Is a Libertarian-Christian an Oxymoron?


After the 2008 presidential election there emerged a political movement of disgruntled conservatives and independents. Popularly referred to as the Tea Party, these semi-autonomous groups clustered around the idea of limited or small government, a literal reading of the Constitution, and a return to traditional American values. Much has been written about this movement and its platform. It’s first appearance seems to have coincided with both the election of President Obama and the debate over the Health Care and Education Reconciliation Act of 2010.

As a political movement, the Tea Party would not be particularly interesting were it not for the the apparent contradiction between what the movement advocates and the religious convictions of its members. According to a Family Research Council study, 81% of all Tea Party members surveyed self-identified as Christian, with 57% considering themselves part of the Christian conservative movement.1 The religious make-up of the Tea Party members would not be particularly interesting were it not for the concurrently held philosophical view of its members, namely, the libertarian leanings of the movement as a whole.2

The juxtaposition of Christianity and libertarianism immediately raises a number of issues, not least of which is whether these two views are philosophically or logically compatible. If there are certain necessary conditions that must be met in order to legitimately identify oneself as libertarian, and if Christianity requires assenting to principles or ideas that contradict those of libertarianism, then one is forced to either reject one of the two positions. In this paper I will argue that one cannot in fact consistently hold both views. One can be a Christian or a libertarian, but not both.

In arguing against the compatibility of these views, I will begin with a presentation of the core commitments of libertarianism. Next I examine some of the fundamental biblical teachings on property, obligations to others, and obligations to the state. Finally, I present some of the ways in which supposed Christian libertarians have attempted to reconcile their faith with there politics, and argue that such arguments are unconvincing—particularly in Western democratic societies.

1. Libertarianism

When discussing the libertarian position there are two major distinctions that should be made at the outset. First, the libertarianism presented here is lower case “l” libertarianism as opposed to capital “L” Libertarianism. The former represents a political philosophical position, while the latter is a political movement that is not always true to its own philosophical roots. Secondly, there is the distinction between right and left libertarianism. Right libertarianism—the view that will be discussed here—is the one which is implicitly appealed to in political discourse. Right libertarians hold (among other things) that we have no non-voluntary obligations to others. On the other hand, left libertarianism is an attempt by some libertarians to introduce some non-voluntary obligations to others. While the latter represents an interesting extension of classic libertarianism, it is not the philosophy espoused by those such as Rand Paul and other mainstream libertarians.

1.1 John Locke

Libertarianism traces its roots back to John Locke’s Second Treatise of Civil Government and his account of the origin of property rights. Although Locke holds that God gave the world to all in common, he still contends that private property is possible. Private property is created when an individual mixes his or her labor with things found in the state of nature. This mixing of labor and nature takes a thing out of the state of nature so that it ceases to be owned by all.

According to Locke, our ability to transform things into property stems from our self-ownership coupled with the ownership of our labor. The argument runs as follows: We own ourselves (i.e., our bodies and how they are used). We own our labor as our labor extends from our body. When we mix our labor with an un-owned aspect of nature that thing ceases to be un-owned – it has then become part of us. Therefore, we own the thing with which we have mixed our labor.

The ability to remove things from the state of nature does not entail that an individual may acquire every un-owned thing. There are limits to the amount that one may acquire. Individuals may only acquire as much as they can make use of before it spoils. So I may acquire as much land, or as many apples from the trees as I please provided I can put these things to good use. If my acquisitions end up wasted because I cannot eat all the apples I pick or cultivate all the land I claim to be my own, then I cannot be properly said to own these things. Thus, the rule of property acquisition has the following stipulation attached to it, “that every man should have as much as he could make use of, would hold still in the world, without straitening [to bring into difficulty or distress] any body.”3

The prohibition against straitening the situation of others thus provides a further restriction on the appropriation of un-owned things. According to Locke, I can only appropriate things for my private use provided there is enough of equal value left over for everyone else. So in addition to a proviso against waste, there is the additional requirement that there is “enough, and as good” left over for others.4

1.2 Contemporary Libertarianism

Contemporary libertarians have embraced the idea of self-ownership and the ownership of the fruits of one’s labor, along with an emphasis on individual liberty. This liberty consists of the individual’s freedom from any superior on earth. As Tibor Machan states:

There is no denial of the essential sociality of human beings, but the Lockean tradition maintains that the individual needs to be at liberty to determine to what sort of community he or she will belong—if only by means of tacit or implicit consent—and that the right kind is one in which his or her sovereignty has primacy. It is only such a community that is fitting—that is, meets the standard of justice—for human beings.5

