Thursday, March 1, 2012

On Christianity, Libertarianism, and Political Philosophy

In a recent post on the Acton Institute blog, Joe Carter expresses his puzzlement at the idea of being a “Christian libertarian” and speaks as if the onus is on people who marry Christianity and libertarianism to show why this is a coherent combination. I’m not so sure I really count as a libertarian and hate labeling people, especially by their political views (I'm with Derek Webb: "there's no categories, just long stories waiting to be told. Don't be satisfied when someone sums you up with just one word"). And I don’t really care either to defend libertarianism or to give some grand argument to the effect that Christianity and libertarianism are in fact compatible. But I do want to challenge Carter’s starting point: the claim that there is some prima facie conflict between Christianity and libertarianism. Carter is puzzled at the idea that Christianity and libertarianism are compatible. I’m puzzled at Carter’s puzzlement.

To begin with, Carter doesn’t tell us how he is using the term “libertarian.” The broadest, simplest use of the term refers to a family of views about policies. In this sense, libertarians are roughly those of us who think that government interference in both our social and economic lives should be minimal. Generally, then, libertarians are more worried than left-liberals by government intervention in the economic sphere and more worried than social conservatives by government intervention in our moral and personal lives. This use of the term, of course, is rather course-grained. If we know someone is a libertarian in this sense, we know very roughly the kinds of policies he supports. But we know nothing about why he supports them. Libertarians have a broad range of reasons for their political views. It is these justifications that may or may not be compatible with Christianity, not the policy conclusions.

But what does it mean for Christianity and a political view to be compatible? Apparently Carter thinks that Christian's political philosophy ought somehow to follow from the commitments of Christianity. He writes:

Christians, on the other hand, must start with principles derived from the Bible and/or Christian tradition and work their way forward toward a coherent political philosophy. Again, I may be wrong, but I don’t see how starting from Biblical principles you’d end up with any political philosophy that resembled American-style libertarianism.

This is a highly questionable and contentious methodological claim. I don’t see how starting from Biblical principles you’d end up at any particular political philosophy. Sure, Christianity might conflict with certain political views. But at most it’s going to provide constraints on the views Christians can consistently hold; it’s not going to give us a particular view. Christians can and should begin doing political philosophy just like anyone else, by asking questions like "what is the function of government?" or "how can we successfully and peacefully live together with people who disagree with us about what it means to live well?" One's answers to these and other fundamental questions of political philosophy may be informed in certain ways by one's faith, but one cannot look up chapter and verse to find an answer in the Bible. There is no substitute, for the Christian or anyone else, for serious political philosophy.

When someone claims that they have the truly “Christian” political view, it usually stems in part from hidden assumptions that have nothing to do with Christianity. Naïve versions of social conservatism, for example, sometimes assume something like the principle of legal moralism—which holds the function of law is to make anything immoral illegal (less extreme versions usually just apply the principle only where convenient). While advocates of such views speak as if they’re just preaching Christianity, they are in fact preaching legal moralism. They may get much of the content of their moral beliefs from Christianity, but the claim that the function of law is simply to enshrine morality is a contentious (and I think implausible) claim about political philosophy that doesn’t follow from Christian doctrine. The same, of course, goes for libertarian principles. Libertarianism simply isn’t going to fall directly out of Christianity.

This means, of course, that it isn’t a good idea for Christians who are libertarians to walk around labeling themselves as “Christian libertarians.” This label suggests that the latter follows in some way from the former. And if “Christian libertarian” refers only to people who believe this, then I share Carter’s puzzlement at Christian libertarians. Unlike Carter, however, I reject the assumption that Christians’ political philosophies must be more or less directly derived from their theology, so I can conceive of a different kind of libertarian who is a Christian—one for whom the two views are compatible without one entailing the other.

At this point I think I’ve given plenty of reason to question Carter’s assumption that there is some sort of prima facie conflict between Christianity and libertarian political thought. I also think, however, there is good reason to think that the spirit of the two in fact fit quite well together. The core principle of both seems to me to be something like that real change is heart change. Unfortunately, busyness prevents me from spending the time to explore that idea here. If you’re interested in the thought, however, you can take a look at chapter 3 of No Fear in Love, a (now abandoned) book I tried to write before I began grad school. It’s not especially well-written, is under-argued, and it’s only an excerpt, but it should give you some idea of how I think about the theological and political import of the notion that real change is heart change.

1 comment:

  1. This is, unfortunately, not understood widely enough: "If we know someone is a libertarian in this sense, we know very roughly the kinds of policies he supports. But we know nothing about why he supports them. Libertarians have a broad range of reasons for their political views."

    That's exactly right. In fact, I don't know of any political morality that could not, depending on someone's empirical views, lead to libertarianism. I guess I could construct one that somehow made it analytically necessary that an institution just like the state take care of something or other, or do something or other, that could not be done by any other institution, but I think that construction would be super implausible.