Searching for a libertarian Jesus

Albert Schweitzer once commented that many scholars who had searched for the historical Jesus had, in a sense, looked down into a well and seen themselves. In searching for a Christian rationale for their ideal minimalist state, some religious libertarians appear to be indulging in a similar sort of well gazing.

The case for a libertarian Jesus varies widely but often entails the observation that Christ never used coercive measures in helping people and that therefore any government intervention to help people—because it is coercive—is not following the example of Jesus and hence is immoral.

The problems with this approach to such a complex subject are many, but at least three difficulties spring to mind. First, it surely overlooks the use of force when Jesus drove the money changers from the Temple. Moreover, the fact that Jesus never himself used state power to compel good behavior (an unlikely course since Roman authorities executed him for sedition) is hardly a blanket argument against government intervention. Must Christians—because of the example of Jesus—oppose states enacting sabbatarian laws or limiting access to pornography? How about making drivers wear seatbelts? There might be prudential reasons for opposing such laws, but Jesus’ teaching doesn’t address them. In addition to punishing criminals, governments can use their power to do positive good, such as sometimes using force so that child support is paid by a non-custodial parent. Government can also use its power to discourage some harmful behaviors, such as divorce or public drunkenness. Nothing in Jesus’ teaching explicitly rules out these kinds of state actions. The Gospels do certainly offer ethical principles, such as the Golden Rule, but they don’t provide a blueprint for health insurance regulations or tariff policy.

Second, in order to avoid a one-dimensional approach, one needs to ask not only “What would Jesus do?” but what is the ethical teaching of the entire Christian scriptures, Old and New Testaments?  Portions of the Pentateuch, the Prophets and the Pauline epistles shed light on what a Christian model of the state might look like. Yet, in this broader Biblical portrait, one finds little justification for either state socialism or the minimalist “night watchman” state popular among libertarians. The prophet Amos, for instance, is particularly sharp in his denunciations of magistrates exploiting and cheating the poor. Though most of Israel’s human kings failed miserably, the Old Testament conceives of government as serving not only a negative task but also a positive role in promoting justice among its people and demonstrating concern for the poor. This portrait is echoed in the New Testament. Political theorist Paul Marshall puts it well when he writes, “Jesus and Paul say more than merely that governments are servants. Paul says that they are ‘God’s servants for your good’ (Romans, 13:4) … This is the core of the gospel message for politics—that political authority exists for the good of the citizenry … that government is called under God to minister and administer justice for the benefit of all people and to defend those who are oppressed.”

Third, since Jesus laid out general ethical principles rather than a detailed political or economic model, it is especially important not to ignore how Christians through the centuries have sought to apply these principles in practical ways. If the New Testament is short on concrete applications, consulting the writings and actions of the Christian Church since the early centuries is essential. The portrait of the state that emerges from such an historical survey bears little resemblance to the rigid minimal state championed by some. For more than 2,000 years, Christians (and since the Reformation, both Roman Catholics and Protestants) have argued vehemently against separating political economy from ethical concerns and both have used the state to help the less fortunate. While Christians have emphasized the importance of individual charity, they have rarely assumed some abstract theoretical barrier that completely excludes state support for the poor or dispossessed.

Perhaps one should not be too harsh in criticizing this particular libertarian project. Though misguided, such efforts do represent a welcome departure from the position of one the movement’s most revered icons—economist Ludwig von Mises. Mises was no fan of Jesus’ economics. He asserted that Jesus’ “teachings had no moral applications to life on earth.” Mises contended that, “Jesus offers no rules for earthly action and struggle; his Kingdom is not of this world. Such rules of conduct as he gives his followers are valid only for the short interval of time which has still to be lived while waiting for the great things to come … In God’s Kingdom the poor shall be rich, but the rich shall be made to suffer.” As for the religion Jesus founded, Mises was convinced that “A living Christianity cannot, it seems, exist side by side with Capitalism.” He concluded bluntly that, “the clearest modern parallel to the attitude of complete [social] negation of primitive Christianity is Bolshevism.”

So, Christian libertarians have one thing right: Mises was wrong that being a follower of Christ leads one to think or behave like a Bolshevik. But neither was Jesus a libertarian.

About the authors

About the authors

Dr. Gillis J. Harp is a professor of history at Grove City College and member of the faith & politics working group with The Center for Vision & Values. He is the author of “Positivist Republic: Auguste Comte and the Reconstruction of American Liberalism, 1865-1920” (Penn State Press, 1995) and “Brahmin Prophet: Phillips Brooks and the Path of Liberal Protestantism” (Rowman & Littlefield, 2003). Dr. Michael L. Coulter is a professor of humanities and political science at Grove City College. His academic specialties are American government and political theory. A co-editor of the “Encyclopedia of Catholic Social Teaching, Social Science and Social Policy” (Scarecrow Press, 2007), Coulter has also has authored chapters for “Church-State Issues in America Today,” (Praeger, 2008), “Catholic Social Teaching: American Reflections on the Compendium” (Lexington Books, 2008), and has authored three entries for the five-volume “Encyclopedia of the Supreme Court of the United States” (Macmillan, 2008) in addition to contributing an entry to “Magill’s Survey of World Literature, Revised Edition” (Salem Press, 2009).

All posts by | High resolution photos»