In a recent panel discussion, Dr. Albert Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, responded to a question about if Christians should become libertarians. Mohler’s response was overwhelmingly against the idea. You can view the clip here:
As a Christian and a libertarian, I feel there are a number of problems with both the question and the answers that deserve a response. I’ll first admit that I approach the challenge of rebutting a theologian of Dr. Mohler’s stature tentatively, and I do so only in the interest of correcting political misperceptions.
With that said, here are some of the key problems I found with the discussion.
Moderator: “There is a growing trend of Christians who are libertarian. They like the Libertarian Party. I took the time to look up the 2012 platform (and) it’s basically about individual sovereignty, that you control your own decisions and there should be no laws that control your behavior as long as it’s peaceful and as long as it doesn’t harm anybody, and that includes marijuana, it includes any form of drugs, it also includes abortion, it also includes sexual proclivity and gay marriage. Is that a place that a Christian should be lending (his) support?”
The basic premise of the question here is flawed. Libertarianism as a political philosophy is distinct from the Libertarian Party. We don’t say that republicanism is fully embodied by the Republican Party or that democracy is wholly defined by the Democrat Party. Using an election-year platform of a political organization is a poor substitute for truly understanding the underpinnings of a political philosophy.
It is particularly erroneous to make the inference that libertarianism necessitates the approval of the monstrous practice of abortion. It is true that libertarians are divided on this issue, but so are Democrats and Republicans. One can perfectly well be a libertarian and oppose abortion. In fact, some libertarians make the convincing case that abortion attacks the fundamental basis of libertarianism, the non-aggression principle.
Additionally, what the moderator fails to appreciate is that it is possible to oppose certain social behaviors and still not believe that they should be prohibited by the force of government.
Dr. Mohler: “It’s very popular among young people because it basically gives them a way out of the cultural collision. If you’re in a cultural vice the way out of it is to adopt a libertarian understanding.”
If I understand the point correctly, what Dr. Mohler is saying is that young people embrace libertarianism because it allows them to escape confronting a culture that holds morality in contempt. But this is a wrong and it conflates government and society. Saying that government shouldn’t be involved in moderating morality doesn’t mean that no institution within society should be performing this function.
I would further argue that if you remove the political battle over these issues, as libertarians would do, the cultural collision is both more real and more personal. For all of the arguing over the politics of morality that American Christians engage in, many do very little to actually reach the heart of the matter, the need for a merciful savior. Scoring political points is often a cause for rejoicing, regardless of whether or not hearts are being changed.
From my perspective, many American Christians who reject libertarianism are more concerned with winning the political battles over the outward expression of a broken soul than they are with mending the soul itself.
“The ideological base of libertarianism is idolatry. It’s Ayn Rand, it’s Randian individualism, and she was at least honest in saying that she was like Nietzsche (and that) Christianity is for weak people who need this kind of support.”
I’ve never understood the fascination that non-libertarians have with making Ayn Rand the standard-bearer of libertarianism. I’m a libertarian and yet, for better or worse, I’ve never read one word of Ayn Rand. The intellectual foundation of libertarianism runs much deeper and rests on much stronger philosophical bedrock than Ayn Rand, whose ideas are considered somewhat crankish even in libertarian circles.
Despite Mohler’s assertion, libertarian ideology is not inherently idolatrous. As M. Stanton Evans wrote in his fantastic book, The Theme is Freedom, the foundation of libertarian philosophy is rooted in the inherent value of individuals created in the image of God. Evans writes,
“For freedom to exist, there have to be certain assumptions about the intrinsic worth of the individual, the respect that is owing to all human beings, the need to limit the compulsions that can be used by one person against another.
“What is common to these libertarian precepts, of course, is that all of them are axiomatic, moral statements.”
I would suggest further that it is modern American Christians’ infatuation with government power that is a clearer, darker representation of idolatry. For many modern Christians, it is within the realm of politics that they seem to find the greatest hope and experience the deepest disappointments. Political losses are mourned more than lost sinners.