It follows from the libertarian’s emphasis on the sovereignty of the individual that any sort of forced transfer of property to another is a violation of a person’s rights. The only obligations one has are those that are we voluntarily agree to. And while the state may be necessary to enforce or protect voluntary transactions, it is not justified in compelling its citizens to transfer property to others. As Machan again states:

Indeed, by the libertarian’s understanding any introduction of coercive, initiated force in human relationships does violence to people’s humanity. This is because human beings are by their basic nature rational animals, whose primary tool of survival and means of flourishing is thought, for which negative liberty is the central prerequisite. So, even such vital objectives as helping the poor, uneducated, or sick must be achieved not by subduing others and conscripting them to take part in the mission but by convincing them to do so.6

The primacy of individual liberty, including an absolute right to ones property supports the idea that all rights are negative. As Machan further notes:

Someone’s alleged positive right to health care or to the education of his or her children could only be secured if those who provide health care or education were required to provide it whether they had consented to doing so—or, alternatively, if some would b
e required to perform productive labor the payment for which would be confiscated from them so as to pay the health or education providers. All of this is, as the late Robert Nozick observed, on par with forced labor, and so unjustified.7

1.3 Necessary Conditions

The sketch of libertarianism that has been presented suggests that to be a libertarian is to embrace a set of fundamental principles or ideas. Each of these principles is a necessary component of libertarianism, that is, removing any one of them would fundamentally change our understanding of what it means to be a libertarian. To be a libertarian requires that one endorse the following:

  1. Individuals are self-owners, that is, no one has any claim on one’s person or the fruits of one’s labor.
  2. Individuals are sovereign, self-governing beings.
  3. Individuals have no natural positive duties to others.
  4. All transfers of legitimately created or obtained property must be voluntary (unless the transfer is to rectify a previously unjust transfer).

Given these fundamental commitments of libertarianism, can one hold these principles while simultaneously claiming to be a Christian? Before answering this question, I will explore the Christian conceptions of property, obligations to others, and obligations to the state.

3. Christianity

It is undoubtably dangerous (and particularly dangerous for a philosopher) to attempt a full account of property rights and biblical obligations to others. What I wish to do here is present some general themes regarding property, obligations to others, and by extension obligations to the state, that permeate the bible. While a full presentation of these themes is beyond the scope of this paper, the sections that follow demonstrate that there are a number of points of tension between libertarianism and Christianity.

3.1 The Old Testament

Although my focus here is on the relationship between Christianity and libertarianism, it is important to note the influence of the Old Testament on early Christian views of property. In general, the Old Testament viewed one’s holdings as constituting a stewardship rather than a form of ownership. Additionally, the pursuit and accumulation of property for its own sake is a relatively recent historical development. In the ancient world, the pursuit of wealth was not the primary focus of one’s life. Working for material gain was something often absent from the lower classes in Egypt, Rome, Greece and the East in general.8 Judaism, and indeed, most of the ancient world did not engage in the pursuit of wealth. Thus, it is not surprising that scriptural views of property did not place much emphasis on ownership or property rights. As Simon Blackhouse notes:

The Old Testament also contains many laws that regulated economic activity. Charging interest on loans to fellow Israelites [though not to foreigners] was forbidden. After working for six years, slaves were to be set free and given enough capital to make a new start. Even more radical, all debts were to be cancelled every seventh year (the sabbatical), and in every fiftieth year (the jubilee) ownership of all land was to revert to its original owner.9

Generally, the pursuit of wealth was viewed with suspicion as it tended to draw individuals away from God. Thus, gold, silver or other forms of wealth while not inherently bad, did have a tendency to lead to a corruption of the soul. As Blackhouse again writes:

“There was thus a clear distinction between the pursuit of wealth, which was castigated, and the wealth that arose through following God’s commands… Thus, so long as they looked after their own people and behaved justly, the Israelites were encouraged in their business activity”10

3.2 New Testament

View of Property Although the New Testament does not contain the rigorous law-like statements about property, it is clear that Jesus and his followers were heavily influenced by the spirit of the Old Testament teachings. For example, in Matthew it is clear that Jesus’ followers should not spend there time focussing on the acquisition of property:

Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.11

This idea that we should not be overly concerned with material possessions translated into a communal conception of property. In the early church, there was a general attitude that one’s property was best viewed as a way of helping the community, rather than as a means of self-enrichment. As Luke states in Acts:

All believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of his possessions were his own, but they shared everything they had. For from time to time those who owned houses or lands sold them, brought the money from the sales and put it at the apostle’s feet, and it was distributed to anyone as he had need.12

