Franke: The Nexus of Libertarianism and Christianity
It is much too easy to overthink things. If this were an Olympic sport, I would be competing on national TV every four years.
Libertarianism is one such overthink for me. Over the past 50 years libertarianism and I have lived through an on again, off again relationship. It first seduced me as a college freshman and member of Young Americans for Freedom, then the home for all nuances of conservative-thinking college students. Our chapter had strong defense, support-the-war members. There were also the social issue conservatives, this being the time of heated abortion debates. Of course fiscal conservatives were there as well, decrying the Johnson and Nixon administrations for financing budget deficits with inflation. Most of us could place ourselves in most if not all these metaphysical caucuses.
On the fringe were the libertarians. I wasn’t even sure what they believed, as YAF’s libertarians ran the gamut from limited government, Constitutional purists to extremists bordering on complete individual freedom not much different from libertinism (same word root but different applications of the concept of liberty).
I thought them crazies, although I will admit we didn’t have many at my local university. It was only after I attended the national YAF convention in 1971 that I got a true glimpse into the libertarian soul, such as there was an observable one. How could a 20-year-old reconcile responsible liberty with the demands of a long-haired, marijuana-smoking, free-loving group which appeared to rejoice in its offensiveness toward anything and anyone traditional?
It was not something a small-town boy from Indiana could reconcile.
It only got worse as I realized the fringe libertarians were not much different from the radical left in the Students for a Democratic Society. One insight I gained was that the political ideology spectrum was not a straight line running from right to left but more closely resembled a circle that didn’t quite connect at the extremes.
What I failed to comprehend at the time was that this was merely a fringe, outliers who neither defined libertarian belief nor even agreed with it as a structured philosophy.
Then a wife, a child and a pressing need to graduate pushed libertarianism into the attic of my cluttered mind. A second child and a mortgage slammed the door shut. Almost. There always has been something seductive for me in libertarian theory.
For most of my adult life, traditional conservatism seemed the best fit for a husband and father who had to get two children through college on a modest income coming from a job that somehow became more and more demanding as my career advanced. There just wasn’t time for esoteric philosophical musings.
So what brought me back to libertarianism? Certainly retirement was a factor, providing more time for rigorous and systematic thought. But that simply created the environment which made this thought process possible. I could blame the writings of The Indiana Policy Review, which kept pushing me toward thinking beyond the merely possible and into a brave new world that, ironically, pointed backward in time to the Founding Fathers and their dream for our nation. But the thunderbolt that shocked me into a reconsideration of libertarianism was the orchestrated attack on our very civilization by an unholy alliance of Marxists, nihilists and anarchists, and a total surrender to them by the governing class. I first realized their possible destructiveness about four years ago.
So why would the current crop of self-proclaimed revolutionaries push my return to a college era philosophy that repelled me for its extremity, at least so far as I could remember the ideological foment on campus 50 years ago? I still had issue with the libertines who try to fit themselves into the libertarian tent. And then there is Rand Paul, the self-appointed high priest of libertarianism who never sees a hill he isn’t willing to die on. We wouldn’t have all the Obama Care mess today, for example, if he hadn’t refused to vote for an 80 percent repeal bill only because it didn’t repeal it all. Perfect is nearly always the enemy of good. Paul’s conscience is clear but we’re still stuck with Obama Care.
In spite of Rand Paul’s serving as the poster child for irresponsible libertarianism, I still couldn’t abandon it completely. For this I can credit The Indiana Policy Review once again. At one of its annual winter seminars, a presenter mentioned almost in passing an economist by the name of Arnold Kling. Kling theorized that Americans are divided into three tribal coalitions speaking entirely different languages: libertarian, conservative and progressive. Libertarians view issues on a liberty-to-tyranny axis, conservatives from civilization-to-barbarism and progressives from oppressed-to-oppressors. (1)
Which am I? Well, I certainly am a conservative as I believe Western Civilization is one of mankind’s greatest intellectual achievements. My disgust with and fear of the current barbarian horde which has breached our gates attests to my self-placement in this tribe.
On the other hand, my reading of the Founding Fathers — and I’ve done a lot of this in the past few years — has pushed me into the libertarian tribe also as I see more and more of my freedom being usurped by overreaching politicians and an insatiable government bureaucracy. Read “The Federalist Papers” to get a clear sense of how Madison, Hamilton, et. al., envisioned a limited government instituted to protect liberty. Covid was more than the camel’s nose under the tent for this overreach. Is there any going back? Not that this born-again libertarian can foresee.
Can I be in two tribes at the same time? Why not? Kling’s thesis notwithstanding, it seems to me that moving between two of these “languages” is a sign of an incisive intellect operating in a healthy political climate. But then I can’t gainsay Kling’s proposition that Americans have insulated themselves into a single language and thought discipline, although discipline is certainly the wrong word to describe this lack of intellectual rigor.
So plant me right on the libertarian-conservative 50 yard line. My problem is that I also see some things that fit on the progressive axis, if a heartfelt desire to help those less fortunate than me at every opportunity is the qualification. Am I a progressive? Every synapse in my gray matter screams, “No!” Yet, I give of my time and treasure to help those in need, so maybe I belong with the progressives too. Is this even possible?
