Christianity, Conservatism and Libertarianism: A Note on Recent Reading

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Justice being taken away, then, what are kingdoms but great robberies? For what are robberies themselves, but little kingdoms? The band itself is made up of men; it is ruled by the authority of a prince, it is knit together by the pact of the confederacy; the booty is divided by the law agreed on. If, by the admittance of abandoned men, this evil increases to such a degree that it holds places, fixes abodes, takes possession of cities, and subdues peoples, it assumes the more plainly the name of a kingdom, because the reality is now manifestly conferred on it, not by the removal of covetousness, but by the addition of impunity. Indeed, that was an apt and true reply which was given to Alexander the Great by a pirate who had been seized. For when that king had asked the man what he meant by keeping hostile possession of the sea, he answered with bold pride, "What thou meanest by seizing the whole earth; but because I do it with a petty ship, I am called a robber, whilst thou who dost it with a great fleet art styled emperor."

The other day I came across this passage written by Saint Augustine of Hippo. It is so purely libertarian that it made me think Murray Rothbard was the reincarnation of St. Augustine. The passage is from The City of God, Chapter 4. — How Like Kingdoms Without Justice Are to Robberies (the quote is from Cicero). I read it in an essay in the conservative quarterly called The Salisbury Review (though this version is slightly different as taken from the linked website). Not for the first time my thought has turned to the relationship among Christianity, conservatism, and libertarianism. In a similar vein I read the following passage, found in an article written by Flavio Felice about a recent book by the Italian philosopher Dario Antiseri on relativism, and appearing in another conservative quarterly called The University Bookman, Summer 2006.

In a nutshell, this European history is the story of highs and lows involving a particular area of the world and the many ideas to which it has given birth, which have throughout its history sometimes embraced and fought one another. If we were to assert that our civilization is superior to others, says Antiseri, we could do so only in the sense that it has shown a capacity for self correction. At this point, however, if critical reason, pluralism, respect for diversity and tolerance are the features that characterise European identity, and which have enabled Europe to rise from the abyss of the lagers and gulags, we should ask ourselves what we Europeans would be without Christianity. Christianity represents an ideal which, throughout history — committing like others errors and horrors — has yet been able to exercise continuous pressure on the coercive forces of the establishment. Antiseri further notes how the statement of Jesus: "Give unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s and unto God that which is God’s," represents a decisive turning point which boosted the democratising process, acting as the corner stone of modern democracies. With this statement was introduced, almost uniquely among the great world civilizations, the principle that "Káisar is not Kyrios" — the definitive de-consecration of political power, its subjection to the inviolable realm of conscience and respect for the transcendental dignity of the human being. Therefore, asserting that "Káisar is not Kyrios" means above all keeping in check political power and its all devouring claims, and recognizing the political consequences of this religious principle. It is, for example, the basis of the principle of aid among and between citizens, which enables the carrying out of even secular projects.

For many libertarians Christianity, perhaps any organized religion, and libertarianism are irreconcilable. This is obviously true where the governors and the clergy are synonymous. But even at the height of the temporal power of the papacy in the medieval era the Church acted as a check, and thus a limit, on royal power. The episode at Canossa comes to mind, where Pope Gregory VII forced the German King Henry IV to consent to the right of Popes to judge kings. Of course, this episode is more complicated than described here, as is always true in the lives of real people. And certainly the Catholic Church, and other Christian churches, has been involved in some of the more brutal periods of history as alluded to in the previous passage. However, no matter what one believes about theology, I believe the historical rise of Christianity has had a fundamental connection with the rise of freedom in the West, and therefore, with libertarianism. This is because the libertarian ethos begins with the radical philosophy of Jesus, that all human beings; both family and strangers, friends and enemies, kings and slaves, prostitutes and queens, heroes and tax collectors can have equal worth to God; and therefore, have rights of protection to their person and property as granted by God, not by governments of men. Thus for me, there is a direct connection between conservative Christianity and libertarianism.

Ira Katz [send him mail] teaches mechanical engineering at Lafayette College. He is the co-author of Handling Mr. Hyde: Questions and Answers about Manic Depression and Introduction to Fluid Mechanics.

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