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Answering Doug Wilson

I am very pleased to post this week an article authored by our good friends Joseph Knowles, Terry Gant, and Jeff Wright in response to theologian Doug Wilson’s recent article against libertarianism. While I had intended to write something myself, these three gentlemen have gone above and beyond the call of duty and written a tremendous detailed rebuttal. It’s so large, in fact, that I felt it needed to be posted over multiple days to be absorbed more completely. 

Laying some groundwork

Many discussions benefit from a bit of preliminary groundwork, and we find that this topic is no exception to that general rule. Failure to define terms often leads to a good deal of talking past one another rather than getting down to the root of the issue.

For starters—and we hope the reader will forgive the cliche—there are libertarians and then there are libertarians. That is to say that the label “libertarian” is a pretty generic one and can mean different things depending on the speaker and the context. It can refer, for instance, to someone whose preferred outcome is that the state disappears altogether. Murray Rothbard, author/economist David Friedman, and (perhaps) Ron Paul fall in this camp, and is sometimes termed “anarcho-capitalist” or “anarcho-libertarian”. “Libertarian” might also refer to someone who simply believes that the state, in its current form, is far too large but that, nevertheless, a sort of “night watchman” state that performs very limited functions has to maintain basic order. Often termed the “minarchist” position, in this camp would be people like Libertarian Congressman Justin Amash, John Stossel, and (perhaps) Ron Paul.

It’s important to underscore that distinction because the answers that Christian libertarians would give to these questions will differ depending on the camp with which they more closely identify. Based on how he has worded the questions we assume that Wilson is posing his questions to the more radical, anti-state wing of libertarianism. Therefore, we will answer the questions with that in mind.

We also note, however, that even amongst ourselves (i.e., the authors of this essay) there is not full agreement about which school of libertarianism is the most consistent with Christianity. Where the difference between the minarchist libertarian position and the anarcho-capitalist position would affect our answers we have made note of that fact.

In addition, although we don’t think we have been needlessly wordy or circuitous in our arguments, we note that it is often easier to ask a question in succinct terms than it is to answer one. So if our answers seem considerably longer than Wilson’s set up of the questions, that is, we think, inescapable to an extent.

Is the basic unit of society the individual?

The first question asked by Wilson in his article is this: Does society always and in every case break down to atomistic individuals? We interpret his question this way: Would libertarians recognize entities that have rights other than individuals if libertarians were in charge? He lists the examples of a married couple, a family unit, and a local church. There could be many others added to this list. Corporations? Schools? Neighborhood associations? Bowling leagues? Does every voluntary association have rights? What about the ones founded for the purpose of pursuing sin and vice?

As Christians, there are still some discussions to be had on this point. After all, ecclesiology has a major effect on one’s views about civil society and vice versa. For instance, we are baptists. Our children are not members of our churches until they profess Christ publicly, demonstrate an understanding of a complete Christian gospel, and submit to baptism in obedience. Presbyterians have a different view, believing that children of Christian parents are part of a regenerate (or “covenant”) household. This has implications for how much emphasis one places on the individual rather than households. Ultimately, however, it is individuals who must confess Christ or reject him.

Yes, societies can sin at large and be judged at large. This is clear in Scripture, and this is clear in history. We know in the case of Sodom and Gomorrah that the Lord found almost no righteous ones in the city because Abraham’s intercession is recorded for us. We know for a fact there were less than ten. Those righteous that were there were saved by God forcibly. Some in Lot’s household suffered because of their personal choices. Lot’s daughters lost their betrothed men to their own unbelief and Lot’s wife was destroyed for her personal disobedience. These people were part of Lot’s household, but they died because of individual choices. Conversely, Lot, in his role as head of household, also partially caused their suffering by settling his family in that place that was noteworthy for only one thing: sin.

