As the title suggests, I am looking at the compatibility of Christianity and Libertarianism. Over the past few weeks, I have been reevaluating my political ideology. The last time I did this was about 11 years ago when I transitioned from politically apathetic to political conservatism (as that is defined in America). As I converted to Christianity in 2001, that conservatism was slightly altered to social conservatism to be more in line with my new found Christian beliefs. I naively thought that all Christian were social conservatives; a belief reinforced by the suburban circles within which I traveled. It never occurred to me that there could be bible-believing Christians who were politically liberal; I had automatically assumed a Christian who was politically liberal was also theologically liberal (which is typically true, but certainly not 100% true).
In regards to libertarianism, I certainly didn’t think a libertarian would even entertain Christianity; libertarians were those who want to legalize marijuana, prostitution, gambling and live in a state-less society. As it stands, this too is a naïve belief. After some lively discussion with a Facebook friend, I began looking into libertarianism (my friend claimed to be a Libertarian Christian, something I was sure was an oxymoron). I took the world’s smallest political quiz and lo-and-behold, I came out libertarian (I scored 80 on “personal” freedom and 100 on “economic” freedom). I figured I needed to do some more research.
Now I want to distinguish political libertarianism from theological libertarianism. Theological libertarianism revolves around the debate of human free will in regards to God’s sovereignty. Libertarian Free Will (against which I have written here) argues that man’s will is autonomous and is able to make decisions that are free in an absolute sense (i.e., undetermined). I believe a consistent biblical view of man’s will argues against man having an autonomous free will. This is not to argue that man’s will isn’t free. Man is free to choose anything he desires to choose. The only caveat is that man’s free will choices fall under the umbrella of God’s eternal sovereign decree.
Political libertarianism doesn’t regard man in relation to God, but man in relation to man in the realm of society. Libertarianism argues that for human society to thrive personal freedom must be maximized and government control must be minimized. Put another way, the more control government has over the lives of the citizenry, the less free the people are. The less free the people are, the less prosperous the society as a whole will be. History bears this out to be true. The most prosperous civilizations have been those that maximized personal freedom and kept government intervention to a minimum.
Political libertarianism operates on a principle called the non-aggression principle. The principle of non-aggression states that it is unethical for a party to initiate aggression against another’s person or property through violence, theft or fraud. Stated positively, a person has the right to life, liberty and property. As such, he is free to do what he wishes as long as he doesn’t infringe on another’s right to life, liberty and property. Libertarianism also favors free market capitalism as the best way to achieve a prosperous society in which people are allowed to freely trade goods and services as well as make mutually agreed upon contracts. As far as the role of government is concerned, government (if it is desired at all) exists solely to protect the rights of individuals and to protect the country as a whole against aggression. As with all ideologies, there are varying flavors of libertarianism ranging from anarchists who argue for a total abolition of the state, to minarchists, who advocate for minimal government (seeing government as a necessary evil). The main libertarian objections to government in general is that governments tend to want to perpetuate their hold on power and can only survive on taxation; which can be argued is a violation of the non-aggression principle (taxation being a form of legalized theft).
That’s all well and good, but what about the social conservatism that marks many Christians (including myself)? How can Christianity, with its strict definitions of sin and its prohibitions against such, be compatible with libertarianism? That’s a good question, and one I struggled with for some time. As a Christian, I have strong views on abortion, homosexuality, substance abuse and other forms of sexual immorality.
For example, I am absolutely pro-life. I believe that abortion is the murder of an innocent life. Yet, an organization such as the United States Libertarian Party basically punts on the issue; refusing to take a stand either way. Some libertarians would argue that a woman has a right to her body (i.e., self-ownership), and if she wants to abort her baby, that’s her choice (the basic pro-choice argument). However, I would argue that to abort that baby is the ultimate violation of the non-aggression principle as it is a violation to that baby’s right to life. What about homosexuality? Again, I believe the bible is quite clear that homosexuality is sin. However, a libertarian stance would be to allow people the freedom to do what they want with their lives, including forming whatever relationships they want to enter into as long as they’re consensual. This means that libertarians would be against the ban on gay marriage. I know many Christians for whom these two issues are show stoppers.
