Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Conservative Christianity and Libertarianism do not Mix

There is something strange about the moral landscape of a considerable body of people who call themselves libertarians. Many of them are quite conservative Christians. But for the conservative Christian there is an insuperable barrier to the most extreme forms of libertarianism.

Consider these passages from the New Testament:
(1) St Paul, Romans 13.1–7 (written c. 56 AD):
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.”

(2) Titus 3:1:
Remind them (viz., believing Christians) to be subject to the rulers and authorities, to be obedient, to be ready for every good work …”

(3) 1 Peter, 2.13–15, 17:
For the sake of the Lord, submit to every human institution, whether to the emperor as the supreme authority, or to the governors sent by the emperor to punish evildoers and to praise those doing good … Honour the emperor.”
In essence, these admonitions to Christians are:
(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.
Christians think that St Paul had direct visions and revelations from God and Jesus (e.g., 2 Corinthians 12.1–10), so that for the conservative Christian the passage in Romans must count as orders from god.

For the conservative Christian, then, virtually all extreme forms of libertarianism seem to be ruled out. For example, the extreme Rothbardian might claim that the state is evil, but how can something be evil if it is ultimately instituted by god and he commands you to submit to it?

Of course, the idea that one should submit to government just because the Bible says so is a terrible – and in many ways a horrific – argument, e.g., does this mean that victims of the Nazis in Germany were required to submit to Nazi government? Was the Nazi government actually brought about by God’s will? What about the Soviet Union?

But such moral paradoxes present no problem for the secular person who rejects all forms of religion and belief in god (I happen to be such a person).

They do present the believing Christian with the ethical problems.

Paradoxically, for liberal libertarian Christians of course, the passages above are not a problem. They can claim to be Christians without thinking that all of the Bible is divinely inspired or the literal word of god.

But that then raises the question of what moral theory do Christians really support?

The most crude answer is divine command theory. But that theory faces difficulties so severe that it quickly falls apart. Indeed, historically divine command theory had little support from Christian philosophers.

In short, the problem with divine command theory is this: is something good solely because god orders it, or because it is good by some other objective criteria?

If one really thinks that, say, any action is good simply, solely and only because god has ordered it, this means that morality is ultimately nothing but the arbitrary whim of good. Morality has no objective basis and could in theory be subjectively determined by god.

For example, if god orders mass murder, as he supposedly does in Deuteronomy 2:33–36 and 3:1–11, then mass murder is moral, because god has ordered it. There are Christian philosophers who have seriously taken that position: William of Ockham argued that, yes, anything god orders, even if it appears to be evil, it is actually good and morally obligatory. That is an appalling conclusion, which concedes that we have (in theory) no ultimate moral standard except the subjective whims of god.

If the Christian concedes that an action is good, not because god has ordered it, but because it is good for some independent objective standard or objective criteria, one has conceded that god is not omnipotent (in the conventional sense of that word), for it follows logically that god’s actions and orders are severely limited by some external objective moral principles or standard. Morality ultimately cannot come from god.

There are sly tricks to get around the dilemma. One is to argue that, well, god is inherently good, or god and goodness are identical, so that he, as an omnibenevolent being, can never in actuality do or order anything evil.

But that does not solve the dilemma, for logically this concedes that there could be no god and yet it would in theory be possible for a universe to have objective moral principles or an objective moral standard to guide right action. If one wants to argue that a perfectly good being exists (like an imaginary god), you have not answered the question: what is the standard for perfect goodness anyway? That standard is logically independent of the notion of an omnipotent and omniscient divine being.

All that has occurred is that we are taken right back to the question: if an act is not good merely because god orders it, then there must be some other standard for determining its rightness or wrongness.

The solution most Christian philosophers found is to reject divine command theory and simply take over and develop the pagan Greek and Roman ethical theory of natural law (which goes back to Plato and the ancient Stoics). But natural law theory has difficulties almost as bad as divine command theory. It requires the belief in a “divine order” in the universe and a divinely-created human nature that makes us conform to “natural law.” In other words, it just begs the question by assuming the existence of some divine agency and order in the universe.

Furthermore, the very idea of a “divine order” just raises the question of what standard of morality determines it, and once rationalist European philosophers like Grotius tried to defend natural law theory by removing God and the previous supernatural justification for it, they simply destroyed the only convincing explanation for belief in natural law (Tawney 1998: xxv-xxvi).

