THE UNEASY AND CONTRADICTORY ALLIANCE BETWEEN
LIBERTARIANISM AND CHRISTIANITY
By Nick Gier, Professor Emeritus, Department of Philosophy, University of Idaho
Note: Doug Wilson and Doug Jones are members of Christ Church
and instructors at New St. Andrews College in Moscow, Idaho
See also: Liberals: Take Back the Flag
Religious Liberalism and the Founding Fathers
We Are All Liberals
A Denmark Retrospective: Fond Memories for Me and
41 Years of Socio-Economic Progress for the Danes PDF
Click here for a quick introduction to political philosophy
I first came in
contact with the term “libertarianism” during the Idaho Congressional campaign
of 1972. Steve Symms, under the “philosophical” tutelage of Ralph Smeed of
Caldwell, used this term to describe himself as he ran on the Republican ticket
for Congress. We became acquainted and engaged in a feisty but friendly debate,
mainly through letters. As a congressman he was very helpful in releasing my
FBI files (heavily edited) of my activities during the Vietnam War.
I’ll never forget one of the libertarian sayings I learned from Symms. It goes something like this: “A liberal will let you do anything with your body, but not everything you want to do with your money. A conservative will allow you to do anything you want with your money, but not anything you want to do with your body. A libertarian will allow you to do anything you want with both your body and your money.” The point of this of course is to show that only the libertarians have a consistent political philosophy, one based on maximizing personal liberty.
Most people don’t realize that Symms was pro-choice at that time and also danced around other libertarian issues such as decriminalizing drug use and prostitution. Of course he learned that most libertarian positions did not set well with the Idaho electorate, so he dropped the “body liberty” side of the motto above and called himself a “limited government conservative” for the rest of his quite undistinguished political career.
As a result of my interaction with Symms, I researched the topic and the result was published as a full page article in the Lewiston Morning Tribune (9/22/72). (Those were the days when local newspapers still had space for intellectual discussions!) In that article I used J. S. Mill’s Essay on Liberty as a basis for libertarian political philosophy and critiqued Symms from that standpoint. Dean Wollenweber, a libertarian UI graduate student in economics, was given a full page to respond to me a week later. He was an especially bright forerunner of now retired UI economics professor Jack Wenders.
Sometime in the 1970s James Buckley, the brother of Wm. F. Buckley, spoke at the Borah Symposium. When he called himself a “Christian libertarian,” my immediate response was that this phrase is an oxymoron. To put the contradiction as concisely as possible: libertarians affirm the absolute sovereignty of the self, while orthodox Christians believe in the absolute sovereignty of God. This is why consistent libertarians such Ayn Rand and her followers are atheists.
This brings us to a delicious irony. Doug Wilson and Doug Jones have attacked everything modern, liberal, and secular, and yet libertarianism is one of the most dramatic expressions of these qualities. Indeed, libertarianism, with is emphasis on free market economics and personal liberty is the most radical movement out of classical liberalism. Morphing the fraternite of the French Revolution’s motto as “community,” one can say while the contemporary conservatives emphasize community, the liberal focuses on equality, and the libertarian affirms liberty exclusively. Libertarians and anarchists, their close associates, are the true revolutionaries of the modern age.
The conservatives and liberals who dominate in the world’s liberal democracies operate within the bounds of classical liberalism, and they realize that they have to balance the three values of classical liberalism carefully. In other words, good conservatives, while emphasizing traditional community values, do not give up liberty and equality. Likewise, good liberals, while emphasizing equality, do not lose sight of liberty and community. My main problem with libertarians is that they see no need for balance, and as a result, they threaten the great achievements of classical liberalism.
The achievements of those political parties allied with the Socialist International constitute an empirical disconfirmation of libertarian theory. Democratic Socialist, Social Democratic, and Labor parties around the world have developed the most prosperous and civilized nations in world history. They have broken every libertarian economic rule in the book, but The Economist reports that they outperform the US in nearly all socioeconomic categories.
GNP growth in 2007 for countries on the strong Euro was 2.7
percent vs. the U.S. rate of 2 percent. French now have a productivity rate
equal to ours; and Denmark, Austria, the Netherlands,
Norway, and Switzerland have unemployment rates lower
than the U.S. Of course there is no comparison in
terms of quality of life indices: the lowest crime rates, infant and adult
mortality rates, recidivism rates, and smallest prison populations. Their
schools, heavily unionized and centrally controlled, are some of best in the
But let us return to savor the irony of professed libertarians in the fold of Christ Church. Wilson’s view of the world is premodern and illiberal. He rejects the individualism that classical liberalism celebrates and fosters in the social and personal arenas. Wilson has a premodern view of the self as a subordinate part of a greater whole. The “federal husband” and theocrat demands absolute obedience and tolerates no personal autonomy, the most important element of libertarianism. Wilson rejects the formal equality that all liberal democracies guarantee for their citizens. He also rejects the unfettered personal liberties that libertarians hold dear. Specifically, following the Southern Agrarians, he condemns capitalist economics as modernist and unbiblical.
