Is Libertarianism Compatible With Religion?

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This talk was given at the 2011 Austrian Scholars Conference at the Mises Institute.

I never met Murray Rothbard. I still remember the day when I received a postcard in the mail announcing that he had died. I think that he, an agnostic Jew, and I, a devout Christian, would have gotten along just fine since we shared a common enemy – the state. I still have the postcard and the admiration for Rothbard that I had sixteen years ago.

I think that libertarianism has reached the point where we can safely say that more than at any time in the last fifty years a great number of libertarians are religious people. It was twenty-three years ago – a time when many of us still identified ourselves as liberals or conservatives, and some of you were not old enough to know the difference – when Rothbard opined that “the libertarian movement, and the Libertarian Party, will get nowhere in America – or throughout the world – so long as it is perceived, as it generally is, as a movement dedicated to atheism.” “Nock, Morley, Chodorov, Flynn et al. were not atheists,” he continued, “but for various accidental reasons of history, the libertarian movement after the 1950′s consisted almost exclusively of atheists.” “There is nothing inherently of wrong with this,” explained Rothbard, “except that many libertarians have habitually and wrongly acted as if religious people in general and Christians in particular are pariahs and equivalent to statists.” Just a few months before this, Rothbard had lamented that he was “getting tired of the offhanded smearing of religion that has long been endemic to the libertarian movement.” “Religion,” he said “is generally dismissed as imbecilic at best, inherently evil at worst.”

Although I think that things have greatly improved, many libertarians today are no more accommodating of religion than those in Rothbard’s day. Even though many religious people perhaps deserve the disdain of libertarians because of their faith-based statism, religion itself certainly doesn’t. It was the nonreligious Rothbard who acknowledged that “the greatest and most creative minds in the history of mankind have been deeply and profoundly religious, most of them Christian.”

The question I want to address today is simply this: Is libertarianism compatible with religion? Many libertarians say no, the two are not compatible. Some of them even consider religion to be a greater enemy of human liberty than the state, a proposition that Walter Block has debunked. Many religious people also say no, the two are not compatible. In the minds of some of them, libertarianism is just a synonym for libertinism, an erroneous idea that has also been debunked by Walter Block. (Is there any false notion about libertarianism that Walter Block hasn’t debunked?) Even some conservatives say no, the two are not compatible. Thomas Fleming, the editor of Chronicles magazine, considers the phrase “Christian libertarians” to be “as oxymoronic as Christian socialists.”

Now, although I have some strong opinions about religion – and enough degrees in theology to make sure I offend the greatest number of people – what I personally believe about religion is totally irrelevant. The question of “Is libertarianism compatible with religion?” is a question that Walter Block or the most militant Randian could ask and answer without changing the content of this talk. What you personally believe about religion is also completely immaterial. Whether you think that a particular religion is the absolute truth that you would be willing to die for or that all religions are just a collection of myths and stories mixed with history doesn’t affect the importance of the question. In the end, people are going to side with their religion over the ideas of dead Austrian economists. It is therefore imperative that the question be answered.

Libertarians who ignore the question do so at their peril. If libertarianism is not compatible with religion, then we who believe that the principles of libertarianism are true, just, and right must engage in the futile task of trying to get people to abandon their religion to accept libertarianism. We would face the impossible task of destroying someone’s faith in his God and/or scripture before we could convince him of the truth of libertarianism. Now, you may be both a hard-core atheist and a libertarian, but as Rothbard warned: “We libertarians will never win the hearts and minds of Americans or of the rest of the world if we persist in wrongly identifying libertarianism with atheism. If even Stalin couldn’t stamp out religion, libertarians are not going to succeed with a few Randian syllogisms.”

The title of my paper is no accident. I think religious people have more of a problem with libertarianism than libertarians have with religion. I think it is harder to convince a religious person that libertarianism doesn’t violate the tenets of his religion than to convince a libertarian that religion doesn’t violate the tenets of libertarianism. Although some libertarians deserve the disdain of religious people for their libertinism, I put most of the blame for the need for this talk on religious people because of their ignorance of both libertarianism and religion.

So, all that being said, my short answer to the question of whether libertarianism is compatible with is religion yes. But since it would not be enough just to say “I am religious, I am libertarian, so the answer to the question has to be yes, thank you and good day,” my long answer is what follows.

In order to determine if libertarianism is compatible with religion we must first understand what libertarianism is. The world is full of mistaken notions about libertarianism. It is often misunderstood and mischaracterized by its opponents as discounting human nature and disdaining morality while being grossly naïve and overly utopian. We have all heard the standard clichés, usually out of the mouth of conservatives, religious or otherwise:

  • Libertarians are for abortion.
  • Libertarians are for drug use.
  • Libertarians are against religion.
  • Libertarians are against traditional values.

