perfection, and [collectivist] man can develop his perfection. … The bad side is [collectivist] man is now separated from God for the first time. Alienated. (pp. 32-33)

The orthodox Christian view (happily from both traditional Catholics and conservative Protestants) is not only the correct theological view, but it is also the most compatible with free-market capitalism. The mystical Christian view (sadly from both liberation theology Catholics and Social Gospel Protestants) is not only the incorrect theological view, but it is also the most compatible with welfare-state socialism. As Rothbard has pointed out elsewhere, Karl Marx was more mystical than most think. This is because Marx (like so many of the New Atheists) did not so much disbelieve in God as he hated God. This situation is not too dissimilar to fellow German philosopher of his age, Friedrich Nietzsche, or a certain fallen angel prior to all earthly ages.

The problem of evil, of course, as we all know, is if God is good and omnipotent, how come you have evil in the world? … The orthodox Christian solution is that man is created, individuals are created with free will, who are free to choose good or evil. … The mystical solution [is that] there is no evil. All seeming evil is really part of a good process, a process of the [Hegelian-Marxist] dialectic, which ends up in a mighty fusion of the blobs … sort of like a Whig theory in some crazy way. (p. 35)

In support of the orthodox view over the mystical, C.S. Lewis wrote: “Because free will, though it makes evil possible, is also the only thing that makes possible any love or goodness or joy worth having [whereas] a world of automata – of creatures that worked like machines – would hardly be worth creating.” And as Fulton Sheen might add: “Human life is ‘supernatural’ in relation to animal life, for [humans have] free will, which animals have not.”

Then, finally – we start off with this unity, and then we have a separation, alienation, and then we have a final culmination of history – here of course we get an eschatology – will be a reunion of man and God. … [Under the mystical approach,] the individual is nothing – individual people are just atoms in this whole thing. So man and God will be united in some cataclysmic species unity. Each individual will also be united with every other individual in one blob. (pp. 33-34)

Orthodox Christianity agrees with the concept of human “separation” from God and the Garden of Eden in the wake of original sin and the fall of the human race. But it disagrees with individuals ever being any sort of “one blob” or “unity” with God, either pre- or post-history. Instead, it posits that every person is singular and eternal. The only question is whether one will be resurrected bodily after death to spend eternity with Christ. Note that both science and revelation agree that this earth and universe will end – the former, due to our sun going out, followed sometime later by The Big Crunch; the latter, with the Return of the King (as famous Catholic writer J.R.R. Tolkien would call it).

One of my favorite writers of all time is G.K. Chesterton. … H.L. Mencken, who’s also my favorite writer. (pp. 34-35)

H.L. Mencken is a legend of liberty but when it comes to Christianity he is, at best, off-track and, at worst, just off. For example, he once said, “Religion is fundamentally opposed to everything I hold in veneration – courage, clear thinking, honesty, fairness, and, above all, love of the truth.” A love of truth doesn’t mean one has found truth, much less the Truth. Mencken’s contemporary, G.K. Chesterton, retorted, “I do not feel any contempt for an atheist, who is often a man limited and constrained by his own logic to a very sad simplification.” Chesterton humorously added: “If there were no God, there would be no atheists.”

Despite being a lifelong atheist, in this 1986 lecture Murray Rothbard showed not only respect for the positive ethical role played by Christianity in general and Roman Catholicism in particular over the history of Western civilization, but also for the key logical contributions made to the foundations of free people and free markets everywhere. In a 1991 letter extracted here, Rothbard went a little further by saying, “Even though I am not a believer, I hail Christianity, and especially Catholicism, as the underpinning of liberty.”

Darren Brady Nelson

Darren Brady Nelson is the chief economist at LibertyWorks, writes for Townhall, and is a policy advisor at the Heartland Institute. He is also a regular commentator in traditional and online Australian and American media. His main influences include the Austrian school of economics, common law, and Christian apologetics.