Benjamin Birney Law and Nerdonomics

22Mar/111

Why Christians should be Libertarians

This article assumes a particularly Christian perspective for the purposes of arguing for a political position. I am a Christian, but I do not claim to hold every opinion that I have assumed for the purposes of argument; rather, I have assumed them to start from the same position as many devout Christians in America today.

SUMMARY

Men are imperfect, and any government of Man is imperfect. Thus, the government most likely to secure Christians’ rights to practice their religion and make the moral choices required of them to be saved is a government whose primary interest is in safeguarding moral and economic liberty.

INTRODUCTION

Christians have long flirted with government as a means to the ends of our faith. The history of this flirtation is well worth reading and learning from, but I am not going to explore it right now. I want instead to focus on what Christians should do about government today.

First, there is no reason Christians should be categorically opposed to human government as a concept. If we start from and accept the precept that God is coming one day – soon, even – to redeem and re-create the world, it does not necessarily follow that while we wait, we can’t try to keep the place tidy for Him. “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God.” Romans 13:1. As I have not explored deeply the history of Christians in government, I am also not interested in digging deeply into the Biblical justification for respecting authority. Let us simply start from the position that obedience to government is not contrary to Christ’s teachings.

But what form of government should Christians support? For what government should they advocate, if any? Assume, for the purposes of argument, that salvation is only available through baptism and obedience to God’s law. An intuitive answer to the question might then be that the perfect Christian government is theocratic in nature, adopting as its laws the laws of the Bible. Under a true theocracy, the priesthood would serve as judges, using the power of inquest to root out crimes against God. If one accepts the premise that the Bible is the perfect Word of God, then no additional human law should be needed or desired. Setting aside for the moment the inevitable debate about what it means for Jesus to have “fulfilled” the law, Matthew 5:17, a Christian theocracy would maximize the number of citizens who attained salvation by maximizing the number who are baptized and obedient to God’s law.

Since perfection is unavailable to humans, the perfect theocratic government might be an unrealistic hope, short of the Second Coming. The practical Christian might then ponder the virtues of a Christian Republic. Such a republic would acknowledge the superiority of God’s law but create its own law in imperfect reflection.  Human rules, both criminal and civil, would be the law of the land, administered by judges and police. The rules would be shaped with an eye toward the closest possible conformity with Biblical standards available given the political realities of a republic. Speech that violates Christian virtues could be tightly restricted; religions deemed heretic could be banned; socially desirable behavior, such as prayer and charity, could be given encouragement by economic incentives or criminal sanctions.

Both of these options represent a yielding of choice from the individual to the group. This is not intuitively unreasonable, if the group is making decisions that are in accord with God’s law. However, such a delegation of choice is flawed for two very important reasons, one easy to perceive, and one perhaps a bit harder.

IMPERFECT INTERPRETATION

First, the easier problem. We recognize that human beings are imperfect, and unable to fully perceive God’s purpose; this is undisputed in most mainstream Christian traditions. No man or woman, no matter how well meaning, can make perfect judgments and perfect interpretations. Christianity acknowledges that men and women are flawed and sinful creatures, capable of perceiving good, but incapable of doing it consistently. Critically, this inherent flaw is reflected in the multitude of Christian sects, despite the Bible’s many admonishments to maintain a single, unitary Church. When we place the coercive power of the government in the hands of men and women – and we must – then we accept that we place it in the hands of sinners. More significantly, though, we place it in the hands of people who make flawed and imperfect judgments about the meaning of God’s law. There are no small number of very significant disputes between groups as to what the Bible means; absent divine intervention, we are unable to know which interpretations are correct. This is not an abstract problem; it goes to very real disputes that impact very real people, such as abortion, homosexuality, the proper forms of worship, dietary restrictions, and many other elements of Christian life.

The simple problem, then, is that we don’t know who has it right. Is it the Catholics? Protestants? Eastern Orthodox? Branch Davidians? (For the record, I think not.) Absent perfect knowledge of God’s law, any one interpretation may or may not be correct. If we give one interpretation the weight of government authority, the inevitable result will be the enforcement of interpretations and laws that are not the correct ones.

LOVE AND OBEDIENCE REQUIRE CHOICE

The second problem with religious government is about choice. We hold that men and women must love Jesus to be saved. Very well. But what does it mean to love Jesus? CanI love Jesus if I have no choice not to love Him? I cannot, for love must be freely given. Affection forced is no affection, and obedience forced is not virtuous obedience.

This is also not an abstract point, because a theocratic form of government, again by definition, denies choice to its citizens. Let us say that our rulers have decided that it is sinful to fail to tithe, and use the coercive power of the State to levy a 10% income tax, to be given to the church chosen by the State. My tithe is no act of love or obedience, because it has been forced on me. The same is true of personal magnanimity, charity, self-discipline, and every other Christian virtue. If I am forced to be virtuous, I am not virtuous; I may only be virtuous by choice. Thus, a theocratic government actually denies me the opportunity to be saved by denying me the opportunity to choose virtue.