Libertarianism is also not necessarily individualistic. To say that individuals have rights upon which the state cannot infringe is not tantamount to saying that the individual is in himself a complete entity, that he has no need of community or society. Here again is the conflation of government and society.
“The alternative to libertarianism is not…giving the state the kind of sovereignty the state wants to claim over our lives.”
If this is not the alternative, then what is? Either government is strictly limited or it is not. Since the state it is merely a collection of people in power, a segment of humanity that is always increasingly lustful for power, the lack of clearly-defined restrictions on their sphere of action invariably leads to their increasing authority over our lives at their own discretion.
“We’ve (historically) counted on the culture to help us preach the gospel and now the culture’s not helping us anymore.”
Is it surprising that in an age in which the church has delegated its governing responsibilities to the state, the church’s influence in society has diminished? In The Quest for Community, sociologist Robert Nisbet surveyed the impact to non-government social institutions and society as a whole when those institutions allow their historical responsibilities to be appropriated by the state. The result is a disaffected population that finds increasing meaning in the state and decreasing significance in other social institutions. Nisbet wrote,
“Our present crisis lies in the fact that whereas the small traditional associations, founded upon kinship, faith, or locality, are still expected to communicate to individuals the principal moral ends…of society, they have manifestly become detached from positions of functional relevance to the larger economic and political decisions of our society. Family, local community, church, and the whole network of informal interpersonal relationships have ceased to play a determining role in our institutional systems…”
In other words, as the state has performed more and more functions that previously belonged to non-government units within society, the relevance to individuals of institutions like the church has waned. It is no wonder, then, that the culture which now finds its identity in the state is turning its back on the church.
“The government legislates morality all the time, that’s all the government actually does in legislation. The laws regarding traffic are moral laws, they’re establishing a moral universe in which it is ‘right’ to have respect in this way for others on the road.”
With respect to Dr. Mohler, this is a very weak argument. I don’t think that it’s accurate to say that traffic laws are legislating morality. Nobody says, “Well, you went over the speed limit, so you are going straight to hell.” Traffic laws are merely attempting to regulate actions in the interest of safety. Private roads and parking lots do this exact same thing, yet we don’t weep for the soul of the guy driving the wrong direction down a Wal-Mart parking lot aisle.
With that said, I don’t think that most libertarians would say, “Oh gosh, we have to have traffic laws, so I guess this whole libertarian thing is wrong.” This makes sense only if the regulation of roads and traffic could not exist in the absence of the state, but this isn’t true. Were traffic laws not emanating from government, people would still be able to organize their activity in the interest of safety and efficiency. Who knows, maybe the private sector could even do a better job!
“When people say (that government should not legislate morality) they are talking about a zone of specific morality having to do with individual political, economic or sexual behaviors. But the people who are saying that don’t mean it. We do not have people who are right now saying that we need to stop legislating all sexual morality. They are not trying to decriminalize issues having to do with incest or all kinds of things we can mention.”
This might seem radical but, as a libertarian, I am saying that we need to stop legislating all sexual morality, at least where the basic, God-given rights of human beings are not being attacked. In saying this I’m denying neither the reality nor the consequences of sexual sin. But government, although a part of society, does not encompass all of society. There is every reason to believe that other governing institutions in society can handle the problem of morality without resorting to the use of government coercion, and do a better job of it. Frederic Bastiat, a devout Christian and an ardent defender of liberty, wrote,
“And let it not be said — as it continually is said — that under this concept (of liberty), the law would be atheistic, individualistic, and heartless; that it would make mankind in its own image. This is an absurd conclusion, worthy only of those worshippers of government who believe that the law is mankind.
“Suppose that the law does not force us to follow certain forms of religion, or systems of association, or methods of education…or plans for charity; does it then follow that we shall eagerly plunge into atheism, hermitary, ignorance…and greed? If we are free, does it follow that we shall no longer recognize the power and goodness of God? Does it follow that we shall then cease to associate with each other, to help each other, to love and succor our unfortunate brothers, to study the secrets of nature, and to strive to improve ourselves to the best of our abilities?”