At that point a Christian libertarian might retreat to Rothbard’s natural rights ethics, but that system has a flawed basis and no convincing justification.

Other solutions were like that of Kant: Kantian ethics was in fact partly an attempt to create an objectivist ethics that could defend Christian morality, but by basing morality on moral principles derived from human reason, not from god per se.

So ultimately the most sophisticated Christian philosophers accept that morality does not come from the Bible or directly from god, but that it can be determined by human reason.

Although I am completely secular and do not believe in god, I suppose that liberal (non-fundamentalist) Christians could solve their moral conundrum.

Perhaps they might argue as follows.

If one is a sincere liberal Christian, then one might argue that, after all, morality can be independent of god in the sense that it is rationally possible for a moral system to exist even if (hypothetically) god did not.

That is to say, for a perfectly moral being to exist like god, he must follow a moral code that is not just subjective, but objective. Therefore there must be an independent, objective standard of morality. And god must obey it. So god is not really omnipotent in the crude sense of that term: his action is limited by the need to be logically consistent.

But what is the moral code? One solution is deontological ethics (like the system of Kant) and other choice is teleological/consequentialist ethics.

That is, one moral code might be some form of consequentalism. Mill once argued (perhaps insincerely) that god was a utilitarian. But some Christian philosophers do seriously argue that a god would be the perfect consequentialist: he could foresee all consequences of all hypothetical actions into the unbound future, and determine the morally right actions, suggesting these actions by general moral principles, although human beings can only ever have an imperfect grasp of what is perfectly right, because of lack of knowledge and the extreme difficulty of predicting the future.


Tawney, R. H. 1998. Religion and the Rise of Capitalism. Transaction, New Brunswick, N.J. and London.


  1. And best not mention all that anti-rich stuff Jesus said, nor the call to give your wealth to the poor. Not to mention the explicit call for Christians to live communally, sharing goods (i.e., communism) in the Bible.

    And I should say, I'm aways a bit perplexed by anarchists who also claim to be Christians. Seems very contradictory to me (for the reasons outlined in the article above), although less so than propertarians claiming to be Christians (or anarchists, for that matter!).

    Still, An Anarchist FAQ has a section on religious anarchism -- Tolstoy, mostly (and I should note that he had the standard anarchist opposition to private property, capitalism, etc.). Very much a minority trend within the movement (a small minority at that).

    An Anarchist FAQ

  2. Interesting post. I consider myself to me some sort of left-wing Christian Democrat. There used to be a number of strongly pro-Keynesian left-wing Christian Democrats in countries such as Italy and Germany in the post-war era. They were influenced by Old Labour politicians in the United Kingdom who could also be considered Christian socialists, for example, George Lansbury.

    As for why so many Christians are attracted to libertarianism, my best guess is that many Christians see economically left-wing or center-left parties supporting certain social or cultural policies (abortion, gay marriage) that they disagree with and they end up being courted by the Right. The government is seen as the agent operating in the world to destroy family values, ruin marriage, etc.

    I live in the United States and social issues are definitely the jumping off point for most Christian conservatives, with the economics eventually being added as part of the conservative “package.”

    1. I am sure you're right in all these points. But it all comes back to ethics, doesn't it.

      Although a secular person myself, I will make this suggestion to you.

      If you are a sincere liberal (non-fundamentalist) Christian, then you might argue that, after all, morality can be independent of god in the sense that it is rationally possible for a moral system to exist even if (hypothetically) god did not.

      That is to say, for a perfectly moral being to exist like god he must follow a moral code that is not just subjective, but objective. Therefore there must be an independent, objective standard of morality. And god must obey it. So god is not really omnipotent in the crude sense of that term: his action is limited by the need to be logically consistent.

      But what is the moral code? One moral code could be consequentalism. Mill once argued (perhaps insincerely) that god was a utilitarian. But some Christian philosophers do seriously argue that a god would be the perfect consequentialist: he could foresee all consequences of all hypothetical actions into the unbound future, and determine the morally right actions, suggesting these actions by general moral principles.

      Actually I will put this into an addendum at the end!

