Christians and Libertarians


In America and throughout the world live millions of Christians who support states and know nothing of libertarian ideas. A far smaller group of Christians knows of libertarian ideas and rejects them. (Libertarian Christians who are not the subject here may still wish to read on as may non-libertarian non-Christians.) These disconnects and divisions are entirely unnecessary. In the political world envisaged by libertarians, Christians could, for example, live in a society that disallowed abortion. They would not be forced to provide taxes to support abortion. They would not be forced to support educational institutions that taught heresies and blasphemies. They would not be forced to support unjust wars. They would not be forced to support policies that divide and ruin families. They could live a Christian life unimpeded by the state.

Christians and libertarians share important core beliefs that apply to the political sphere. Libertarians do not believe in gratuitous violence, and similarly Christians believe that one should "Do violence to no man." For this reason, Christians and libertarians should be allies against the state, not necessarily in terms of political parties or alliances, but in terms of supporting a basic anti-state message. The ranks of anti-state advocates would swell immensely if Christians would come to understand that their faith implies being anti-state, which is the fundamental libertarian position.

Christians who support the state in all its nefarious activities while believing in God have a problem. They are supporting an evil institution rather than speaking out against it. They cannot support the state and simultaneously profess faith in God without falling into contradiction, and through that error falling into support of the state’s evil practices.

Another error is committed by Christians who turn away from or even assail libertarianism or private property anarchism because they do not see in it the complete set of moral views that their faith entails. This attitude is understandable if all of us must live in one society within one state by one set of rules, but this is not what libertarian theory envisages. An anarchistic world means that no one forces anyone to live in a particular society. Different societies with different rules can co-exist and evolve. For example, minarchists can have their watchman state. Christians can have a Christian society. Market anarchists can have their markets for security production. And somewhere else the socialists can have their state. If Christians understand that they are not obligated to live in a libertarian society and that there is no struggle for the rule of society at stake, they can assent to those tenets of both positions that are held in common. They and libertarians need not be at loggerheads. They might even work together toward a common aim.

Imperfect master rules

How can a religious faith that depends on God find common ground with a political creed that is expressly secular? The answer is that their master rules generally overlap. Christians have the Golden Rule and libertarians have the non-aggression rule.

But before outlining the details, we need to understand the difficulties of finding perfect rules. Most will be found wanting in particular instances. St. Thomas Aquinas distinguished between a "speculative reason" and a "practical reason." A speculative reason is a general reason that holds true generally, but as the details of particular cases are added speculative reason may fail, in which case practical reason enters. In the Summa, St. Thomas (I of II, 94-4) points out that general rules sometimes fail as the level of detail expands. He mentions not restoring goods held in trust if they will be used for harm. One would not give a man’s gun back to him if one felt sure he was going to murder with it. Now this action violates the non-aggression axiom, but not the Golden Rule. The same might be said of abortion, although libertarians are still wrestling with this issue.

Both the Golden Rule and the non-aggression rule are matters of speculative reason. They look to truth without fail. But practical reason is concerned with contingent matters, and in particular cases the general principles will be found to fail. Non-aggression will fail in some instances. So may the Golden Rule. For example, what if I have to steal to save a life? Is this act a good act? Or what if the owner of an oasis in the desert denies me water and I steal some? Is that a good act? We find we need to amend or extend our master rules to achieve justice. We might need to add that in some circumstances stealing is good if the actions of others amount to murder or if others do not fulfill their Golden Rule obligations. We might not give a man his gun if we believe our act will contribute to murder. But as general rules of "speculative reason," we still adhere to our master rules. Libertarians will still say that physical aggression is unjustifiable or that non-aggression is good, and they will be correct to do so. With the understanding that we are not likely to achieve perfection in master rules, we may examine the Golden Rule and the non-aggression rule.

The Golden Rule

Let us look at what the Golden Rule means, or at least some of what it means. The explanation will contain few direct references to the great well of knowledge provided by the Holy Bible or to the theology of the Old and New Testaments. Such references would deepen and underscore every point that is made, and entire books have been written on many such aspects. The explanation will not tap the depths of religious feelings that lie within many of us or address practical utility. The goal is the simple one of showing some reasoning behind the Golden Rule in order to bring out the common ground between it and the non-aggression rule.

We start from afar. Christians believe that God is the Creator of man. This implies that God owns man.