THE LIBERTARIAN SOLUTION

Liberty offers the promise of salvation. Why? Freedom from coercion and the freedom to act ensure that no Christian may be forced into acts that he believes to be morally repugnant, nor denied the opportunity to make the meaningful moral choices that lead to true love for Jesus. Both kinds of freedom are required for salvation: the freedom from coercion to sin, and the freedom to choose virtue. These are prerequisites to leading a Christian life. No man’s life may be perfect, but with these freedoms, we have the opportunity to achieve the “good enough” that was Jesus’s gift to us in grace. But if we deny liberty to our fellow men and women, even in the name of enforcing God’s law, we deny them to ourselves at the same time.

Some concrete examples may make this more clear. Let us suppose that we empower our local government to prohibit as “contrary to public policy” some things we think are sinful: adultery and gambling. In bringing the coercive power of the State to bear on these moral choices, we have denied every citizen the opportunity to choose not to commit adultery and not to gamble. The result is a society that appears more virtuous on the surface, but has stunted its ability to make moral choices. Furthermore, we have created a government that has acquired a taste for coercive control and the tools to exercise it. Such a government is perfectly capable of then declaring that positive Christian virtues, such as group worship, are “contrary to public policy.” It is in the nature of power to seek more power.

Now let us instead suppose that we have created a government of limited, enunciated powers. Those powers are focused on preserving the liberty of each individual to make meaningful moral and economic choices, and preventing each individual from restricting the same rights in other people. Some people will undoubtedly commit adultery and gamble. However, if Christians are truly doing the job Jesus gave them to do, then they will spread the Good News among citizens, who the State has empowered to choose virtue of their own free will. Now Christians have reduced, through the intelligent use of government, the possibility that they will be coerced to sin, and they have also safeguarded their opportunity choose a virtuous life that demonstrates love for Jesus and obedience to God’s law.

CONCLUSION

I have attempted to demonstrate that only a government which safeguards personal liberty gives Christians the opportunity to fully realize and spread their faith, as required by Jesus. In the future I will examine the connection between moral liberty and economic liberty.

DISCLAIMER: These are my views, synthesized from my own experience and reason. They undoubtedly match the views of people who have thought about these issues in the past. I have not cited other writers because I did not consider them in reaching my conclusions.

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  1. On Facebook, Evan said:

    “The fact that the government requires you to tithe 10% for the benefit of the poor does not mean that you have no moral “choice.” You can choose not to pay that tax, and either escape detection or go to jail. You can emigrate. You can pay out of fear of legal consequences, or dutiful obedience to temporal authority, or desire to help the poor, or love/obedience of God, or any combination. Ultimately, if we accept the premise of an omniscient God, He isn’t going to have any trouble figuring out why you chose as you did. What harm, then, in decoupling some behavior from the underlying choice?”

    This is a good question with two good answers, one simple, the other somewhat less so. The simple answer is that Christians are charged with obeying the laws of Man as well as the laws of God. If a government of Man says “you must pay a 10% tithe,” then Christians are required to do so. The choice goes out the window again.

    Now, as I said, this is a simple answer, with some simple weaknesses. (For instance: Why is obeying human law, as required by the Bible, different than obeying Biblical law, which I admit is naturally more choice-driven?) So here’s a better one.

    When we punish crime, we are doing it for many reasons. Some of the more commonly cited ones are to deter others, to punish the blameworthy, and to rehabilitate. But there is another reason we punish people, and specifically why we punish them through the theater of the criminal law. When we haul a jury into the court room and ask them to render a verdict, we are adjusting culture and values.

    “[The] public rituals [of criminal punishment] . . . strengthen the identification of the majority with a value system that places a premium on law-abiding behavior. . . . The singluar power of the criminal law resides . . . in its effect on the rest of us. . . . [It includes] conscious and unconscious moralizing and habit-forming effects that go far beyond the crassness of a narrowly conceived deterrence.”

    Herbert L. Packer, The Limits of the Criminal Sanction, Stanford University Press, 1968. If you accept that this is a purpose and an effect of criminal punishment – and I find it a compelling argument – then allowing the government to enforce morality through the machinery of the criminal law DOES destroy choice. It does not do so expressly, but instead through the unconscious acceptance by “the rest of us” that to do other than what the law mandates is not a choice that any sane person would make.

    To stay with the tithing hypothetical: If the government says “you must tithe,” and we see that people who do not tithe are publicly shamed and punished BY US (embodied by the jury), we will very quickly discard not tithing as a viable choice of conduct.


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