Last year, quite a bit of space was spent on this blog discussing Christian libertarians. Seriously, a lot of space. And as predicted, people were left with more questions than answers, making it a continued topic of discussion.
Recently, I sort of instigated a friendly fight with Joe Carter of the Acton Institute when I took issue with his treatment of Christian libertarians in a recent post about bias versus neutrality in the realm of public policy. What I didn’t anticipate, was that our fundamental assumptions were not the same.
Whereas I believe that Christian libertarians exist, and are in fact a very important demographic of Christians as well as voters, that assumption was not accepted by all participants in the conversation. Joe Carter, joined by Values and Capitalism’s own fearless leader Eric Teetsel, questioned the existence of such a demographic. I deeply appreciate Mr. Carter’s thoughtful response, and have dedicated some time to an (hopefully) equally thoughtful answer to his question, What is a Christian Libertarian?
In his post, Mr. Carter identifies five types of Christian Libertarians. Another V&C family friend, Joseph Sunde, summarized these five types quite succinctly.
- Type #5: Those who are Not-all-that-Christian and/or Not-all-that-Libertarian
- Type #4: Christians who are really conservatives, but don’t like the label conservative
- Type #3: Those for whom the “Christian” in Christian libertarian is a weak modifier
- Type #2: Those who mash the two words together
- Type #1: Those who have developed a consistent philosophy in which libertarianism and Christianity are fully compatible
The first four, Mr. Carter says are either not Christian enough or not libertarian enough to claim the title of Christian libertarian. These are all very true caricatures of certain Christian libertarians, and I will graciously concede all those points to Mr. Carter and Mr. Teetsel. The point that bears discussion is libertarian type number 1:
“Type #1 Those who have developed a consistent philosophy in which libertarianism and Christianity are fully compatible. – Although I’m not sure I’ve ever met a Type 1—and I’m not sure it’s even possible—I believe this is the ideal use of the term.”
Eric Teetsel goes farther than simply doubting their existence, by declaring that they cannot exist. Period.
“My view is pretty straightforward: Christianity’s self-sacrificial love of neighbor is irreconcilable with the libertine ideal of radical individualism. That’s it.”
To address Mr. Carter’s doubts, and to counter Mr. Teetsel’s unbelief, here is my layman’s attempt to articulate four of the fundamental beliefs held by Christian libertarians that synthesize their faith with their political ideology. For a more developed understanding, please visit Norman Horn’s website: http://libertarianchristians.com/.
1) Christian libertarians are libertarian BECAUSE they are Christian.
This is why this discussion is so important. This is why Christian libertarians take such issue with and offense to attempts to dismiss their existence. They do not simply “mash the two words together” or “don’t like the label conservative.” For many Christian libertarians, their acceptance of the political ideology of libertarianism came after, and as a consequence of, the acceptance of their salvation through Jesus Christ.
To simply write off the fact that they are libertarian is to them analogous with writing off their faith. And while the rest of this post will focus on the specifics of being a Christian libertarian, I chose to begin with a warning that this is the case for most Christian libertarians. It is fine to concertedly ask questions about what they believe, but to discount that they believe it is deeply offensive. Especially if you are a Christian yourself, do not think so lightly of your brothers and sisters in Christ—even if you disagree with them.
2) Christian libertarians believe in individualism because of their own salvation. Eric Teetsel called “radical individualism” the “libertine ideal.” But to Christian libertarians, individualism isn’t about one individual, it is about two: Christ and the one who accepts his salvation.
Salvation is voluntary and it is individual. I do not wish to wander into the debate of predestination, but simply to present the scripture.
“Though you have not seen [Jesus], you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and are filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy, for you are receiving the end result of your faith, the salvation of your souls.” 1 Peter 1:8-9
Mr. Teetsel takes his argument straight to the “self-sacrificial love of neighbor” by jumping over who first loved his neighbors. Partaking in communion at my church recently, my pastor reminded us that while Jesus died for the salvation of the whole world, he did not do so corporately. Jesus died for each of individually. He died for Eric Teetsel. He died for Joe Carter. He died for Martin Luther. He died for Elvis. He died for your cousin. And he died for you, the reader.
And as Christians, we believe that when we die, we will not be judged corporately, but that we will be standing individually before God. And we have hope in the fact that Christ alone will be standing with us.
Since our very salvation starts individually, and grows into our Christian community working self-sacrificially for the building of the Kingdom of God, Christian libertarians orient their whole lives in the same manner. They start with the individual, celebrate the individual’s opportunity for salvation and inherent dignity, and grow outwardly into community and kingdom.
