I am not a Libertarian. But I am significantly a libertarian.
Allow me to explain…and then, allow me to pontificate on Jesus’ political affiliation. I am not a Libertarian, because “capital ‘L’ Libertarian” refers to a political party, which is characterized, in large part but not completely, by libertarian political beliefs. I am not a Libertarian because the Libertarian Party takes some positions on social issues which, while they may be compatible with libertarian values, are not by definition the only libertarian approach, and a couple such positions keep me from identifying with the party. I speak of abortion and marriage issues. The Libertarian Party has adopted the “pro-choice” position as a plank in its platform, a plank which in my judgment fails to respect the rights of (unborn) individuals–and respecting individual rights is a fundamental libertarian principle. Further, it does not logically follow that believing in equality and freedom for all, as libertarians do, means that the state’s definition of marriage needs to be reconfigured; i.e., freedom to act does not entail government sanction and blessing. If these were peripheral issues, I could likely overlook them, but they are not, and I cannot. I am instead a libertarian, or as I prefer to call myself, a libertarian conservative (“libertarian” being the adjective and “conservative” the noun). By this I mean that I like my conservatism to err heavily on the side of personal freedom. If you care to ask, I can explain further…
What prompts my posting now is three disparate events/articles. One, a good pastor friend of mine seems to sometimes, in my judgment, mis-characterize the meaning of libertarianism. Two, a local editorial writer in the Marietta newspaper has published two articles in the past few months questioning the bona fides of Christian pastors if they don’t, essentially, adopt the Democrat Party’s “solutions” to justice and poverty issues, because Jesus would certainly have them do this (here’s one). Third, a post by my friend Warren Throckmorton is entitled “Searching for a Libertarian Jesus”, quoting from and commenting on an article written by Michael Coulter, another friend, and Gil Harp, an acquaintance as well, by the same name. These three items call for an explanation of what I believe, and this seems particularly relevant now with the rise of the Tea Party, Ron and Rand Paul, and a pretty pronounced libertarian streak among many young people today.
I will tackle the Throckmorton and Coulter/Harp articles first. Simply put, I agree with their take, suggesting that we cannot make of Jesus a libertarian. Of course we cannot, any more than we can make of Him a Republican or a big-government Democrat or a Socialist (I’ve heard that suggested, and the answer to folks who claim this absurdity is simple: you either don’t know Jesus, or you don’t know Socialism, or you don’t know either). What we know of Jesus we know from the Bible; we are not free to add to or take away from its witness, or to remake Him in our image or in accord with our political sensibilities. Throckmorton, et al, write to oppose those who would say that to follow Jesus is to necessarily adopt a libertarian approach, that this was His belief and teaching. They are certainly correct; following Jesus faithfully does not demand libertarianism, of course.
But just as importantly, following Jesus does not rule out libertarianism either. This is where I must address the first friend I mentioned–or better, let me address what I hear him to be saying, lest I put words in his mouth that are not there–because I read him to mistake libertarianism for libertinism. I have libertarian sympathies, but I am not libertine. I shall explain in a moment, but before I do, let me tackle another misunderstanding people have about libertarianism, this being, in the words of Throckmorton, that “to listen to Christian proponents of the tea party, for instance, one might think governments are incapable of any good.” Indeed, some reach that conclusion about libertarian thinking, and this too is incorrect (and I believe it to a mistaken notion about my Tea Party friends as well).
With all of this as prologue, a few thoughts, then, on what I understand to be true. First, libertarianism deals with what ought (or ought not) to be legal, not with what is or is not moral. A libertarian believes that ordering people’s private conduct should not, in general, be a territory into which legislators should tread. For instance, I have never supported laws criminalizing sexual conduct between two consenting adults; ’tain’t nobody else’s business, particularly the government’s. That does not mean that I consider any/every possible sexual conduct to be moral; far, far from it, as anyone who knows me would affirm. A libertine would tend to make moral justification of such behavior; a libertarian would not (necessarily). Further, it ought to be pointed out that while there is certainly some correlation between morality and legality (murder and rape are immoral and should be illegal, of course), that correlation isn’t anywhere near 100%. There are plenty of things that aren’t morally wrong, but are (rightly) illegal. For instance, there is nothing inherently wrong with driving on the left side of the road, but in America, it is illegal for obvious reasons. Nobody argues that the Brits are less moral because they do so. On the flip side of the coin, it isn’t illegal to get drunk in your living room, but it isn’t morally right. A libertine might justify the latter morally; a libertarian would be concerned only that it remain legal. To answer my friend, I can believe that the government ought to keep its nose out of all sorts of such things, but in no way does that position imply a moral indifference to the actions themselves. Libertarianism simply doesn’t address such questions, leaving such issues to a different sphere.
Now to answer the “nothing good can come of government” idea…it seems to me that this is a caricature invented in some people’s minds. I believe in government. I believe that government has a legitimate role, indeed a God-given one. To believe otherwise is to be an anarchist, and I am certainly not anywhere near that camp. I agree with Coulter and Harp that “governments can use their power to do positive good”…but that is where the devil is indeed in the details. I do not have libertarian tendencies because I believe that being a Jesus-follower demands it, but because I believe that libertarian principles have the potential to create climates in which the right things can flourish. I have a general distrust of government, believing that the more power we give to sinful individuals to control the lives of others, the greater potential there is for corruption, injustice, and tyranny. I believe history has shown this to be true time and time again. It’s not that I believe in no government; it’s that I truly believe, unlike Democrats and most Republicans, that “government governs best which governs least”. Libertarian principles aren’t per se “Christian” as though they represent the only way Christians can go, but in my opinion, a climate of freedom (coupled with a legitimate and fair justice system) is most consonant with biblical principles.
One more word: libertarianism celebrates the autonomy of the individual and seeks to maximize his freedom to act unconstrained by massive government restrictions, but embracing libertarianism does not necessarily deny the importance of community. Personally, I believe community is hugely important, that “no man is an island, entire of itself”, that we truly need each other. But I also believe that forced community is not community at all. This is one of the fallacies of socialism (and why it is not Christian): it uses the power of government in an attempt to coerce community. Indeed, I am my brother’s keeper, but living as such ought not be imposed at the edge of a sword.
And that’s why, even though Jesus wasn’t a libertarian, I am…sort of.