Can Christians be Libertarians?
Pico had the rare privilege of attending the third annual Christians for Liberty Conference, held in Austin Texas on Aug. 6. There were about a hundred or so Christians and libertarians in attendance (mostly those who were both, but perhaps a few who were neither but curious) which made it lively enough for what is unfortunately still deemed an eccentricity, and drawing people, such as yours truly, from far and yon. Now this writer, “Pico” if you will, is more of a paleoconservative, or at least a paleolibertarian, and perhaps there were a few of similar persuasion lurking among the crowd. Undoubtedly this will give my observations a certain piquant sharpness since I fall short of whatever ideological median existed among the participants. Yet this range of views is the glory of all such libertarian conclaves, such that one can hardly bring any two of the participants together without finding three opinions among them. If you were to scratch the surface of conviviality, it would have revealed anarchists, minarchists, low-tax liberals, Rothbardian purists, one or two misdirected Randians, LP activists-on-the-make, pissed-off Republicrats, and a vast variety of other species in attendance. But, characteristic of this fusion of freedom and gospel, there was no rancor among the sub-sects, and the whole thing concluded with a resounding call to spread the complementary messages of political autonomy and spiritual dedication to Christ.
The conference was sponsored by the Christian Libertarian Institute, itself the brainchild of Dr. Norman Horne, who was the chief organizer of the event. The first speakers were Elise Daniel and Jacqueline Isaacs, who posed the question “Can Christians be Libertarians?.” While Pico hates the generational monikers which the media have made into mandatory age-casts, for ease of understanding, I will reluctantly describe Ms. Daniel and Ms. Isaacs as so-called “millennials” addressing their peers. As always there is tragedy and hope. The tragedy is that young Christians in public universities and starting corporate careers are members of an oppressed minority which is still stigmatized as an oppressing majority. The hope is that the brightest among the millennials will come to understand that Christianity is not a form of authoritarianism, but an exercise in responsible individualism mandated by God.
On the other hand there is a prejudice in the church which conflates libertarianism with a kind of roll-your-own lifestyle (properly, this would be termed “libertinism”), a view reinforced by the image of the pot-smoking narcissist who cares only for his or her own rights to enjoy the things of this world. However to decriminalize sinful behavior is not to give it moral sanction, indeed, it is to restore responsibility for the moral order to the teaching and sanctions of the family and the church. Libertarianism doesn’t teach the “unleashing of desire” promised by the progressives, but rather seeks to end the usurpation of individual responsibility by the state. Rather than an end to all governance, one of the speakers gave an apt summary, “I like my religion top down, and my politics bottom up!” In the pursuit of that goal, these two bright lights in the rising constellation of Christians for liberty have combined with four of their peers on a project to show how the age old ideal of “liberty in Christ” can speak in a contemporary idiom. The outcome will be a new perspective entitled Called To Liberty, which answers the question “can Christians be libertarian” through the experience and personal reflections of the six witnesses. This is a faith-based initiative in both the gospel and the entrepreneurial sense, since at the time of the conference the book was still half way towards being crowd-funded for publication.
A more somber and historical tone was struck by next two speakers Dr. Jamin Hubner and Dr. Mark Cherry. Hubner called the historical record to witness, and answered the question of whether Christians can be libertarians in the affirmative. Indeed, Hubner seemed indignant that the question even needed to be posed, since the anti-statist nature of the gospel was less evident in the apologetic tracts of the early theologians than the praxis of the catacombs and the Colosseum. While Hubner was pointed and direct, Cherry was rather baroque in his philosophical analysis of the theological epochs of the church, illustrating how Christians often got off track by rendering their faith too abstract and universal. For Cherry, the interesting question was not how libertarians and Christians could propagate their understandings indiscriminately, but how freedom of concrete choices empowered Christian individuals and families to live out of the will of God in the face of clear alternatives.
Since, as common sense and Austrian economics both teach, there is no such thing as equality in the realm of values, anyone attending a conference on libertarianism and Christianity must eventually ask which is the head and which is the tail, the Christian part or the freedom part. There were many pious statements implying that the joint endeavor would lead Christians to become more libertarian and libertarians to become more Christian. Yet without further clarification the deadly hint of dual allegiance inevitably starts to debilitate the methods and motives of all hyphenated movements. So it was with great relief that Pico and others heard Ms. Daniel affirm that the most important value was Christian faith, besides which infinite value no secular ideal can compare.
The Keynote Speaker: Dr. Robert Murphy
The featured Dr. Murphy was not a particular “draw” for Pico, since that latter had some vague reservations about the author of the “Contra-Krugman” blog. Many Austrian economists have a smart-Alec approach to lecturing. Knowing (and I feel they are correct in this assumption) that they are among the most intelligent human beings on the planet, they are keen to confirm the general public in the same conviction. Perhaps some decades-old encounter with Dr. Murphy had filled me with trepidation about the speaker. But as he began his talk it became clear that, like Pico, Dr. Murphy had at some point in his personal sojourn become “a new creature in Christ” and I warmed to him. Yes, he was every bit as witty and contentious as he had ever been, but, now bearing the mark of a servant, one could see that there was more than ego involved.