The biblical narrative of Sodom and Gomorrah indicates that the cities were filled with only unrighteous people committing heinous acts at all times. No specific number of righteous people was recorded, but it is very possible that Lot and his family were the closest to righteousness that Sodom and Gomorrah got. The men of the city are described as great sinners before the Lord and the Lord describes the place as having an outcry against it (Gen. 18:20). This could be an outcry from the heavenly beings who are enraged on God’s behalf at what they saw in those wicked cities. It could also be that individual human victims cried out to God for vengeance and justice after suffering from the sinful deeds of Sodom. 

When a person stands before God, he must be judged as a sheep or a goat (see Matthew 25). The question is not “What church were they members of? Were they part of a ‘Christian nation?’ Did their parents believe?” All these things are blessings to the life of a believer, but they are no comfort to one who personally rejects Christ. In that case, they are cause for more condemnation. Christ’s atoning sacrifice was to save individual persons from their sin nature and their sins of commission. Christ did not die for the United States, our (visible, local) churches, or our families (though a presbyterian and a baptist can certainly haggle over the details of this one). He died for the individuals that populate those units, all those who believe.

Another angle to come at Wilson’s question: If we assume families are the basic unit of society, then how has God aimed His instructions to that unit?  The Household Code of Ephesians 5:25-6:9 provides an easy example to work through. If the family is the basic unit of society then surely this passage addresses the family about how to honor God’s vocational calling.  Who, then, obeys these commands to the family? Clearly, it is the individual filling the various roles.  There is an individual husband who must love his wife as Christ loved the church.  There is an individual wife who must lovingly submit to her husband as the church submits to Christ.  There is an individual child who must obey her parents in the Lord and, in turn, an individual father who must not provoke his children.

It appears then that whether the individual or the family is understood to be the basic unit of society, God addresses both when he speaks to the vocational role image-bearers are to fulfill.  This understanding makes sense of history as well.  It could very well be that the church — and Protestantism in particular — gave the Western world the notion of individualism through Martin Luther. Eric Metaxas writes in Martin Luther: The Man Who Rediscovered God and Changed the World, “The quintessentially modern idea of the individual was as unthinkable before Luther as is color in a world of black and white. And the more recent ideas of pluralism, religious liberty, self-government, and liberty all entered history through the door that Luther opened.”

J. Gresham Machen sees the Christian emphasis on individuality, whether individuals are or are not the basic unit of society, holding a powerful check on the collectivism of society.  He writes in Christianity and Liberalism:

It is true that historic Christianity is in conflict at many points with the collectivism of the present day; it does emphasize, against the claims of society, the worth of the individual soul. It provides for the individual a refuge from all the fluctuating currents of human opinion, a secret place of meditation where a man can come alone into the presence of God. It does give a man courage to stand, if need be, against the world; it resolutely refuses to make of the individual a mere means to an end, a mere element in the composition of society. It rejects altogether any means of salvation which deals with men in a mass; it brings the individual face to face with his God.

It seems wise for Christians of good faith to countenance the importance of the individual, regardless of whether the individual or the family he belongs to proves the most fundamental unit of society.

What about responding to injustice in the world?

For purposes of answering this question, we assume that Wilson means whether one may use violence to right such an injustice. The short answer is “no.” It is not consistent with libertarianism to use violence to right an injustice that has nothing to do with self-defense.

What Wilson has done in re-stating his question, however, is to ask a different question from the one implied by the example he gave earlier. Setting aside the question of whether the British navy itself was born of impermissible aggression (more on that in response to the final question), it’s not correct to say that the suppression of the slave trade had nothing to do with “self-defense at all” (emphasis added). It’s a fairly safe assumption that the captains of those British ships themselves were not in immediate danger of being kidnapped and sold into bondage. But that’s rather beside the point.

The men and women and children who actually were victims of the Atlantic slave trade had every right to defend themselves. Thus, it simply is not the case that British suppression of the slave trade had nothing to do with self-defense at all. Instead, the relevant question from a libertarian standpoint is whose “self” is legitimately being defended in a given situation.