It would be a mistake to view the early church as a fully communistic organization, as it is clear from the passage that individuals did continue to hold personal property while still being members of the church. What is important to note is the obligation the wealthier members had to the needier members of the congregation. An individual’s property was not viewed his or hers in any absolute sense. As Gene Getz states in his A Biblical Theology of Material Possessions:

As the needs of people became obvious, people who could, and desired to do so, responded by liquidating their property in order to provide money to meet these people’s needs. This was a voluntary system, which must have greatly impacted the ‘God-fearing’ but non-Christian Jews who were used to rather rigid, legalistic approach to giving.13

Getz is careful to note that the obligation to others was voluntary and based on both desire and ability aid those in need. I will have more to say about the nature of this voluntariness later. Suffice it to say that while giving to others should be voluntary, it is unlikely that the early church leaders would have looked favorably on those that claimed a right to continue to hold their property while others in the church community suffered.

Obligations to Others

While the ideas regarding property suggest obligations to others, there are numerous examples of statements that directly instruct Jesus’ followers to help others. For instance, Jesus tells the young rich man that asks him what he must do to have eternal life:

Jesus said to him, ‘If you with to be perfect, go, sell your possessions , and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasures in heaven; then come, follow me. When the young man heard this word, he went away grieving, for he had many possessions.14

Naturally, we can view this individual instance as one in which Jesus was making a broader point about valuing one’s property over the needs of others. But, the fact that he chose to instruct the young man to give his all money to the poor indicates the premium Jesus placed on helping those in need.

There are additional passages that instruct those with the means to give to others, and always it seems, without conditions. While we can infer from other passages that individuals should not waste what they are given (including their talents) it is also that case that Jesus’ followers were expected to be extremely generous to those in need as when h
e instructs them to “Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.”15

One of the most famous passages that speaks to the issue of the Christian obligation to others is contained in Matthew. In these passages Jesus is speaking of the second coming when God will come as a Shepard does separating the sheep from the goats—with the sheep (at his right hand) inheriting God’s kingdom. As Matthew writes:

Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’16

When it is asked when these things were done for Jesus, he responds with the well-known response that whenever you did this for the least of my brothers, then you did it for me. While not an explicit command, it’s clear that a Christian attempting to follow the example and teachings of Christ would have to recognize an obligation to help others.

Obligations to the State

While there is much in the scriptures to indicate that Jesus was critical of the governing authorities, both he and the later teachings of his disciples do not reject all obligations to the state. There is for example the response Jesus gives to the Pharisees’ question regarding the paying of taxes:

‘Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with truth, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality. Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?’ But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, ‘Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites? Show me the coin used for the tax.’ And they brought him a denarius. Then he said to them, ‘Whose head is this, and whose title?’ They answered, ‘The emperor’s.’ Then he said to them, ‘Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.’17

Here then is an example of Jesus explicitly recognizing that there are things the emperor is entitled indicates that taxes, in and of themselves, are not contrary to following the message of Christ. Rather, it seems that Christians do have an obligation to the state, and that it is religiously based.

This notion of an obligation to the state is put even more forcefully in Paul’s letter to the Romans:

Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists will incur judgment. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Do you wish to have no fear of the authority? then do what is good, and you will receive its approval; for it is God’s servant for your good. But if you do what is wrong, you should be afraid, for the authority does not bear the sword in vain! It is the servant of God to execute wrath on the wrongdoer. Therefore one must be subject, not only because of wrath but also because of conscience. For the same reason you also pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, busy with this very thing. Pay to all what is due them—taxes to whom taxes are due, respect to whom respect is due, honor to whom honor is due.18

This passage also indicates that when the state is enforcing just laws, one should not only conform to the law out of fear, but also out of the knowledge that what the law is requiring is just. We should pay what is due to the state because our conscience tells us to as well. Far from viewing Christian obligations as exclusively individual, these passages indicate both public and private obligations to others.

4. The Libertarian-Christian Defense

It appears obvious that there is a conflict between the libertarian and Christian views. The question is whether the libertarian can defend their view in light of what appear to be Christian obligations.

4.1 Moral vs. Political Libertarians

One possible way of dealing with the apparent conflict is to distinguish between two interpretations of libertarianism. The first interpretation holds that libertarianism is a moral commitment with a strong conception of self-ownership, coupled with a lack of positive obligations to others. The second view holds that libertarianism is a political commitment which holds that there are no state-enforceable obligations to others.

