Libertarianism=UnChristian?

May 29, 2010


To say that Jim Wallis inspires controversy is a bit of an understatement.  From his 22 arrests for civil disobedience to his feud with Glenn Beck, Wallis isn’t shy about saying what’s on his mind.  In a recent post on his “God’s Politics” blog, he examined the Tea Party movement and their claim of libertarianism and how that fits with Christian principles.  I’m going on record, saying I have a problem with this sort of thing.  I don’t care for the political thrust of Wallis’ blog or some of his views.  For the record, I’m a fiscally conservative, socially liberal independent.  I tell you that because I don’t want anyone to think I have an axe to grind.  That said, I view the politicization of religion with a very jaundiced eye, no matter which side it comes from.  I think Thomas Jefferson was definitely on to something when he told the Danbury Baptists “religion is a matter which lies solely between Man & his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship” and “I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should “make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” thus building a wall of separation between Church & State.”  For me, that wall is solid on both sides, allowing contamination from either left or right. 

According to Wallis, libertarianism is “a political philosophy that holds individual rights as its supreme value and considers government the major obstacle. It tends to be liberal on cultural and moral issues and conservative on fiscal, economic, and foreign policy.”  Which is actually a pretty good one.  I looked at several before coming to the conclusion that they were all ways of saying the same thing, so I just went with Wallis’ since I’d already pasted in the article.  According to Wallis, libertarianism’s emphasis on personal rights isn’t a Christian principle, that we are our brother’s keeper.  He also uses scripture to back up the idea that government is good.  I have problems with this last idea.  The referenced scripture comes from Paul’s letter to the Romans and we all know that Paul was a good Roman citizen and wouldn’t say anything bad about his own government.  For him, Roman authority was a good thing.  I wonder how those under the Roman boot felt about that passage.  Not to well, I’m sure.  There’s also what I consider an ominous implication in Romans 13: If you’re not a troublemaker, you have nothing to worry about.  I’ve heard the almost exact  phrase used to defend the Patriot Act, just exchange “terrorist” with “troublemaker”.  The problem with both of these statements is who decides who’s a troublemaker (or terrorist)?  Coming from a man who’s been arrested for civil disobedience as many times as Wallis has, this “government is good” speech rings a bit hollow.  Evidently, government is good as long as it fits with his ideas.  I agree (somewhat) with his assessment of the free market.  A free market, in and of itself, is neither good nor bad.  The problem is that it relies on people doing the right thing at all times.  It’s hard enough to do the right thing once in a while, but all the time?  And, throw money into the mix and the chances of folks keeping moral business practices goes down dramatically.  We are sinners living in a broken world and, given the chance, we’d all take advantage of a system without some kind of oversight or control. 

The last two points of this critique deserve their own paragraph.  First, Wallis contends that libertarianism has a bias for the strong over the weak that is unChristian.  That the notion ““Leave me alone to make my own choices and spend my own money” somehow negates the possibility that those that have will take care those that have not.  Libertarianism doesn’t say yea or nay to personal charity; in fact, engaging in personal charity is one of those choices it says that people should be allowed to make on their own.  Knowing that Wallis is a progressive (and, no, I don’t mean as a curse the way Glenn Beck does), I assume that he believes that government is the way to help those in need.  I beg to differ.  When Jesus told the young man who asked how to attain eternal life, he didn’t tell him to pay his taxes so the government could provide programs for the poor, he said “Sell everything you have and give it to the poor”.  That’s a big difference.  To me, relying on the government to do it is a cop-out.  You’re supposed to get in there and get your hands dirty.  Besides, the psychological toll on recipients of government largesse is steep.  With every dollar they receive, with every bit of assistance getting into college or getting a job, there’s an unspoken message that “You’re not good enough to get this on your own”.  If the government is going to provide anything for these people, it needs to be a way to get back on their feet, not keeping them a permanent underclass.  The fifth and last point of Wallis’ critique is, perhaps, the most insidious epithet used by the left against the right.  He questions whether the Tea Party is a racist movement or if it’s just coincidence that it has a white majority.  Why is this so bad?  Because, in popular discourse, once the race card is thrown against someone, there’s nothing they can say or do that will be listened to or heeded.  Maybe the Tea Party is a front for the KKK; maybe they’re just a bunch of scared, angry white folks who don’t give a damn about race one way or the other, I don’t know.  What I do know is that entirely to often, this accusation is used to marginalize arguments and groups we don’t like.  Whether that was Wallis’ intention or not, that’s the effect. 

Finally, I have a problem with the whole idea of his questioning whether Libertarianism and Tea Party are Christian or not.  In doing this, he stepped onto a slippery slope that could lead to the very kind of intolerance he’s speaking against in his blog.  I halfway expected him to break out the “unbiblical” argument so favored by the fundamentalists.  It was little disheartening when I read it.  I mean, Wallis is a man of God and they don’t screw up.  Do they?

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