Presumably, Wilson’s view of self-defense is not so restrictive that any particular “self” is forbidden to use anything outside himself for defense. In other words, depending on the circumstances (and depending on proportionality in particular), one has the same right to defend himself with his fists as he does with a firearm; the right to self-defense necessarily entails the use of means. From there, extending the principle to employing another person to act in defense is no great leap. Wilson himself seems to acknowledge the legitimate extension of the principles of self-defense to the defense of others (even in a libertarian legal order) when he notes the potential for the formation of “voluntary military bands.”

Thus, in the case of the British suppressing the slave trade, the British navy (indeed, anyone who might have had the means to do so) was well within the bounds of the legitimate, libertarian use of force to vindicate the right of self-defense of those African men and women who had been forced into slavery. To carry the analogy forward into our time, if a man looks up from pumping his gas just in time to witness another man forcing a woman who’s been bound and gagged with duct tape into the trunk of a car, he need not bemoan the fact that he wore his favorite Murray Rothbard t-shirt out that day, lest he besmirch the good name of libertarians everywhere. The man may intervene to prevent what certainly appears to be a grave injustice. A libertarian legal order, properly understood, not only would permit such defensive use of force but would (we believe) encourage it.

Perhaps another angle on the question of the appropriate use of mechanisms of coercion can be found by way of analogy in the realm of story.  Can Wilson’s real-world example of the British Navy be compared to the One Ring of Power in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, considering that both are mechanisms (at least in part) for exercising coercive power? Assuming so, Wilson becomes his own best interlocutor: 

“On the subject of magic, J.R.R. Tolkien continues to show precisely how evil magic is. As we have already noted, this evil is manifested in a desire to manipulate matter in such a way as to gain power over others. In the mindset of a magician, whenever such power comes into your hands, the only reasonable thing to do is use it for your own advantage. But in [Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings books], the mission of the fellowship is to reject and destroy that way of thinking…

Speaking of Sauron, Gandalf says, ‘Indeed he is in great fear, not knowing what mighty one may suddenly appear, wielding the Ring, and assailing him with war, seeking to cast him down and take his place.  That we should wish to cast him down and have no one in his place is not a thought that occurs to his mind. That we should try to destroy the Ring itself has not yet entered into his darkest dream.’ …

In [Tolkien’s] book, we do not have just a bare assertion that these people over here are ‘good’ and that those others are ‘bad.’ The categories of good and evil are not just arbitrarily assigned. Tolkien shows us on every page (as his plot unfolds) how one group rejects magic and grasping after power, and how Sauron lusts for power, and how that lust is his undoing.”[1]

Tolkien has given good counsel via his narrative: the right response to mechanisms of coercive power is, at least, often found in the choice to dissolve them. The One Ring (and the British Navy) hold tremendous potential as mechanisms for the restraint of evil. Indeed, Boromir, in the same story, shows us a character powerfully persuaded by the idea that the Ring should be put to some good use. But Lord Acton was on to something when he told us that power has an inherently corrupting influence on fallen men and Boromir also serves Acton’s point. It may not be true that the existence of these grand-scale mechanisms of coercive power turn those who use them into Sauron, but human history strongly suggests they often turn their users into Gollum.

Have libertarians even read those historic confessions?

For Wilson’s third question we must do something that might read as odd. We will grant the point Wilson’s question aims at but then ask for a chance to say more on the subject.  To that end let us start with granting the point: We do not believe the reformed confessions named by Wilson (The Westminster Confession of Faith, the Heidelberg Catechism, the Belgic Confession, and the Synod of Dort) leave room for a libertarian vision of limited civic government.[2]  Now we ask for room to say more, which is this: The reality that the confessions named by Wilson do not leave room for a libertarian vision of limited civic government does not, however, mean that the libertarian vision of limited government is incompatible with the Reformed faith.

