CultureWatch

Bill Muehlenberg's commentary on issues of the day...

Problems With Christian Libertarianism

Jan 25, 2014

I have said it before and will say it again: if you want to be a hard-core libertarian, fine; but then don’t claim to be a biblical Christian at the same time. The more radical the libertarians of the right get, the more indistinguishable they are from the anarchists of the left.

Both have almost a pathological hatred of the state, and want no government, or at least hardly any at all. Now, I happen to be a conservative, so I too am no fan of big government. Limited government and a constrained state are certainly what I do promote.

But as a biblical Christian, I have to be true to the biblical text ahead of any political ideology. And of course the Bible makes it perfectly clear that God created the institution of the state. It is vitally needed to keep order and punish wrong-doing in a fallen world.

So as someone who is both a Christian as well as a conservative, I must proclaim that government – on all levels – is God’s idea, and at the same time seek to keep state government down to a manageable – and biblical – level. (And of course one can debate just what those levels are – just what the size and scope of the state should be.)

So I am sympathetic with my libertarian friends, but I can never go as far as so many of them seek to go. And sometimes when I hear these libertarians who are also Christians make their case, I just cringe. They seem so beholden to their libertarianism that they walk roughshod over Scripture. Either that or they just do not know Scripture very well at all.

There was an example of this on a social media site lately. Respectfully, this person got things so wrong that I felt I had to reply – thus this article. He does a good job in many respects, and I often support what he does. And I will keep him nameless here. But when he starts going on in defence of his libertarianism, I have to ask if this guy really has a clear grasp of what the Bible actually teaches. He wrote:

“One of the hardest things I do is defending the right of individuals to do what I personally consider immoral and even despicable. It actually pains me to spend time campaigning for something that I know will allow people to do what I consider wrong.

“It would be so easy to just say ‘God wills this, so all should be forced to obey’. Yet as easy as it would be to do so, it would be the wrong thing to do.

“This mindset of forced obedience this mindset goes against every aspect of the Christian Faith, which is founded on the gift of free will God gave us – as St John of Chrysostom, one of the greatest of all Christian Fathers said, ‘Christians above all men are forbidden to correct the stumblings of sinners by force…it is necessary to make a man better not by force but by persuasion.’

“To use the coercive power of the state to prevent these stumblings is an anathema to the gift God gave us. And so – as much as at times it pains me, I continue. Not just because I believe in a free society, not just because I believe in individual rights, but because I know that the Christian Faith demands it – no matter how hard it may be.”

Sadly this is just a rather bad misunderstanding of biblical morality, the role of the state, and the place of coercion. Indeed, the biggest problem he has is to confuse several quite different things: the role of the individual, the role of the church, and the role of the state. Scripture clearly delineates separate roles for each, yet this fellow does not seem to be fully aware of this.

In other words, we most clearly have offered to us in Scripture both personal ethics and social ethics. Individual believers have certain moral constraints, responsibilities and allowances, while the state – ordained by God – has its own role, its own jurisdiction, and its own powers. And the church also has its own sphere of authority and responsibility.

And I find it hard to believe what he says here. He will go out of his way to actually defend baby killers, or those who want to destroy marriage and family? He is so into personal liberty that he will side with the enemies of faith, family – and in the end, freedom itself? Groups like the ACLU are into that sort of stuff – I sure won’t be.

Perhaps someone will not even lift a finger to defend his wife from being raped, because he values individual freedom so very highly – even the freedom of the rapist to do his thing. Of course if an individual wants to remain pacifist in all dealings with others, for whatever reasons, that is up to them.

But God had ordained the state to both punish evil and limit that which is wrong. It is given divine authority to use force and coercion. So he is rather confused when he speaks about “forced obedience”. And thus his quote from St John is quite amiss here – it has nothing to do with his plea for libertarianism as a social and political philosophy.

Of course I cannot force any sinner to become a saint. Whoever said one could? Even God does not and cannot do this. But that is not the issue at hand here. I cannot force anyone to be virtuous. But God can and does force people to submit to laws for the good of society in a fallen world.