The libertarian position on morality is not that it’s not important, it is that these are issues that are capably handled by other units of society and that placing them in the hands of government not only grows government, it does harm to the very morality that is to be preserved. Christians who are so intent on giving the government the authority to do something like define marriage are turning a blind eye to the developing reality that the state’s definition of marriage can be foisted back on the church.
Furthermore, the problems of consistency on this issue are almost wholly on the other side, with people who want to legislate certain aspects of morality. Issues surrounding homosexuality are the common target for Christians, and yet most Christians don’t advocate for laws against adultery. Now, as I understand it, Dr. Mohler is at least consistent in that he has argued against the repeal of laws that penalized heterosexual adultery, but the fact remains that most Christians, even the “legislate morality” crowd, do not favor this kind of law.
Nor do they favor the legislation of other kinds of morality. It is moral to give money to the church, but we don’t advocate the government taking this out of our paychecks for us. We are called to support the poor, and yet Christians largely bristle at welfare programs. Lying is a sin, but we don’t have legislation outlawing it. There are many issues that the Bible tells us are moral issues which we don’t advocate the state enforcing. The issues of consistency, then, are much greater for non-libertarians than they are for libertarians.
“Government’s always, cultures always moralize….(and) every society decides to moralize.”
This is true, but government is not synonymous with culture or society. It is a culture’s prerogative to moralize, and this function is extremely important. But it is only a logical conclusion that, because society moralizes government also moralizes, if society and government are the same thing.
But this isn’t true, and to say that it is is to fall into the socialist mistake of confusing government with society. Here again I defer to Bastiat, who lays this fallacy bare.
“Socialism, like the ancient ideas from which it springs, confuses the distinction between government and society. As a result of this, every time we object to a thing being done by government, the socialists conclude that we object to its being done at all.
“We disapprove of state education. Then the socialists say that we are opposed to any education. We object to a state religion. Then the socialists say that we want no religion at all. We object to a state-enforced equality. Then they say that we are against equality. And so on, and so on. It is as if the socialists were to accuse us of not wanting persons to eat because we do not want the state to raise grain.”
“In New York City they’ve stopped moralizing on pornography and they’ve started moralizing on super-sized Cokes.”
This line earned Dr. Mohler laughter from the crowd, but it seemed that nobody could grasp the truth of what he was saying. This humorous quip affirms the truth that, once given the authority to determine what is moral, government will use that power to control an ever-increasing range of behavior under the guise of moderating morality. Thus the importance of strictly limiting government.
We may mock New York City for banning large sodas, but it is undeniable that its attempts to do so logically flow from the government-enforced prohibition of other substances like drugs. If government has the authority to determine that drugs are bad for you, physically or spiritually, then you must allow that the government has the authority to look for and ban other substances that may damage your body or soul.
Gerard Casey, a Christian philosopher and professor at University College Dublin, has written that this is an inherent feature of the state. He writes,
“…finding its (proper) role unrewarding, expensive and time-consuming the state intrudes coercively upon other areas into which it has no business going…. In a classic strategy of distraction and displacement, the state, bored with and indifferent to those things for which, allegedly, it primarily exists, becomes ever more interested in curtailing and interfering with the lives, liberty and property of its citizens in ways that are more systematically devastating and irresistible than any danger posed by the ordinary criminal.”
So scoff at the law if you like, but it must be admitted that governments are growing their powers by logically extending the authority that we have given to them.
“We need to look at people who say ‘You don’t legislate morality’ and say ‘What in the world to legislators do?'”
An excellent question! For libertarians the answer is that they protect the basic rights of individuals. Period. As Bastiat defined it,
“The law is the organization of the natural right of lawful defense. It is the substitution of a common force for individual forces. And this common force is to do only what the individual forces have a natural and lawful right to do: to protect persons, liberties, and properties; to maintain the right of each, and to cause justice to reign over us all.”
