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On the Consistency of Christian Libertarianism

Two weeks ago I wrote an initial post critiquing Joe Carter of the Acton Institute for his ill-conceived criticism of libertarianism, and specifically the idea of libertarianism from a Christian point of view. In this post, I will continue to make the case that Carter simply does not understand libertarianism properly and is woefully misinformed about Christian libertarianism in particular.

Carter curiously wrote in What is a Christian Libertarian? that he does not really understand what it means to be a Christian libertarian. He then proceeds to give five conjectures about how he thinks people use the term. I will not address his types labeled #2 through #5 because they are basically ridiculous and have no semblance at all to what Christian libertarianism is truly about. Those types could be equally applied to any other political philosophy – yes, even his dearly held conservatism – so I do not see it as having much substance worth addressing. (Also, I want to note Jacqueline Otto’s apt response Four Things Christian Libertarians Believe, which I recommend.)

Moreover, he clearly had never heard of LibertarianChristians.com beforehand, nor had he noticed how many hard core libertarians like Lew Rockwell or Tom Woods or Robert Murphy or Ron Paul are also hard core Christians. This leads us to Type #1, which is where he begins to sound sensible, if still relatively unaware of the facts.

Type #1 Those who have developed a consistent philosophy in which libertarianism and Christianity are fully compatible. – Although I’m not sure I’ve ever met a Type 1—and I’m not sure it’s even possible—I believe this is the ideal use of the term.

Just because you haven’t met one doesn’t mean they don’t exist, but I am glad he admits that this ought to be the standard for the term.

Of course no one is going to be have a perfectly consistent religio-political worldview. But this should be our goal. And if we find that it’s nearly impossible to resolve the tensions between the two (as with Christian Marxism), then the intellectually respectable choice would be two abandon one or the other.

The trouble with being a Type 1 Christian libertarian is that it appears to limit the types of Christian views you can hold. For instance, I’m not sure it’s possible to be a politically consistent Catholic and politically consistent libertarian since the social doctrines of the Catholic Church are often antithetical to libertarian doctrines. (But I could be wrong.)

Not only could you be wrong to say such, you would be wrong. Again, see how Lew Rockwell and Tom Woods have dealt with this in their writings on Catholic social doctrine, especially Tom Woods’s book The Church and the Market.

The most obvious possibility for integration is a form of Two Kingdoms theology. If I were a libertarian trying to integrate my political views with my faith, that is where I would start.

Kudos to Carter, the background theology of much of what I write about has a lot of similarity to the Two Kingdoms theology.

But that leads me to a primary complaint I have with most libertarians: They often work backwards from a desire or grievance to the development of their core principles. Christians, on the other hand, must start with principles derived from the Bible and/or Christian tradition and work their way forward toward a coherent political philosophy. Again, I may be wrong, but I don’t see how starting from Biblical principles you’d end up with any political philosophy that resembled American-style libertarianism.

From my Protestant point of view, his statement about libertarianism “limiting” the “Christian” views I can hold I find completely silly. Of course it “limits” things, as any more specialized knowledge of the universe will do. If I hold a PhD in a scientific field, it definitely puts a “limit” on the types of pure conjectures about science and the universe that I might glean from Scripture. But so what? The Bible is not a scientific textbook, or an economics textbook. All truth is God’s truth, and I fundamentally believe that whatever truth I come to discover in nature will not contradict my Christian beliefs.

Likewise, an understanding from natural ethics that the State is an inherently immoral institution that requires aggression to operate would obviously preclude me from saying that the Bible mandates statism – that is a limitation. But so what? I can come to the same conclusion directly from Scripture as well.

I can see from the Bible that man has a sinful nature, and even if you put the best people in positions of power they will abuse it and rain havoc upon both the good and the evil. The narrative from Scripture clearly shows that the State is not the Kingdom of God and that the State in fact continually stands against it. The narrative from Scripture clearly mandates an ethical code that is voluntary in nature, not aggressive, and no one is given special privileges of position that exempt them from that ethical code. What is Statism but a philosophy that compels one group of people to follow a special, privileged set of people who claim exemption from certain ethical norms?

Perhaps this is not exactly his point, though. I suppose it is also possible that Carter thinks that by affirming “Christian libertarianism” one must also affirm certain immoral actions that have heretofore been made illegal by the State. Nonetheless, these notions are fallacious as well. I do not have to approve of activity X in any moral sense in order to advocate that activity X should not be punitively punished by the State. Libertarians oppose aggression, even when it is used to thwart non-aggressive behaviors that I find morally reprehensible. I can persuade against, preach against, or write against prostitution, but I will not burn down a whore house or throw them all in prison just because I consider it to be immoral.

I’ll admit that I’m intrigued by the idea of Christian libertarianism. But so far I haven’t seen any strong arguments for the philosophy. For instance, in order to be truly Christian, the Christian libertarian would have to resolve the tension between libertarianism’s focus on the individual rights and Christianity’s emphasis on communal obligations.

Some Christian libertarians attempt to do this, of course, but it is often at the expense of their libertarianism. For all its faults, libertarianism is an internally coherent self-contained political ideology. That is one of its chief selling points. Yet when you try to incorporate an alien worldview (such as Christianity) into the system it waters down the philosophy and short circuits its internal consistency. The result is that you have a form of libertarianism that is ad hoc and confused.

Again, just because you have not seen any strong arguments does not mean they are non-existent. Please, spend any amount of time on LibertarianChristians.com and you will see plenty of these arguments.

I wonder if he is confusing libertarianism with Ayn Rand and objectivism, which do in many respects advocate a very different kind of lifestyle than a Christian. If so, then once again I would say that Carter is just downright misinformed about libertarianism in general.

Libertarianism does not claim to give a comprehensive philosophy of life, the universe, and everything. It is a political philosophy focusing on the ethics of aggression and government and the value of voluntary interactions, nothing more. Where is libertarianism’s conflict with Christianity when they essentially say the same things? Unless Carter is assuming that libertarians take on a Randian view of selfishness, then this resolves the tension of individual rights and communal obligations. I am not forced to comply with the discipline of the Church, for instance, but I choose to do so. My obligations come from my voluntary assent. It is as simple as that.

However, if by “communal obligations” Carter means something akin to government-provided safety nets and whatnot, then I defy him to justify why the State should be able to force such “obligations” upon people either by Scripture or natural law.

I am not confused in my libertarian philosophy or my Christianity. I have no king but King Jesus, no allegiance but to the Kingdom of God, no desire for violence upon my fellow man, and no better term that can summarize all of it together as succinctly as Christian libertarianism.