Try reading Romans 13 again for starters. God has ordained the use of the sword by the state to enforce rules, and punish evil. So, does the state – under the command of God – have the right to force people to do things? Of course it does. And it happens all the time.

When governments set up traffic lights, they are forcing people to comply with traffic laws. Those who refuse will face the full sanction of the law. Will such laws turn sinners into saints? No, of course not. But that is not the purpose of such laws.

These laws merely deter harmful, dangerous and evil practices with threats of punishment. And whose idea was all that? God’s, of course. He set it up, and so Christians should have no problem whatsoever with state coercion. This is God’s design and plan for a fallen world.

Of course the problem is, the state too can overstep its bounds and go beyond what God has mandated. Runaway government, Big Brother Statism, and the like are all to be opposed, because God opposes them too. But the libertarians want to throw the baby out with the bath water here it seems.

Because government can get out of control and become tyrannical, many of these libertarians seem to think that all government is wrong all the time. Well, they can think that if they like, but then they cannot call themselves Christians. Christians believe what God has revealed to us, and he has revealed that the state, along with its use of the sword, is in fact his idea, and one which we need to accept – not reject.

No one here that I know of is talking about individual believers or churches forcing non-believers to do anything, certainly in terms of the faith. But the state can force by threat of punishment all of us to keep certain laws which are in the best interests of society at large.

So who cares if a red light is not turning a sinner into a saint? That is not its purpose; it is to keep in check people who would much rather do their own thing and put self ahead of all others. It is about using state power to protect lives and keep some semblance of order and sanity on our streets.

That has nothing to do with what St John was talking about of course. Why would it? And we also seem to have here a fundamental misunderstanding of the role of morality in the public arena. All laws are at root moral in nature. They all have to do with some sort of moral code or moral concern.

And there is nothing wrong with the Christian using the power of the state to enforce some cases of morality. There is nothing wrong with the state proscribing the murder of unborn children for example. While my friend may claim to be pro-life, if he is so committed to individuals freedom that he cannot see the need for an enforceable law like this, then we really are on different pages here.

I am glad we have laws on the books that keep evil in check. I am glad that the state can coerce people to at least outwardly do what they may not rather do inwardly if there was no coercion involved. We have laws against murder because murder is wrong.

Again, do such laws alter the murderous heart and thoughts? No. That is not what such laws are set up to do. They are set up to deter those with murderous thoughts and intent from carrying out their desires, primarily because of heavy sanctions for violating such laws.

The simple truth is this: freedom is a great good, but from a biblical point of view, it is not at all the highest good. If it were the highest good, then a prison would be the greatest evil. Clearly it is not. In the Bible law and liberty always go together.

In a fallen world complete freedom is neither possible nor desirable. Liberty under law is always the biblical prescription. Ordered liberty, bounded liberty, is what the Christian seeks. And as part of that, God ordained the state to maintain such order and such boundaries.

Can the state usurp its God-given role and responsibilities? Sure – happens all the time. And that is a very great danger. That is why my political allegiance is to the conservative side of politics. I know how dangerous unrestrained government power can be.

But I am not an anarchist, which is what far too many libertarians on the right end up sounding like, if not becoming. There is a place for force and coercion. God gave that role to the state. So I am certainly not going to rule out all coercion and force, in the name of some libertarian nirvana.

In a sinful world we all need laws, boundaries, and even the state. We must work to keep it in check, but seeking to dispense with it altogether, or cast it as the great Satan, is not helpful. It certainly is not biblical. So as a Christian I fully support the rationale for the state, but I also work very hard to keep it in check. Such tensions will always exist until Christ returns.

[1852 words]

22 Responses to Problems With Christian Libertarianism

  • LOL…1852 words to say what Paul said in just a few Bill? Just rattling your cage a little, man.

    I Tim1:8-11

    But we know that the law is good if one uses it lawfully, knowing this: that the law is not made for a righteous person, but for the lawless and insubordinate, for the ungodly and for sinners, for the unholy and profane, for murderers of fathers and murderers of mothers, for manslayers, for fornicators, for sodomites, for kidnappers, for liars, for perjurers, and if there is any other thing that is contrary to sound doctrine, according to the glorious gospel of the blessed God which was committed to my trust.