I needed Alexander the Great’s sword to cut this Gordian Knot. And I found it, in a book by an Indiana Policy Review scholar, D. Eric Schansberg. (2) It is really quite simple. It is a matter of properly dividing governmental fiat from private energy. It is a matter of voluntary action versus coerced action.
First, a step back in my non-linear thinking. I have listened to more than enough lectures from well-well-intentioned friends asserting that it is impossible for me to reconcile my political affiliation with my Christian faith. Voting for Republicans is mean-spirited and oppressive. How can I be so insensitive to the needs of the oppressed that I vote for those (insert your favorite epithet here) Republicans?
It’s Kling’s different languages hypothesis on steroids, the steroid here being Identity Politics. Stuff someone in a bucket and, according to the progressive creed, he forfeits all capability for independent thought and action — and you don’t even get to choose your own bucket, certainly not by personal philosophy. All identity is by outward stereotype. You are what you look like, not what you feel or think.
I no longer expect a modern progressive to understand how a Christian looks at his fellow man. By the time the human mind reconciles original sin with objective justification (all are conceived in sin while at the same time all are redeemed by Christ), there is no room for Identity Politics. All are equal sinners in God‘s eyes, and all are covered by His Son’s sacrifice. Try explaining that to a social justice warrior. “Hate the sin but love the sinner.” Now that’s a non-starter for minds closed by Identity Politics.
That said, it is quite simple to put a Christian, even a libertarian one, on a progressive axis . . . but with this essential caveat: The Christian is motivated by his faith to help those in need and to do so on a voluntary and personal basis. Recall that most social welfare in the United States as well as Europe was provided by churches until the government determined to co-opt most private charity. And with what result? Compare poverty rates, single parent households, drug use, educational attainment and violent crime then and now. Do you still want to call this progress?
Remember the “WWJD” bumper stickers? What would Jesus do? The motorists who displayed this bumper sticker wanted people to treat other people just like Jesus would. It was a call to personal action. We all are our brother’s keeper.
So what would Jesus do? Here’s what Jesus never did: When exhorting His disciples to care for the poor, He did not send them off to petition the Romans to pass a law to tax everyone else to provide poor relief. This has become the great divide between those on the left and those on the right — using the coercive power of government to get others to do what I want them to do rather than taking personal responsibility to do it myself.
Examples in the Gospels abound. The Good Samaritan did not dump the poor traveler at some government-run halfway house; he cared for him as best he could and then told the innkeeper to send him the bill. Jesus spoke to Zacchaeus’ heart, who responded by personally refunding those he overtaxed. Then there is the disciple Matthew who quit his lucrative government gig to follow Jesus. And the Sermon on the Mount stresses the private, non-public nature of Christian charity (Matthew 6:1-4).
“My kingdom is not of this world . . . or my servants would have been fighting . . .” (John 18:36 ESV). These are not the words of a social revolutionary bent on overthrowing the government through violent action as has become commonplace today. Reformation Era theologians developed the doctrine of the two kingdoms, that of earthly government and that of the church. Both kingdoms function under God’s majesty and Christians are commanded to be faithful citizens of both, acting within the earthly kingdom as guided by the precepts of the heavenly one. Civil disobedience may have its place but its God-pleasing exercise is quite rare. (3)
Where does this leave me? I simply refuse the dilemma put forward by the ultra-left. I am neither conflicted nor confounded in attempting to reconcile libertarianism with Christianity. Libertarianism, understood through the lens of the Founding Fathers, not only supports Christian belief but also creates the political environment to encourage its manifestation in individual action. This is played out daily by kind-hearted (sorry, social justice warriors, not mean-spirited) people of faith who joyfully give of their time, talents and treasures to help others. A 2018 research study documented a correlation between voting Republican and higher charitable contributions compared with those voting Democrat. (4) The authors attempted to rationalize this with the spurious justification that liberals are just as charitable as conservatives when taking into account higher tax rates in their jurisdictions. Bingo. Coercion versus charity. That explains everything today, to our hurt.
Am I a conservative? Yes. The barbarians are at the gates screaming for the destruction of nearly everything I hold dear. Am I progressive? Not really, as I see charity as a personal and voluntary act rather than a political lobbying effort to induce government to compel others through confiscatory taxation and other repressive measures. Am I libertarian? I guess so, after reading the Founding Fathers and thinking about the Orwellian world awaiting my grandchildren.
No, let me restate that. I am desperately libertarian. It is our civilization’s only hope.
1. See “The Three Languages of Politics: Talking across the Political Divides,” Cato Institute 2013, 155 pages, $17 hardcover.
2. See “Turn Neither to the Right nor to the Left: A Thinking Christian’s Guide to Politics and Public Policy,” Alertness Books 2003, 447 pages with extensive notes, $20 paperback.
3. For a fuller reflection on the Christian perspective on civil disobedience, see my essay “The Soul of Civil Disobedience” in the Summer 2020 Indiana Policy Review.
4. See “The Politics of Donations: Are Red Counties More Donative Than Blue Counties?” Sage Journals 2018
Mark Franke, M.B.A., an adjunct scholar of the Indiana Policy Review and its book reviewer, is formerly an associate vice-chancellor at Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne.