Two weeks have passed since I traveled to Virginia to debate at Patrick Henry College. I think it is about time to give you an account of what happened!

First, the back-story… I was contacted a few months ago by Chris at Patrick Henry College. Chris was the President of the Wilberforce Society at PHC. He had read a few of my essays on LCC about government and marriage, and felt that I would be a good candidate for a debate to be held at PHC between a libertarian and a conservative regarding government regulation of marriage. I was a bit skeptical at first; I even wondered if I was being “set up” for a takedown. Indeed, why select me of all people? I am not a big name guy, I do not have a huge reputation. But Chris was immensely kind, well-spoken, and transparent about everything. He said that they specifically wanted me because I do not adhere to the perfect “party line” of promoting state-regulated gay marriage, but rather challenge the entire institution of the government itself and its power to regulate marriage. He said that this was the conversation he found most compelling and wanted to bring me in to talk about it.

At that point, I tentatively accepted but we had some issues nailing down a date – and things just continued to get crazier for both of us. Thankfully, we were able to come to an agreement and we set everything in motion. My debate opponent was to be Dr. Allan Carlson of the Howard Center For Family, Religion, and Society. Thus, on November 16th, I took an early flight to Washington, D.C. Besides the ritual groping I always seem to earn at the airport, it was a nice flight. Chris and I had lunch together and discussed politics, education, and our mutual faith. In fact, he was so excited about the event that he could not help but interrogate me about what I was intending to say in the debate. So, I had a warm-up Q&A session before the main show.

The debate was a fairly standard format – but since this was my first time doing a serious formal debate, nothing was standard for me and it shows! The resolution for the debate read, “Resolved: That the government should define marriage as between one man and one woman.” Dr. Carlson and I were both given 15 minutes for an opening statement with him (the affirmative) starting, followed by rebuttals of 5 and 6 minutes for each of us, and Dr. Carlson receiving an opportunity for a counter-rebuttal of 1 minute. Then, we were to have a 30 minute Q&A from the audience.

My remarks were centered around three central points:

  1. Government definition of marriage is unnecessary. This is my “historical” point. Marriage did quite well for millennia without any government help or definition.
  2. Federal Government definition of marriage, in particular, is unconstitutional. This is my “Appeal to the American in You” point. Constitutional conservatives, on their own terms, do not have the grounds for demanding the Federal Government step in and define marriage.
  3. The power to define marriage is a power that no government should have. This is my “ethical” point. A government powerful enough to define things the way you like is also powerful enough to take all your definitions away. Moreover, it becomes precedent for all kinds of terrible positive law.

Following these points, I presented a positive case for what the Church in particular can do to support marriage and fundamental liberty without appealing to the government to take action at all.

The video, shown below, is 75 minutes long, so if you want to watch everything at once be sure to set aside a bit of time for it! I will warn you ahead of time that I did have some rough spots, but overall I think it was a good learning experience for all.



Video streaming by Ustream

(Permanent link to the Ustream page, in case the embedding doesn’t work at some point.)

A few post-mortem thoughts…

I probably researched what Dr. Carlson has written on marriage more than he did of my own writings. I basically outflanked him with his own material. I felt that his rebuttal was fairly weak and did not truly answer some of my fundamental objections to the conservative position. Despite some of my own foul-ups in my discussion, I thought the Q&A was pretty spectacular, albeit I really need to become better versed in common law traditions so I can talk more intelligently on specifics!

In the end, it was clear that Dr. Carlson had much trust in government power, and, on the other hand, I had absolutely zero trust in it. Let the conservatives and libertarians take heed. I like Dr. Carlson and have a lot of respect for his work, but I do believe he has too much faith in government.

One last thing you do not see in the video is the “afterward” of the debate. At the conclusion, I had a large number of students immediately come to the front desiring to continue the conversation. I spent over an hour and a half talking with students about libertarianism, theology, marriage, culture, and policy. From what I could tell, Dr. Carlson did not quite garner the same kind of after-debate audience. It somewhat reminded me of the end of the second Keynes-Hayek Rap Video, and certainly suggests that the intellectual tide of these young people is turning toward liberty. Or, at the very least, they are very curious!

So what did you think? Let me know in the comments.
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Dr. Norman Horn

Norman founded LibertarianChristians.com and the Libertarian Christian Institute, and currently serves as its President and Editor-in-Chief. He holds a PhD in Chemical Engineering from the University of Texas at Austin and a Master of Arts in Theological Studies from the Austin Graduate School of Theology. He currently is a Postdoctoral researcher in Chemical Engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
  • Thanks Norman. I am going to make some time to listen to this; I think LCC, along with ReformedLibertarian.com, LewRockwell.com, Mises.org, Antiwar.com, FFF.org (and several others, though these are some main resources), are among the best libertarian sites out there. I will recommend this to everyone and post it on my blog: letterofliberty.blogspot.com

  • Thanks for your support, Anand, you are very kind!

  • Had I been the area, I would have love to have attended. Sounds like you did a jam-up job.

  • DebbieM

    What a wonderful opportunity…PHC has a reputation for being a very statist/conservative institution…..

  • Agreed. It is headed by the conservative michael farris, who also happens to be founder of the Homeschool Legal Defense Association (HSLDA). He is an important member of the Christian Right movement.

  • David

    I’m most likely going to Patrick Henry next year. I’m happy to hear you were well-received. As you probably know by now, I’m a full blown ancap at this point.

    I currently attend a public community college. Talking to Christians in my own generation, rather than the older generations, is giving me a glimmer of hope. Its a small sample size, but I strongly believe the next generation’s :”right wing” is going to be more libertarian, or at least anti-war conservatives.

  • I am not an anarcho-capitalist yet like Norman Horn and Laurence Vance are, but I am sympathetic to it. I am more of a classical radical libertarian that supports minimal government at the federal, state, and local levels. I also believe in secession.

    And maybe these new Christians might discover Rothbard, Mises, the classical-liberal tradition, libertarianism, Austrian School economics, Laurence Vance, LewRockwell.com and all the other wonderful libertarian stuff, both irreligious and Christian.

  • David

    I was a minarchist at one point as well, but I can’t really defend the idea that the government should actually do a handful of things while saying it is wrong for them to do others logically. Logically, all taxation would and should fall under “theft.”

  • john lind

    Norman, I just watched the debate and I think you presented your position admirably. What always amazes me is when conservatives will make comments like your opponent did along the lines of ‘libertarianism sounds good idealogically but won’t work in the real world’ as if the State is currently a great success!

    Also, the argument that the State should be involved in marriage for the benefit of the third party in the contract (the unborn child per your opponent) is pretty scary when one sees how well the State has protected millions of unborn children through its endorsement of abortion.

  • I thought he really sealed the deal with that comment because it begs the question as to how anything worked without the nation-state before it existed. And thus, all I had to do was appeal to some obvious historical accounts and the point is mine.

  • Yes. And when I was debating on libertarianism with someone, I was receiving this complaint from my dad: that those libertarians of the time were writing in an era where they didn’t have to deal with the massive sinfulness of civilization (like say, porn, prostitution, abortion, mass sexual immorality, and all those evils that are modern Western libertine culture)

  • Now I am a proud ancap, a newbie, but a proud anarcho-capitalist.