America’s Christian Libertarian Roots

* Today’s guest post comes from author Samuel Smith.

The United States of America were blessed to be founded on documents that reflect the biblically-informed libertarian worldview of many of their authors. The founding fathers’ study of Scripture and philosophy led them to the inescapable conclusion that man’s rights from God and responsibilities to Him are indispensable and inseparable. Just as fulfilling man’s God-ordained social, material, and spiritual responsibilities requires that man possess certain unalienable rights, so too the security and safety of the liberties that come with those rights depend on the infinite benevolence, omnipotence, and omniscience of a personal creator God. To the extent that man is allowed to live freely within this context, the divinely designed laws of economics (i.e., the positive and negative consequence for freely made decisions) will guide him to enormous prosperity in obedience to God’s command to “be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it” (Genesis 1:28). Therefore, the sole purpose of government is to uphold this rights-responsibilities relationship between God and man by protecting it from forceful interference in a fallen world. This is the basis of Christian libertarianism: governments are subservient to God and therefore cannot grant or take away liberty from individuals or, by extension, institutions. They also cannot create or plan material, social, or spiritual prosperity.

The original thirteen colonies declared their independence by penning this very idea: that man obtains unalienable rights and pursues prosperity through his relationship with his Creator rather than from the state, and that government must therefore not interfere with God’s design. Constitution signer John Dickinson recognized the sacred value of unalienable rights as those “which God gave to you and which no inferior power has a right to take away.” John Adams acknowledged that our liberties are “antecedent to all earthly government” and are “derived from the Great Legislator of the Universe.” The American colonists believed that King George III was not the Romans 13 defined “minister of God for good” but rather a usurper of the sacred rights-responsibilities relationship between the Creator and His creation. While appealing to 1 Samuel 15:23 as his biblical authority, influential colonial minister Jonathan Mayhew said of the king’s Stamp Act: “The king is as much bound by his oath not to infringe the legal rights of the people, as the people are bound to yield subjection to him. From whence it follows that as soon as the prince sets himself above the law, he loses the king in the tyrant. He does, to all intents and purposes, un-king himself.” Reverend Jacob Duché (first chaplain of the Continental Congress) argued in favor of the American position, explaining:

“Inasmuch as all rulers are in fact the servants of the public and appointed for no other purpose than to be “a terror to evil-doers and a praise to them that do well”(c.f., Rom. 13:3), whenever this Divine order is inverted—whenever these rulers abuse their sacred trust by unrighteous attempts to injure, oppress, and enslave those very persons from whom alone, under God, their power is derived—does not humanity, does not reason, does not Scripture, call upon the man, the citizen, the Christian of such a community to “stand fast in that liberty wherewith Christ hath made them free” (Galatians 5:1). The Apostle enjoins us to “submit to every ordinance of man for the Lord’s sake,” but surely a submission to the unrighteous ordinances of unrighteous men, cannot be “for the Lord’s sake,” for “He loveth righteousness and His countenance beholds the things that are just.”

Because of the king of England’s “long train of abuses and usurpations” of the boundaries that God had placed on government, the American colonists believed that it was “their right … their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.”

It is important to note, however, that the colonists emphasized, in declaring their independence from a king-turned-tyrant, they were pursuing liberty by restoring their rights-responsibilities relationship with their Maker to its proper place. In stark contrast to the French Revolution, which overthrew God along with the king in favor of the goddess Reason, American revolutionaries declared as their motto: “We recognize no sovereign but God and no king but Jesus!” George Washington humbly recognized that reason alone was not enough to secure man’s liberty and is credited with observing: “It is impossible to rightly govern a nation without God and the Bible.” He demonstrated understanding of the essential connection between rights and responsibilities when he asked, “Where is the security for prosperity, for reputation, for life, if the sense of religious obligation desert the oaths, which are the instruments of investigation in the Courts of Justice?” Upon the signing of the Declaration of Independence, Samuel Adams rejoiced, “We have this day restored the sovereignty to Whom all men ought to be obedient. He reigns in heaven and from the rising to the setting of the sun, let His kingdom come.” John Quincy Adams later concurred with his relative by observing that “The highest glory of the American Revolution was that it connected in one indissoluble bond the principles of civil government with the principles of Christianity.”