First, libertarianism is consistent with the Reformed faith in that both agree God has limited the civic government. As a people with a high view of God’s Word Reformed Christians can see there is a limiting of the government’s scope of authority (and duty) before Christ simply in that Scripture tells the government what to do and, in doing so, restricts the government to doing those things and those things alone.  Romans 13 tell us that governments outside of Israel are to oppose evil. The Apostle Peter tells us these governments are also to encourage the civic good (2 Peter 2).  This restraint of evil for the promotion of civic good is God’s assignment to civic government, no more and no less.[3]

As an example, God has deputized the government to punish the murderer.  Also, He has limited the government in such a way that the government is not authorized to set the market price of a bushel of corn. Here there is application the Reformed understanding of the Regulative Principle of Worship that is useful to our understanding of civics, a Regulative Principle of Civics if you will.  God has regulated–and limited–the scope of what the government can and cannot do by His specific assignment of responsibility in Scripture.

Here, too, is an opportunity to consider the principle of Ecclesia semper reformanda est. God has chosen to refine through historical processes His people’s understanding of the practical outworking of the faith once delivered.  That historical record has shown Lord Acton’s famous maxim about power corrupting regularly impacts the decisions of the church – particularly when a close alliance between the church and the state provides opportunity to demonstrate the full force of the understanding of civic government expressed in the reformed confessions Wilson names. On a cold day in 1527, near Zurich, Felix Manz saw firsthand, in his last vision this side of eternity, the danger inherent in the understanding of church/state relationships expressed in those Reformed confessions.  Hugh Latimer, Nicholas Ridley and Thomas Cranmer, saw the same outside Oxford not twenty years later.

Indeed, in 2020 this same danger is playing out in the streets of the United States of America.  Whatever else it may be, the arrest of Wilson’s church’s members in Moscow, ID for failing to comply with masking and social distancing requirements is evidence of secular religion being enforced through the coercive mechanism of government force.  Those arrests have demonstrated that secularism–what Wilson has called the worship of Demos–is no more resistant to the corruption that arises from a tight union between church and state than Catholicism and Protestantism have proven to be.

This consistent historical pattern of abuse following from the union of church and state is a powerful invitation to consider the words of another reformed confession, that of The Second London Baptist Confession of 1689.[4]  Tom Nettles, an eminent church historian who is also within the Baptist tradition, has noted how carefully the authors of the Second London Baptist Confession’s 24th Article (“On the Civil Magistrate”) worked to maintain continuity with the Westminster Confession while simultaneously drawing appropriate distinctions where their understanding of the faith required:

In this article, they wanted to state as simply as possible the positive doctrine of Scripture. They would not deny the validity of the magistrate; nor would they go beyond what is clearly affirmed in the relevant texts. Their loudest statement of protest came in what they omitted from the statement in the Westminster Confession of Faith. . . .

One word appeared in the WCF that was omitted in the [second paragraph of Article 24]. Instead of “maintain justice,” etc. the WCF inserted “to maintain piety, justice” etc. The Baptists would not have the magistrate insert any of his power into the divine prerogative of creating and maintaining piety in his people. That is the function of the Holy Spirit by the word of God under the faithful labors of God-called ministers of the word in the context of the church. If the word “piety” were maintained, the Baptists would affirm the lawfulness of such power. Given their amendment, Particular Baptists affirmed the right of Christians to serve as magistrates and perform all the necessary functions to maintain stability and justice within and freedom from threatening aggression from without.

Church history has borne out the wisdom with which the Particular Baptists wrote. The magistrate is unable to bear the weight of responsibility foisted upon it by Wilson’s selected Reformed confessions.  This should come as no surprise, considering that God has limited the scope of the civic government’s duty.  Believers concerned to live out the ideal of always reforming their understanding of faith and life before the revelation of God in Scripture will be thankful for the light of the Particular Baptists.

What is the state, after all?