True, some libertarians might be for and against these things, but so might someone who is not a libertarian.

To get a proper perspective of what libertarianism really is, I turn to two of its greatest proponents: Murray Rothbard and Walter Block.

As described by Rothbard:

Libertarianism is not and does not pretend to be a complete moral, or aesthetic theory; it is only a political theory, that is, the important subset of moral theory that deals with the proper role of violence in social life. . . . Libertarianism holds that the only proper role of violence is to defend person and property against violence, that any use of violence that goes beyond such just defense is itself aggressive, unjust, and criminal. Libertarianism, therefore, is a theory which states that everyone should be free of violent invasion, should be free to do as he sees fit except invade the person or property of another. What a person does with his or her life is vital and important, but is simply irrelevant to libertarianism.

And as explained by Block:

The non-aggression axiom is the lynchpin of the philosophy of libertarianism. It states, simply, that it shall be legal for anyone to do anything he wants, provided only that he not initiate (or threaten) violence against the person or legitimately owned property of another. That is, in the free society, one has the right to manufacture, buy or sell any good or service at any mutually agreeable terms.

In his seminal article “Libertarianism or Libertinism,” Block compactly states the essence of libertarianism:

Libertarianism is a political philosophy. It [is] concerned solely with the proper use of force. Its core premise is that it should be illegal to threaten or initiate violence against a person or his property without his permission; force is justified only in defense or retaliation. That is it, in a nutshell. The rest is mere explanation, elaboration, and qualification – and answering misconceived objections.

And in an article on plumb-line libertarianism, Block simply says: “Libertarianism is solely a political philosophy. It asks one and only one question: Under what conditions is the use of violence justified? And it gives one and only one answer: Violence can be used only in response, or in reaction to, a prior violation of private property rights.” Clearly, libertarianism cannot be simplistically defined, like some Cato guys recently did, as “fiscally conservative, socially liberal.” And I should also say that libertarianism is a way of life, not a lifestyle.

Now that we know what libertarianism is, in order to determine if it is compatible with religion it we must next look at what we mean by religion. Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism – these are all considered to be the world’s great religions. That, however, is where their similarity begins and ends. Although they do have some common tenets, the constraints of my talent and your time mean that we are going to have to narrow our scope.

The focus of my talk will therefore be on Christianity – but not just because I am a Christian. I suspect that most of the people listening to me right now, or who will listen to a recording or read a transcript of this talk in the future, would identify themselves as Christians. This is not surprising since a majority of Americans still identify themselves as Christians. This does not mean that America is a Christian nation – regardless of what Islamic countries and God and country Red-State Christian fascists think (who would have thought those two groups would be in agreement on anything). It does mean that if we are to reach the majority of Americans with the message of liberty that we should know whether libertarianism is compatible with their religion.

This is a significant year in the history of Christianity. The year 2011 is the four-hundredth anniversary of the publication of the Authorized Version, better known as the King James Version of the Bible because it was translated under the authority of King James I of England, beginning in 1604.

But regardless of which version of Bible is used, to the Christian, the Bible is the supreme authority, not the works of Mises or Rothbard, however highly we may regard them.

The Bible is not only the book that has had the greatest impact on Western Civilization; it is the foundation of Christianity. Christians may differ on certain aspects of their religion, but they are all united in their belief that the Bible is some kind of an authority. For a Christian to say otherwise is to reveal that his religion is really meaningless.

For a Christian to respect the Bible as some kind of an authority to the extent that he might reject libertarianism because of it generally means that such an individual holds to a high view of Scripture or a literal view of the Bible. Obviously, not everything in the Bible is meant to be taken literally. The Bible contains idioms and figures of speech just like any other form of writing. And clearly, Christians have genuine differences of interpretation on certain portions of Scripture. A literal view of the Bible simply means that one accepts literally things in the Bible unless it is clear that they are not to be taken so. Miracles and other supernatural events actually happened. The virgin birth was an actual virgin birth. The resurrection of Christ is a real historical event. And most relevant to the question at hand, the precepts of Christ and the Apostles are meant to be obeyed and followed; they are not just opinions or suggestions to be accepted or rejected at will.

I only mention all this because some people wrongly believe that a literal view of the Bible is just a tenet of fundamentalist Christians. True, it is usually those who are the most ardent Bible literalists that are the toughest nuts to crack when it comes to libertarianism. It shouldn’t be that way, as I will argue in this talk, but that’s the reality. But if those who believe the Bible most literally can be persuaded of the compatibility of libertarianism with their version of Christianity, then those who take a somewhat less literal view of the Bible will not be far behind.

