Christianity, Politics, and Murray Rothbard

Review of Francis J. Beckwith’s Politics for Christians: Statecraft as Soulcraft (IVP Academic, 2010), 175 pgs, paperback, $18.00. Two things intrigued me about this book. Imagine my disappointment, then, when both things I expected to find turned out to be missing from the book. The first thing that caught my attention was simply the title. I try to read and possibly review any books on Christianity and politics that I come across. (Some recent reviews can be read here, here, here, and here.). I am generally not satisfied with what I find. The second thing was the mention in the acknowledgments of the name Murray Rothbard in a list of twenty-four names of “scholars who have made the most significant contributions to my intellectual development.” The late Murray Rothbard is, of course, the twentieth century’s greatest proponent of pure, unadulterated libertarianism. Alas, the book doesn’t have much to say about politics; and I see no influence of Murray Rothbard evident anywhere in the book. Why bother, then, with this brief review of a book that proved to be such a big disappointment? The main reason is because the book suffers from the same fatal flaws as most everything else written by Christians on the subject of Christianity and politics and thus provides me with an opportunity to mention said flaws.

Francis J. Beckwith is Professor of Philosophy and Church-State Studies, and Resident Scholar in the Institute for Studies of Religion at Baylor University. He holds a Ph.D. in philosophy from Fordham University and is a graduate of the Washington University School of Law. He is the author or editor of over a dozen books and has been published in many academic journals “across a wide range of disciplines.” Beckwith is also the editor, with J. P. Moreland, of the series his book is part of. Politics for Christians: Statecraft as Soulcraft (hereafter Politics for Christians) is part of the Christian Worldview Integration Series, of which there are currently five other titles. The book contains five well-footnoted chapters, acknowledgments, an introduction, a conclusion, a list of books and articles called “Recommended Contemporary Readings,” and an index. There is a nineteen-page “Series Preface” after the table of contents. Earlier versions of parts of the book were published elsewhere as articles, but have been revised for inclusion in the book. The book is aimed toward students. Beckwith states in the introduction that the primary purpose of his book “is to introduce the Christian student to the study of politics.” He adds: “I also hope to provide the Christian student with an account of politics and government that includes an understanding and appreciation of liberal democracy that is not hostile to Christian participation and the shaping of public policy.” Beckwith does not present a particular understanding of politics as correct, but rather seeks “to introduce the college student to politics by way of a few issues and questions that should be of concern to contemporary Christians citizens in liberal democracies.” Chapter 1 is a very abstract study of politics. From there the subject of politics gradually dissipates as one moves through the book. Chapter 2 is a discussion of “liberal democracy” and “how Christians should look at the study of politics and what insight they can bring to their communities.” The final three chapters concern “issues over which Christians and non-Christians have wrestled (or ought to wrestle) and which are important questions in the study of politics”: the separation of church and state, the relationship of the ideals of liberal democracy to the political participation of the Christian citizen, and whether liberal democracy requires a theistic worldview in order to account for the intrinsic dignity and natural rights of human beings that it seems to require.

Although my focus is on the book’s fatal flaws, Beckwith does make some good points that are worth mentioning. His chapter on the separation of church and state is good, but would fit better in a book on Christianity and the state, not Christianity and politics. He has some sane comments about Christians voting for non-Christians (“absolutely”). He perceptively points out that Christians who embrace liberal positions on issues while claiming that their religious traditions provide them with a framework that requires them to hold these views are not challenged, but Christians who similarly embrace conservative positions are. Using the example of John F. Kennedy, Beckwith also explains how it is a mistake to claim that one’s theology and church do not influence one’s politics. But this is all overshadowed by the book’s fatal flaws. The first fatal flaw is the failure to recognize that politics is dirty. It is in fact the dirtiest business in the world. The title of P. J. O’Rourke’s book Parliament of Whores is an apt description of Congress. When Lord Acton said: “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely,” he didn’t make an exception for American politicians. And most of all, the character of Michael Corleone in The Godfather Part III wasn’t just acting when he said: “Politics and crime, they’re the same thing.” The second fatal flaw is the insistence that the United States is a democracy. Beckwith over and over again says that we live in a “liberal democracy.” But anyone who has learned basic English and recited the Pledge of Allegiance (“and to the republic for which it stands”) knows we don’t live in a democracy. Actually, as explained by Donald Livingston, we are supposed to live in a federation of states, each of which, in Article IV of the Constitution, is guaranteed a republican form of government. But a federation of republics is not itself a republic any more than the federation of nations in the United Nations, or in the European Union, is a nation. A federation is a service agency of the political units that compose it. Whatever else a republic might be, it is not a service agency of something else. So instead of talking about “restoring the old Republic,” we should talk of restoring republicanism in a federation of states. artificial corporation, known as the United States, created by the states for their welfare.

The truth, of course, is that we live in a police state that restricts how many times you can make a withdrawal from your savings account and locks you in a cage for growing plants. The third fatal flaw is the faulty view of the role of government. When Beckwith talks about issues like polygamy, same-sex marriage, adoption, public school curricula, government funding of universities, and relief for the poor, he never even considers that the government should have nothing to do with any of these things one way or another. Perhaps the greatest fatal flaw of Beckwith and other Christian writers on Christianity and politics is their view of the nature of the state. On this Beckwith should have heeded Rothbard: The State, in the words of Oppenheimer, is the “organization of the political means”; it is the systematization of the predatory process over a given territory. For crime, at best, is sporadic and uncertain; the parasitism is ephemeral, and the coercive, parasitic lifeline may be cut off at any time by the resistance of the victims. The State provides a legal, orderly, systematic channel for the predation of private property; it renders certain, secure, and relatively “peaceful” the lifeline of the parasitic caste in society. Since production must always precede predation, the free market is anterior to the State. The State has never been created by a “social contract”; it has always been born in conquest and exploitation. The classic paradigm was a conquering tribe pausing in its time-honored method of looting and murdering a conquered tribe, to realize that the time-span of plunder would be longer and more secure, and the situation more pleasant, if the conquered tribe were allowed to live and produce, with the conquerors settling among them as rulers exacting a steady annual tribute. Unfortunately, like the subject of politics, the influence of Murray Rothbard is missing from Politics for Christians.