    Christians need to listen to this brother’s teaching, it is some of the absolute BEST I’ve found regarding the Law of God and its function in a righteous society.

    www.sermonaudio.com/sermoninfo.asp?SID=121012211893

  • I completely agree with the majority of your posts Bill, but cannot with this one. I believe you have a very big misunderstanding of libertarianism considering what you have posted since you have misrepresented it in an extreme and unfair way. There is a percentage of libertarians who are anarchists but from I have found the majority are minarchists (advocates of small, limited government). Even those who are anarchists do not wish to abolish laws that protect property, liberty and life.

    To suggest that libertarians defend rapists and murderers is a huge untruth. If one believes abortion to be murder (which I do as do almost half of libertarians) then most do see the state having a role to outlaw abortion and prosecute offenders. To make out that libertarians think murderers and rapists should be left alone to do as they please is extremely untrue. Murder and rape are about as anti-liberty as you can get.

    To disagree with libertarianism is one thing, however to claim that someone can’t be a Christian and libertarian while using false misrepresentations to justify this is simply not right.

  • I understand the desire of libertarians to be ideologically consistent… But in their desire to be consistent, they end up being inconsistent in these important moral issues… The “freedom” to kill your unborn child encroaches on the child’s right to live… Allowing same sex folks to marry encroaches on the rights of individual citizens to express their moral opposition to SSM and legislatively removes the right of dependent children to be raised in an ideal environment by their biological parents (single parenthood is accidental and not legislatively proscribed), also it places the government in the bedrooms of individuals which was supposed to be something libertarians didn’t want… Legalizing pornography creates a market for prostitution (which porn itself is as the “actors” are paid to have sex) resulting in sex trafficking, sex crimes including child molestation, reduction of women’s value to that of an object of gratification etc…. Legalization of drugs designed purely to make an individual intoxicated encroaches on the freedom of other individuals to live in an environment where they’re not at risk of being killed by a stoned driver etc…
    Also, many of these issues like drug or porn decriminalization is really only okay if you remove all taxpayer funded healthcare… As individuals shouldn’t have to pay for the stupid choices of dumb people… So before they call for SSM, drug decriminalization, porn etc, they need to remove ALL taxpayer funded safety nets so good Australians don’t have to pay for the bad choices of bad people who should know better… Then they’d he consistent…

  • Thanks David. Sorry, you are missing the point here. I am not setting up any straw men to attack of course and there are no “false misrepresentations” here. As everyone can see, I am simply responding to one of your own who clearly stated that because of his libertarianism he feels compelled to defend at all costs the right of everyone to push their various immoral and amoral agendas, be it baby killing or whatever. That is quite bizarre stuff for any biblical Christian to be saying, and something I cannot and will not countenance.

  • “…As everyone can see, I am simply responding to one of your own who clearly stated that because of his libertarianism he feels compelled to defend at all costs the right of everyone to push their various immoral and amoral agendas, …”
    This bloke sounds more like an antinomian to me. He probably reads Libertarian material [?] and likes what he reads [?] but, … one of the primary libertarian Orgs that I know of would strongly reject what he proposes !!!
    One of the facebook posts links to a site and the “comment” below the article is woefully ignorant of much libertarian thought.
    Here in Oz – the party in power has many who are quite “radically” “liberal” [tur_bull, etc eg], and we would be horrified if they gained the reins as their “libertarianism” and the policies they would emplace [and make the greenies look rank amateurs to boot !], would destroy the very vestiges of Christianity that we know and rest in.

  • Thanks Phil. Yes antinomianism is a big part of the problem here. I don’t have the slightest problem with the state restraining evil and immorality, as in laws again slavery, or baby-killing, or porn, or prostitution. If the libertarians think that means I am a Big Brother Statist or some such thing, they really are on a different page here. And if people want to be evangelists and apologists for libertarianism, that is fine. They can set up websites and do it to their heart’s content. But it won’t be happening here.