All of us, Christian and non-Christian, have been provided with free will and reason that help us decide matters. For example, should we steal? Should we murder? We must choose. We must decide. Even after we are instructed on these matters, we still must choose.

Suppose that God is our Creator. Since God created us as living creatures, He must have intended for us to live. If we murder each other, this goes against His evident intention. Furthermore, murdering another person is destroying God’s property. Calvin writes that "undoubtedly God would have the remains of His image, which still shines forth in men, to continue in some estimation, so that all might feel that every homicide is an offence against Him."

What shall we choose: to murder or not to murder? The answer hinges on our relationship to God. We either believe in Him or not. We either respect Him or we do not. We either are thankful to Him for his creation or we are not. We either reverence Him or not.

It was God’s will to create other men than us and have them live. Shall we submit to His will or not? Shall we obey God or shall we rebel against Him? This is only the beginning, for we have also been advised to love God with all our heart and all our soul and all our mind. To do so is quite natural, for we are His children, and children love their parents. But it is also difficult because we do not see God. If we seek Him, we shall find Him. This may take faith.

Our first most basic choice is how we choose to relate to God. If we reject God altogether as an atheist might or do not accept Him by remaining agnostic, that is one course. The only other course is to submit to God, acknowledge His primary position, and love Him as the Father. This is feasible for anyone. God is accessible to all at any time. What are the implications of these two opposing choices?

If we accept God, we do not want others to treat us badly since we view ourselves as God’s creation and property. By the same token, we do not want to treat others badly as they are also God’s children. This means that we are brothers, and it is natural not to mistreat one’s brothers. Indeed, although we are developing a logical argument here, the fact is that we may come to God based upon the feelings we have for our fellow man or in any number of other ways. Choosing God therefore implies a master rule, the Golden Rule: "And as ye would that men should do to you, do ye also to them likewise." This Rule arises logically from choosing to acknowledge God.

If we do unto others expecting the same, we all live and we live better. If we live, it is as God intended. Quite evidently, when we choose God we do not murder. But we also do not steal from others because that also diminishes their life and the fruits of their labor. We respect the property of others. We do not extend undeserved violence to others as that too mistreats them.

But these implications of choosing God are the very same implications of the libertarian’s non-aggression rule. In Rothbard’s words: "…no one has the right to aggress against the legitimate or just property of another." Pope Leo XIII, speaking of the earlier Pope Paul III, is quoted as follows: "Then Paul III, anxious with a fatherly love as to the condition of the Indians and of the Moorish slaves, came to this last determination, that in open day, and, as it were, in the sight of all nations, he declared that they all had a just and natural right of a threefold character, namely, that each of them was master of his own person, that they could live together under their own laws, and that they could acquire and hold property for themselves." There is evidently no conflict between the self-ownership implied by the non-aggression rule and the Catholic view of this earthly matter. And Gary North has gone to great lengths showing that the Christian view is compatible with the libertarian view in this respect.

We conclude that libertarians who are not Christians may in fact behave and strive to behave indistinguishably in many respects from Christians because the libertarian non-aggression rule is a special case of the Golden Rule. At the same time, as we have seen, in some practical situations differences may also crop up. The abortion case is an important instance, and the war in Iraq is another. These should not end the conversation between Christians and libertarians, two groups whose master rules are closely related even if not coincident.

Choosing violence

Romano Guardini writes of Jesus: "Jesus did not exercise his will like a soldier making an attack…Jesus did not use force…he fully respects man’s freedom. He never does it violence, by suggestion or inspiration, fear or surprise. The responsibility of the listener is always elicited and guided to the point where it must pronounce its own Yes or No."

It is up to us to choose. If we do not submit to God, we place our will above His. We make man the measure of all things. We make our self the arbiter of all things. Once we are in conflict with Him, we lose a reason for not coming into conflict with others. We have rejected Him and found no reason to respect Him or His works. Our master rule of life need not be the Golden Rule. It might be, but it might be many other rules. It may be to do whatever satisfies us or whatever we think satisfies us with the end of glorifying our self, not God. Our alternative master rule now includes such possibilities as doing whatever we can get away with, even if it harms others. It includes treating others as instruments for our satisfaction. It includes murder if that satisfies us. It may be that we will murder in the name of the Lord when it is really our own goals that matter to us. Dostœvsky dramatized this in the character of Ivan Karamazov who realized that if there were no God, then everything was permitted. Obviously, at an individual level most of us who do not choose God do not necessarily follow this kind of anti-God master rule to the hilt. Most of us have consciences and behave more or less morally; and we may behave more morally than Christians who are Christians in name only.

