[Vision2020] Strange Bedfellows: Libertarians, Christians, and Biblical Bolsheviks

nickgier at adelphia.net nickgier at adelphia.net
Sat Dec 15 18:31:52 PST 2007


As always, I've grateful for Keely's astute observations about Christians who choose to ignore the strong Social Gospel implications of the biblical message.  For those who are interested, I've appended the good discussion this column generated on New West E-Mag.

I've had a number of thoughtful comments on this column and I'm grateful for the civility of the respondents.  That's not always the case these days, especially on the internet.

First, a correction.  It was Reid Buckley, not James Buckley who came to Moscow preaching Christian libertarianism.  That was a mistake with unkind implications, because both James and William are much better men than their brother.

Let me start with start with the economic communism of the early Christian community, which lasted 200 years or more, arguably until the 18th Century.  Free market economics as we know it was invented by a Scotsman named Adam Smith in the late 18th Century and the Edmund Burke, classical conservative and orthodox Christian, did not think much of the idea.  How many times have modern ideas been read back into the Bible and other ancient texts?

Several respondents claim that early Christian communism was voluntary and that Ananias' and Sapphira's sin was that they lied.  Biblical hermeneutics is always a tricky business, and that's why one should not draw doctrine from it, but I don't think this is the meaning of the text.  Ananias did not lie to anyone; he secretly held back proceeds from a property sale.  The only "person" who could see this deed was the Holy Spirit, who presumably Peter consulted after the fact.  The text is clear: Ananias did not "lie to men but to God" (Acts 5:4), which I take to mean that no deed can be hidden from God.  Lying is speaking untruth and Ananias did not do that.

When Ananias and Sapphira were struck dead (people worship this moral monster?), a "great fear" gripped the Christian community. Now, I ask any reasonable person: Were they afraid because of the punishment for lying, or were they afraid of the horrific punishment (Yahweh is never subtle!) for disobeying the command that absolutely all things shall be held in common?  I think the latter is the case.  Furthermore, "the company of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one said that any of the things which he possessed was his own. . . (3:32). This amounts to a fairly explicit denial of the right to private property. 

The off-list respondent (I've appended his remarks below), defends the notion of private property in the Bible by referring to the thousands (no doubt) of possessive pronouns in the text, but this proves nothing about the basic political philosophy of the Bible.  My local Calvinist minister, who believes that only propertied males should vote, pats himself on the back that he allows single women to vote in church meetings.  These women, however, are only "stand-in" males, who would immediately lose their vote when they marry.  

Similarly, Carl Henry is right in saying that, strictly speaking from a biblical view, human beings have no rights, because an omnipotent creator God has made them, and by mixing his labor with the dust, he owns them unconditionally.  I'm shocked that the classical liberal philosopher John Locke applied his principle of private property to God and thereby undermined it for anyone else.

The off-list respondent makes a surprising concession about rights: "On the day I gave my life to Him, I gave Him everything that was mine for Him to use to His glory, including my rights."  This is not quite right, however, because Henry and Locke state correctly that human beings have never had any rights because, whether they've given their hearts to Christ or not, they are owned lock, stock, and barrel by the biblical God. 

The another thing is clear from the passage above and many others in the Bible: it teaches a collective view of the self, not classical liberalism's individualism, certainly not the radical individualism of libertarianism.  I've written about "corporate personality" in Hebrew and Buddhist philosophy, and you might be interested to know what else I think they have in common.  See www.class.uidaho.edu/ngier/HBselves.htm.

I don't know exactly what Eric Schansberg means by Christianity and libertarianism being compatible in "a negative sense," but, if I get his drift, I believe that they do not compare at all in a positive sense, and that's ultimately decisive.  

I've already pointed to the nature of self as fundamental, but I also want to add free-will.  The more conservative and orthodox Christians are, and the more they stress divine omnipotence, the more problems they have with freedom of the will.  The burden of proof is on them to show how a deity that causes everything to happen does not also cause every single one of our actions.  