After winning their independence, many in the states exercised care to avoid entering a system in which government would try to “improve” upon God’s designs for society. American founder Benjamin Franklin echoed this sentiment when he wrote: “To relieve the misfortunes of our fellow creatures is concurring with the Deity; it is godlike; but, if we provide encouragement for laziness, and supports for folly, may we not be found fighting against the order of God and Nature, which perhaps has appointed want and misery as the proper punishments for, and cautions against, as well as necessary consequences of, idleness and extravagance? Whenever we attempt to amend the scheme of Providence, and to interfere with the government of the world, we had need be very circumspect, lest we do more harm than good.” Half a century later, political economist Frederic Bastiat expounded upon this view by stating that while socialists claim that their plans are necessary to correct the deficiencies in the designs of God, “If the natural tendencies of mankind are so bad that it is not safe to permit people to be free, how is it that the tendencies of these organizers are always good? Do not the legislators and their appointed agents also belong to the human race? Or do they believe that they themselves are made of a finer clay than the rest of mankind?”

Indeed this was the message of Nimrod, the first great tyrant, as he unified mankind in rebellion against God at the Tower of Babel (Genesis 11:1-4). Jewish historian Josephus described this event in his Antiquities of the Jews:

“Imagining the prosperity they enjoyed was not derived from the favor of God, but supposing that their own power was the proper cause of the plentiful condition they were in, did not obey Him. . . . Now it was Nimrod who excited them to such an affront and contempt of God. . . . He persuaded them not to ascribe it to God as if it was through His means they were happy, but to believe that it was their own courage which procured that happiness. He also gradually changed the government into tyranny, seeing no other way of turning men from the fear of God, but to bring them into a constant dependence upon his power. He also said he would be revenged on God, if He should have a mind to drown the world again; for that he would build a tower too high for the waters to be able to reach! And that he would avenge himself on God for destroying their forefathers!”

Nimrod established the two-part argument for tyranny: (1) God is not a good, perfect Creator and therefore (2) Mankind must turn to a ruling elite to secure their future prosperity and safety. As previously stated, such claims are an affront to Romans 13 which clearly establishes God as superior to and the designer of government, limiting its power to serving the good of society by protecting God’s beautiful design through punishing evil and rewarding good. When a person or organization posing as government steps beyond this simple and limited purpose in an attempt to “fix” God’s design for society, they usurp God’s authority and prove themselves to be tyrants rather than God-ordained government.

In large part due to the rise of Secular Humanism, the inseparable link between our rights and our Creator is sadly a lost concept to many in these United States today. Economist and theologian Dr. Gary North points out in his Economic Commentary on the Bible that though many philosophers, economists, and politicians have brilliantly made the case that liberty and free markets are superior to central planning, they have failed to make the key distinction that liberty is only superior and trustworthy because it is a gift designed by the wisdom of God (Proverbs 8:22-36). Their atheism renders their arguments self-refuting: while they affirm belief in a universe governed by random chance rather than a sovereign, unchanging God, they also declare that the free market is superior because the laws of economics are reliable and unchanging. This inconsistency opens the door for socialists to prey on mankind’s fear of his uncertain future in a purposeless, godless cosmos in their argument for centralized planning. Like Nimrod, they claim that the only way to protect mankind from future calamity is to direct his evolution through the greater wisdom of a global scientific and political elite. Unfortunately, this argument has carried the day, appearing to our increasingly godless society as the only viable solution to man’s imperfections. We see its manifestation in growing centralized government power and economic planning as well as in attempts at global governance and treaties such as the United Nations and the Paris Climate Accord. This sad state of affairs confirms the prescient observation of liberty-loving founding father Patrick Henry: “It is when people forget God that tyrants forge their chains.” Truly, the only remedy for the destructive allure of tyranny is the message of God-given liberty as adopted by the American revolutionaries.

Tragically, many of us who have the antidote for tyranny (i.e., Bible-believing Christians) are either ignorant or have an incomplete picture of how the Scriptures speak to political and economic philosophy. Worse still, many are guided by their spiritual leaders into a misunderstanding of Romans 13 and its applications to the principles of liberty and our nation’s founding. An unfortunate example of this is highly respected Bible teacher, pastor, and author John MacArthur’s statement:

“Over the past several centuries, people have mistakenly linked democracy and political freedom to Christianity. That’s why many contemporary evangelicals believe the American Revolution was completely justified, both politically and scripturally. They follow the arguments of the Declaration of Independence, which declares that life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are Divinely endowed rights. Therefore those believers say such rights are part of a Christian worldview, worth attaining and defending at all cost including military insurrection at times. But such a position is contrary to the clear teachings and commands of Romans 13:1–7. So the United States was actually born out of a violation of New Testament principles, and any blessings God has bestowed on America have come in spite of that disobedience by the founding fathers.”

With these demobilizing influences in the church, the burden falls on us – the libertarian Christian community – to reach our brothers and sisters in Christ with the freeing truth of Scripture (John 8:32) and restore our nation to its biblically-based libertarian foundation.

For more information on our nation’s unique Christian libertarian roots and to equip yourself to reach others with the biblical case for libertarianism and free markets, see my book Government For The Christian.

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