"For Love of Neighbor" is a new documentary film offering a hopeful vision for Christian engagement in politics. Click here to learn more.

Christian Libertarians and the Myth of Legislating Morality

Recently on the Acton Institute’s Power Blog, senior editor Joe Carter wrote that “When it comes to our view of individual liberty, one of the most unexplored areas of distinction between libertarians and religious conservatives is how we view neutrality and bias.” The crux of his argument is that libertarians believe that neutrality exists between various social spheres and conservatives don’t think that is possible, and therefore conservatives have a better grip on reality and are smarter than their libertarian “cousins.” While I found this line of discussion very interesting, and even in part, compelling, Carter’s argument was rather insulting to a key demographic—Christian libertarians. Carter waits until the footnotes of his article to address Christian libertarians, concerning me that he had forgotten this demographic which is very important for this conversation.
Throughout this post, the terms “religious conservatives” and “conservatives” are used interchangeably to refer to political (though not necessarily theological) conservatives whose views are influenced and sustained by religious principles. The way I use the terms here will likely also apply to many people who would self-identify as “religious libertarians.” People are free to choose their own labels, of course, but I agree with Russell Kirk that “If a person describes himself as “libertarian” because he believes in an enduring moral order, the Constitution of the United States, free enterprise, and old American ways of life-why, actually he is a conservative with imperfect understanding of the general terms of politics.”
Is Carter saying that Christian Libertarians are just stupid conservatives? Frankly, even if this statement wasn’t meant to be insulting to those Christians who have invested the time and emotional capital into articulating their person ideology as libertarian, it certainly doesn’t do them justice to leave them out of the entire conversation. Carter says in his closing argument,
By placing an overemphasis on individual liberty without an equal accent on individual virtue, the libertarian unwittingly erodes the foundation of order on which her political theory stands. Order is a necessary precondition of liberty and must be maintained from the lowest level of government (the individual conscience) to the highest (the State). The individual conscience is the most basic level of government and it is regulated by virtues. Ordered liberty, in this view, is not an end unto itself but a means by which eudaimonia (happiness or human flourishing) can most effectively be pursued. Liberty is a necessary component of virtue, but it cannot serve as a substitute.
The reason, I believe, Carter left Christian libertarians out of the conversation, is that the philosophy and theology of Christian libertarians don’t coincide with Carter’s argument. Christian libertarians do place high values on both individual liberty and individual virtue. They recognize the levels of order from individual governance to the authority of the state, though they would likely call the individual the “highest level of government” and the state the “lowest level of government.” Christian libertarians also recognize the existence of bias between social spheres and fully acknowledge that neutrality is not our reality. But this is where Christian libertarians differ from Christian conservatives. Because bias exists, Carter says, we should harness it to control the various social spheres. Carter uses the example of a judge saying,
If a case is difficult in the sense that there is no precedent or other text that is authoritative, the judge has to fall back on whatever resources he has to come up with a decision that is reasonable, that other judges would also find reasonable, and ideally that he could explain to a layperson so that the latter would also think it a reasonable policy choice. To do this, the judge may fall back on some strong moral or even religious feeling.
Conversely, Christian libertarians acknowledge that bias exist, but say that it is wrong. Bias does exist, and that is why we should limit the ability of any judge or legislator to use the law as a tool to enforce their version of morality over the rest of the population. I wonder why Carter thinks legislating morality is a good idea. Certainly seems like a good idea when someone you agree with is making the decisions. But what about if someone you would consider a heretic was the judge making the decisions? That’s a problem, right? His only example of the superiority of bias is the issue of abortion.
To take an example from the realm of bioethics, if a judge is influenced by his “religious feeling” that human life has an intrinsic dignity, then it can lead him to develop legal rules that hinder individuals from pursuing happiness in their own way (e.g., having an abortion).
No offense to Mr. Carter, but this has to be one of the worst examples he could have chosen to prove his point. No one believes in the intrinsic dignity of human life more than libertarians. The question of abortion among libertarians is one of science. If a libertarian who is convinced by science that an unborn child is an independent living being, then they will be pro-life such as the preeminent libertarian Dr. Ron Paul. And another question for Mr. Carter, what if the judge in this example were pro-abortion? Maybe Christian libertarians are the smart ones. What Christian libertarians understand that Christian conservatives like Carter do not seem to understand, is that while everyone has a bias, more times than not that bias is influenced by our fallen, sinful condition. Because humanity is fallen, we should never give a man undue authority over his fellow men, be that man a judge, a legislator or a president.