    2. If by conservative Christianity you mean fundamentalist and primarily Calvinist-Baptist evangelicals with some amount of Pentacostals and charismatics thrown in you'd be generally correct. Which of course is why so few members of those groups are Libertarian. Conversely if you're talking Arminianist Methodist, Anglican, Episcopal, or Catholics whom rest upon the foundation of freewill then Libertarianism in some ways is actually the political-societal philosophy which most closely aligns with the belief. Essentially freewill = self determination = libertarian philosophy.

      From your Romans 13 quotation, verses 1-7 can not be separated from the remainder of chapter 13. More accurately the whole of chapter 13 can't be examined and properly understood without an examination of chapters 12-14. Oddly enough I'd point you to Chuck Baldwin (definitely a Christian Conservative) for an examination of his work directly refuting your exertions. Additionally to fully understand one needs to do proper exegesis to understand what was written in the greek and to get scholarly input on what issues were being addressed with Romans and Romans 13 in particular. That's obviously VERY in depth, but ... I've done some of that work being a minister. The most basic approach is to very simply answer the questions of who, what, when, & where concerning any piece of scripture and you have a basis for basic understanding.

      Before going further please understand that in the original text there were no paragraph and certainly no chapter separations. These were added later to make reading and finding scripture easier. Romans was written as a letter just as you or I would write today, continuous.

      Just a cursory reading of chapters 12 and 13 and asking one simple question will reveal much. Who and what is being written about here? The only part of chapter 13 that is about non-church government, or so some say, are verses 1-7. Convenient right? Well it doesn't pass the smell test because the section of chapter preceeding Rom 13:1-7 can properly be titled 'Love in Action'. Rom 13:1-7 is titled 'Submission to Governing Authorities' while the verses after this section are titled 'Love Fulfills the Law'. Without digging into to many specific text as we don't have the room and I don't have the time lets examine why the subject matter is important. Simply put the preceding and post comment around Rom 13:1-7 clue us into the who and what is being addressed. Let it be said that Chapter 12 and 13 directly address church issues. One can not apply logic and conceive that 'Love in Action' preceding Rom 13:1-7 and 'Love Fulfills the Law' after the text can be addressing anything other than the church. I'm saying the answer to 'who and what' concerning this section of the letter of Romans is the chuch and church government.

      Being honest there are 2 speed bumps to such an assertion. The first is the use of the phrase 'the sword' which is understood to be a reference to government authority (not church government). Additionally is some of the nouns in the Greek have dual meaning of both magistrates and private authority figures which leaves the door open for it to be either or. However given the overall context it seems wholly implausible that verses 1-7 would address magistrates/state authority and be followed up by this statement in verse 10, '10 Love does no harm to a neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law.' It is impossible to pay taxes (the essence and foundation of the law) with love. 'Love is the fulfillment of the law' can't be a reference to fulfilling civil law and is a reference to church law. All of this section of scripture is talking about the church.

      I'm guessing you have a degree/background in economics. It shows, because you're making basic errors in scriptural analysis.

    3. One final thought which every Christian used to understand but few do today. Quoting Christ, 'What is Ceasars?' The Jewish and later Christian answers at the time were a resounding, NOTHING! Scripturally speaking 'the earth and the fullness thereof' belong to God, not to any man. Tithing is simply a recognition of this fact, that ALL is God's and we are asked to return a portion in faithfulness as a sign that we understand that.

    4. Murray McCain@March 27, 2013 at 8:52 AM

      Thank you, I appreciate your comments.

      I can tell you I have a reading knowledge of both Classical and Koine Greek.

      The crucial passage in the Koine Greek at 13.1:

      Πᾶσα ψυχὴ ἐξουσίαις ὑπερεχούσαις ὑποτασσέσθω.
      every | person | to authorities | governing | let him be subject.

      That is, in idiomatic English:

      "Let every person be subject to the governing authorities."

      If I look up the noun ἐξουσίαις (though used here in the dative case) in W. Bauer, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (2nd edn.; rev. and aug. by F. Wilbur Gingrich and Frederick W. Danker from Walter Bauer’s 5th edn. Chicago and London, 1979), we find that on p. 278 in sense (4) it is the standard word for secular human authorities or government.

      Sometimes it means the "evil spiritual/demonic powers" that inhabit the lower heavens (sense 4.c.β in Bauer), but that cannot be the meaning here, as the reference to taxes (φόρον) in 13.7 shows the passage is thinking of human Roman rulers: you do not pay taxes to demons!

