Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Libertarianism and Christianity: A Contradiction in Terms?

Yes, this post is not about economics at all. Instead, I refer people to the peculiar spectacle of the Austrian Robert P. Murphy defending his Christianity against charges of Biblical contradiction over at his blog. His fellow atheist Austrians debate the truth of Christianity in the comments section. While I am not religious at all and consider myself an atheist, one passage cited in the debate really does stand out to me as a severe problem for any anti-state libertarian and Austrian who is also a Christian.

The passage in question is in one of the letters of St Paul (or Paul of Tarsus, or the Apostle Paul). In his letter to the Romans written c. 56 AD, we have Paul urging the Christian community at Rome to be obedient to the state:
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. Therefore whoever resists authority resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgement. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Do you wish to have no fear of the authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive its approval; for it is God’s servant for your good. But if you do what is wrong, you should be afraid, for the authority does not bear the sword in vain! It is the servant of God to execute wrath on the wrongdoer. Therefore one must be subject, not only because of wrath but also because of conscience. For the same reason you also pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, busy with this very thing. Pay to all what is due to them—taxes to whom taxes are due, revenue to whom revenue is due, respect to whom respect is due, honour to whom honour is due.* (Romans 13.1–7).
That is an extraordinary statement of Paul’s view of government, especially since he lived under a pagan Roman government that was increasingly hostile to Christianity. Paul’s admonitions to the Christians of Rome can be summed up with these propositions:
(1) Christians should be subject to their respective governments;

(2) These governments have in fact have been brought about by God’s will: “for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God.”

(3) Christians should pay taxes.
And this was from St Paul, who claimed to be receiving visions and revelations from God and Jesus (2 Corinthians 12.1-10). I fail to see how this is not a devastating passage which, if seriously taken as the word of God by Christian libertarians, destroys the basis for much of their hostility to government.

* Here is the passage in the original Koine (New Testament) Greek:

Πᾶσα ψυχὴ ἐξουσίαις ὑπερεχούσαις ὑποτασσέσθω. οὐ γὰρ ἔστιν ἐξουσία εἰ μὴ ὑπὸ θεοῦ, αἱ δὲ οὖσαι ὑπὸ θεοῦ τεταγμέναι εἰσίν• ὥστε ὁ ἀντιτασσόμενος τῇ ἐξουσίᾳ τῇ τοῦ θεοῦ διαταγῇ ἀνθέστηκεν, οἱ δὲ ἀνθεστηκότες ἑαυτοῖς κρίμα λήμψονται. οἱ γὰρ ἄρχοντες οὐκ εἰσὶν φόβος τῷ ἀγαθῷ ἔργῳ ἀλλὰ τῷ κακῷ. θέλεις δὲ μὴ φοβεῖσθαι τὴν ἐξουσίαν; τὸ ἀγαθὸν ποίει, καὶ ἕξεις ἔπαινον ἐξ αὐτῆς• θεοῦ γὰρ διάκονός ἐστιν σοὶ εἰς τὸ ἀγαθόν. ἐὰν δὲ τὸ κακὸν ποιῇς, φοβοῦ• οὐ γὰρ εἰκῇ τὴν μάχαιραν φορεῖ• θεοῦ γὰρ διάκονός ἐστιν, ἔκδικος εἰς ὀργὴν τῷ τὸ κακὸν πράσσοντι. διὸ ἀνάγκη ὑποτάσσεσθαι, οὐ μόνον διὰ τὴν ὀργὴν ἀλλὰ καὶ διὰ τὴν συνείδησιν. διὰ τοῦτο γὰρ καὶ φόρους τελεῖτε, λειτουργοὶ γὰρ θεοῦ εἰσιν εἰς αὐτὸ τοῦτο προσκαρτεροῦντες. ἀπόδοτε πᾶσιν τὰς ὀφειλάς, τῷ τὸν φόρον τὸν φόρον, τῷ τὸ τέλος τὸ τέλος, τῷ τὸν φόβον τὸν φόβον, τῷ τὴν τιμὴν τὴν τιμήν.


  1. Being a Christian libertarian is definitely a contradiction in terms that can never be easily reconciled.

    However, what is your opinion of Civil Disobedience? I speak of the kind that is practiced by people in the Arab Spring today and that was practiced by Martin Luther King Jr. in United States.

    Even as an atheist, I find it disgusts me. How can people - who want to use the government for good laws and who want to end bad laws in government - make their case by disobeying government? Aren't they justifying other people in civil disobedience of the government they shall form? Aren't they undermining an institution when it does not serve their preferences, but hoping to use it for their own preferences? Do they think they make a better example or make a stronger case for a more enlightened government by being disobedient, disloyal citizens?

    The problem of Civil Disobedience is that it also contradicts Paul's admonition to Christians. And for any Christian who claims to be an anarchist, a revolutionary socialist, or any kind of radical, he is being a hypocrite. These groups have support for Civil Disobedience of a kind that is strictly anti-Christian. You can't be both Christian and anarchist ever.

  2. It seems very difficult to reconcile Christianity with any kind of anti-state ideology, left or right.

  3. (1) There is a difference between today and back then. Today we have popular participation in government. We can actively change the government and change it for the better without violent revolutionary actions.

    (2) If a Christian came to the conclusion that a libertarian society would actually do more good for the poor and everyone overall then he'd be obligated to try to work towards bringing forth that society. It is a way of helping his fellow men and the poor.

    (3) Yes, libertarians believe we'd have less poor and that the poor would be better off in a libertarian society with freely given charity as a last resort.

  4. Interesting post. Social democracy seems to fit Christianity pretty nicely. It avoids both the extreme individualism of laissez-faire capitalism and the crushing tyranny of Soviet-style communism.

    As a Christian, though, I am not completely comfortable with saying one or another economic system is THE Christian system. Christianity has been around for 2,000 years and has seen many economic systems rise and fall. Inevitably, all one can do is try to look objectively at the reality of a system and then see how well it fits inside Christian ethics. Some system may "fit" better than others.

  5. I believe this book is the best treatment of the subject: http://www.remnantnewspaper.com/Archives/2010-ferrara-church-libertarian.htm

  6. This was a main reason why I abandoned the Austrian-libertarian approach because I'm a Christian and saw that there was a contradiction between what libertarians say and what the Bible says. Not to mention that a lot of them commited simply pure idolatry.

  7. On your points:

    (3) contradicts all libertarian policy, all of it, especially in light of admission (1). If things are different then as they are now, then positing that an ideal city that would be better off than the city we have now is just as different as "back then" is to today. Perhaps a Christian believes that the end times will usher in Libertarian societies, perhaps not; either way is irrelevant. What matters is what helps the poor right now, in the emanate present. In this a Chrisitan is bound by faith and duty to reject libertarian principle conclusions.

  8. To debate whether social help is needed while the needful die is surely a sin.