Moral Libertarianism

The moral libertarian holds that we have no positive duties to others. Self-owning individuals have a right to his or her body and the things that derive from its use. This self-ownership also implies the ownership of one’s labor, which entails that the product of our labor is also ours. Forcing the moral libertarian to give her goods to others is a violation of her fundamental rights. As such, the state is not justified in redistributing her legitimately acquired property to others.

This moral libertarianism is clearly at odds with Christian obligations. While some argument may be given that supporting the state only entails supporting a minimalist state, it is clearly the case that we have Christian obligations to aid others. And while private property is not forbidden by Christian teachings, it is not something that should be the focus of one’s life. Property is a means to an end, something that when necessary, should be sacrificed for the good of others. In order to embrace a moral form of libertarianism, one would have to reject Christianity’s positive obligations to others.

Political Libertarianism

While the moral libertarian is forced to choose between her Christian beliefs and her libertarian principles, the political libertarian attempts to circumvent the problem of obligations to others. Rather than viewing libertarianism as a comprehensive moral doctrine, he views it as a theory of enforceable political obligations. Although one may or may not (the political libertarian is somewhat silent on this point) have obligations to others, there are no enforceable political obligations to others. The state is not justified in redistributing legitimately acquired resources from one individual to help others. As a Christian, I may have obligations to help others, but it doesn’t follow from my having an obligation to help others that the state is justified in forcing me to help others.

4.2 Failure of the Political Libertarian Response

The political libertarian position is a strong one, and appears to reconcile Christianity with libertarianism. It allows that an individual may have obligations to others, while also arguing that the government is not justified in enforcing those obligations. Although this approach appears promising, it fails is two important respects. First, it assumes an ontology of the state in which individuals are not constitutive members. Secondly, it implies a strange conception of Christian obligation, one that I suspect very few Christians would endorse.

Ontology of the State

The idea that the state is not justified in enforcing obligations to others presupposes that the state is an entity separate from the individuals that comprise it. This conception of the state may carry some conceptual weight in non-democratic societies where individuals have little or no say in how the state is constituted. But, in democratic societies, this division is at best tenuous. As a member of a democratic society, the nature of the s
tate is in part determined by each individual’s actions. Who I vote for (or don’t vote for), which ballot issues I endorse and which representatives I elect based upon his or her platform, determines the characteristics of the state. I am not the passive recipient of government commands, but an active participant in the creation of those commands or laws. As such, I cannot fully divorce what I believe to be the morally correct course of action from the actions of the state. As Gabriel Palmer-Fernandez writes:

Government policies in a democracy are joint ventures. They are never the result of any one individual, but of many acting in concert for a common purpose. In such ventures, individuals play a necessary role by endorsing, contributing, or participating in them. By playing a necessary role in any one of those ways, each individual shares responsibility for the venture.19

If we cannot separate our individual actions from those of the state, then it would seem that the libertarian-Christian would be forced to take an odd—and morally problematic—stance on the issue of state enforcement of obligations to others. Take for example the health care debate. The libertarian would clearly take the stance that health care or health insurance is something that individuals should be free to purchase or not purchase, that is, the market should regulate its distribution. But, the libertarian-Christian would be faced with a more complex decision. On the one hand, given that they are under an obligation to help those who are sick, they may reason that they should give money to a clinic (or perhaps to someone directly) but that the state should not redistribute their wealth. On the other hand, if the obligation is to truly help, and not just attempt to help, then the libertarian-Christian would also have to recognize that individual giving has not solved the problem of the uninsured and underinsured.

If collective action is the only way to help those in need, and the libertarian-Christian still wants to maintain that the state can’t compel them to give, then they would have to embrace a position akin to “I know that my support of this distribution will help millions of people, and I further recognize that I am obligated to help those in need, but I will not help those in need because the state of which I am a constitutive member is not justified in enforcing that obligation.”

The strangeness of this statement stems from the conflict between what Christianity demands and the view of non-enforceable duties. The libertarian-Christian wants to say that the state should not compel me or others to help, but that people should help. In the absence of enough people contributing to a solution, the libertarian-Christian must take the position that it is unfortunate that people are suffering, and that I could support state intervention that may alleviate much of that suffering, but I can’t because it would be wrong to enforce the alleviating of suffering. In a conflict between libertarian political theory and Christian obligations, the libertarian-Christian would be forced to give a lexical priority to his or her political theory over that of his or her religious convictions.

