Thursday, March 19, 2009

Christian Libertarians

This piece was commission by the Center for a Just Society and was published on March 11...

Back in June, Ken Connor wrote an insightful essay on "Political Moral Philosophy" at Among other points, he correctly distinguished between Christian conservatives and libertarian conservatives. But he didn't address the category of Christian libertarians. After I pointed out the omission, he graciously offered me an opportunity to write an article for CJS.

Let's start with a few definitions. By the term Christian, I mean those who are saved by the grace of God through the atoning sacrifice of Jesus Christ—and hold to the Word of God as the ultimate authority. This is in marked contrast to those who are merely Christian in a "cultural" sense. And without the Word of God, a thorough, coherent "Christian" approach to politics is unattainable. For the biblical Christian, their worldview—their understanding of politics, economics, and everything else—should emanate from a thorough understanding of the Bible and God's created order.

By the term Libertarian, I mean the idea that people ought to be free to act as long as they are not doing direct and significant harm to others. The role of government, then, would be to intervene whenever someone is doing direct and significant harm to others—for example, actions like rape, murder, or theft. By this standard, government would be "limited but strong" (interestingly, along the lines advocated in the U.S. Constitution), not causing harm to us and effectively protecting us from harm by others.

In one sense, it is difficult to combine Christianity with Libertarian political philosophy. The latter is based on a form of individualism that cannot be fully reconciled with Christianity.

Likewise, a positive Christian defense of freedom within economic markets and other social spheres is relatively difficult to produce. Of course, freedom often produces laudable outcomes and springs from respectable motives. But freedom can also produce indefensible, unbiblical outcomes.

It is possible to construct a strong, positive defense of freedom based on the importance of free will, references to "sphere sovereignty" and subsidiarity, prudential arguments, and so on. But that task is well beyond the scope of my small essay.

By contrast, it is relatively easy to approach the combination of Christianity and Libertarianism from another angle. Instead of a positive defense of freedom, consider a negative critique of many efforts to restrict freedom by using government. It turns out that the political practices which one would infer from Libertarianism are fully consistent with biblical Christianity.

This approach boils down to one key question: When should a Christian actively advocate government as a means to various godly ends?

For instance, when should Christians seek to restrict the social freedom of others? Smoking, the practice of "false religions," murder? And when should they seek to take money from some people to give it to others? Welfare for individuals, bailing out homeowners, trade protectionism?

A common approach from those who reject libertarian principles is to point out sinful outcomes and assume that government is an ethical and practical means to the reasonable end of punishing and reducing the likelihood of sin. For example, gambling is said to be a sin, so the government should eliminate it or not allow it to increase. Or it would be sinful not to help the needy sufficiently, so there should be government programs to redistribute income to help those who are in need.

But poking around a bit, we quickly realize that the category "sin" doesn't take us very far in our quest for a coherent, biblical approach to government. In fact, we don't want the government to intervene in all types of sin—for example, eating too much pie, uttering a harsh word to a child, or failing to give sufficient resources to the local church. So, which sins should receive the government's attention—or, more precisely, when should Christians devote resources to impacting public policy?

In trying to draw distinctions and determine when Christians should (and should not) invoke government, I've come up with two categories: "legislating morality" (LM) and "legislating justice" (LJ). Under "morality," I put sins where people mostly do harm to themselves, such as gluttony. And under "justice," I put sins where people do direct and significant harm to others. Within this category, I also distinguish between "economic justice" (where the damage is in the economic realm—e.g., theft) and "social justice" (where the damage is social—e.g., murder).

Of course, there is some overlap between the categories. Matters of justice are also matters of morality. But we need to draw some sort of distinction if we're going to think more clearly about the amazingly wide variety of sins that might be the subject of legislation.

In addition, no sins are fully private; every sin I commit has an impact of some sort on those around me. But if this is my standard for inviting government action, the door is kicked wide open to every potential law under the sun. Surely, there is a useful distinction to be drawn between minor and indirect costs—and those that are major and directly imposed. As the costs become larger and more direct, it becomes easier to make a case for seeking government activism.

In my book, Turn Neither to the Right nor to the Left: A Thinking Christian's Guide to Politics and Public Policy, I make the case that Christians should not use government to "legislate morality" (as defined above), but should use the government selectively and properly to "legislate justice". Further, I argue that the Religious Right's approach to politics is often wrong-headed. The most notable exception is abortion, where they are trying to "legislate (social) justice". And I argue that the Religious Left often seeks to legislate justice, but with unbiblical and impractical public policies. In any case, ungodly and impractical means to godly ends are still ungodly.

Not surprisingly, I can't lay out the full case here. But in closing, let me give you two key points to ponder.

First, even if government intervention is a good means to an end, is it the best use of our resources? As we prioritize our lives—and within that, our political activities—which political issues should be our highest priorities? Should phenomenally expensive and painfully inept inner-city education be ranked below our concerns about expanded gambling? Should we ignore the oppressive burden of payroll taxes on the working poor, while focusing on higher income taxes for the wealthy? Should one be silent on easy and pandemic divorce, while clamoring about so-called "same-sex marriage"?

Second, consider the ministry of Jesus Christ. He only got angry when others were being harmed—from the shenanigans at the Temple to the stifling legalism and hypocrisy of the Pharisees. When people were largely doing harm to themselves, he reasoned with them and encouraged them to change. It is difficult to imagine Him using government to protect people from themselves; it is easy to imagine Him rising to defend those who were being harmed by others.

Perhaps the best way to sum up Christian Libertarianism is a reference to the famous passage in John 8: "the woman caught in adultery". Among the many things Christ could have said in response to the accusers, His answer was perfect: "If any of you is without sin, let him be the first to throw a stone at her." Instead of throwing stones, they dropped theirs and walked away. There was only One who could have rightfully thrown stones. Instead, he freed her from that moment—and hopefully, from the bondage of her sin.

His final comment to her? "Go now and leave your life of sin." Not tolerance of an alternative lifestyle, but conviction. Not the elimination of standards, but their reiteration. Not rocks, but mercy, an attempt to persuade, and the ever-available offer of His amazing grace.

Dr. Eric Schansberg is Professor of Economics at Indiana University (New Albany), the author of
Turn Neither to the Right nor to the Left: A Thinking Christian's Guide to Politics and Public Policy (Alertness Books, 2003), the co-author of Thoroughly Equipped—a 21-month discipleship curriculum, and the editor of SchansBlog.


At March 19, 2009 at 10:59 PM , Blogger JunkYard Gypsy said...

I really didn't read beyond this paragraph: The role of government, then, would be to intervene whenever someone is doing direct and significant harm to others—for example, actions like rape, murder, or theft. By this standard, government would be "limited but strong" (interestingly, along the lines advocated in the U.S. Constitution)
Since you mentioned the constitution, I would have to assume you are speaking about the Federal government. And therefore your statement is incorrect. There in lies the problem, the federal government has no say in these issues, that is left for State's jurisdiction. Provide for the common defense, pretty well sums up their role.

At March 19, 2009 at 11:33 PM , Blogger Eric Schansberg said...

I was not clear enough there. Sorry-- and ouch...

The federal government would be "limited but strong" under the U.S. Constitution. But you're absolutely correct: there is no role for the federal government in those particular crimes.

Sorry to have lost you after that paragraph!


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