I don’t think the answer is necessarily “yes,” but I have some serious reservations with many prominent attempts to synthesize the two.
Joe Carter contemplates the question at the Acton Institute in response to this post by friend-of-the-blog and co-blogger at Values & Capitalism, Jacqueline Otto (though hers is actually a different response to yet another Carter post). The back-and-forth is well worth reading in full.
I certainly don’t consider myself a “libertarian,” but in my early deep-dive into politics I was actually quite close to crossing over. I still find myself swimming in many libertarian ponds, and I actually enjoy doing so (most of the time). What else is an economics-loving conservative to do?
Indeed, given my many inclinations toward libertarianism in the economics realm, and even some in the social (e.g. drug laws), some of my many (many, many) Christian libertarian readers might have even assumed that this blog was itself an attempt to reconcile the two. Fooled ya!
Anywho, Carter breaks his discussion down into five distinct types of Christian libertarians:
- Type #1: Those who have developed a consistent philosophy in which libertarianism and Christianity are fully compatible.
- Type #2: Those who mash the two words together.
- Type #3: Those for whom the “Christian” in Christian libertarian is a weak modifier
- Type #4: Christians who are really conservatives, but don’t like the label conservative
- Type #5: Those who are Not-all-that-Christian and/or Not-all-that-Libertarian
I responded to his post with some initial “informal” reactions (not around any particular theme), so I thought I’d repost them here (albeit with some minor edits for this environment). Again, these are responses to the back-and-forth, so I encourage you to start by reading Carter’s post. Given that many of my favorite readers are self-described Christian libertarians, I’m interested in hearing your thoughts and critiques about Carter’s post, my reactions, or all of the above.
1. The libertarian movement is diverse.
And this is the case with the movement Type #1s. One of the challenges in such a discussion is that there are many different types of libertarians. This is, I think, largely due to that whole Internet popularization thing Carter speaks to. You’ve got the folks who like Milton Friedman, and then you’ve got those who think he is the devil because he semi-collaborated with Reagan and the Republicans and was, um, kinda sorta practical and effective. Likewise, you’ve got the folks who love Hayek (who detest Friedman), and then you’ve got those who think Hayek was a statist because they actually know what he thought about safety nets, etc. (whoops!). And then you’ve got those who like Murray Rothbard, and these folks don’t really like anyone else outside of Ludwig von Mises, Thomas Woods and Ron Paul. Then you’ve got the Randians, who are not likely to attach “Christian” to anything they subscribe to (so just forget I even mentioned them). Each type has made its own distinct effort toward a synthesis with Christianity, and each has varied in degrees when it comes to success. For me, the most difficult brand to reconcile seems to be the Rothbardian one, which, ironically, has one of the more robust reconciliation efforts. (See LibertarianChristians.com for a hub of sorts)
2. Libertarians think Jesus had a lot to say about the U.S. foreign policy.
When it comes to the Rothbardian brand, the biggest oddity I find is their aggressive push toward Ron Paul’s whole “Golden Rule” in foreign policy shtick. The same libertarians who rush to say that Jesus had nothing to say about government intervention in the U.S. economy seem eager to argue that he had everything to say about U.S. foreign policy. This is a major, major problem, in my view, and it illuminates how even Two Kingdoms theology will not be enough to save them.
3. The main areas of concern have to do with obligations, authority, consent and submission.
The biggest obstacle, I think, between any type of libertarian and finding a legitimate connection with Christianity will likely have to do with more subtle, non-governmental beliefs about non-aggression and authority. Many Christian libertarians think we should leave people alone, regardless (and government aside), arguing nobody should be able to tell anybody what to do (not churches, not mothers/fathers, not friends, etc.). Some people think individuals and/or governments should let people destroy themselves, period, and that the Christian obligation here will only and always play out through some kind of Utopian voluntaryism. This view plays out in plenty of complex and disguised ways, but on the whole, I’ve found some “Christian libertarians” who are open to such obligations and some who, fundamentally, are not. Those who are not—who are outright opposed to any obligations or submission—seem to be alive and well in the thread on Carter’s piece, and in commenting as such, they are proving his point. I do, however, think the other kind exists and there can be a more successful synthesis. Jennifer Roback Morse’s book Love & Economics gets closest to this (though not theologically), in which she markets her views as a new approach to libertarianism. That said, when reading her book, all I could think was: “um, isn’t this just conservatism?”
4. Differences on truth and human experience shouldn’t be forgotten.
A more general, abstract inconsistency I’ve noticed has to do with conservatism’s skepticism toward change and its elevation of eternal truths and human experience, and libertarianism’s often blind disregard of social mores, valuable government institutions, overarching social obligations, etc. This comes into play in Christianity in more general, abstract ways, but I think there is often a sort of disconnect between the two when it comes to general beliefs about how we arrive at truth, how we should arrive at truth, and how we should respond to truth once we have a tiny little hunch that we might just have knocked on its door.