Libertarianism and Religious Freedom

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During the funeral scene for Vito Corleone in the movie "The Godfather," Tom Hagen quietly asks Michael Corleone, "Do you know how they will come at you?" Michael, now the official head of the Corleone "family," answers by telling him how the other families will try to assassinate him — but that he also has his own plans.

When someone understands the forces arrayed against them and has a plan of action (Michael’s was to kill the other New York crime bosses before they killed him), they have a better chance of survival than they might if they were clueless about the enemy and even more clueless as to the best defense (and offense). However, many people in the same position often fail to recognize the problem and are even less likely to understand the solution.

Thus it is the situation regarding religious believers — and especially what we call conservative Christians, both Protestant and Roman Catholic. Each year governments in this country, from local bodies to the federal government, draw the noose tighter and tighter, no matter who or what party is in charge. Furthermore, the vaunted Constitutional protections literally mean nothing. The First Amendment, supposedly the "religious freedom" document, today is used mostly as a weapon to restrict the rights of Christians to speak freely in forums where they should be free to articulate their faith.

(I am not endorsing the "school prayer" policies per se, but neither do I believe they are unconstitutional, despite the U.S. Supreme Court’s many rulings on that issue. Indeed, I believe that the "Incorporation Doctrines" upon which the court has based its rulings, is in itself unconstitutional. Under the original Constitution, the High Court was never given the power to forbid prayer or any other religious exercises done by local government bodies. However, since the court has seized that power — with the Congress failing to do anything about it — there is not much the rest of us can do but live within these restrictions.)

At the current time, I believe that religious freedom in this country — and especially the freedom enjoyed by Christians — is in peril, and given the current legal trends, I do not think that the trends will be reversed. Thus, after pointing out where I think future attacks will be aimed, I also present a strategy for Christians to follow should they wish to preserve their liberties and give a road map they can follow as the government does what governments do best: destroy freedom.

In a recent essay, Lew Rockwell wrote that the prevailing civil religion in this country is equality, or to be more exact, egalitarianism. Thomas Jefferson’s words "All men are created equal" has been turned from the ideal of equality under law to equality of results, a very different — and pernicious — thing. By its very nature, Christianity is exclusionary, something that the modern equality police cannot tolerate and will always try to destroy. (In fact, Christianity also promotes a doctrine of equality, St. Paul writing that those who are Christians are equal in the sight of God. He was not, however, endorsing a doctrine of egalitarianism, despite what religious leftists claim.)

Given the Supreme Court’s recent decision to strike down state laws prohibiting homosexual activity, we can expect the equality theme to be increasingly applied to churches and religious organizations that operate under doctrines that prohibit homosexual sex (and all forms of sex outside marriage). Not surprisingly, the courts already have been moving in that direction. For example, several years ago, the federal courts forced Georgetown University, which is Catholic, to officially recognize a gay and lesbian student group on campus, despite the university’s contention that homosexuality is considered sinful in Catholic doctrine.

The court’s reasoning was that since (1) protecting homosexual rights constituted a "compelling government interest," and (2) Georgetown received federal funding, therefore, the government had a legitimate interest in compelling the university to go against church doctrine. Indeed, other organizations that receive government funding for charitable work, such as the Salvation Army, have found themselves in the same quandary, the government trying to force them to hire homosexuals or others who fall outside the boundaries of what that organization believes the Bible requires of them.

It would seem obvious that if Christian organizations, such as colleges, wish to keep from having the government force them to do things that are against religious policies, then saying "no" to tax dollar funding is a proper first step (something that Hillsdale and Grove City colleges have done). However, one should keep in mind that even though many religious organizations refuse government money for just that reason, nearly all of them are tax exempt, something that Washington and the political classes depict as being equal to a subsidy. (The government lists tax exemptions as "tax expenditures," a rather devious term that says more about the politicians than it does about the lost tax opportunities that tax exemptions present.)

The restrictions upon tax-exempt organizations — they are supposedly ordered to stay out of partisan politics — are enforced as one might expect: in a political manner. For example, the Internal Revenue Service basically shut down a church pastored by Randall Terry of Operation Rescue fame because he would preach sermons that called for people to vote against Bill Clinton. Bob Jones University, no stranger to right-wing politics, had its tax exemption yanked because of rules prohibiting interracial dating. The NAACP, on the other hand, clearly is aligned with the Democratic Party and in the 2000 presidential election ran an anti-Bush advertisement, basically claiming that he favored dragging black men to death behind pickup trucks. Of course, there was no move to strip the NAACP of its tax-exempt status.