  • For more on what I mean by the notion of ordered liberty, see here:

    www.billmuehlenberg.com/2012/01/07/ordered-liberty/

  • I think Bill’s critique is aimed more at Objectivist (ie Ayn Randian) Libertarianism rather than more or less conservative Libertarianism, a view I also share. The problem I see with Objectivist Libertarians is their belief that where there’s ostensibly an “invisible hand of the market”, as Adam Smith described it, there’s a similar “invisible hand” for societies social interactions. I think this is so obviously ridiculous and experientially false as to be easily rejected (and I think we all know that it’s false). People left to themselves won’t necessarily be guided by reason or self-interest to do the right thing. So when a famous person representative of this view point such as Congressman Ron Paul asks the audience during the Republican Presidential primaries, how many of you would start shooting heroin if it was legalized? Obviously the answer is none because most of the folks at the republican primaries are church going conservatives family-types. However if he asked this question at the Democrat primaries in Detroit, Michigan, half the audience probably would respond that they already have.
    Otherwise smart young people who’ve grown up with massive public education concerning the connection between cigarettes and cancer, still take up smoking.
    Otherwise smart young people who know that homosexual behaviour is risky and dangerous, still practice anal sex without condoms (many heterosexuals will do similar things).
    Bank managers who know absolutely that they’ll get caught and go to prison, still run off with clients money just so they can have a fun but brief time of partying.
    And the list goes on. As president John Adams, the third US president once said “our constitution is designed only for a religious (meaning Christian) and moral people.” That is, only a society that believes in moral absolutes and Divine justice will be able to function in a free society. We don’t live in such a society today. We live an a mostly agnostic, practical atheist, Neo-Darwinian saturated society that believes that ultimately, as long as you don’t get caught, you’ll never experience justice for your immoral behaviour and can then be guided by your own passions, rather than by a universal standard of behaviour that is transcendent and that you’ll be judged against in the life to come.

  • Galatians 5:13 For, brethren, ye have been called unto liberty; only use not liberty for an occasion to the flesh, but by love serve one another.

    The Bible is clear we have liberty, but that liberty is limited by whether or not it is for the flesh or for the Spirit. If it is for the flesh, then we are using liberty wrong, but if it is for the Spirit, then it is good. The Bible is clear on how we are to use our freedoms in Christ.

  • JvdH
    This sounds just like “modern” whimpianity.

    The Constitution has as it’s motive and intent – the checks and balances as RESRTAINTS on the body of men who compose the Legislative and Executive branch of Civil Govt.
    Within the US system the Bill of Rights further establish this to protect the People. A system that has deliberately been eroded over the 200 years of its Charter; –
    garynorth.com/philadelphia.pdf
    [Conspiracy In Philadelphia;Origins of the United States Constitution]
    …and this is an example of how the Church went astray; –
    www.garynorth.com/freebooks/docs/243a_47e.htm
    [Crossed Fingers;How the Liberals Captured the Presbyterian Church]
    It all goes back to the Garden; – “Hath God said” …?

  • This person is – as Bill says – confusing two roles: persuasive Christian civic ministry and God-ordained government responsibility to keep social order. I add that he needs also to see that we are citizens of two realms: the kingdom of man and the kingdom of God, and we have responsibilities in both that include praying for and acting out the prayer that says: ‘Father in heaven: let your name be honoured; let your kingdom come; let your will be done; on earth as it is in heaven’.

    Secondly, if – when he says he is “defending the right of individuals to do what I personally consider immoral and even despicable” – he means that he accepts the right of people to do what the law says is legal even though he considers it wrong, I would agree that law provides that freedom. However, he seems to be not only defending their right to do it, but actually advocating (‘campaigning for’) the thing that he regards as wrong. The point he misses is that the laws of the land that allow ‘immoral’ and ‘despicable’ acts have often been put in place as a result of lobbying interests for those ‘immoral’ and ‘despicable’ acts. It is our role as citizens to oppose those things – for the good of the people.