But, having not accepted God’s authority, we either manufacture a substitute or look elsewhere. This frequently leads to difficulties, disappointments, and evils. It may mean looking inward, which is a burden, but very often we run away from our selves and look outwards to external authorities. We look in all sorts of places, thereby placing other gods before God. One place we look is the state. And since our master rule now allows undeserved violence against others, we may accept the state’s constant use of violence against innocent people.

Christians believe in God and therefore the Golden Rule. But when they support the state and its violence, they act in opposition to the Golden Rule. They act evilly. Their acts become indistinguishable from those who do not choose God and go on to impose or support violence on others. Aggressive power employed over others is evil. The state’s aggressive actions implicitly deny and reject God as do all aggressive actions. Christians should be anti-state.

Support the state?

The Holy Bible contains sacred text that at times seems to support the state, but the revealed knowledge that is in the Bible has come through men and women. We would not have religious interpreters and teachers if these texts were always crystal clear and unambiguous in their meaning. But these interpreters sometimes disagree, and they are also subject to earthly error. In the end, we need to use good judgment in understanding what the Holy Bible says about God, man, and government. This is a very large subject. Gary North, for example, has written dozens of books in this area. I can touch here upon only a few well-known points.

The Pharisees "took counsel how they might entangle him in his talk," and they devised a dilemma for Jesus. "Tell us therefore, What thinkest thou? Is it lawful to give tribute unto Cæsar, or not?" If Jesus answered "No," he’d be accused of rebellion against the empire. If he answered "Yes," he’d break the commandment and place Cæsar above God. Jesus recognized the temptation and answered "Why tempt ye me, ye hypocrites?" He replied "Render therefore unto Cæsar the things that are Cæsar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s."

Did Jesus support the empire or the state? Of course not. His mission of saving souls can be construed in a number of ways, such as calling for an individual to have faith and make a choice for God, but he certainly did not call for men to save their own souls or anyone else’s by choosing the state. (And some, like James Redford, interpret his message as anarchistic.) Even within his response, there is no support for a state that does violence. What are the things that are Cæsar’s? They are the things that properly are his, because Jesus surely would not counsel breaking the commandments. And what are they? They do not include those things that he takes by aggression. Quite possibly, Jesus may have meant that Cæsar should rightfully be given nothing. And what of the word "render?" (Some translations use the word "give.") Render has the somewhat negative connotation of surrendering or giving up what one has to. Even if it does not have this secondary meaning, what one renders to Cæsar is involuntarily extracted. Jesus may have meant that one should not violently resist Cæsar’s exactions. His own life suggested an entirely different means of dealing with publicans than by violence.

St. Paul in Romans 13 can be similarly interpreted as not supporting the state and Redford has done this at some length for us. St. Paul refers to the rulers and powers "ordained of God" as "the minister of God to thee for good," who have a right to execute wrath upon those who do evil deeds. This cannot mean state authorities who themselves are doing evil deeds. He then counsels "For this cause pay ye tribute also," the "cause" being the maintenance of a proper authority that deals with those who do evil. This does not encompass the welfare/warfare state whose activities extend far beyond this cause and to pervasive evil deeds. And to top it off, St. Paul adds "Render therefore to all their dues: tribute to whom tribute is due; custom to whom custom; fear to whom fear; honour to whom honour." That which is due is that which is rightfully to be rendered. If there is no right, there is no obligation to render. In language that mirrors that of Jesus, St. Paul also greatly limits the obeisance owed to the state.


Libertarians are anti-state. To be faithful to their creed, Christians should be anti-state once they penetrate the veil of the state and understand that its means are inherently violent. This is not hard to see. Every act of the state takes from some their property and livelihoods while others are made to gain. These takings are thefts whether ordered by a king, a dictator, a Politburo, a Congress, or a majority. In all instances, some people are involuntarily disadvantaged and others are advantaged. States pervert the Golden Rule and the commandments. Their crimes deny God and make man the sovereign. No Christian can in good conscience voluntarily support a Cæsar — the state — whose violence goes against God.