On the supposed necessity of legislating morality, Casey chimes in, writing,
“Lovers of the grotesque must surely cherish the irony that the dubiously moral organisation known as the state, in addition to purporting to provide services that are genuinely required should also set itself up officiously as the guardian of public morals when it itself is, more often than not, a principal offender against morals.
“Without in any obvious way possessing a different moral status from ordinary mortals, the state does things that, if done by anyone else, would be illegal, immoral and criminal — for example, in making war, it kills; in taxing, it steals; in conscripting troops for war, it kidnaps. The task of the defenders of the state is not easy.”
In short, the case against legislating morality is as simple as understanding who is defining what is moral. In the non-libertarian world, it is the legislator, equipped with the power of the sword, who gets to define what is moral. But Bastiat raises an important point, writing,
“The claims of these organizers of humanity raise another question: If the natural tendencies of mankind are so bad that it is not safe to permit people to be free, how is it that the tendencies of these organizers are always good? Do not the legislators and their appointed agents also belong to the human race? Or do they believe that they themselves are made of a finer clay than the rest of mankind?”
This isn’t some sort of curmudgeonly libertarian pessimism. Those who want to endow government with both the authority to determine what is moral and the power to penalize violations of it should soberly consider the recent statement by President Obama that abortion supporters are “doing God’s work.”
Libertarianism and Christianity: The Rest of the Story
I honestly try not to be overly dogmatic in matters of politics. I am fully aware of the finite capacity of my own knowledge and ability to reason. But I often find the reciprocity of this sentiment from non-libertarian Christians to be disappointingly lacking.
Despite inferences to the contrary, libertarianism is not self-evidently incompatible with Christianity. It is merely a political philosophy aimed at preserving the maximum amount of individual freedom from government oppression. Others aren’t obliged to accept arguments made in its favor, but these arguments do deserve a fair hearing and careful consideration. There is no reason why political matters should not be open to debate among Christians.
The fact is, the foundations of liberty have their roots in Christianity. Evans makes this case when he writes,
“The oft-stated conflict between traditional values and libertarian practice in our politics is therefore an illusion…this tradition is rooted in religious faith, not secular abstraction. The very concepts of the limited state and personal liberty…grew from the religious vision of the West.”
The fact is, Christians throughout history have embraced libertarianism or its philosophical antecedents. This list includes historical figures like John Locke, Lord Acton, Richard Cobden, J. Gresham Machen and Frederic Bastiat. It includes modern figures like Ron Paul, Tom Woods, R.C. Sproul Jr., Gerard Casey and Andrew Napolitano.
The fact is, Christians already are libertarians. We don’t want the state telling us how to worship, how to exercise church discipline, how to define our orthodoxy, who to marry in our churches, who to put in the pulpit, what we teach at seminary and a thousand other issues.
Everyone is a libertarian about something, about what matters to them. Everybody wants to be free to do what they believe is right. The test of this belief in freedom, and the only security for its preservation, is in extending that liberty to everyone, even those who will make decisions with which we will disagree.
The lack of the state governing these decisions does not mean that society cannot do so. To reduce the role of the state is to necessarily increase the role of the church, the family and the community. I ask my fellow Christians to consider in whose hands is the maintenance of morality safer. In whose hands can it be more easily twisted and perverted?
Having said all this, the primary goal of the Christian is not preserving morality or preserving liberty. It is reaching people with the message of salvation. These are ultimately not issues of the law, they are issues of the heart. Evans concludes his book with this message, and I cannot restate the point better than he:
“None of the foregoing, be it said, would be sufficient in itself to restore our freedoms…. In every sense, the spiritual and intellectual vision must be foremost. Recovery of our religious faith and its teachings should be our first and main concern. Without it, nothing much by the way of practical improvement can be accomplished. With it, all the rest might readily be added.”