    Lastly, the confusion of roles is seen in his belief that persuasive Christian civic ministry is ‘forcing’ people to do God’s will. He might even think we are ‘bullying’ government into instituting Christian-friendly policy and laws when we approach government with what we see as a social good. But as Bill points out, this is not ‘forced obedience’. It is simply advocacy for social good – often backed up by secular research – to bless the nation and its people. We cannot force governments – and hence the people – to accept what we say. And if we can’t persuade them by secular social science and the evidence of history, at least we have brought God’s will and purposes to the fore. The secularists are influencing the civic process: why can’t we?

  • David Williams I’ve called my self a libertarian and have some very influential anarchist libertarians on my friends list. I have never seen them take the pro- rape position but have seen libertarians (probable teens) take the position that Bill describes on various libertarian chats going back decades. I’ve just been debating one leading libertarian anarchist on legalising blackmail. They just published a book advocating that. Form a humanist point of view their argument’s bullet proof. (and note there is no law against blackmail in the bible. )
    The problem is that there are Autocrats within libertarianism that genuinely argue for true lawlessness. They are heavily influential in the mix.

  • I would point out that the government or state of today is nothing like the state of Jesus’s day.
    The term state means four things: (1) taxpayer funded legal system system where laws are arrived at in a process of debate and compromise where influence may or may not include overt and legal bribes.
    (2) A system of law where the laws are stated publicly and enforced communally with Jury’s having the final say including nullification of laws. (3) Dictatorships of various kinds. And (4) a system that makes crime very difficult or impossible (a store with sensors at the exit, a gated community, A contract that can’t be breached (i.e. Stolen bitcoin can’t be spent ))
    By mixing up the first three the libertarians make life very hard for themselves. But what they are advocating as a stateless society is not lawless its just a new form of 4. Its still a governance system or a state of law. Most have not worked though the consequences of their models.

    Most advocate polycentric law. Panarchy, club law. You sign up to a judge/ jury system of your choice and that applies to you and your property. I spend hours pointing out the idea is in the bible, the judges, and that it will go wrong in several ways. Law like the state is problematic because there’s no exit formula when it fails.
    If Cheech signs up for law code that allows drugs and there are accumulated medical costs fall first to cheech and then to his Judge, the bankrupt law code spills it people and its cost out onto all the others.
    Libertarians advocate shunning, exclusion and lethal self defence but all have flaws. In a world where every property line is a border shunned criminal would fight rather than starve or be pushed into the sea. Jails are seem by many libertarian humanist as the ultimate evil but they are in reality the place of exile with a border in a world were no country would take the criminal.

    However 4th option does work to some extent and should be expanded. It does not result in a lawless land but a new kind of governance and a new state of law. I.e. Its not the state the libertarians hate but its still an entity enforcing laws, paul’s state. Not rome or a monarchy or even a parliamentary state but still a lawful state (verb). It’s changed before and is in a state of flux now.

  • Leaving alone the issue of whether this article fairly represents libertarianism, I agree with everything Bill said. However, I want to take up this point:

    And there is nothing wrong with the Christian using the power of the state to enforce some cases of morality.

    I agree completely, and would also argue that, to a large extent at least, that is exactly what laws are about: enforcing morality. Why are there laws against murder? Because murder is immoral. Why are there laws against theft? Because theft is immoral. Why are there laws against cheating on your income tax? Because that is deceit and theft, and therefore immoral. But if it’s only “some cases”, where is the line to be drawn?

    In Internet chats some years ago on the issue of homosexuality, I was often challenged about what I, as a Christian, would want the government to do about it, beyond just not endorsing it. Should the government recriminalise it? Including in the privacy of one’s home? And what should the punishment be? Should the law allow homosexuality to be promoted (but not by the government)? Just where should the line be drawn? This is a topic that I’ve never seen a decent discussion on.

