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A Christian Libertarian? (Part 1)

For some reason, society has not allowed a role for someone who is both Christian and a libertarian.

Christian opposition to libertarianism is not new. The debate over Ayn Rand, called by some the “high priestess of the Church of Mammon,” has been relentless within Christian circles. Even on this blog, a whole page is dedicated to collecting the arguments. Rand’s philosophy of Objectivism is inherently atheistic, and the debate persist over whether her limited-government and free-market beliefs can be extricated from objectivism as a whole. Many Christians say that they cannot be separated. Two Cents blogger Nathan Hitchens has said that there is “profound hypocrisy” in a Christian supporting any part of Ayn Rand’s philosophy.

It is not just Rand that bristles Christians. The laissez faire libertarian approach to culture problems does not sit well with those teaching the social gospel. And many Christians view government programs as tools to fulfilling the great commission. Recently, Sojourners warned politicians that “God is Watching,” implying that they should take eternal damnation into consideration when they make decisions about the debt crisis.

Relatedly, Christians for a Sustainable Economy had an excellent response to Sojourners.

But all of this is not new; we know that Christians will quibble about their acceptance of libertarianism. What is beginning to become apparent, however, is that libertarians question their acceptance of Christianity. 

Penn Jillette (of the Emmy Award-winning duo Penn & Teller) recently appeared on CNN’s Piers Morgan Tonight and subsequently published some thoughts about his interview:

Piers beat me up a bit for being an atheist (that’s his job) and then beat me up a bit for being a libertarian (also his job). He did this by asking me impossible questions, questions that none of us… could ever answer.

He started with “How did you get here?” and I started talking about my road to showbiz and atheism and he interrupted and said he meant how the universe was created. I said, “I don’t know.”

He said, “God,” an answer that meant Piers didn’t know either, but he had a word for it that was supposed to make me feel left out of his enlightened club.

Then he asked me what we could do to help poor people. I said I donated money, food, medical care, and services and he said, “No,” he meant, what could society do to solve the problem of poor people. Again, I was stumped.

He said the government had to do it, which I interpreted as another way of saying he didn’t know, but he thought that made me look mean … even though I do care and do try to help.

Libertarians like Jillette, of whom I have known many, believe that Christianity and libertarianism are inherently antithetical. The crux for them seems to be in the acceptance of an omniscient, omnipotent being. In their view, if you can accept an all-powerful God as the answer to life’s existential questions, would you not ipso facto accept an all-powerful government as the answer to society’s intrinsic problems? A colleague of mine considers himself to be an agnostic libertarian. He prefers the term agnostic to atheistbecause to be truly open-minded, one must leave room for the possibility of God. And he in all things strives to be open-minded. When asked about libertarianism and Christianity, he said that they were generally irreconcilable:

That free individuals will tend to pursue, or endeavor to pursue, their rational self-interest is a core tenet of libertarianism. If voluntary society is to outperform statist, coercive society, reason and logic must be rewarded and valued. By instructing people to believe in ideas without any empirical or logical basis, religious faith detracts from rational behavior in ways that are sometimes very destructive to freedom, tolerance, and the evolution of society itself.

Those who would consider themselves “Christian libertarians” find themselves challenged by both associations. They are often forced to legitimize themselves to their peers of either association who question their fidelity. Is it contradictory to be a Christian and a libertarian? As Penn Jillette would say, I do not know. But it is certainly a question worth asking.