Moreover, Dr. Murphy’s topic was neither libertarianism nor Christianity per se but, surprisingly, apologetics. Granted that his title “Is God a tyrant?” would have hinted broadly at apologetics in any session where the themes were less political and more theological. The thesis was indeed a tour de force, and while Dr. Murphy (with his new found modesty) demurred from making any such claim, I will go ahead and call this an entirely new and revolutionary kind of apologetics. How so?
Keeping in mind that Dr. Murphy did not make any such claim, it seems to Pico that he was hinting at a “third way” within apologetics. If the first way is Classical apologetics (associated with Aristotle) and is evidence based, and the second way is Prepositional (associated with Paul, Anselm, and certain reformed thinkers) “believe that you may know” then Dr. Murphy’s take on the matter seems different from either. I’m not sure whether to call it Economic, or Judicial apologetics, or something else, but the take-away is that the thought of Murry Rothbard (a Jewish “pagan”) takes on a contemporary significance analogous to the influence of Aristotle on scholastic apologetics.
Rothbardians, following Locke, understand property as originating in the creation of goods through the mixing of labor with the materials provided by nature. Once these goods have been created, they are owned absolutely by their creator. He or she has the right to keep, destroy, or give away the created good voluntarily. Conversely, nobody else has a right to possess, occupy, or enjoy the good owned by the owner (who is either the creator or a successor to the original creator at some subsequent degree of gifting and/or purchase). As Murphy notes, this doctrine leads to any number of potential scenarios which normal people find morally uncomfortable. A typical illustration will involve the owner expelling from his or her property a trespasser who is certain to die in the hostile environment surrounding the owner’s place of business or habitation. However these dire consequences are not logical paradoxes, they follow from logical principles whether or not people feel emotionally or morally comfortable with the outcome.
When we consider God as the first laborer to whom all artifactual creaton by humans is analogous, then we can understand the parallel between the libertarian defense of property rights and God’s sovereignty over creation. God owns everything, and therefore has a right to dispose of His property as he sees fit. We are his property and in no position to claim any rights which does not acknowledge the prior claims of God on everything we are and own.
I find this kind of reasoning compelling, even though, or because, it gives one a sobering realization of how wrong it is to claim autonomy in the face of one’s Creator. There is a complementarity here, where the heteronomy of the creature is both contrasted to, and supported by, that same creature’s legal status as an autonomous person within civil society. It is also remarkably in accordance with scripture once we consider the gospel as part of an integral covenant rooted in the so-called Old Testament. Basically, Israel is a community of freeholders, yet they do not truly hold freely, but by the grace of God.
In summary, God is not a tyrant because he made the people over whom he allegedly tyrannizes. Human tyrants are what they are because they have not only usurped Christ.s crown rights, but they have intruded into the lives and properties of their fellow human beings. If they had made themselves and us, human tyrants would be in better shape to assert their claims, but fortunately we do not owe them our existence…as we do to God.
And now for something completely different
Dr. Murphy concluded his talk on an ominous note, echoing Paul’s observation that we battle not against flesh, but against powers and dominions, he cautioned against optimism based on a naive belief in rational persuasion of the masses. He noted that behind support for statism lurks something more than bad thinking or even vested interest, rather there are strong spiritual forces arrayed against freedom. Pico entirely concurs, and feels that libertarians as a whole are a rather Quixotic bunch. Leaving the ultimately supernatural opposition aside, there are many factors even in mundane existence which libertarians generally prefer to ignore, such as who precisely is doing what to whom, and if this involves money or other levers to power. It would seem that when God divided up political intelligence the right got principles and the left got strategy, and one wonders if it is too late in the day for the former to learn any new tricks, dirty or otherwise.
Of course there is always the flip side, as illustrated by those self-professed pragmatic “libertarians” whom Murray Rothbard despised but who arguably have a better grasp on reality than the utopians. As if on cue, Dr. Murphy’s talk was followed by Lauren Daugherty’s “Toward a Libertarian Foreign Policy” which seemed like an attempt to synthesize moral and economic liberalism with certain aspects of neoconservative doctrine. Knowing that the room was peppered with anarchists and pacifists, it took visible courage on Ms. Daugherty’s part to advocate a rather muscular retention of pax Americana, albeit one which clearly prioritized cultural propaganda and sea power in preference to boots sinking into quagmires. Pico always enjoys it when a solitary individual stands her ground in the face of a crowd, and sure enough, the young lady prevailed, while the crowd, generally speaking, “blinked.” To paraphrase Star Wars’ Senator Palpitine, many will be watching Ms. Daugherty’s career with great interest, and hopefully she will not succumb to the dark side of the force.