As has been noted elsewhere, I am a recent ‘convert’ to the political philosophy of Libertarianism. This has raised questions from some of my more conservative Christian friends as to why I would embrace a political philosophy that advocates for (among other things) drug legalization and gay marriage. How could a Christian, a conservative, Bible-believing, evangelical, embrace Libertarianism? I have written elsewhere on the compatibility of Christianity and Libertarianism, but I want to expand on that a bit here and suggest that not only is Libertarianism compatible with Christianity, but Libertarianism is the only political philosophy that makes sense for a Christian to hold. That’s a pretty bold statement to make, and I’m sure I will get some push back for it. All I ask is that if you disagree with me, please take the time to discern why you disagree with me; examine your theological and political presuppositions and make sure your politics agrees with your theology. I have often said on this blog that American Christians are far too American and not enough Christian when it comes to social and political discussions.
Let’s begin with what Libertarianism is not. Libertarianism is not to be confused with Libertinism. Libertinism is a moral philosophy, not a political philosophy. A Libertine is one who essentially operates without moral principles, especially in matters of sexual behavior. A Libertine typically rejects accepted opinions on matters of religion; they are sometimes referred to as free thinkers (an oxymoron from a Christian worldview). Here is a good rule of thumb when considering Libertinism and Libertarianism: Most (if not all) Libertines are Libertarians, but not all Libertarians are Libertines. It is true that some Libertarians advocate for drug legalization and recognition of gay marriage, but not all. It is important to not confuse the two; when people do, in an attempt to argue against Libertarianism, they erect straw men and argue in a disingenuous manner.
Libertarianism, on the other hand, is a political philosophy, not a moral philosophy. Libertarianism is a theory on the appropriate use of force. It operates on the Non-Aggression Principle (NAP). The NAP basically states that it is immoral for one party to initiate aggression against another party’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. In the political realm, the NAP should apply to the State (government) as it does to individuals; the State does not have the right, in a Libertarian society, to initiate violence to its citizens through violence, theft or fraud.
How does the State violate the NAP? The State violates the NAP in many ways (ways that seem normal to many of us). The State violates the NAP by initiating physical violence on its citizenry. Ever see footage of the police beating down a crowd of protesters? Ever hear stories of police brutality? The State violates the NAP through the incarceration of non violent offenders. Why are drug users and ‘white collar’ criminals locked up alongside murderers and rapists? The State violates the NAP through theft in the form of taxation or through illegal seizures of private property for various reasons. The State violates the NAP through fraud by promising much and delivering little (or nothing). The State commits fraud through the devaluing of our currency. Every time the State prints money, it devalues the money that is currently in circulation. Our money — yours and mine — doesn’t buy nearly as much as it once did because prices had to rise to match the ever growing supply of money in circulation.
Based on the NAP, Libertarianism argues for the smallest government possible. The State should be large enough to protect each person’s right to life, liberty and property, but not large enough to violate any person’s right to life, liberty or property without just cause. The United States of America was founded on Libertarian (Classical Liberal) principles. Our Constitution is a document that sets out a limited government. The reason for this is that in all of recorded human history, governments have abused the rights of the people for their own selfish gain. In an attempt to remain in power and even expand that power, governments have engaged in the most vile abuses of human rights ever recorded: Wars, theft, incarceration, subjugation, slavery, etc. When the founders wanted to establish a new government, they wanted to establish one upon the principles of Classical Liberalism, which were gaining ground during that time period.
The concept that government served the people, not the reverse, was a radical idea at the time. However, that concept should not be so radical to a Christian worldview. The Bible often speaks of servant leadership in many areas of life. The household codes found in Ephesians 5:21 – 6:9 and Colossians 3:18 – 4:1 lay out the duties and responsibilities for both parties in household authority structures. Husbands may be the head of the household, but they’re to lead by serving their wives. Masters may rule over slaves, but they’re to do so justly and fairly. In the church, the people are to submit to the leadership of the elders, but that leadership is based on a foundation of service, not lordship. Our Lord himself said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. It shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave, even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Matthew 20:25-28). Jesus is King of kings and Lord or lords, yet his model of leadership was based on service, not lordship.
Government is not wrong or evil, yet as a result of the fall, our sinful state seeks to “exercise authority” over others, not serve them. The founding fathers knew this, which is why they developed a government that was limited in scope and power, so that power wouldn’t grow and be abused. Freedom and liberty are not easy! It requires a certain level of faith in your neighbor that he won’t a) infringe upon your freedom and liberty, and b) won’t abuse or misuse his own freedom and liberty. Government then must be able to a) protect the rights and liberties of its citizens from the infringement of others, and b) allow people to face the consequences of their poor choices.
