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Conservatism, Libertarianism and Christianity

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Yes I know: we are not supposed to talk about religion and politics in polite society. And trying to get a handle on such complex matters in a short essay is a risky endeavor. But these are important topics, so a few words may be in order here.

Christians of course believe that we live in a fallen world, so no political structure will be perfect. But it is exactly because we live in a fallen world that God instituted the state. It exists to bring a semblance of order and justice in a world of sinful and self-centered individuals.

So government is God’s idea. But what the best form of government is is another matter. Christians can and do disagree on this topic. I have sought to explain my preferences elsewhere, for example:

Religion and the Political Spectrum

Christianity, Conservatism and Liberalism

Christians can be, and are, in various places along the political spectrum. I used to be very much of the hard-core left, but upon becoming a Christian I have moved to the right. No one political ideology can be baptised as the one and only Christian option, but I again have sought elsewhere to argue that conservatism may best reflect the biblical worldview. See for example:

What is Conservatism?

Faith and Politics. Part 1

Faith and Politics. Part 2

Here I simply wish to contrast conservatism with libertarianism. While both favor limited or small government, libertarianism can be unhelpful – certainly from a Biblical point of view — for a number of reasons. As I already mentioned, government is God’s idea, and he is the one who has ordained the state.

Thus the more libertarian one is, the further one can move away from the Biblical ideal. That is, some libertarians of the right are so extreme that they differ very little at all from the anarchists of the left. And extreme libertarianism, coupled with ugly atheism, can be a most repellent political philosophy.

Ayn Rand is an example of this, and I have elsewhere discussed why I find her worldview to be incompatible with Biblical Christianity: Why I am Not a Randian

Libertarians tend to take the opposite view on social, cultural and moral issues than do conservatives. The former are quite happy to see things like pornography, prostitution, drugs and so on be legalized, or decriminalized, and insist that governments have no need to be involved in such issues. The latter strongly disagree.

To flesh this out let me appeal to two recent conservatives. Catholic social thinker Michael Novak has written a number of important volumes seeking to explain what the conservative disposition is all about. For example, in his very important 1982 volume, The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism, he argues that three vital components are necessary.

“What do I mean by ‘democratic capitalism’? I mean three systems in one: a predominantly market economy; a polity respectful of the rights of the individual to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; and a system of cultural institutions moved by ideals of liberty and justice for all. In short, three dynamic and converging systems functioning as one: a democratic polity, an economy based on markets and incentives, and a moral-cultural system which is plural and, in the largest sense, liberal.”

He continues, “political democracy is compatible in practice only with a market economy. In turn, both systems nourish and are best nourished by a pluralistic liberal culture. It is important to give attention to all three systems.” He elaborates on these three systems in the rest of his book.

Another famous conservative also made use of a three-part model. Former U.S. President Ronald Reagan had a famous three-part structure, although it is slightly different from Novak’s. His political philosophy and policies were built on three core values: free enterprise, strong defense, and pro-family social policies.

He tried to govern the U.S. by upholding and promoting all three legs. Indeed, he referred to this as a three legged stool. He insisted that all three legs were needed to make America succeed and prosper. Having only one or two of the legs simply would be insufficient.

A recent article which looks at the current U.S. Presidential race also appeals to Reagan’s stool. Matt Barber is discussing one Republican candidate, Ron Paul. Paul is of course a rather radical libertarian who wants to legalize drugs, prostitution and the like; is in favor of special rights for homosexuals’ and in true libertarian fashion, is extremely weak on foreign policy.

He is basically an isolationist who thinks America has no reason to be concerned about what happens elsewhere for the most part. As such, he is highly critical of Israel while being quite naive about militant Islam and the dangers the Islamists pose.

As such, says Barber, “Ron Paul is dangerous.”  Says Barber, “Don’t get me wrong. I personally like Ron Paul. He’s that affable — if not a little ‘zany’ — uncle who has the whole family on edge at Thanksgiving. ‘Oh boy; what’s Uncle Ronny gonna say next?’

“Still, you wouldn’t give Uncle Ronny the carving knife for the turkey, much less the keys to the Oval Office. Mr. Paul is many things, but conservative is not one of them. He’s a died-in-the-wool libertarian. That’s one part conservative, two parts anarchist.

“Ronald Reagan often spoke of a ‘three-legged stool’ that undergirds true conservatism. The legs are represented by strong free-market economic principles, a strong national defense and strong social values. For the stool to remain upright, it must be supported by all three legs. If you snap off even one leg, the stool collapses under its own weight. Mr. Paul is relatively conservative from an economic standpoint, but in true libertarian form, has snapped off the legs of national defense and social values.”

That is why Paul would be such a dangerous man to be leading America. He seems to be totally oblivious of contemporary international threats, such as a nuclear-armed Iran. He would rather America live in splendid isolation, and hope such external threats will somehow not be a problem. But he is just kidding himself.

Israel, for all its faults, is the only democracy in the Middle East. If it goes, the whole region will become even more of a nightmare than it already is. Just as naive and immature leaders like Chamberlain basically allowed Hitler, the Holocaust, and World War II to happen, so Paul would also bring us to the brink of disaster.

And he would also destroy America from within with his radical domestic policies. While he claims to be a Christian, there is hardly anything Christian about his reckless and amoral social policies. He should be avoided like the plague by all true Christians and all true conservatives.

Plenty of other things can be said about the dangerous Mr. Paul. But this article is meant to be a generic and very brief look at libertarianism, and how it differs markedly from real conservatism and real Christianity. Future articles will have to tease all this out further.

I for one quite like the three legged stool analogy. We certainly need all three. Strong national security is vital to any nation, and a strong moral social order is fundamental for the survival of democratic free market states. It is not a radical social agenda which exalts a nation, but righteousness (Proverbs 14:34). Conservatives can seek to offer this, but libertarians are unable to.

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