In his original post Mr. Carter says, “By placing an overemphasis on individual liberty without an equal accent on individual virtue, the libertarian unwittingly erodes the foundation of order on which her political theory stands. Order is a necessary precondition of liberty and must be maintained from the lowest level of government (the individual conscience) to the highest (the State).”
To which I responded:
“Christian libertarians do place high values on both individual liberty and individual virtue. They recognize the levels of order from individual governance to the authority of the state, though they would likely call the individual the ‘highest level of government’ and the state the ‘lowest level of government.’”
Which leads into the next point.
3) Christian libertarians believe that social engagement is a voluntary, but imperative of our Christian faith and the course by which we develop individual virtue.
It is entirely incorrect to think that Christian libertarians do not place an emphasis on individual virtue. For clarification, Mr. Carter was not referring specifically to Christian libertarians in the previous quote, but to areligious libertarians.
Christian libertarians understand that any social obligation put forth in the New Testament is voluntary. There are no calls for governments or even church leaders to force servitude, only encouragement to voluntarily serve others.
“Though I am free and belong to no one, I have made myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible.” 1 Corinthians 9:19
“You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh; rather, serve one another humbly in love.” Galatians 5:13
While not a theologian, the father of free markets, Adam Smith, was foremost a moralist. Before he wrote the much-famed Wealth of Nations, he wrote a lengthy book on ethics called The Theory of Moral Sentiments. Smith strongly believed that free markets were capable of cultivating morality within individuals. Capitalism, by design, marries a man’s moral and material growth so that both will be fully achieved.
Christian libertarians believe that freedom is engaging and experiential. It is through social and market interactions that relationships with fellow human beings are built. In turn it is these relationships that foster within individuals virtues including honesty, civility, prudence, restraint, industry, frugality, sobriety and reliability.
4) Christian libertarians take a very literal position on Christ’s message of liberty.
There is no way to ignore the significance of liberty in the message of Jesus Christ. For clarity, the words liberty and freedom in the New Testament are both English translations of the same Greek word, ἐλευθερία (eleutheria, pronounced: el-yoo-ther-ee’-ah). The Strong’s Dictionary reference number is 1657.
“Jesus said, ‘If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.’” John 8:31-32
“Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.” 2 Corinthians 3:17
“It is for freedom that Christ has set us free.” Galatians 5:1
Freedom means the ability to make one’s own choices. It means the ability to make the wrong choices. It means partaking in the consequences of our choices.
We see our freedom in our choice of salvation—to accept the salvation and lordship of Jesus Christ or to accept our own lordship. Christian libertarians believe that a civil society must do as much as possible to encourage choices and must do as little as possible to separate the choice from the consequence.
Myself and V&C podcast host, RJ Moeller, have blogged before about the saying, “Capitalism without bankruptcy is like Christianity without hell.” Christian conservatives and libertarians could agree on that. But Christian libertarians extend that principle to social issues as well.
Christian libertarians believe that people should live wholesome, productive lives because they have a conviction to do so. They also believe that people should be able to choose not to live in such a way, and those people will suffer the consequences in their lives and before God. Christian libertarians believe that people should commit before their family and community to their spouse for life, because they believe that is God’s plan, not because the government has tax incentives for them to get married and not simply live together.
Christ came to set us free and calls us to use our freedom for his purposes. Christian libertarians believe that the government should not limit that freedom for everyone because some people chose not to follow Christ.
Conservatives will say that there are negative externalities in a society if these aspects of social order are not enforced by government. Christian libertarians absolutely agree. But they believe that those negative externalities are the consequences of our own moral decay. They believe the answer isn’t in government action, enforced by violence and financed by plunder. But in the kingdom-building actions of the church, enforced by love and financed by self-sacrificial giving.
Fundamentally, Christianity is about our freedom, or rather our ability to choose to have a relationship with God—our choice to believe in him. To the understanding of Christian libertarians, freedom in our everyday, utterly practical lives means the free exchange of goods and ideas, the freedom to speak one’s mind, the freedom to travel, the freedom to pursue happiness, the freedom to reap what one sows, and the freedom to come to one’s own terms with God.
Lest there be any doubt remaining, Christian libertarians have not only developed a consistent philosophy in which libertarianism and Christianity are fully compatible, but have a developed a philosophy in which their libertarianism is dependent upon their Christianity.