As Martin Luther said in his 1524 debate with humanist Erasmus: "You would not call a slave free, who acts under the sovereign authority of his master; and still less rightly can we call a man or angel free, when they live under the absolute sovereignty of God.” 

Prominent conservative evangelical J. I. Packer states: "Freedom is found only in subjection to God and His truth; and the more subject, the more free.  This is the biblical paradox of Christian liberty.  Man becomes free only in bondservice to Jesus Christ."  I submit that no consistent libertarian could find freedom in subjection or slavery.

The omnicausal deity of orthodox Christianity is coercive by nature, and the summary of the argument is in my extended essay www.class.uidaho.edu/ngier/libchristian.htm or the full argument at www.class.uidaho.edu/ngier/3dp.htm.  
As a process theologian, I hold that Christians can be libertarians only if they give up God's absolute monopoly of power, which, as Sartre so brilliantly demonstrated in Being and Nothingness, actually makes Christian creationism into pantheism.  An entity that has no power to exist can only exist as an extension of God, not as a separate entity apart from him.  

I don't mind using male pronouns when referring to a coercive god.  Another power sharing deity is the Hindu goddess, and you can read about her at www.class.uidaho.edu/ngier/YogiGoddess.htm.  My position is that Christians avoid the divine feminine (sophia in Biblical terms) at their peril.

When the Christian respondents have shown that conservative Christians have free will, then we can return to the political philosophy issues.  They would have to grant to be that libertarians must begin with free will or they have nothing.

The off-list respondent states that "someone told me once that the difference between a religion and a cult was in the degree of difficulty involved in leaving," but it is clear, that the biblical God can hardened any heart so that it is difficult to choose to do what you want to do. How can Christian citizens, who are would be libertarians, complain about governmental coercion when their God has absolute rule over their lives?  This is the basic contradiction I see in Christian libertarianism.
Thanks for the dialogue.

Off-list comment in full; NewWest on-line comments follow.

