Libertarianism and the Christian Mind – Colin Burgess

The greatest principle of all is that nobody, whether male or female, should be without a leader. Nor should the mind of anybody be habituated to letting him do anything at all on his own initiative…even in the smallest matter he should be under leadership…in a word, he should teach his soul, by long habit, never to dream of acting independently, and to become utterly incapable of it.

– Plato of Athens.

It is my belief that the Bible is not a political manifesto, nor is it a scientific textbook or anything but a document pertaining to the nature of God and His interaction with humanity. If it were anything beyond this, a one stop shop for all life’s questions, it would have to be thousands of pages thicker, however it does seem it has been used frequently as a pretext for justifying politics to the left and to the right, as well as many other bad ideas. When we use the Bible like this we use it as an all encompassing explanation which can account for pretty much anything we want it to, rendering it utterly meaningless. It would seem to make more sense to treat the Bible as a document which teaches us how to live well within whatever culture we are placed in, but not to be indifferent or complacent to our situation, but to act as change agents within it. Does the Bible endorse Libertarianism? Not exactly, but it does trend away from slavery and oppressing the poor, which could be seen as a sort of support of many Libertarian principles.

Libertarianism, a word which conjures up images of a kid in his basement making pipe-bombs, listening to angry heavy metal, or adults living in a cabin in the Appalachian mountains, eating rattlesnakes and listening to Alex Jones podcasts. Neither of these are true, although the latter much more accurate than the former. What is libertarianism, and why do so many people, especially Christians, eschew it? Many Christians might think a man without a government presence hovering over his life is bound to make him a danger to society, like a man who is without a wife, domesticating him and making sure he puts toilet paper on the roll, and doesn’t stay out all night drinking and carousing with his friends.

Libertarianism, however, can be properly understood as self governance, and no one is more competent at acting in one’s own interests than themselves, and if you ruin your life you have only yourself, not others, to blame. Taking responsibility for one’s moral shortcomings is a central theme of Christianity, which makes it perplexing why Christians would find a system of self-proprietorship so unappealing.

Libertarianism is living one’s live with a strong personal, yet universal, ethic, even if no one is watching. Some might call this “integrity.” A good man doesn’t need a government telling him to be good, anymore than a villain needs laws in place to make them a corrupt person. So what’s the problem?

Problem is, many see it as “without government, who will tell the homosexuals not to get married, and who will tell us smoking pot is evil?” We all seem to want our brand of prayers prayed in public school and our government to be the ones making rules and ethics for everyone else to live by, (see: gun control) we seem to even think it is the duty of a government to make murder and abortion wrong, as if laws, themselves, have stopping power, when we should be going after the heart of the individual rather than fictional laws. Why is this? Is this because we’re supposedly not intelligent enough to come to moral conclusions on our own? I would argue this is because we have rather surrendered our intellects to let others do the heavy lifting for us, we are too busy being busy and aren’t seeking to live, as Socrates called, an “examined life” one in which we are personally aware of the outcomes of our actions and take both pride and responsibility for them.

Often cited Biblical passages in support of acquiescence to governments are Romans 13, which supposedly gives us 5 imperatives:

1. Submit to governing authorities.

2. Pay taxes.

3. Pay tolls.

4. Pay honour.

5. Give respect.

The problem is unlikely with this passage, rather how we often bend it. Imperative 1 tells us to submit to governing authorities. One obvious problem is, how does one recognize what a governing authority is? Sure, the consensus of society is that there are those in some capital city in our respective countries whom we have delegated authority over our lives to, and they put on suits and ties and call themselves “government”. Are we to believe that whoever sets up shop first, calls themselves “the government” is what Paul had in mind when writing this passage? Furthermore, requiring one’s obedience to whichever government happens to be in office deteriorates into a type of moral relativism. “Right” and “wrong” are no longer normative rules which we are are capable of knowing through reason, rather they are flavours of the month. Moral relativism clearly bucks against a clear teaching of Christianity which teaches God’s moral code is written upon our hearts. Each one of us is capable of moral reasoning, and elsewhere in Romans Paul tells us it is us who suppresses what is innately known to every human being. (Romans 1:18-20)

When we give our taxes to said governing authorities, not only do they contribute to common goods, but they equally contribute to common evils such as foreign wars, abortions and the never ending welfare state which paternal governments invariably create. Samuel warns Israel against this when they begged for an earthly king, that a king would place a heavy burden on their lives and farms for purposes of both his kingdom and armies. Kings are high maintenance pets to take on. (1 Samuel 8:10-18).

While Jesus did say, “render unto Caesar what belongs to Caesar” (Matthew 22:21) He did not intend for us to fund unjust campaigns against innocent lives, no matter how many roads and hospitals get built as an aside. One must also remember here Jesus was being asked a trick question, one in which His interlocutors were trying to trick Him into speaking against the state, or the temple, both which would have resulted in His condemnation almost immediately. Have you ever heard the saying, “ask a stupid question, get a stupid answer”? This isn’t to say Jesus gave a stupid answer, in fact He gave a perfect answer to people who were asking highly disingenuous questions, people who were not interested in getting at any kind of truth on the matter, but who were trying to trap Him in His words. He was probably using the logic endorsed in Proverbs 26:5 which says to answer a fool according to their folly, and He fired their logic back at them. Understanding the context which gives rise to a saying has great impact on the meaning.

It is clear that governments have failed in their mandate to be the guardians of a societies’ moral standard. After all, especially in Canada, Conservative governments will not even reopen the abortion debate. For those who see human life as beginning at conception, it is perplexing how we can allow our governments to be trusted with the sanctity of life.

What about gay marriages? I would argue, as a Christian Libertarian, that governments have hijacked heterosexual marriages to begin with, requiring us to jump through their hoops in obtaining a marriage license before we can choose whom to marry. This simply isn’t the job of the government to regulate marriage. Why we see the gay marriage issue as a hill to die on seems confusing. We cannot stop homosexuals, especially those who aren’t even part of the Christian community, from practicing their lifestyle anymore than we can stop straight people from indulging in a promiscuous lifestyle, or looking at pornography. It seems more reasonable to let gay couples have their piece of paper, and to divorce our minds from the notion of government regulated marriage. Yet, we seek the governments assistance in regulating all of the above, when morality simply cannot be legislated. Sure, we can make laws, but these hardly have any stopping power, and to invite the state into the church to uphold the church’s idea of what a proper marriage is is to blur the distinction between church and state, not a line the church should want blurred at all, then the church will be the church on the terms of the state, and no longer a self regulated entity, or a subculture within a culture.

What do we do with the abortion issue? Clearly the government has, unsurprisingly, failed in this regard, and abortion is not a sin involving the consent of two parties, as with homosexuality or promiscuity. Perhaps, as with acts of charity, the church could seek to be a supportive place for unwed mothers who are expecting, rather than a place of condemnation. This may mitigate the amount of abortions which women have. But, rather than changing laws and seeking government interference in our lives, churches and Christians should be seeking to change hearts, which is where the debate lies.

It seems reasonable, therefore, that Christians should be seeking to take more control of their lives and using their freedom responsibly, seeking that goods and services be allocated responsibly rather than seeking outside involvement in their lives from incompetent governments. Ownership for one’s moral choices is, after all, a key principle in Christianity and it seems like very common sense practice even in the secular world.

For further reading on what Libertarianism teaches, I would highly recommend David Boaz’s “Libertarianism” which is a very short introduction to this valuable political philosophy.

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