Christian Obligations

A second response to the libertarian-Christian hinges on the odd conception of duty that one would have to endorse to hold both views. Throughout the presentation of Christian duty the word obligation, should, or must is absent. In Getz’s presentation of Christian property, he is quick to emphasize the voluntary nature of Jesus’ teachings. While he acknowledges that the acts mentioned are encouraged, he also points out that Jesus’ disciples taught that one should want to help others. This notion of voluntariness resonates with the libertarian approach. If obligations to others are to be taken on voluntarily, then perhaps Christianity is not at odds with a political libertarianism.20

There are a couple of ways of interpreting the concept of voluntariness that the libertarian is invoking, only one of which is also compatible with what I take to be voluntariness in a Christian sense. To say that an act is voluntary may mean that the act was not coerced. In other words, when I performed the act I was free to do otherwise. If someone approaches me on the street and asks for money, I am free to either help them or not help them. On a Kantian view, I may have some duty to help those in need, but such an imperfect duty may be fulfilled by giving money to a homeless shelter. I have not done anything morally wrong if I choose to deny the individual some money. But, the same cannot be said of a Christian’s duty to help others.

A Christian idea of a duty to others is not an imperfect, but a perfect duty. To say that one has a Christian duty to others does not mean one is morally free to choose to help or not help. I cannot say on the one hand that I have a duty to “give to everyone that begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again”21 and still hold that I am morally free not to help them, that is, that I am free to ignore the obligation to aid others. While I may in a strict sense be free not to help, that is, I am not physically barred from walking away from one in need, I cannot claim that I am morally free to do so.

5. Conclusion

It seems clear that libertarianism and Christianity are fundamentally at odds with one another. To be a libertarian requires that the Christian to either deny any positive duties to others, or embrace a political perspective that allows suffering in order to maintain a dubious notion of Christian voluntariness. While there may be situations in which Christian duty and libertarian political theory are compatible, it seems clear that there are also cases where the suffering of others can only be addressed by coordinated social action. In such instances, one can either be a Christian or a libertarian, but not both.

Although the arguments presented here apply to those who claim to be both libertarians and Christians, they are also relevant to those Christians that may not self-identify as libertarians, but have what might be called libertarian leanings. These individuals are often found on the religious right and espouse a political philosophy in which private actions is sufficient to alleviate the need and perhaps injustice found in most societies. On this view, charity and private action is sufficient, and government has no role to play in providing for the basic needs of its citizens. For example, rather than supporting extension in unemployment benefits, private charities will help individuals and families in need, and government should leave health care to be distributed by market forces.

Doubtless there can be legitimate disagreement on the type and extent of the intervention that should be taken by the state on behalf of its citizens. But for those professing to be Christians, the more one embraces libertarian attitudes about property and obligations to others, the more tenuous their ties to Christian teachings. Unlike libertarian thinking, Christianity does not necessarily result in economic efficiency, Pareto-optimality, or the maximization of profits. And while business or the market may be unforgiving, the same cannot or perhaps should not be said of Christians. While Benjamin Franklin claims that God helps those who help themselves, it seems Christ required that his followers lend a helping hand to all those who ask—even to those that may at times not help themselves.

  1. Public Religion Research Institute ↩

  2. Perhaps one of the most prominent Tea Party ba
    cked candidates, Rand Paul, openly identified himself as both a libertarian and a Christian. ↩

  3. Book II. Of Civil Government Chapter V. Of Property §.36 ↩

  4. ”For this Labour being the unquestionable Property of the Labourer, no Man but he can have a right to what that is once joyned to, at least where there is enough and as good left in common for others.”(Bk. II ↩

  5. “The Case for Libertarianism” Tibor R. Machan ↩

  6. Ibid., 12. ↩

  7. Ibid., 20. ↩

  8. Robert L. Heilbroner, The Worldly Philosophers 3rd edition (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1967), 22. ↩

  9. Blackhouse, The Ordinary Business of Life, 31 ↩

  10. Ibid., 32. ↩

  11. 6.19-21 ↩

  12. 4:32–34, 35 ↩

  13. Getz, A Biblical Theology of Material Possessions, 45. ↩

  14. Matthew 19.21–22 ↩

  15. Matthew 5.42 ↩

  16. 25.34–36 ↩

  17. Matthew 22.15-22 ↩

  18. 13.1-7 ↩

  19. Gabriel Palmer-Fernandez, “Terror, Innocence and Justice” Philosophy and Public Policy Quarterly Vol. 25, No. 3 (Summer 2005): 26. ↩

  20. Of course, I am assuming that the policy or law will in fact alleviate the suffering. One cannot be compelled to waste his or her resources on programs that do not work, but clearly in cases where people’s lives have been made substantially better off (e.g., medicare and social security) it is difficult to think these programs would not be endorsed by Christian teachings. ↩

  21. Luke 6.30 ↩

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s