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Politics, Public Policy and Biblical Balance

Dec 19, 2019

Christians need to think carefully about politics and economics:

This article seeks to argue several related points. It will look at the old debate about which political theory might best fit in with biblical Christianity: liberalism, conservatism or libertarianism. It will also look at one particular public policy debate to illustrate this. And it will make the case that biblical truth must always trump all secular ideologies.

As to the last point, it should go without saying that if you claim to be a Christian, you will put biblical truth ahead of all man-made political ideology. God and his word will inform the Christian’s views about things like politics, economics, public policy and the like.

As I have often said before, Christianity does transcend all human political philosophies, and should not be trapped in any one of them. Having said that, I think some basic tenets of conservatism are more in tune with biblical principles than are those of leftist and liberal views. See more on this here: billmuehlenberg.com/2007/09/13/religion-and-the-political-spectrum/

And here: billmuehlenberg.com/2007/01/05/conservatism-and-liberalism-christianity-and-secularism/

I have also argued that libertarianism is problematic for the biblical Christian as well, and should be rejected – certainly in its more radical forms: billmuehlenberg.com/2014/02/19/christianity-or-libertarianism/

And here: www.billmuehlenberg.com/2014/01/25/problems-with-christian-libertarianism/

So let me look at these matters a bit further. But first, let me offer two prefatory remarks. One, I fully understand why so many Christians never speak out in public about important issues. When I seek to offer Christian perspectives on political and economic matters for example, I will get “Christian socialists” attacking me on one side, and “Christian libertarians” attacking me on the other. Hmm, no matter what you say, you will get some folks angry with what you believe! You just can’t win!

Two, I must confess that not too many things really upset me, but those claiming to be Christians who push immoral and ungodly radical libertarianism do indeed bug me. They think that effectively having open slather on drugs, pornography, prostitution, abortion, homosexuality, etc., is basically just peachy.

Sure, some will claim that they do not really want this, but their diehard commitment to secular libertarian ideology means that this will be the result nonetheless. In my view they know little of biblical Christianity and little of conservatism. I must say I have a hard time being patient with such folks.

These sorts of issues arise quite often, but let me discuss one quite recent episode of this. I had posted a few remarks about atheist libertarians like Ayn Rand. I also said that Francis Schaffer often warned about avoiding unhelpful extremes.

As we back up, seeking to avoid one cliff, we may end up going off another cliff. When it comes to politics and economics, it seems the biblical Christian will want to watch out for two such cliffs. They will want to avoid radical statism and socialism on the one hand, and avoid radical libertarianism and anarchism on the other.

Some folks did not like me saying that. Some committed libertarians came to attack me on my views. They even kept saying that it was somehow the Christian thing and the compassionate thing to be a libertarian, and to keep the state fully out of such things as drug use.

One such guy claimed that he was “completely anti drugs” – yet he seemed quite happy to have them freely available and legal everywhere. That is about as helpful as claiming “I am completely anti abortion, but I want it freely available and legal everywhere”. Sorry, you can’t have it both ways!

The guy came back and actually said this: “Individual drug use does not harm another individual and is not a breach of anyone else’s personal priority rights. It is a non-violent act.…” Oh dear! His reply nicely encapsulates the massive difference between libertarianism on the one hand and conservatism and Christianity on the other.

In the first place, it is simply false. Illicit drug use of course harms the one using them – big time. Many drug users are scarred for life, and many die from drug overdoses. I should know: I was a drug addict for three years and I know full well the harm they cause. Indeed, a number of my friends died from drug overdoses.

But this unbiblical libertarianism effectively says, ‘So what – as long as they are “free” it does not matter’. There is nothing Christian nor compassionate about that. The truth is, so-called right-wing libertarians can be just as harmful as left-wing anarchists.

And of course other people are harmed greatly by illicit drug use. Christianity is all about loving others and the social good. Libertarianism is all about self, and maximising individual freedom, regardless of how that may impact others. One friend of mine who works with broken families and the like is fully aware of the harms drug-use causes to others. What she said is well worth quoting here:

If you want to know how putting a drug in your own body harms anyone else, you maybe need to look wider than your very important work with individual drug addicts – working where I do with whole families where, in many cases, one parent’s drug taking (ice especially) has wreaked havoc on the rest of the family – the drug taker parent abusing the other parent and any children they have while under the influence of said drug – kids needing counselling for years to deal with the physical and emotional impact of this, caused by the hand of a parent they love who is supposed to care for them. And even something as supposedly as harmless as marijuana affects a parent’s care giving capacity. Just ask the kids who are being cared for by such parents – they can tell when mum or dad is on drugs – and ask them what they prefer – a parent on drugs or one not. They always report fear and anxiety when in the care of a parent under the influence, because their care needs are not being properly met. Laws against drugs are absolutely necessary – for protecting children and others. If someone entered my house under the influence of ice, and wrecked everything in their search for more money to feed their habit, beating me up in the process, I think one could say that person’s drug taking has harmed someone else. I would like to know that there are laws in place to deal with such things.