The Christian libertarian rejects governmental regulations by saying that God is the only authority to which they can submit. Consistent libertarians, however, argue that there can be no submission to any authority except individual conscience. They also maintain that those who live at the government’s largess develop bad habits of dependency that undermine personal initiative and integrity. The Christian libertarian cannot say that dependency is healthy in religion, but turn around to say that the same dependency undermines personal initiative in society. As Wilson himself once taught his UI students, there must be a “unity to truth” what holds in one sphere holds in all others.
Wilson is obviously a classical conservative, or "paleo conservative"as he calls it, a view that affirms a natural hierarchy of top males who have a divine right to rule over other men and women, who are not equal and have only limited freedoms. He can also be called a premodern communitarian, a view that affirms traditional community values but rejects equality and liberty for all people. This is different from Gandhi’s constructive postmodern village republicanism and of ever-widening, ever ascending circles national and international cooperation. Premodern communitarians expand only by insisting that their own values become universal, whereas Gandhi’s vision is multicultural with tolerance for all religions and beliefs. For more see www.class.uidaho.edu/ngier/nvcv.htm.
As a student of
theology and Christian history, I relish yet another delicious irony. In his
book Evangelicals at an Impasse evangelical Christian Robert Johnston
discusses Biblical economics. He concludes that the Bible does not support "to
each according to merit"; rather, it teaches "to each according to need" (p.
98), the most famous phrase in Marx's philosophy.
This economic communism is found in the Book of Acts: "And all who believed were together and had all things in common; and they sold their possessions and goods and distributed them to all, as any had need" (2:44-45; 4:32-37). When Ananias sold a piece of property and held back some of the money, he was struck down by a God who presumably did not believe in private property. This was not just a temporary or isolated phenomenon, because the Church Father Tertullian, living 200 years later, reported that "we hold everything in common except our wives."
On Reconciling Christianity and Libertarianism
There are two ways to reconcile the differences between libertarianism and Christianity: one can change the definition of liberty, or one can reformulate the concept of divine power. Redefining liberty is the only option that salvages the conservative Christianity that most Christian libertarians support. When classical conservatives speak of liberty, they mean "positive" liberty, a freedom to do what one ought according to a strict moral law, rather than a "negative" liberty, a freedom to do what one wants within a minimal legal framework. As I have indicated above, it is libertarianism, more any modern political philosophy, that has fully embraced negative liberty. Christian "libertarianism" should acknowledge their commitment to positive liberty and always put "scare quotes" around "libertarianism" as a required qualification.
The other way to get libertarianism and Christianity together without contradiction would be to revise the concept of divine power. In an article published in “Process Studies” (Winter, 1991), I argue that there are at least three ways to envision divine power (DP). The first idea (I call it DP1) is divine omnicausality: God is the immediate and originative cause of every event and every thing. This is Luther and Calvin’s view of divine power (and Wilson’s I presume) and means, as they themselves admitted, that human beings have no free will. It also means, as Luther himself admitted, that God is the direct cause of evil as well as good: "Since. . . God moves and actuates all in all, he necessarily moves and acts in Satan." This is a view of divine power that any reasonable being, let alone a consistent libertarian, must reject.
The second view of divine power is DP2. Here God is omnipotent but chooses to delegate power to an independent, self-regulating nature and self-determining moral agents. Such a view has a number of advantages: it makes an autonomous science possible--evolution simply follows the natural laws that God has created--and makes moral responsibility intelligible. (It is significant that in the first edition of Origin of Species, Darwin included an epigraph that supported DP2.) The other advantage for many Christians is that God has veto power. God can recall his delegated power and perform miracles, and can cancel free will and harden the hearts of the Pharaoh and Judas.
There are two problems, however, with DP2: (1) all attempts to make God’s delegation of power intelligible have failed (see my article, Section B); and (2) many believe that divine veto power undermines personal autonomy and integrity even if it is never used. (But in orthodox Christianity it is indeed used.) This has led process and feminist theologians to propose DP3, a view of divine power that gives God all possible power that is compatible with a truly self-regulating nature and fully self-determining agents. (Indeed, if things do not have power that is truly their own, then they cease to exist as independent things. Ironically, DP1 and DP2 imply pantheism, the greatest of all Christian heresies!) In DP3 there is no federal husband/father in the sky that demands absolute obedience and the surrender of our wills and our autonomy.
So Christian libertarians have some hard choices to make if they are to be logically consistent and preserve their personal integrity. Evangelical theologian Carl Henry states categorically that DP2 and by implication DP3 are not biblical, but if this is so we should be ashamed of what the Bible says, because all people love their freedom and want equal freedom and opportunity for others. I personally do not want Christian libertarians to give up their belief in God, so I heartily welcome them to embrace the DP3 God of their choice. And they do not have to put "scare quotes" around libertarianism. And A Happy Free Willing to All!
A Postscript on Four Wheeling. The three types of divine power can be expressed nicely by an analogy with driving a car. This analogy does not come out very well for DP1. Here God is the driver and I have kiddy seat with a plastic steering wheel, clutch, brake, and accelerator pedal. I am going through the motions of driving, but God obviously is still in complete and direct charge of the car. In DP2 the vehicle is a driver training car equipped with dual controls. I am at my wheel and God is letting me drive, but he can intervene and take control of the car at any time. (Please note that if I drive into a bus loaded with school children and kill them all, God is just as responsible as I am.) In DP3 I have an ordinary car, I’m in complete control of the car, and God is a very persuasive “back seat” driver.