The problem is that most governments (even the United States) don’t do enough of either. Instead of protecting our right to life, liberty and property, the State seeks to enforce a certain way of life that those in power believe to be good, moral and true. Instead of allowing people to face the consequences of their poor choices, the State seeks to shield and protect certain favored groups at the expense of non-favored groups. This is true whether (in the United States) you’re liberal or conservative, democrat or republican. The left/right divide is not principally one of more government control vs. less government control, but one of in what way does government control your life. The political left typically wants to reduce government control over your life in personal areas while at the same time expanding its control over your life in economic areas. Hence the left tends to support large tax burdens to fund massive government programs that seek to level the playing field economically; they take from the “haves” and give to the “have nots.” On the other hand, the political right tends to want to reduce government control in economic areas, but expand it in personal areas. Hence the right seeks to reduce the tax burden and reduce (or eliminate) many government social programs, while at the same time, they seek to control how you live your life.
What if the left/right divide is a false dilemma? What if the choices aren’t between economic freedom vs. personal freedom, but more freedom in both areas and less government control in both areas? In other words, what if the more important governing principle was maximizing individual liberty instead of using the power of government to remake society in one’s own image — whether from the right or the left? That’s what both the left and the right do — they utilize the machinery of the State to reorder society in the way they see fit. However, the Libertarian — who is neither right nor left — sees individual liberty as the primary governing principle. It’s not a question of how can I reshape society to my ideal, but how can I give people the maximum amount of freedom and liberty to determine their own ideal life. That’s what Libertarianism is all about!
Now why should Christians embrace Libertarianism as a political philosophy? Simply put: The church is not the state. Christians want to see the world become a more moral and righteous place, and that is not a bad desire. However, they tend to want to use the mechanism of the State to accomplish that. That’s why you have numerous political action committees (PACs) that seek to promote a Christian worldview through political means. Whether it’s marriage or homosexuality or pornography or substance abuse, there is a tendency to think that if these things were illegal, the world would be a better, more moral place. Yet Christians should be the first people to know that the law cannot make a person righteous. More rules and regulations will do nothing to change the human heart, which apart from the grace of God, is evil and desperately wicked. With Yahweh as their King and the Ten Commandments as their guide, the ancient Israelites still sank into wickedness and immorality, and were eventually evicted from the Promised Land.
Neither the liberal agenda nor the conservative agenda will ever serve God’s agenda! Christians should be more concerned with what society will provide the best opportunity for the Church to be the Church. As a side note, because Christianity is a-political, it can thrive under any governmental system; however, for our discussion, I am more interested in which governmental system provides the best environment for Christianity to thrive? I would argue that a Libertarian society is the one best suited for allowing the Church to be the Church. Here are two reasons why I think so:
- A Libertarian society provides the maximum personal liberty for all citizens, including Christians, which would allow them to worship and practice their faith freely and unhindered by government rules and regulations
- Libertarianism, because it’s not a moral philosophy, will not enforce any particular moral code upon the rest of society. As such, Christians would be free to practice and preach their moral code without fear of running afoul of some politically correct government zealots.
The trade off with a Libertarian society is that by maximizing individual liberty, you are allowing people to lead whatever life they see fit as long as they don’t infringe upon another’s individual liberties. Because according to the Biblical worldview all people are inherently sinful, allowing them the liberty to live their lives as they see fit will manifest in various expressions of human sinfulness — from the outwardly moral person who rejects God for whatever reason to the most licentious and depraved person. There are, as I see it, two ways a Christian can respond to this:
- Attempt to use the power of the State to regulate a Biblical morality
- Limit the power of the State to protecting the rights and liberties of all individuals and leave morality to communities, families and churches
I reject option #1 because the tools of the State are a double-edged sword that can, and will, cut both ways. Witness the recent kerfuffle over President Obama endorsing Same Sex Marriage (SSM). If SSM indeed becomes the ‘law of the land,’ then churches could lose their tax exempt status (or worse) if they refuse to perform same sex weddings on religious grounds. It is patently obvious that the LGBT lobby is more than willing to pillory anybody who opposes their agenda on moral or religious grounds. Moreover, there are already instances of hate crime charges being brought upon pastors who preach that homosexuality is a sin. In a Libertarian society, marriage would not be defined by the State; allowing the State to define marriage gives it the ability to redefine it as it sees fit. If we allow the State to dictate morality, then it is not only possible, but inevitable given the depravity of man, that the State will dictate a morality that is not only offensive to Christianity, but one that marginalizes and persecutes Christianity.
Therefore, option #2 is the only rational choice for Christians to make. The power of the State must be limited to essentially maintaining justice and protecting the rights and liberties of all citizens. Let’s face it, Christianity was never meant to be a ‘top down’ operation, but a ‘bottom up’ operation. A society becomes more moral by changing the hearts and minds of individuals, not by imposing a morality from above.
Therefore, if Christians are interested in building the Kingdom of God in this world and want to advocate for a more moral society, then I argue that the best way to do this is to advocate for a Libertarian society and work within the God ordained means of the church (word, sacrament and evangelism) to make the world a more moral place as hearts and minds are being sanctified by Word and Spirit. The Kingdom of God will not come in its fullness as a result of a political revolution where Christians take over the reigns of political power, but as a result of the glorious return of King Jesus at the end of this wicked age. Until then, let us work together to build a more free society!
Soli Deo Gloria!