At the present time, the IRS has not moved against conservative churches for their refusal to ordain women and practicing homosexuals to the pastorate or priesthood. While a few people have filed suit against the Roman Catholic Church for sex discrimination, they have been unsuccessful in their efforts to have the IRS remove the church’s tax exemption. However, as the civic religion of equality continues to grow, spreading its tentacles in nearly every institution in this country, I predict it will not be long until the IRS begins to meddle directly in church doctrine by threatening to withdraw tax-exempt status unless they rewrite their policies on ordination and membership.

While detractors can say they oppose conservative Christians because of the right-wing politics that some of them practice, in truth the base of these attacks is much deeper, I believe. When talk show host Phil Donahue was in his glory about 20 years ago, nearly every Christian guest on his show was met by the same question, always asked in a way that made one believe Donahue was going to pop a blood vessel: "You mean to tell me that if a person doesn’t believe in Jesus, then you say they are going to Hell?!?" Being that people are free (or should be free) to hold religious beliefs, and being that Donahue’s guests did not write the Bible, it does not take much thought to realize that Donahue was not challenging church doctrine as much as trying to personally attack a Christian, and the public hostility towards Christians has grown exponentially since Donahue’s heyday.

In an earlier article on this subject, I noted that researchers have found that the single most telling predictor of a person’s political preferences is that individual’s attitude towards conservative Christians. Those who intensely hate people in that religious camp almost always are Democrats. Now, as I pointed out, that does not make the Republicans the Party Of God (GOP spelled backwards), but I have no doubts that future Democratic presidents are going to try to destroy some churches with the tax code. (Of course, once the Republicans take power, they are too gutless to reverse the administrative decisions of their Democratic predecessors, and especially on religious issues, as they do not wish to be seen as pandering to the "religious right.")

The attacks do not involve just tax policies. Within the past few years, a number of state universities (and a few private ones like Harvard) — the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill being one of the worst offenders — have threatened Christian student organizations with "de-recognition" because they elect only confessing Christians as their officers. The university administrators enforcing these policies claim that "equality" trumps "rights of association," and being that most civil rights laws are based upon the same belief, one does not need to engage in mental gymnastics to see where things are headed. Lew Rockwell’s theme proves to be a strong predictor of leftist behavior.

When the government begins to strip conservative churches of their tax-exempt status for their refusal to ordain women and homosexuals, I believe it will then only be a matter of time before the civil complaints become criminalized. For now, discrimination cases are decided only in the civil courts, but should form hold true there as it has in other areas of federal law, U.S. attorneys will look to turning these things into criminal cases.

While some readers may think I am stretching things, please remember that many of the so-called white collar crimes in which people have gone to prison in recent years are nothing more than the criminalization of technical regulatory violations, many of which were ignored in the past. At the same time, many environmental "crimes" which have resulted in prison terms also have evolved from what once would only have been considered civil cases.

Thus, I think that there is a real possibility that individuals in churches who are in decision-making positions are likely to find themselves in the dock on charges of "criminal" discrimination. Please remember that until the prosecution of Michael Milken, no one ever had faced criminal charges for "parking" stocks. Martha Stewart faces criminal prosecution in part because she publicly declared herself to be "not guilty" of "insider trading," which the government claims is "securities fraud." Such actions by federal prosecutors that even 20 years ago would have seen farfetched, now have become commonplace — and very popular with the so-called "watchdogs" of the press. Being that the absolute hatred mainstream journalists have towards conservative Christians dwarfs their hatred of capitalism, one can expect to see members of the press being the cheerleaders as the First Amendment protections for religious freedom are destroyed by the state.

As the United States becomes more and more militantly secular, it seems clear that the state will flex its muscles against Christian organizations even more so than is being done currently. The issue is not "if," but "when." This situation, then, seems to demand the question: "What do we do?" I try to answer that question next.

I think that the current political strategy by conservative Christians truly is as bad as the strategies of the secularists against which they are fighting. The belief that if Christians can "elect good people," then the government won’t devise and enforce anti-Christian policies has proven to be wrong; since 1976, all five U.S. presidents have openly declared themselves to be "Christians," yet these anti-religious policies by the central government have metastasized.

Furthermore, believing (and practicing) Christians have always been in the minority in the USA, and today in the media age, they are a despised minority. The idea that Christians can elect enough "good people" to public office to stem this tide is ludicrous at best and delusional at worst.

Instead of joining the secular culture and politicizing everything, I believe that Christians who wish to preserve and expand religious freedom should go down a different path than what is currently being followed. That may seem to be counterintuitive, as most religious conservatives believe that it is imperative that people who share their views hold political power.