Let me reiterate that what you or I personally believe about the Bible is irrelevant. At issue is simply this: If libertarianism is compatible with a Christianity grounded on the authority of the Bible, then we have many possible “converts” to the cause of liberty and a free society. But on the other hand, if libertarianism is not compatible with a Christianity grounded on the authority of the Bible, then many Christian Americans, if they take their religion seriously, will be forever hostile or indifferent to liberty and a free society since the primary objections to libertarianism are moral.

So, why do I think that religion – in this case the Christian religion – is compatible with libertarianism? Let me give you two verses of Scripture, one from the Old Testament and one from the New, since Christians accept the authority of both:

Proverbs 3:30 – “Strive not with a man without cause, if he have done thee no harm.”

1 Peter 4:15 – “But let none of you suffer as a murderer, or as a thief, or as an evildoer, or as a busybody in other men’s matters.”

These verses, my friends, embody the essence of libertarianism. Don’t kill anyone, don’t take what’s not yours, don’t do anyone wrong, don’t stick your nose in someone else’s business, and don’t bother anyone if he hasn’t bothered you. Other than that do whatever you want – “Anything that’s peaceful,” as Leonard Read says, for “ye have been called unto liberty,” as the Apostle Paul says. The only caveats for Christians when it comes to liberty are to not let their liberty become a stumbling block to weaker brothers and to not use their liberty for an occasion to the flesh; that is, don’t be a libertine.

And you thought I was going to give you some complicated theological or philosophical argument. The Bible commands the Christian to devise not evil against his neighbor (Proverbs 3:29), love his neighbor as himself (Romans 13:9), show meekness unto all men (Titus 3:2), do good unto all men (Galatians 6:10), provide things honest in the sight of all men (Romans 12:21), and live peaceably with all men (Romans 12:18). If libertarianism is not compatible with these things then it is not compatible with anything.

The Christian is also told in the Bible:

And whatsoever ye do in word or deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God and the Father by him. (Colossians 3:17)

And whatsoever ye do, do it heartily, as to the Lord, and not unto men. (Colossians 3:23)

Whether therefore ye eat, or drink, or whatsoever ye do, do all to the glory of God. (1 Corinthians 10:31)

Can a Christian assault someone in the name of the Lord Jesus? Can a Christian steal from someone heartily, as to the Lord? Can a Christian kill someone to the glory of God? I think the answer to these questions is obvious. And I also think it is apparent that libertarianism is compatible with the Christian religion.

But I would go a step further. Not only is libertarianism compatible with the most strict, most biblically literal form of Christianity, it is demanded by it. The Christian is enjoined in Scripture to go even beyond the non-aggression principle.

He is told, not to just turn the other cheek, but to “endure hardness” (2 Timothy 2:3), “endure afflictions” (2 Timothy 4:5), and “endure grief” (1 Peter 2:19). Revenge and retaliation for the Christian are not options. Some Christians get hung up on Romans 13 and end up making apologies for the state and its wars. It’s too bad they skipped over Romans 12:

Bless them which persecute you: bless, and curse not. (Romans 12:14)

Recompense to no man evil for evil. (Romans 12:17)

Dearly beloved, avenge not yourselves, but rather give place unto wrath: for it is written, Vengeance is mine; I will repay, saith the Lord. (Romans 12:19)

Overcome evil with good. (Romans 12:21)

So, if libertarianism is more than compatible with the Christian religion, why do religious people – Christians – reject libertarianism? Why aren’t the majority of Christians libertarians instead of liberals, conservatives, Democrats, Republicans, and other assorted statists? Let me briefly give you some reasons. One, misconstruing libertarianism as a hedonistic philosophy instead of a political philosophy. Two, the poor presentation of libertarianism by libertarians. Three, wrongly thinking that libertarianism demands that one be pro-abortion. Four, morality; the two-fold failure to make a distinction between vices and crimes and crimes and sins. And five, social justice; wrongly applying to the government admonitions given to individuals.

I have developed these latter three points elsewhere. On abortion, see my LRC article “Is Ron Paul Wrong on Abortion?” On morality, see my Liberty magazine article “An Open Letter to My Fellow Christians,” which is based on my 2006 ASC lecture “Christianity and Victimless Crimes.” And on social justice, see my little book The Myth of the Just Price, which is the text of my 2008 Lou Church lecture of the same name in which I argue that there should be no government intervention in society or the economy.

I have tried in this talk to show why I believe libertarianism is scripturally compatible with religion. Is everything that has been done in the name of libertarianism compatible with religion? Of course not. But neither is everything that has been done in the name of religion compatible with libertarianism or even with religion. I think it is possible that it might someday be said not only that the greatest and most creative minds in the history of religion have been deeply and profoundly libertarian, but that the greatest and most creative minds in the history of libertarianism have been deeply and profoundly religious.

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