Rather than leave a public comment, I'd life to point out a couple of problems with your analysis.  I am a libertarian Christian and find the libertarian philosophy quite compatible with Biblical teachings.  I believe in the Sovereignty of God over His creation.  However, I do not believe that everyone's negative rights are equal and that, in that sense, every human being should be individually sovereign relative to all other human beings.  Libertarian Christians do not reject government regulation out of hand, nor do they do so because simply God is the only authority.  Libertarian Christians reject the use of coercion or the initiation of force as a means to socio-economic ends, regardless of whether the aggressor is a member of the State, or a private individual.
There are many positive forms of government which are non-coercive.  There is self government which each of us uses every time we make a decision.  I usually don't have to hold a gun to my head to get me to do something.  There are voluntary governmental relationships in practically every trade we make with others including employee/employer relationships.  Someone told me once that the difference between a religion and a cult was in the degree of difficulty involved in leaving.  The same is true when determining which forms of governance are voluntary/non-coercive and those which are not.
It is practically impossible for the form of government we call "the State", which is based on arbitrarily drawn geo-political boundaries, to be non-coercive.  The only legitimate function one could find for such a government would be the reactive defense of each individual's equal rights to life, liberty and property.  It conversely looses that legitimacy the second it becomes the violator in the process.  Asking the State to act within those confines is like asking a pig to lay eggs.
"Libertarians also maintain that those who live at the government’s largess develop bad habits of dependency that undermine personal initiative and integrity. The Christian "libertarian" cannot say that dependency is healthy in religion, but turn around to say that the same dependency undermines personal initiative in society."
If you don't mind, I'd like you to expound on that a bit.  I think I have the answer, but I want to make sure I understand the forms of dependency to which you refer.  As with government, dependency can be positive and sometimes necessary and sometimes not.  The whys and hows of each situation are more important.  Voluntarily working collectively has a perceived positive benefit for all parties involved.  Forced collectivism on the other hand always creates injustice.
The Bible does not talk about individual rights; rather, it speaks of one's duties to community and God.  That's partially true, but from the Christian perspective, we live in a fallen world and as unfair and inconvenient as this truth is to most Christians, we are called to live by a different set of rules than non-Christians.  Here's something I wrote previously on the subject.
  Step one deals with rights. From my perspective God gave them to us just as surely as he gave us our lives.  For those who don't believe in God, call them part of your natural existence just like the air you breath and the beat of your heart.  Rights are as natural as the laws of physics.  From my Christian perspective, natural's not a dirty word, it's merely an explanation of how the world imperfectly works in its fallen state created by sin subsequent to God's design.  Rights are the natural balance of how people should interact one to another.  You should not violate mine because I should not violate yours.
  This God given balance of what is ethically right or wrong is necessary because of man's depraved nature.  Had it been that original sin was never committed, then the Utopia, (Heaven on Earth so to speak), for which some strive would exist.  On a world free of sin, the rights of life, liberty and property would never be violated, therefore rights and our knowledge of them would be unnecessary.
  Whenever I discuss rights with Christians it always seems to come up that what I'm describing is that men have rights relative to God.  That is why I must stress that we have no rights which can be compared to the omnipotent Creator of the universe.  That's why a hurricane, flood, cancer, gravity or heart attack cannot violate your rights.  Only the actions committed by man can do so.  If I fall from a cliff and you don't catch me, I cannot rightfully claim that your inaction violated my rights.
  Rights belong to every individual.  However, all that changed the day I gave my life to Christ.  I believe the perceived unfairness of this change is the reason why Christians feel the need to justify certain actions on their part through Biblical cherry picking.  From the day I was conceived, God granted me the privilege of my life and along with that my rights.  On the day I gave my life to Him, I gave Him everything that was mine for Him to use to His glory, including my rights.  As I said, this arrangement might not seem fair to many, because while I have given my rights to Him, I am still obligated not to violate the rights of others.  From that moment on, my desire should be, (and I fail a lot), to live as an example of Christ that others may see Him in me and come to Him.  Nothing on this Earth should be as important to me as the great commission.  This is why, "If a man takes your cloak, give him your coat also; if one compel you to go a mile, go with him twain." "Love your enemies, do good to them that hurt you, and pray for them that despitefully use you."  This world will get the upper hand on us while we remain here.  But our reward is not of the world and is unimaginably greater than anything the world has to offer.  As Christians, our lives , liberty and property cannot be taken from us because we have already given them to God.  Enemies may come against us but they can never take from us that which we have already given up for God's glory.
Utopianism always seems to lean toward collectivism, sharing and the like, and seems to work quite well, ... in theory.  I believe the reason for this is that that's the way God designed it all to work.  The missing element which Utopians always seem to overlook is that we are human.  We are never, on this Earth, going to all join hands and sing in harmony.  Some will always sing better, some worse, some will dissent, that's just the way we are.  So rather than futily striving for Utopia why don't we settle for treating each other justly?
"In his book "Evangelicals at an Impasse" evangelical Christian Robert Johnston states that the Bible does not support "to each according to merit"; rather, it teaches "to each according to need," the most famous phrase in Marx's philosophy."
  Here again, the difference is that the Bible is teaching individual responsibility and voluntary compassion or charity.  It is never implied that coercive force or threat of such should be employed as a means to that end.
"Free market economics is at the heart of libertarianism, but one finds just the opposite in the Book of Acts: "And all who believed were together and had all things in common; and they sold their possessions and goods and distributed them to all, as any had need" (2:44-45; 4:32-37)."
I always have fun with this one.  It's the catch phrase of those who believe in the "Social Gospel."  Christian Socialists always point to this passage to justify their beliefs.  Two things to remember is that the Bible contains accounts of things we should do, but it also offers accounts of things we shouldn't.  Just because it's in the Bible doesn't mean we should all run out and emulate it.  First, I believe that in this section of Acts we find a group who try voluntarily communalism, not forced communism.  Secondly, it should be noted that their experiment was dependent upon donations from good old free market capitalists who sold "their" property to give to the apostles.  Thirdly, God struck down Ananias for being deceitful, not because God doesn't believe in private property.  If God doesn't believe in, (or condone), private property rights then the commandments, "Thou shalt not steal" and "Thou shalt not covet" don't make much sense.  The idea that the Bible doesn't recognize private property has a lot of explaining to do since the Bible is chock full of possessive pronouns such as "his, hers, ours, theirs, mine, yours..."
But one item in Gov. William Bradford’s diary, which Larsen quotes, relates that families were given parcel of land "according to the proportion of their number," not according to how much they could buy with their own funds. Sometimes the right thing to do is to share and not to make a profit.
Of course, the just thing to do with government land would have been to return it to its rightful owner, but let's look at the situation.  Bradford realizes that communism doesn't work.  He's faced with 100 or so settlers who each now have about three kernels of corn between eating and starving.  As Governor, you can now stand in front of these folks and generously offer to sell each one of them as much of the land, (that's not rightfully his), as each can afford?  His solution may not have been perfect, but he was human.  I think the fact that he divvied up the land instead, in no way advocates socialism.  At that point, had he offered to sell the land even with no money down and at a low fixed APR, they'd have probably used the last of the tar and feathers on him.
My Bible teaches a lot in common with libertarianism;  Don't steal, don't murder, do unto others..., just off the top of my head.  Those three sound a lot like "I do not believe in or advocate the initiation of force as a means of achieving social, political, personal or economic goals."
There are Christians who do advocate the initiation of force, but after all, they're only human.