Yes exactly. Unlike libertarians who only seem to care about maximising individual freedom, Christians care greatly about the wellbeing of others, and want what is best for them. We look at the social good, and do not focus just on our own autonomy and freedom to do whatever we like.

In this regard, radical libertarianism is as antithetic to biblical Christianity as you can get. And that leads to a second, more broad point. The Bible never promotes personal autonomy and individual freedom as the highest good and the greatest virtue.

Indeed, it is quite the opposite. Personal autonomy got us all into the mess we are now in. Adam and Eve’s quest for complete freedom, unshackled by the good laws of God, led to their – and our – ruin. And remember, the prodigal son had perfect freedom – in the pigsty.

He certainly got what he wanted, but he also got leanness sent to his soul (see Psalm 106:15). The Bible never elevates and promotes personal freedom as the summum bonum of life, devoid of other considerations, including social, moral and spiritual considerations.

A gung-ho libertarianism is completely at odds with the commandment that we must love our neighbour as ourselves. Allowing your neighbours to kill themselves on drugs or porn or so many other things is not loving them, and is not Christian.

I am NOT saying we should meddle with everyone we come across – nor should the state. But I am saying that the state is God’s idea, not Satan’s. God established government to bring order and restrain evil in a fallen world. Yes, Christians can argue as to how far governments should go in various areas, but Christians are NOT anarchists.

Idolatry involves putting anything or anyone above God. The statist is an idolater when he elevates the state to the highest good and the supreme authority. But the radical libertarian is also an idolater when he allows secular ideologies of personal autonomy to trump biblical truth and values. A pox on both their houses.

A final related point: many of these libertarians believe that a completely unfettered free market is all that really matters. They often have no interest in moral and cultural matters that the conservative does. Yes, without question, almost all conservatives support the limited state and free markets. But they also know that all this must be undergirded by moral and religious supports.

Many of the great defenders of the free market were also concerned about the need for its moral and spiritual foundations. For example, Adam Smith was first and foremost a moral philosopher, and an economist second. So he regarded his 1759 book, The Theory of Moral Sentiments as being just as important – if not more so – than his famous 1776 volume, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations.

Moreover, almost all of America’s Founding Fathers said similar things about their understanding of the nature of the state: a limited government will only work with a moral and religious citizenry. They knew full well that complete laissez faire in economics and politics without a religious and ethical foundation was doomed to fail.

And as to folks like Rand, we have so many important Christian thinkers who have made the moral, biblical and spiritual case for the free market and the limited state – so to run with Christophobes like her is foolish. Yet one person said that she “deserves credit and respect” for her rejection of statism and the like.

I replied that one might as well argue that Hitler deserves credit and respect because he was good on some things – like law and order. Good grief. An atheist who pushed selfishness as the highest virtue is NOT any sort of role model for the biblical Christian. When the good someone pushes is far outweighed by the bad they push, there is no reason in the world for Christians to keep rallying to their defence.

Plenty more needs to be said here. But sometimes I guess I just need to vent a little. As I say, I have great difficulty going along with folks who claim to be Christians yet push their amoral, if not immoral, libertarianism. Sure, I have great difficulty with those who claim to be Christians and try to push socialism and leftism as well.

Trying to get the biblical balance on these matters is always difficult. And Christians will differ on many points along the way. But in my book, ideological libertarianism needs to be rejected just as much as ideological leftism.

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7 Responses to Politics, Public Policy and Biblical Balance

  • Thoroughgoing Libertarianism labours under the delusion that humanity is not a fallen race – the misapprehension that, deep down, we are all thoroughly good-natured, ultimately altruistic creatures…

    Paradoxically, this delusion is exposed by the Libertarian’s not ill-founded distrust of that all-too-human collectivity known variously known as “Big Government” or “the State”…

  • Just as people need boundaries and guidelines so to governments and businesses. Government size is always a big discussion. Some want a big government that can take care of you and give you what you need. But as Reagan said a government big enough to give you everything you want is big enough to take everything you have. Government needs to be just big enough to take care of the necessities, the things that can’t be privatized, and no more. It should provide only the amount of regulation necessary for efficiency and safety and not so much that it becomes burdensome.

    The biggest problem is defining necessities, efficiency and safety. Too often the left will use innocuous words everyone agrees with to describe things people don’t agree with. So they will say ‘this is for safety ‘ when it has nothing to do with it just to expand regulatory power. Or ‘this is necessary’ when it isn’t just to expand government.

    With the left having captured a good part of Christianity people can be fooled as to the morality of something.

    Libertarians seem to be ‘make it all legal and let the people decide’. Reminds me of the old ‘shoot them all and let God decide’.

    Also yes one person’s drug use harms others but the libertarian almost seems to say “am I my brother’s keeper?????”