The question I had to ask myself as I studied the issue further is this: Is it right for Christians to force their morality on the nation as a whole through the power of the government? Put another way, is it right for the government to coerce people to follow a moral code with which they don’t agree? With the exception of abortion, I cannot make an argument on libertarian grounds in favor of legislating against the immoral behaviors listed above. There is no reason, on libertarian grounds, to prohibit two homosexuals to “marry.” Additionally, there is no reason, on libertarian grounds, to protect special rights and privileges for heterosexual marriage and withhold them from homosexual relationships. The same can be said for legalizing marijuana, gambling, prostitution, etc. If anything, the libertarian arguments for legalizing marijuana, gambling and prostitution are very strong given our history with prohibition. What happened when alcohol was made illegal? Alcohol went underground and organized crime saw an opportunity. Crime went up and people were still drinking.
Here is where my social conservative friends would say to me: “By legalizing this immoral behavior, aren’t you giving your tacit approval for said behavior? Also aren’t you afraid of societal decay?” After careful consideration, my answers are “no” and “yes” respectively. Libertarianism is all about freedom and liberty, not about legalizing marijuana. Hand in hand with liberty is tolerance for how others decide to use their liberty. I do not approve of marijuana use, gambling or prostitution; all are prohibited in the bible. But I believe freedom is a principle that is more beneficial than legislating a particular moral code. If we value freedom, then we must allow people the ability to abuse that freedom in self-destructive or immoral ways. Tolerating homosexuality is not the same as condoning it; and in a free society, I would have the freedom to speak out against the sin of homosexuality, while at the same time tolerating my homosexual neighbor. In regards to societal decay, there is a chance that permitting such immoral behavior would lead to societal decay; but we’re already witnessing societal decay. And as with alcohol prohibition, the prohibitions against marijuana use, gambling, etc., haven’t prevented people from performing said behaviors. Plus, as with alcohol prohibition, to the extent that drug, gambling and prostitution are illegal, there will always be an organized criminal element involved. The unintended consequences of prohibition are devastating in money spent, lives lost, civil rights violated and property stolen or damaged.
Perhaps for my socially conservative Christian friends an analogy would help. I am a Calvinist. Suppose there was a way for me to be able to enforce the teaching and practice of Calvinism and Reformed Theology in all Christian churches. Would that be right? Would it be right for me to force all those with whom I disagree with theologically to believe the way I do because I’m right and their beliefs are aberrant? Should Christians in general force Jehovah’s Witnesses to reject their heretical views and adopt orthodox Christianity? This was precisely the predicament that came up during the Protestant Reformation. When Luther began distributing the word of God amongst the masses, the Roman Catholic Church protested that to do so would hopelessly fracture the church as each person would be free to interpret the Scriptures for themselves. Luther’s response was that it is better for the bible to be in the hands of the people, than for the people to be under the tyranny of Rome. The church is fractured and there are many bizarre interpretations of the bible, but I would argue that that’s better than everyone blindly following one (mistaken) interpretation. The freedom of having the Scriptures brings with it the freedom to be wrong.
As Christians, we know that the law does not justify; the law can only condemn. We are justified by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. The Protestant Reformers identified three uses of the law: 1) to point out our sin and point us to Christ; 2) to regulate Christian behavior and 3) to restrain sin in civil society. Wait! See! The law can restrain sin in a civil society; therefore, we should legislate a biblical morality! However, most libertarians would agree in general with biblical morality. Murder, theft, lying, adultery are all violations of the non-aggression principle. In fact, most societies have such prohibitions because being made in the image of God we have the law written on our hearts. Many libertarians even like to quote Jesus’ Golden Rule (“Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”). The point being, enforcing a biblical morality on society isn’t going to make society righteous. That only comes through faith in Christ. The unbelieving mind is inherently hostile to the things of God. We already see today, enemies of Christ utilizing the legal system to marginalize Christianity. How long before that marginalization turns to outright persecution? The means Christians would use to enforce a biblical morality are the same means the enemies of Christ would use to ban Christianity. However, in a truly libertarian society, Christians would be free to practice their faith as they see fit – the church would be free to be the church! And as we all know, true freedom is found in Christ and Christ alone!