Finally, Wilson writes that libertarians assume that “civil government is nothing other than coercion.” He restates the question at the end of his post thus: “[W]hy is it assumed that government is necessarily nothing but naked coercion when Scripture speaks of a righteous rule, one that evokes loyalties that have nothing to do with fear of coercion?”

Wilson uses at least three terms: “civil government,” “civil authority,” and “government” (without any modifiers). If he is using those terms interchangeably, then the response to the question is that the Christian libertarian sees none of those things as “necessarily nothing but naked coercion” (emphasis added). Nor, we think, would even the more radical libertarians like Murray Rothbard whom Wilson calls out by name. What libertarians object to is not government as such, but rather the institution of the state that imposes government through the use or threatened use of force against those who are not practicing evil (Romans 13:4).

Our churches are governed and, indeed, there is Biblical government of a sort within each household. So the Christian libertarian accepts that there are authorities that God has set in place to govern in righteousness. But governing in righteousness is the key. Here the minarchist libertarian has no issue with government qua government, but merely holds that the state must be limited to doing those things that are strictly necessary for the maintenance of a basic level of societal order (courts and military being the typical concessions). At the same time, those who find themselves in positions of authority who are, in fact, “a terror to good works” are not acting righteously. Examples of such people, sadly, abound.

Likewise, if there a particular mode or form of government that cannot be separated from the wicked ways it exercises authority, would not Christians be right to condemn it? Wilson writes, “The engine that drives every form of collectivism is envy, and envy flourishes in a most powerful way whenever it is surrounded by that which excites the envy. . . . The tenth commandment rejects envy in its prohibition of covetousness.” Therefore, any form of government that grows from the root of covetous collectivism must, by definition, be rejected by all Christians. Christian libertarians, we think, merely apply that principle more consistently. Where Wilson rejects modes of government rooted in covetousness, we reject also those modes that we conclude are based on violations of the sixth and eighth commandments.[5]

The more “radical” libertarians (including some Christians) are extending the principle to what they deem its logical conclusion: the modern nation-state is ultimately rooted in Biblically-proscribed uses or threats of violence for its continued existence. The chief example, of course, is the state’s systematic confiscation of the earnings of its subjects. Contra the former Senator Harry Reid, this is not “voluntary”. The aforementioned bowling league might have a president and a constitution (a form of government, in other words), but no one ends up in handcuffs if a membership fee goes unpaid. That’s a distinction that makes a big difference.

Thus, Christian libertarians do not assume that all government is nothing but naked coercion. The origins and current manifestations of the modern nation-state often make the distinctions drawn by Christian libertarians about the state less obvious, but we conclude that they are, nonetheless, there to be seen.

Conclusion

Entire books could be (have been) written addressing these and many other related questions (such as the upcoming book Faith Seeking Freedom from the Libertarian Christian Institute). What we hope we have done with this article is demonstrated that Christian libertarians have thought about these things. Even if we do not persuade everyone to become a libertarian, we hope to show that the Christian libertarian position that can be ably defended from within the bounds of Christian orthodoxy.

References:

[1] Doug Wilson, “Introduction to The Fellowship of the Ring”, found in “Omnibus II: Church Fathers to the Reformation.”

[2] There may be room for the libertarian position within some forms of the Belgic Confession. Wilson himself, along with a helpful outside reader of this piece raised the possibility of the American Westminster. Nonetheless, considering the spirit of those confessions and Wilson’s question we will not indulge that inadvertent possibility.

[3] Our discussion at this point is not about who defines the evil and good the government is tasked but with addressing but with God’s limitation of civic government.

[4] We realize here that the idea baptists are within the Reformed tradition is, at best, highly contested. Since contesting this issue is not the purpose of this piece, the authors refer the reader to the work of Sam Renihan for further justification of the idea that the English Particular Baptists are indeed within the Reformed tradition. Brandon Adams, with whom Doug Wilson has interacted online before, has also written extensively on the topics of libertarianism and Reformed theology. See here.

[5] See the Westminster Larger Catechism, Questions 134-136 and 140-142.

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