  • True John so many non-christians and leftest Christians want to believe man is basically good and learns evil and thus can be perfected. To them children are pure and closest to that perfection, probably why they listen to them so much, which would mean the younger you go the closet you get to perfect. But given it is called the terrible two’s I think parents would not agree with this the younger they are the more perfect they are theory

  • The problem then is, however, what about Christians in political parties such as the Liberal/National coalition, New Zealand National Party or British Conservatives in which radical libertarians have made substantial inroads? It’s excellent that you accept that radical libertarianism is just as incompatible with Christianity as hardcore marxist-leninism is, and accept that Ayn Rand was in no way a social conservative. However, the accompanying problem is what one should do when one is confronted by a centre-right party dominated by the aforementioned radical libertarians. With MMP/proportional representation in New Zealand, there have been different solutions to this- one is the anti-market populist New Zealand First party of Winston Peters, but although its leader is personally socially conservative, he is also populist and thus, New Zealanders will be voting in a referendum for the passage of the End of Life Choices Act purely on the basis he believes in abdicating his responsibility as an elected representative! Then there are the purist Christian microparties- the Christian Heritage Party, led by a conservative Calvinist minister who was found to be a pedophile after he stepped down; the Christian Democrats, which merged with a secular centre-right party but then broke with it when the leader of that centre-right party supported Helen Clark over the criminalisation of parental corporal punishment; two Maori-led conservative evangelical parties, Destiny New Zealand and the Family Party; the Conservative Party, a personality cult which tried to mix economic conservatism and social conservatism and fell apart when its leader was accused of sexual harrassment of a female staffer; and currently, the New Conservatives, who seem more interested in the ‘alt right’ agenda than social conservatism proper, which they pay lipstick to, and Vision New Zealand, our third Maori-led conservative evangelical political party. As well as that, one need also look at the ructions that currently surround Reverend Fred Nile and his Christian Democratic Party, which that good and saintly man does not deserve at all! At what point should centre-right Christians leave their parties of origin when faced with a rampant radical libertarian agenda? That’s the question that occurs to me.

  • Thanks again Rhona. But as with your other comment, you are conflating two related but separate matters. My two recent articles have been bigger picture assessments of how Christianity does or does not fit in with both libertarianism and socialism. The question of how conservative parties deal with libertarians and those who are not really conservatives in their midst is another matter – a more practical one than what I have been discussing in these articles. While the conservative parties have had some more or less strong and consistent conservatives in leadership now and then (be they a Reagan or a Thatcher or a Howard or an Abbott) they tend to be in the minority, with way too many small-l liberals in the ranks, undoing much of their good work. How conservatives in general and conservative parties in particular deal with those sorts of problems is another matter, and was not directly in my sights in my recent articles. I have discussed those more practical matters to some extent in other articles, and more such pieces would be needed to deal with such issues properly.

    As to moral shortcomings in conservative and/or Christian leaders, yeah that happens. It shouldn’t, but sadly sometimes it does – just as it often happens in lefties parties. It is certainly not unique to conservatism.

    And I have spoken before about whether smaller Christian political parties are the way to go, eg: https://billmuehlenberg.com/2010/08/03/thinking-about-the-2010-election/

    But thanks again for your thoughts.

  • But why should conservative leadership necessarily be restricted to centre-right parties? Despite his allegiance to Republicanism, Ronald Reagan did much for the sanctity of life and the rights of the unborn in the United States, and accomplished the virtual end of the Cold War at the end of his tenure of office. I acknowledge John Howard should be applauded with reversing the Northern Territory’s euthanasia legislation and I applaud him for that, although I think you’re being somewhat too charitable with Thatcher (well, I’m from Yorkshire and my dad was a miner, so I may be biased!)

    However, when it came to the sanctity of human life, all we got under that woman was a slight reduction in the abortion time limit, but not for disabled unborn children, who can be aborted up until the time of birth. That broke the heart of my dear friend Alison Davies, who was an indefatigable campaigner for the right to life of the disabled unborn child and against euthanasia. Granted, there was Section 28 of the Local Government Act for those who are opposed to LGBT rights, but that didn’t survive the next change of government. Thatcher’s ruthless attack on the livelihood of miners and their families destroyed the social fabric of many Yorkshire and Welsh communities, leaving high unemployment, suicide, mental illness and drug abuse in its wake.
    Actually, Bill, given your excellent books on abortion and euthanasia, I would love to read your thoughts on certain tragic events this year- the legalisation of physician assisted killing in Western Australia and the introduction of abortion on demand in New South Wales. That would be a wonderful gift (if somewhat sombre and sobering) for your many devoted readers.

  • Thanks once again Rhona. I would have that the answer to your first question would be rather obvious! What genuine leftist party would ever want to have a conservative leader? If they did have one and readily embraced and promoted him, I would have thought they would quickly no longer be considered a leftist party! And it is the trend in the West of late for leftist parties to keep moving further leftwards. That is true in the UK, the US, and America. Yes, in the past you might have had a more or less conservative leader with SOME conservative beliefs or inclinations in a leftist party, sometimes even leading one – at least for a while. But in many places those days may now be long gone.

    As to conservative leaders not always being fully conservative – sure, that happens sadly. Yes some of these leaders were not as strongly prolife as they should have been. Politics is always about trade-offs and compromise. I would much prefer a fully consistent conservative leader, but they are few and far between, and often their own parties make it tough for them to become leaders. But these matters I have already discussed elsewhere.

    A to the disappointing outcomes in WA and NSW, my views would already be covered in my two books, so not too much new could be added, except for various details.

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