Ronald Reagan once said, “I believe the very heart and soul of conservatism is libertarianism.” With the Christian Right now taking up the banner of religious liberty in the face of an onslaught by the secular Left, evangelical conservatives should heed Reagan’s words and consider libertarianism as a palatable governing philosophy to advance their interests.
In his book, “Anarchism: A History of Libertarian Ideas and Movements” (2004), George Woodcock defines libertarianism as: “A political philosophy that upholds liberty as its principal objective. Libertarians seek to maximize autonomy and freedom of choice, emphasizing political freedom, voluntary association, and the primacy of individual judgment.”
Libertarianism is the natural political ideology for Christians because it promotes individual freedom. 1 Peter 2:16 reads, “As freemen, yet not using liberty as a cloak for vice, but as bondservants of God.” Men free from the chains of government can maximize our liberties to help our fellow man through private charity and evangelism.
When government is limited, man becomes subject to the will of God as opposed to the will of man. Government weakens intimate bonds between the individual and the family, replaces individual charity with coerced redistribution, and uses the threat of violence against person and property in order to dictate the behavior of private individuals. The evils of government threaten all people, but ought to be particularly concerning to Christians.
Charity Is Individual and Freely Chosen
Compassionate conservatives and Christian progressives alike have cited the gospels as justification for the welfare state, most recently GOP presidential candidate and Ohio Gov. John Kasich in his defense of expanding Medicaid in his state. Yes, Jesus called us to love our neighbors, help the poor, feed the hungry, and tend to the sick; however, these are commands to individuals, not to the state.
When the state attempts the role of charity, its only means of doing so is through physical force. To support its welfare state, government must tax private citizens, and quite heavily. If a citizen refuses to pay taxes, the government must resort to violence and imprisonment to force the dissenter to comply.
Furthermore, charity is to be done through the kindness of one’s heart. Compassionate justifications for the welfare state are illegitimate because true compassion is based out of one’s personal generosity, not being forced to be “generous” by some distant government figure.
Before Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal established the welfare state and Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society expanded it, the church and private individuals handled charity. Adult children took care of their elderly parents. Local churches used their tithes to feed the hungry and take care of their sick church members.
Today, however, the state has usurped many of the roles family and the church once played, eliminating most of the personal charity private citizens had offered. According to a study by the American Legislative Exchange Council (where I am employed), of the ten states with the highest amounts of charitable giving since 1997, four levy no income tax at all.
Despite well-intentioned intrusions by the government, the national poverty rate has remained static, as noted in the figure below.
Sometimes, It’s Okay to Disobey Government
One might argue that Jesus Christ’s command in Matthew 22:21—“Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s”—exhorts Christians to dutifully pay their taxes and follow the laws of man. On the contrary, in Acts 4, state officials ordered the apostles John and Peter to cease preaching the gospel. John responded at verse 19, “Whether it is right in the sight of God to listen to you more than to God, you judge. For we cannot but speak the things which we have seen and heard.”
This seems to suggest that there is a point at which Christians may disobey their earthly rulers. Rather, the point of the passage in Matthew 22 seems less about whether men should obey their earthly rulers but more that God has no interest in manmade institutions. Christ is concerned with Christians’ relations with their neighbors, not their relations with the state.
This is where government becomes a problem. Too often government prevents Christians from doing their Christian duties. When the government levies taxes, we have less money to help the poor. When government restricts religious speech, we cannot evangelize. When government welfare policy encourages single-parenthood through financial incentives, the family is weakened. When government distributes Social Security checks, adult children neglect their responsibilities to their elderly parents. When government mandates that religious organizations provide contraceptives to their employees, we are forced to destroy God’s greatest gift—life.
Original Sin Implies Limited Government
Traditional Christian theology proffers that man is inherently sinful. Man’s inherent original sin makes no person among us just, pure, or wise enough to govern other men. Too often we have found ourselves disappointed by politicians, kings, and other legal authorities. The rational response, therefore, is not to make more strict laws or to increase legal oversight. Rather, it should be to limit government power.
Moreover, man is not made virtuous through the law. In Romans 6:14-15, Paul explicitly states that man is saved by grace, not by the law. “For sin shall not have dominion over you, for you are not under law but under grace. What then? Shall we sin because we are not under law but under grace? Certainly not!” If religious law cannot make man virtuous, then man’s political laws are certainly incapable of doing so.
Whether it is government forcing charity or banning social vices, it cannot make man better. Instead, only the grace of Jesus Christ liberates man from sinful and socially damaging behaviors. Consequently, Christians ought to be extremely hesitant and skeptical of government attempts to codify Christian morality into the law.
Anarchy, However, Isn’t On the Table
This is not to suggest that government does not have a role in our lives. Government’s most important duty is to protect its citizens’ rights to life, liberty, and property. Government is there to do the things that we as individuals cannot do, such as enforcing contracts and providing for the common defense. As prescribed by the Old Testament book of Judges, when two private parties have a legal or monetary dispute, it is the role of state-appointed judges to justly settle the claims.
Also, as individuals, we are incapable of individually defending ourselves against foreign and domestic aggression, so the government can rightly raise a standing military and police force. To preserve liberty, the government must be able to defend against threats on liberty. Taxation should only be used to support these proper functions of government. Any further use of tax dollars is illegitimate and amounts to legalized plunder.
When the Roman Empire adopted Christianity as its official religion, church and state were dangerously intertwined, weakening the Christian faith. Christians were subject to their earthly kings and clergy as opposed to the direct will of God. Fortunately, the Protestant Reformation and the Glorious Revolution in sixteenth-century England cut the ties of the Christian church and the government. Yet, contrary to conventional belief at the time, Christianity only became stronger.
Today, many Christians and non-Christians assume that a Christian government means a government that forces a particular religious belief on its citizens. Christ, however, never used coercion to convert nonbelievers.
As the Christian Right does some soul searching in the political wilderness, to remain relevant in political discourse Christians must reconcile our commitment to Biblical morality with a changing political environment. Christians should embrace a libertarian governing philosophy that frees us to do God’s will through free association with our fellow men, not by coercion of the state.