  3. Anarchy and Christianity never really needed to be mutually exclusive. Jesus himself pretty much lived the life as an anarchist. As was said, He personally rejected personal property and while He had disciples who deferred to His authority, they only followed Him by invitation and not coercion.

    I am a liberal Christian. Some would even call me blasphemous. I believe in evolution, contraception, abortion, the Big Bang and pretty much all other science, I reject the Bible as being the ultimate Word of God, Himself. I came from a very liberal Christian school that actually had us read "When Bad Things Happen to Good People" by Kushner, a book that concedes that God isn't omnipotent, just very powerful. This obviously implies that God is imperfect. So it naturally follows that he must adhere to a code just as you said.

    Just a little aside: I had a teacher who in my ethics class, quipped that "Jesus was clearly a Keynesian. Only a Keynesian could think that giving away bread and fish would make even more bread and fish."

  4. I've met plenty of libertarians on the Internet and a lot of the ones I've come across are agnostic or atheist, but there are also plenty of left leaning atheists and even conservatives too if you look around. Based on these observations, I don't think religious beliefs automatically dictate political leanings. I don't attend any houses of worship and have many problems with organized religion, but on a personal basis, I still identify myself as a Christian, but I've come to the conclusion that one doesn't need the church itself to know right from wrong or to learn about a specific deity on your own. I also try to keep religious beliefs separate from political beliefs.

    I don't consider myself part of any movement quite frankly because I don't want to be trapped in dogmatism if I automatically came out and said that I was some liberal or libertarian type of person. I like to hear all sides of the argument before taking a stance on a particular position. George Selgin commented on one of your older posts saying that he didn't consider himself to be part of any specific school of economics or political thought.

    1. Roberto Severino@March 27, 2013 at 11:03 AM

      Do you have a view on what is a defensible, convincing ethical system?

    2. I don't have the kind of background on philosophy or economics that you appear to have and as an 18 year old, feel that I have a lot more to learn, but any ethical system that relies on fallacious appeal to nature arguments or trying to justify a particular action or piece of legislation entirely based on Biblical justifications is an untenable, illogical position to me, like with the fear mongering that comes from anti-abortion advocates or those. It is even more illogical when these people have no empirical evidence to back up their conclusions, which are more like opinions disguised as moral absolutes. There are other people who try to claim that racism is natural and that people prefer nationalistic self-determination for themselves, but then forget that they could also say that pedophilia or rape are natural too, which obviously have devastating, traumatic effects upon the victims.

      As someone who has been through plenty of personal hardship, having some type of belief in a deity actually helped me to get through those type of situations and helped me to handle the adversity, along with practicing, studying and focusing on performing well academically.

  5. LK,

    I admire you for not shying away from this pretty contentious issue. ;)

    I think you make the best points wrt Romans 13 and Libertarianism.

    Another word I have found that is related perhaps to "liberty" and "freedom" which are related to Libertarianism, is this word "eleutheria" which I believe can be translated as "free from bonds".

    This word is used often in Paul's writings and looks like it is always in this context (ie "free from bonds") and doesn't imply a general "freedom" for lawlessness.

    Here is this word in Galatians 5 "13 For you were called for freedom, brethren, only use not the freedom for an incentive to the flesh, but through love be slaving for one another."

    Doesn't sound like this "freedom" or eleutheria that we have been given is meant as a license for wantonness and lawlessness.


  6. Well done LK

    The Christian/Libertarian fusion is quite an odd spectacle from my view.
    Andy Schafly is even doing his part to rewrite the bible strictly for conservative Christians. His bible removes and restates all texts which make Jesus sound like a socialist. This is the culmination of decades of work by dozens of people doing their level best to make sure that people like Jamie Dimon, the Koch brothers, Kenneth Lay, Michael Milken etc are properly understood by the rest of us. We need to realize that it is because of men like these that we have all that we have. We should never punish or criticize their means for attaining all they can because they are agents of God.... of the purest and highest form. They embody God. All men of great power and wealth do so we peons need to stop whining and realize we wouldnt have anything to complain about NOT having if it wasnt for these guys having!!

    This whole sick, putrid, reworking of the commonly understood Christian ethical system, is laid out very well in a book called "The Family" by Jeff Sharlett

    Read it and weep

  7. There's no more entertaining spectacle in today's culture than the ongoing attempts to reconcile Christ with Rand.