Libertarianism, Conservatism and Christianity: Can coercion bring glory to God?

I am a bit late to the “can a Christian be a libertarian?” discussion, but given that a comment made by me was referenced in Jacqueline Otto’s piece yesterday, I thought I should make a more thorough contribution.

Let me first recap my excerpted comment from her previous post:

My take on this is that labels such as “libertarian” and “conservative” and even “Christian” tend to be fuzzy around the edges. They represent a set of beliefs, centered around a core concept, but there is a lot of room for variation between individuals under the same umbrella. Thus, the debate is faulty from the beginning—there’s no true answer.

I take libertarianism to be a view about the role of law, which is a question outside of, though related to, individual and collective virtue. According to my conception, then, a person can certainly be a devout Christian and believe that government has no role in correcting the behavior of individuals. The ultimate question for a Christian flirting with libertarianism is: can coercion bring glory to God?

As I expressed in a Twitter exchange, I only wish I had the answer to this question. So let’s think through this together in a logical, axiomatic fashion:

1. The authority to use force is a means to impose one person’s will on another.

2. Force is only necessary against those who would not otherwise act willingly.

3. If an act is involuntary, its motivation comes not from the heart or reason of the individual, but from fear or compulsion, and is therefore disconnected from the soul.

4. Once disconnected from the soul, behavior is amoral and the Christian spirit is ineffectual.


5. If force cannot bring glory to God then law has no moral function.

6. If law is not moral, then government is either unnecessary or corrupt.

The libertarian and anarchist view focuses on these last two conclusions. Not every libertarian wants to abolish government, but this is the logical end if the primary value is liberty at all cost.

More moderate libertarians share something with conservatives: a belief that the role of law is crucial in protecting the life, liberty and property of innocent citizens. This is based on a slight reworking of axiom (4) to recognize that by preventing injustice a law can be moral. But conservatives go a few steps further, following this line of thinking:

1. The best way to prevent injustice is to begin with a culture in which people respect the value and natural rights of each individual.

2. Citizens develop this “code of conduct” through faith, family and the passing on of healthy traditions.

3. Without these values and institutions, true liberty cannot last.

4. Law should therefore protect not only individual liberty, but additional values and institutions that stabilize and strengthen society

So for conservatives, it is not about liberty at all cost; it is about the general well being of society, for which the government plays an important, though still limited role. Yet, since “well being” is a rather amorphous concept, more moderate conservatives may favor a larger government role in providing benefits to the public to strengthen “important” values and institutions.

Where does the Christian stand in this?
I absolutely believe that Christian libertarianism is legitimate. Perhaps not the kind of libertarianism that places the individual above all, but the kind that values local community and rejects the notion that the problems of a fallen world require solutions from a political instrument.

As you will hear frequently at V&C, good intentions do not equal good outcomes. A Christian libertarian stands by that claim and argues that government initiatives rarely produce anything that Christianity should be proud of. Rather, we should be focused on living out our Christian mission as individuals in community.

And, of course, one can be a Christian conservative if one disagrees with that assertion and believes government can and does help to bring citizens into a greater fullness of life and purpose. Though that can be a slippery slope.

Can they be reconciled?
In her recent post, Ms. Otto asks whether Conservative and Libertarian “Fusionism” is possible. At the individual level, sure—people like me may find themselves stuck somewhere in between. Philosophically, no—the very reason we adopt different semantics is to reflect the inherent dissonance of the two perspectives.

At the social-political level, however, they absolutely can, though not without a few bumps along the way.In a democracy, politics is all about building coalitions. If you want to achieve policy objectives you must find majority support, and getting a majority to agree requires the bringing together of different viewpoints for a common goal, or against a common foe.

Conservatism and Christian libertarianism can be friends. Atheistic libertarianism will have more trouble getting along with… anybody.

  • Stan1026,

    While I agree with your view of the constitution, I disagree that this is ultimately what defines conservatism as a philosophy. What you are outlining is not a philosophy, but a legal interpretation of a specific document. Yes, that document is founded on certain principles that reflect a philosophy, but to equate the the constitution with a kind of natural law is to assume that the founders were absolutely inerrant in their justice and wisdom. They weren’t—they were men with divided opinions and goals. If the constitution as written was perfect, shouldn’t we embrace the 3/5 compromise and unlimited presidential terms? And if it was imperfect, where do we draw the line in defending it?

  • Anonymous
    Stan1026 wrote: “Conservatism is fundamentally the belief that all power not strictly granted to the federal goverment by the constitution is reserved to the states and to the people. There is nothing ‘limited’ about that grant of power other than as stated.”

    The word “reserved” does not indicate a grant. The tenth amendment does not grant power to the states or the people; rather, it assumes that the states and the people already have powers. Note also that it does not specify which powers are reserved to the states and which to the people, so it does not follow that a “community” is “fully empowered” to regulate any aspect of local human behavior. A community, whether the term refers to individuals interrelated somehow or to some sort of collective, is bound by the natural law in its activity.

  • Anonymous
    Conservatism is fundamentally the belief that all power not strictly granted to the federal goverment by the constitution is reserved to the states and to the people. There is nothing ‘limited’ about that grant of power other than as stated. Conservatives believe that if the people of a community wish to enact a law locally in order to somehow regulate some aspect of human behavior within that community, even if that law is predicated upon religious principles, they are, or should be, fully empowered to do so. Conservatives do not accept that government is all the same at every level . In other words, the original formulation of the constitution is what conservativism promotes. Neither progressivism nor libertarianism do that. So this entire libertarian debate is moot. Our government is no more inherently libertarian than it is socialist. And the constitution would have to be essentially thrown out entirely to fully implement either political philosophy in this country. They are both contrary to how our government was intented to be managed.
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