I have plenty of sparring partners in the culture wars, but those I often find to be the most distasteful and antagonistic are radical libertarians who also claim to be conservatives and Christians. Um, no, you cannot be both, as I have sought to argue elsewhere: billmuehlenberg.com/2014/02/19/christianity-or-libertarianism/
Sadly many of these folks can be so wedded to secular libertarian thought, that when classical conservatism and biblical Christianity clash with it, they will dump these two any day of the week to affirm their commitment to libertarian ideology.
Alas, radical libertarians of the right really become indistinguishable from radical anarchists of the left. Both so despise government and the state, that they usually end up taking identical stances on the culture war issues of the day, including things like homosexual marriage.
They falsely claim that the state has zero interest in vitally important things like marriage and family, and should just stay out altogether. In pushing this position, they demonstrate how thoroughly divorced they are from genuine conservatism and biblical Christianity.
The simple truth is, all true conservatives had argued for the defence of marriage and family, including a limited role for the state in this. And all biblical Christians have always known that the institution of the state is God’s idea. He ordained the state, and expects it to be used in a fallen world.
I have argued at length on both topics, and here can only briefly summarise my case, while offering links for further reading. I write all this because of a rather poor article published recently in the Australian Spectator. It was penned by a hyper-libertarian, seeking to tell us conservatives and Christians should be thrilled to bits about voting for “homosexual marriage”.
Sadly, but typically, it was filled with twisted and distorted understandings of the Christian and conservative case. And it contained plenty of red herrings and straw men, including the howler that those wanting to defend heterosexual marriage would want the government involved in heresy trials!
Because I dislike drawing people’s attention to pieces I find to be so very unhelpful and damaging, I will only fleetingly interact with it, as I present a more generic response to these ideological libertarians. So let me remake my case on these matters.
That conservatism does not support something like homosexual marriage is pretty clear. See this piece for much more detail on this: billmuehlenberg.com/2017/08/31/no-conservative-case-homosexual-marriage/
The ironic thing is, the libertarians undermine their own case here. Those who know full well the dangers of homosexual marriage to society rightly tell us that a “yes” vote actually increases the power of the state. When things like homosexual marriage are legalised we get much MORE, not less, government intrusion in our lives.
In the piece I linked to above I quoted from the American philosopher and free market advocate Jay Richards. He has rightly said this about all such radical moves:
To claim seriously that government is and ought to be limited, you have to answer this question: What limits the state? The longstanding conservative answer: the rights and responsibilities of individuals and the institutions outside the state’s jurisdiction. And the institution that limits the state more than any other is the family, precisely because it pre-exists the state. The family is initiated by the marriage of a man and a woman. Ideally, human beings will be born, fed, raised and educated in a family, which will in turn be supported by the other institutions of civil society around it — neighborhoods, churches, voluntary associations and so forth, institutions the state should recognize and respect.
A limited government doesn’t try to redefine reality; it recognizes those pre-political realities outside its jurisdiction. The totalitarian, and Orwellian, governments of the twentieth century understood this perfectly well, and set about doing exactly the opposite. Lenin and other Marxists knew that to realize their vision, they had to destroy not just the idea of private property, but also religion and “this present form of marriage.”
What could possibly be less conservative than to decide, politically and legally, that marriage and family are mere social constructions that we’re free to change the moment the Supreme Court or a state legislature decides to do so? If a state can redefine marriage, then what can’t, what won’t, it redefine?
The simple truth is, for millennia now, the state did not define what marriage was but simply acknowledged it and protected it. Everyone knew that marriage was a social institution that performed invaluable social goods, including the regulation of human sexuality, and the protection of any children so conceived by male-female unions.
Because marriage is our greatest pro-child institution, societies have always taken a keen interest in marriage. It has given special recognition to marriage because of the tremendous social goods marriage confers on others, and on society as a whole.
So there has always been a conservative case for marriage and family, and for the state to recognise and protect these incredibly important social institutions. To claim that the state can now arbitrarily redefine marriage out of existence is to destroy the chief building block of any stable and successful society.
Moreover, it should be patently obvious to anyone who claims to represent biblical Christianity that the Christian can NEVER bless, promote and endorse what God calls sinful. The biblical position on homosexuality is perfectly clear: it is always looked upon in negative terms, and the Christian has no right to promote something that Scripture has such very serious concerns about.
And this is where the writer of the piece I have been referring to gets things so very wrong. For example, he tries to make his case by claiming that the state is not to be involved in matters of doctrinal orthodoxy. I know of no believer today saying it should. (That state and church relations at times become unnecessarily intertwined centuries ago is not relevant to what we are discussing in a 21st century secular nation like Australia.)
But God ordained at least two vital institutions to deal with life in a fallen world: the state and the church. While they may at times overlap, they are two distinct creations of God meant to operate in distinct areas. The church deals with matters of orthodoxy and heresy, with matters of sin, forgiveness and the like. The state deals with crime and punishment, and deals with things like maintaining justice and stopping wrongdoers (see Romans 13:1-7 for example).
