It is said that the two subjects to avoid in polite conversation are religion and politics. Furthermore, within Christianity, there is often an understandable desire to transcend the politics of the day. Politics, by the very nature of the craft, involves compromise and gets very dirty in deal making; furthermore, no political platform fully embodies God’s purposes in Christ, and politicians invariably fall short of upholding what God would have upheld in Christ in every respect. At the same time, Christians in America will invariably be called upon to engage with all sorts of ideas, philosophies, plans, and policies prevalent in American political discourse as members of this representative republic; thus, however Christians engage with politics, they ought to do so in ways which bring the lordship of Jesus to bear, and Jesus ought to be glorified and manifest in how they speak of politics and politicians (Ephesians 4:29, Philippians 1:27, Colossians 3:17). We do well to consider the broad trends in political discourse and how they relate to what God has made known in Jesus.
The vast majority of modern American political discourse takes place within the general confines of philosophical liberalism: a commitment to free speech, freedom of individuals, the fundamental equality of everyone, a commitment to the rule of law, free markets and free trade, freedom of religion, and a primarily secular posture from the government. Within this commitment to philosophical liberalism we presently see three major political postures: progressivism, conservatism, and libertarianism.
Political libertarianism remains perhaps the “purest” distillation of philosophical liberalism: its name comes from terms for “freedom,” and libertarianism in general seeks to maximize the freedom and autonomy of the individual. In political libertarianism everything centers on personal autonomy: the individual is seen as the basic element of society and should therefore enjoy the right of the individual to enjoy life, liberty, and property without interference from the government. While there is a strain of anarchic libertarianism that would advocate a form of libertinism, most political libertarians uphold the importance of the rule of law and understand the primary purpose of government to establish the rule of law and protect the rights of its citizens from internal and external aggression. Political libertarians often believe the order found in society developed from below, not imposed from above; they believe in the dignity and integrity of the individual but do not trust the government to impose such values upon a population. Political libertarians generally uphold social freedoms, highly privileging freedom of speech, freedom of association, and freedom to engage in countercultural relationships or personally ruinous behaviors (as long as such do not interfere with the freedoms or property of others) without governmental interference: to this end not a few political libertarians would like the government to get out of people’s bedrooms and favor legalization of drugs, gambling, and sex work. Libertarianism manifests divergent postures in economic matters: the more “right wing” form of libertarianism believes strongly in free markets and condemns any governmental regulation of economic markets; a more “left-wing” form of libertarianism condemns the current capitalist system and conception of private property and would advocate for more of a collectivist or mutualist economy based upon sharing the benefits of the earth’s resources. Political libertarianism is generally cast as socially liberal but fiscally conservative; whereas the Libertarian Party has not proven very successful as a force in American politics, libertarianism itself has profoundly influenced both major political parties over the past fifty years as individualism has proven ascendant and the value of community and institutions has faded.
There is much to commend in political libertarianism for the people of God. A high valuation of the individual and his or her conscience is very much a part of the Christian tradition, displayed in Romans 14:12-23. Christians benefit when the nation-state does not interfere in matters of personal conviction and conscience and in matters of religion (1 Timothy 2:1-3); Christians should always remember the lessons of history as it relates to the desire to use the coercive force of the nation-state to advance the purposes of a particular religion or sect. Christians can certainly work and associate and thrive under a libertarian system of governance and economy, working diligently to make their own living quietly while seeking to advance the Kingdom of Jesus (cf. 2 Thessalonians 3:1-15). Political libertarianism also does well to remind all of us that more government is not always the best answer to the challenges and difficulties which might beset a society, culture, or nation-state: expecting change primarily based on legislation and the coercive force of the nation-state is folly.
Yet we do well to recognize the dangers and difficulties which can arise from political libertarianism. Political libertarianism may be the most pure distillation of classical liberalism in the modern political realm, yet for Christians classical liberalism is not an unalloyed good. A focus on the individual and freedom can have many benefits, yet one can all too easily make an idol of either or both: we are made as distinct individuals, beloved by God in Christ, but are called upon to seek relational unity with our fellow humans and what builds them up (Ephesians 2:11-3:12, Philippians 2:1-11). Likewise, we are to appreciate our freedom as Christians, but not as a cloak for wickedness, but to serve God in Christ (Romans 6:14-23, 1 Peter 2:16-17). One man’s “freedom” might well lead to the oppression of another; for many, Kris Kristofferson’s words resonate: “freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.” Christians should consider irresponsible the rhetoric of political libertarianism regarding taxation as theft; taxes have almost always been used for corrupt purposes and lining the pockets of those who obtain them, and yet Paul still expected Christians to pay taxes without grumbling (Romans 13:1-7). Christians must be aware of the power and influence of the powers, principalities, and other cosmic forces in the heavenly places (cf. Ephesians 6:12): it is foolish to believe that developments in society are only based on individuals and individual decisions and to reject the existence of systemic influences and forces, and we do well to confess that Enlightenment thinkers went too far in their rejection of supernatural and superhuman forces. Political libertarians should be careful in how thoroughly they demonize the government: yes, governments are fallen, led by humans corrupted by sin, and in various ways enslaved to the Evil One and his forces (e.g. Revelation 13:1-18), and yet government is also instituted by God, and human authorities are empowered by God for His purposes (cf. Romans 13:1-7).
As with all political philosophies in America, political libertarianism must come to grips with how it required the coercive force of the federal government to break the power of white supremacist Jim Crow legislation and other discriminatory policies, and how a consistent political libertarianism did not and could not suffice to break the power of prejudice and racism against Black people in America. To this end it should not be surprising that political libertarianism is most popular among those for whom the system has been designed to bring advantage and less popular among those against whom the system has continually discriminated. Political libertarians would also do well to maintain the same kind of skepticism they manifest toward government toward those who marshal great power and authority in our capitalist system: to believe that the free market has never failed people, but people have failed the free market is its own kind of fundamentalist religion, and corporations and similar economic forces leverage their power and influence to benefit themselves to the economic disadvantage of others, and often requires an equally potent authority to regulate them: the government. Government is designed to reward the good and punish the evil indeed (cf. Romans 13:1-7); yet it also is called upon to level the playing field, to give justice to the widow and orphan, and to guard against the rich and wealthy leveraging the government or other forms of authority to grind the face of the poor (e.g. Isaiah 1:10-17).
Political libertarianism has its place in modern American politics to remind the state and its citizens that government is not always the answer and to make a principled stand for the freedom of citizens to make their own decisions before God and one another. Yet government is not always the problem; as society becomes ever more atomized and individualistic and as libertarianism in personal philosophy reigns ascendant, we must all the more dedicate ourselves as Christians to serving one another and pursuing the common good as the welfare of the city. May we all seek to glorify God in Christ with the freedoms we enjoy, and serve one another and obtain the resurrection of life!
Ethan R. Longhenry