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Review: A Bible Based View of Liberty and Free Governments

It is often said that libertarians arrive at their views from different routes. Some by Ron Paul (a conservative Christian), others by Ayn Rand (a devout atheist), others still through studying economics or history. Some grow up in libertarian homes. We are all on a journey, and those of us who call ourselves libertarians (whether we assume that title proudly or apprehensively) often criss-cross each other along the way.

Joseph Charles Putnam has recently self-published a book titled A Bible Based View of Liberty and Free Governments. Putnam definitely comes at his libertarian-leaning viewpoints from a different route than I have. Putnam describes himself as “limited government ‘Constitutional’ libertarian,” and his book is a manifesto of his viewpoint on Scripture and its relationship to liberty.

Putnam makes no qualms about his commitment to the AV1611 translation of the Bible, more popularly known as the King James Version, as well as a reliance upon Webster’s 1828 English dictionary. As a fundamentalist Christian looking to find God’s expectations for humans, he has a thorough knowledge of the English text of Scripture, and cites it throughout the book.

Putnam begins by describing three ways in which God has worked throughout history: Pre-Law, Law of Moses, and the age of Grace (within which we now live). By working his way through the Old and New Testaments, Putnam makes his case for why God gave Moses the Torah for Israel, why that no longer applies today (though he often refers to it as an example of God’s expectations for law today), and why Jesus only endorsed the punishment of crimes for which there was a victim. He also makes the case that the Pre-Law record of Scripture endorses a protection of life, liberty, and property. Further he notes that since this pre-dates the Law of Moses, a Christian cannot say that it is part of what was abolished when the Law of Moses was abolished.

Putnam bases his personal beliefs about liberty on three authorities: the AV1611 translation of the Bible (minus the Apocrypha), Webster’s 1828 dictionary, and the United States Constitution (which he believes is a pretty good charter for human government). He is charitable enough to recognize that his personal beliefs may or may not coincide with the personal beliefs of other Christians or libertarians. Yet he also makes the case on several issues, most notably abortion, that Christians ought to be united on some of them (he says Paul wouldn’t be a member of the Libertarian Party because of its evil stance on abortion!). Throughout, however, Putnam inserts the adjective “biblical” on something not found in the biblical text (though perhaps not in conflict with it), but rather supported more firmly by the Constitution or Webster’s 1828 than the Bible itself.

According to Putnam, a legitimate government can be summed up this way:

“First, all governments are formed by man for the protection of the life, liberty, and property of man. The only law of God specifically enforceable by man’s governments is capital punishment for murder; however, God clearly approves of defensive war and defense against and punishment of people who attack, steal from, or kidnap others. Authoritarian rule is not condoned by the Holy Bible. The Law of Moses is removed. The only legitimate function of government is the administration of justice. The only legitimate taxes are customs/imposts, excises, and tribute; and these must be an amount that is not oppressive. People are to rule their governments; governments are not to rule their people. All wealth redistribution and socialism programs are theft and are Biblically illegitimate. Government is not God!”

Putnam shares a wide variety of views that most libertarians and Christian libertarians would affirm. He is against fiat currency, the drug war, the income tax, government-run schools, the illegality of prostitution, and other similar causes. Though he arrived at these positions by quite a different route from other libertarian Christians, that we share those positions I can be thankful. Also, his stance on the role of government is likely a fresh voice from within his own conservative church community.

One difference between myself and Putnam is his belief that the gospel is a spiritual reality but not a physical one. He bases this on the “not of this world” comments made by Jesus about the Kingdom of God. While it is true that the Kingdom is not from this world (i.e. it is not built upon that which is power but of love), the Kingdom of God is no doubt for this world (read N.T. Wright’s How God Became King and Simply Jesus for a detailed discussion on this). Wrestling with the nuances as ways in which this Kingdom viewpoint applies today is nearly absent in Putnam’s treatment. I would contend that if Jesus came to earth “at the fullness of time,” God’s choice in doing so when statements such as “Jesus is Lord” and “Kingdom of God” were inherently political was deliberate on God’s part. Jesus’s Kingdom wasn’t just about some spiritual reality over a physical one (a la gnosticism). Why else would we be commanded to pray that God’s Kingdom come “on earth as it is in heaven”? Jesus came to this world and for this world. How we place a philosophy of liberty within that paradigm is essential to a strong and vibrant defense of liberty without compromising a theology of the Kingdom.

If you are a conservative/fundamentalist Christian, Putnam’s layout of a defense for liberty will be a great asset to you. If you know conservative Christians who are inclined to support the state based on erroneous readings of certain Scripture passages, this might help them rethink their views. Putnam’s book is helpful for understanding one way of coming to view liberty as essential for society. Because many Christians do not fully agree with KJV-only positions and strict literalist readings (which is historically a new philosophy of interpretation), Putnam may remain unconvincing. For those unconvinced by his book, there are, of course, others to which one could refer: Sirico’s The Moral Case for a Free Economy, Schansberg’s Turn Neither to the Right nor to the Left, Opitz’s Libertarian Theology of Freedom, or Cobin’s Christian Theology of Public Policy.