First, while decrying the "culture wars," conservative Christians seem to forget that the real cultural rot has been the politicizing of nearly every aspect of life. Second, I hold that believers can be much better examples of "salt and light" by operating outside the coercive elements of the state.

This does not mean I think Christians should not be involved at all in politics or hold government office. Rather, I believe that Christians (such as Ron Paul) who engage in these activities should be the picture of restraint when it comes to using political power. (Instead, we have the religious right admiring John Ashcroft, a confessing Christian who has openly abused the powers of his office as U.S. Attorney General.)

Furthermore, there is nothing wrong in presenting one’s case to political authorities. St. Paul appealed to Caesar in an attempt to legalize and legitimize the practice of Christianity in the Roman Empire. However, it is one thing to appeal to Caesar and quite another to try to be Caesar himself. Just as Romans worshipped their emperor as a god, so do many American Christians find themselves immersed in a civil religion of "God and Country" in which the United States and Christianity are intertwined in a most unholy alliance in a near-worship of the welfare-warfare state.

The war in Iraq is only the latest rendition of this civil religion. In a recent column, Charles Colson praised the American soldiers profusely, claiming that large numbers of them are Christians who are living out their faith. (One member of our church whose son is serving in Iraq tells us that the son’s main concern is the lack of any Christian fellowship within the U.S. Army and the general amorality of the troops. If these troops really are "God’s Army," as so many Christian conservatives are claiming, then maybe someone needs to redefine the term.)

Christians who wish to preserve their religious freedom should realize that the present conservative strategy not only is not working, but that it truly has been disastrous. It seems that every few weeks, we see a new line drawn in the sand; the government steps over it, and then a new line is drawn. Should Christians continue with this losing political strategy, it will only make it that much easier for liberals to fight the battle they have been winning for more than a century.

Most conservative Christians abhor libertarianism because they see it as promoting a permissive lifestyle from abortion to taking drugs. Yet, what they fail to understand is that the restrictive, prohibition-oriented state that they are trying to create (and also preserve) is much more likely to take away all liberties than a state that gives people permission to live as they wish (within the boundaries of not doing harm to others and engaging in peaceful exchange).

For example, one way for a politician to receive applause at a meeting of politically active conservative Christians is to endorse the war on drugs. Now, there have been few worse social failures than the war on drugs, as it is responsible for the loss of much liberty and the expansion of intrusive powers by the police. Furthermore, drug laws do little more than serve to lock up people in prison; they certainly do not do anything to stem the tide of illicit drug use.

Nor is it written in stone that libertarians must support the current legal climate with regard to abortion. After all, Roe v. Wade and Doe v. Bolton were not decisions that the U.S. Supreme Court came to through libertarian reasoning; instead, the court decided those cases in its efforts to further destroy the federalist compact that was part and parcel to the original Constitution. There are ways to deal with this issue, as have been expressed on this website many times.

My point simply is this: the political strategy that conservative Christians have embraced for more than two decades not only has been ineffective, but also downright harmful. The law-and-order policies have meant this country imprisons more people than any other country, with the vast majority of prisoners being incarcerated for non-violent offenses. (In fact, prisons are under pressure to parole violent offenders in order to make room for the non-violent prisoners being convicted under the expanded new rules and laws that constantly come from Congress and state legislatures.)

I believe we can do better, and I think that the best way to preserve religious freedom is to be willing to preserve freedoms for people whose lifestyles and beliefs often seem antithetical to Christianity. Instead of trying to use the police powers of the state to arrest homosexuals, Christians should be willing to protect the freedoms of individuals who engage in peaceful conduct on their own property that all parties have freely agreed to do — even if that conduct may seem to be disgusting to many people. By protecting private property rights, Christians will help protect their own freedoms to worship.

Alas, I fear that most Christian conservatives want to employ the state to invade the property of others — not realizing that those same powers will later be employed against them. For example, when Hitler first took power in Germany, many religious conservatives of that era approved of many things he was doing. (Hitler’s totalitarian government gave us the first statewide anti-tobacco campaign, something that seems to be lost upon our present-day tobacco prohibitionists.)

Conservative Christians, I believe, will come to regret their foray into coercive politics, as though the modern American state can even be used to promote and protect liberty — or even civilization, for that matter. Unfortunately, when they come to regret giving the state increasing powers, that epiphany will come long after the state has used those same political powers to disenfranchise Christians.

August 4, 2003

William L. Anderson, Ph.D. [send him mail], teaches economics at Frostburg State University in Maryland, and is an adjunct scholar of the Ludwig von Mises Institute.

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