Both have a role to play. The church most certainly can and should defend things like marriage and family. But guess what? The state can as well – and this has nothing to do with undue church and state entanglement. As I said above: marriage is so important for societies that societies have always given preferential treatment if you will for married couples, especially those with children.
And well they should. I have penned several books and plenty of articles arguing why the state should be involved in doing this, without any appeal to Scripture. There is a perfectly cogent case to be made for the state to affirm and promote that which is good for society, and the institution of marriage is clearly one of the best of such things. See this two-part piece for much more on this:
Since the libertarians will always want to drag J. S. Mill into these debates, let me offer one philosopher I quote from in the first of the above articles: He writes:
Further, the harm principle is neither self-evident nor demonstrably true. It certainly cannot apply to children and mental incompetents, as Mill himself knew, and this concession significantly undermines the principle.
The greatest objection, however, is the narrow construction Mill gives to it. For him, as for other libertarians, the principle only applies to bodily harm. But why deny the existence of moral harm? If it is true that some actions are intrinsically self-destructive or self-corrupting, then it is also true that encouraging such actions can cause harm to others. Prostitutes, panders, pushers, and pimps all profit from the moral corruption of others. Why should society be forced to treat these actions with indifference because of a questionable moral claim like the harm principle?
And he assesses the oft-heard objection that ‘virtue cannot be coerced’:
Coercive law cannot make people virtuous. But it can assist or thwart individuals in making themselves virtuous. Law is both coercive and expressive. Not only does it shape behavior by attaching to it penalties or rewards; it also helps shape attitudes, understandings, and character. Libertarians who doubt this point can examine the difference in attitudes toward racial discrimination in America before and after the Civil Rights Act of 1964, or the availability of pornographic materials before and after Roth v. United States (1957), or the stability of marriage before and after the introduction of no-fault divorce laws in the 1970s. The law, both by prohibition and by silence, is a powerful signal of acceptable behaviour, and thus a powerful influence on character. When the behaviour in question involves moral norms that are consequential for the rest of society, it is a proper object of law.
In the second part of that article I quote a long-standing marriage and family conservative who reminds us that governments most certainly do have an interest in marriage:
If no children were ever involved, adult sexual relationships simply wouldn’t be any of the state’s business. What we now call marriage would be nothing more than a government registry of friendships. If that’s all there were to marriage, privatizing it wouldn’t be a big deal. But if there were literally nothing more to marriage than a government registry of friendships, we would not observe an institution like marriage in every known society….
Finally, getting the government out of the business of giving out marriage licenses does not mean that the government will be completely neutral with respect to kinds of relationships. The government is already deeply involved in many aspects of human life that affect people’s decisions of what kind of relationship to be in. For instance, government’s policies regarding welfare, health care, and housing have contributed to the near-disappearance of marriage from the lower classes, not only in America, but throughout the industrialized world….
In short, the idea that we can get the government out of the marriage business in the early twenty-first century is an illusion. Marriage performs an irreducibly public function, of attaching mothers and fathers to their children and to one another. Given the current scope and size of the government’s activities, the state cannot be completely neutral with respect to different types of relationships.
The primary business of the state should be providing justice. Children are the most vulnerable parties in any society. But children are particularly vulnerable in a society like ours that values autonomy and independence so highly. Children cannot be autonomous and independent. Adult society owes children an obligation in justice to provide institutional structures that protect their most basic interests. This is why it would be unjust to children for the government to attempt to ‘get out of the marriage business.’ Providing justice to the vulnerable is precisely the business of the government. If it doesn’t perform that function, it has failed.
It is not possible to create a free society in which everyone begins life as someone’s ‘choice.’ It is not possible to create a lasting society that systematically undermines the biological basis for human identity. Privatizing marriage would perpetrate injustices on children, expand the power of the state, and in the end, prove to be completely impossible. In short, the state has a duty to be in the marriage business.
Finally, the author I am rebutting here simply gets it wrong on what Christians mean by religious freedom and its importance. No biblical Christian or consistent conservative has ever meant by that that the state should get out of all religious, moral and cultural issues altogether.
Instead we agree with the American First Amendment which speaks of the state not officially establishing one religion above another. All this has nothing to do with arguing for keeping marriage what it has always been. As mentioned, one can make a completely secular case for resisting faux marriage such as homosexual marriage.
To do so has nothing whatsoever to do with getting the state unnecessarily involved in moral and social issues. We are not asking the state to get involved in church disputes: we are asking the state to do what it has always done: look after the wellbeing of society as a whole by protecting children. And the best way they can do that is to keep affirming heterosexual marriage over against those who want to undermine and abolish it.
In sum, if someone wants to offer the radical libertarian case for the redefinition and thus destruction of marriage, fine, let him do so. But he is being disingenuous and mischievous in the extreme to suggest this is the biblical Christian or genuine conservative case to make.
BTW, these same “Christian libertarians” will usually also insist that a whole raft of other socially harmful behaviours and activities be fully decriminalised and/or legalised, such as prostitution, pornography, illicit drug use, and so on. Yet they will want us to buy their Christian bona fides. Go figure.