By Eric Dondero, 12-13-07
If anything the Republican Party has become more libertarian in recent years, mostly thanks to the efforts of the Republican Liberty Caucus.

Look at the recent elections of libertarian Republican Governors Butch Otter in Idaho, Sarah Palin in Alaska, and "libertarian lite" Charlie Crist in Florida.

Back in the 1980s and early '90s, libertarians were a pariah in the GOP. We were almost not even invited to participate, literally kicked out the door in some cases by the Religous Right. Now, they roll out the red carpet for libertarians, even Conservative Christians treat us well.

Witness the fact that the GOP frontrunner Rudy Giuliani leans heavily libertarian.

All of this scares the wits out of liberals. Last thing they want is for the GOP to become more libertarian.
By Grant Williams, 12-14-07
I agree in large part with everything Professor Gier summarized in his article, but being an Objectivist - that is, an individual in agreement with the philosophy of Ayn Rand - I need to clarify one statement the Professor made.

When he correctly identifies that Libertarians and Objectivists hold the same political convictions, he mistakenly construes Ayn Rand's to be as shallow as the Libertarian's in their defense of individual liberty. Ayn Rand did not hold the "individual conscience" to be the authority in ethics, but rather an embodiment of ethics; and individual conciousness, cognizant of reality's demands, as the means to ethical wisdom.

According to Rand, ethical behavior is not whatever anyone feels like doing, but rather what is the logical action in any given situation, with life-enhancing behavior as the standard of logical behavior.

Thus, Objectivist ethical beliefs are far more personal and far more sophisticated than Objectivist political beliefs. In fact, it's our ethical beliefs that give rise to our political beliefs. Ayn Rand would have (and did) vehemently condemn drug addiction and prostitution as immoral; but would have condemned their prohibition as even more so.

Objectivists hold that individuals should be politically free only because, in order to achieve their highest happiness (spiritually and materially) they must be able to think, and act, independently. Obviously, this cannot happen under any form of compulsion; state-sponsored or otherwise.
By eric schansberg, 12-15-07
At least in a negative sense, libertarianism and a coherent Christian philosophy of government are completely compatible. In a word: when should a Christian actively advocate the use of government as an ethical/biblical and practical means to godly ends?

The deaths of Ananias and Sapphira has nothing to do with private property. They lied about what they had done with their property.

Likewise, the famous passages in Acts 2 and 4 speak to voluntary living arrangements and are not generalizable to welfare programs, socialism, and so on.

For those who would like to read about this topic at (far greater) length, feel free to check out my book, Turn Neither to the Right nor to the Left: A Thinking Christian's Guide to Politics and Public Policy.

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