Libertarianism Compatible With Religion?
by Laurence M. Vance: The
Fluoridation Question Revisited
was given at the 2011 Austrian Scholars Conference at the Mises
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."
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."
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."
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.
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
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:
are for abortion.
are for drug use.
are against religion.
are against traditional values.
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.
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
And as explained
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
or Libertinism," Block compactly states the essence of
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
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.
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
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:
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."
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.
is also told in the Bible:
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)
ye do, do it heartily, as to the Lord, and not unto men. (Colossians
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:
which persecute you: bless, and curse not. (Romans 12:14)
to no man evil for evil. (Romans 12:17)
avenge not yourselves, but rather give place unto wrath: for it
is written, Vengeance is mine; I will repay, saith the Lord. (Romans
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
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
M. Vance [send him mail]
writes from central Florida. He is the author of Christianity
and War and Other Essays Against the Warfare State, The
Revolution that Wasn't, and Rethinking
the Good War. His latest book is The
Quatercentenary of the King James Bible. Visit his
Best of Laurence M. Vance