  • Thanks Philip. One part of the answer is to recognise that for the Christian at least, not every sin is a crime (lust is sinful but not illegal) and not every crime is a sin (say, when they make preaching the gospel illegal). We think it is a crime to wrongfully harm people or put their lives at risk, so we have traffic laws etc. They reflect moral principles. So as I say, almost every law has some moral foundation if you dig far enough. So morality is legislated all the time.

    Many of the things the libertarians want to be legalised, or decriminalised (or at least want the government to butt out of) are things most Christians rightly think the state should keep illegal, eg, porn, prostitution, drugs, baby-killing, etc. So the odd thing is, those who claim to be “Christian libertarians” in fact hold to a position which is best exemplified and run with by a political party here: the Australian Greens.

    I for one want nothing to do with the immorality and amorality of the Greens’ agenda, and their libertarian soul-mattes. Righteousness exalts a nation, and there is nothing amiss with the state enforcing laws against at least some clear evils, such as abortion, prostitution, porn, etc. But as you ask, obviously there is debate here: where do you draw the line? These matters can be discussed.

    Sadly, as to the issue of homosexuality in the West, the law has gone from prohibition to permission to promotion. I for one would like to see it at least returned to the second, if not the first. That is because it is such a dangerous and high risk lifestyle. if we can take drastic steps to deter smoking, why not with something just as dangerous as homosexuality?

  • Philip Rayment, I think you bring up an interesting topic for discussion. My brief thoughts on this issue are: 1) anti-sodomy laws I would consider difficult to police, unless you breach two consenting adults right to privacy and consequently their property rights; 2) it seems from my brief reading of the relevant historical literature on the subject that the majority of people punished under anti-sodomy laws were pederasts like Oscar Wilde, Allen Ginsberg, the cousin of King Edward VI (?) etc; 3) I think Russia’s new legislation banning gay propaganda to kids is an excellent idea; 4) I think an American military style “don’t ask, don’t tell,” type legislation would be fair for all.

  • Libertarianism … has various and many identifiers.
    A large and prominent group posted a very recent rebuttal to their detractors …

    mises.org/daily/6648/We-Win-the-NY-Times-Prize

    There are important Christian spokesmen within this group who are deliberately and consciously there to “spread the Word” among what would otherwise be a secular movement – If Christians abdicate from Athens Square – then they should not complain that the secularists become more consistent to their presuppositions…

  • Geoffrey Bullock raises some interesting issues.
    I suspect he is not referring to a Two Kingdoms Theology [?]
    Possibly Matthew 28:17-20 may assist in the Status Quo as it should be – established in both Psalm 2 and 110.

    As declared in biblehub.com/psalms/119-45.htm
    …44So I will keep Your law continually, Forever and ever. 45And I will walk at liberty, For I seek Your precepts. 46I will also speak of Your testimonies before kings And shall not be ashamed.…

    Here is True Liberty.

  • Yes, Phil, not two kingdoms theology, but the reality that we live in two kingdoms and have responsibilities in both. How we work that out is very important, and there will always be differences between Christians on that (without embracing ‘libertarianism’). I do like your reference to Matthew 28 & Psalm 2 and I do a message ‘How Do We Disciple Nations?’ that – by God’s grace – will get some airplay this year, and which provides a needed balance in the ‘Christians and politics’ discussion.

  • There appears to be someone else with my name here. Who’d have thought. Just clarifying that I am the one who agrees with everything in your post.

  • We will have to refer to you as DW1 and DW2 to distinguish you then!

  • When we talk about 2 kingdoms, we are not talking about 2 kingdoms of equal rank, quality or significance. The kingdom of God is like a self sufficient tree, standing on its own being watered and fed through its roots and the sunlight. The kingdom of darkness which, includes sadly the secular kingdom if its rulers are so desperate to desire it is like the parasite feeding of that tree, which has no life of its own but needs the host plant to survive and kills it too if allowed to stay there too long.
    “The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof and all the people living in it” Ps 24. The state was never meant to be separate from God, it was meant to help people get back on track with God. In fact, the state is not a creation ordinance like marriage and therefore family. The need for the state arose after the fall.
    Many blessings
    Ursula Bennett

Leave a Reply