Libertarianism: A political philosophy that emphasizes the autonomy of the individual in making economic and moral choices, and hence seeks to minimize government and de-emphasizes community obligations and responsibilities.
Christianity: A religion that professes to believe that God actively and willingly became involved in human history on human terms, challenging us to believe radically in the Old Testament admonition to “love your neighbor as yourself,” to give up any claims to possessions and status and, ultimately, to lay down our lives in service to others.
What do these two belief sets have in common? At present, the only answer I can give with confidence is “a large number of adherents.” Not all Christians are libertarians, of course, and not all libertarians are Christians. A surprising number of people, though, seem to be both.
This surprises me for two reasons. I am a Christian – although, as I stated in my post “Let me introduce myself,” I hardly fit the current cultural profile. I am not conservative. I do not believe the world was created in seven days. I have little interest in converting people of other religions, since I believe I have a great deal to learn from them as they are. I am also emphatically not a libertarian, and I find it hard to understand how anyone who is a Christian can be one.
Libertarianism, after all, is profoundly individualistic, and Jesus told people to deny themselves and follow him. Libertarians don’t like being forced into adopting other people’s agendas, and Jesus told his followers to “take my yoke upon you.” Libertarians believe, with Benjamin Franklin, that heaven helps those who help themselves, and Jesus said that he came into the world to save the lost.
Much of modern American libertarianism, furthermore, derives from the fiction of Ayn Rand, a radical atheist, and the economic writings of Friedrich Hayek, who approved of those religions that conferred an evolutionary advantage by confirming the right to own property. Neither had much use for a religion that urges self-denying love as the highest virtue and sees personal property as, at best, a distraction.
Jesus did, of course, reject and condemn the kingdoms of this world, and some see this as a reason to oppose government-based solutions to almost anything. There is no evidence, though, that Jesus saw radical individualism and autonomy as a valid alternative. His earliest followers seem to have had very little concern for worldly possessions, and to have adhered to a communitarian ethic. They gave gladly with no thought of themselves, embraced strangers and pariahs, and extended free healing as a fringe benefit to many. St. Paul summed up his experience since his conversion by saying that it was no longer he who lived, but Christ who lived in him. Freedom meant not autonomy, but liberation from the forces of greed and selfishness that constrict and bind most human lives.
I may not be a typical Christian, but I have read the entire Bible – both Testaments – pretty thoroughly. I have even taught myself enough Greek to read the New Testament in the original language. I don’t see any reason to believe that any of the authors of those influential words, from the Deuteronomist to Jude the Obscure, would have had much use for modern American economic libertarianism, or for most of the other kinds either.