The Common Good

How Christian is Tea Party Libertarianism?

The insurgent Tea Party and its Libertarian philosophy is a political phenomenon, not a religious one. Like the Democratic and Republican parties it seeks to challenge, it is a secular movement, not a Christian one. As with both major political parties, people who regard themselves as Christians may be involved in, or sympathetic to, the new Tea Party; but that doesn't make it "Christian." But like the philosophies and policies of the major political parties, the Tea Party can legitimately be examined on the basis of Christian principles -- and it should be.

Since the Tea Party is getting such national attention, our God's Politics blog is going to begin a dialogue on this question: Just how Christian is the Tea Party Movement -- and the Libertarian political philosophy that lies behind it? Let me start the dialogue here. And please join in.

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. This "just leave me alone and don't spend my money" option is growing quickly in American life, as we have seen in the Tea Party movement. Libertarianism has been an undercurrent in the Republican Party for some time, and has been in the news lately due to the primary election win of Rand Paul as the Republican candidate for a Senate seat in Kentucky. Paul has spoken like a true Libertarian, as evidenced by some of his comments since that election last week.

He cited the Civil Rights Act as an example of government interference with the rights of private business. Paul told an interviewer that he would have tried to change the provision in the 1964 Civil Rights Act that made it illegal for private businesses to discriminate on the basis of race. He answered a specific question about desegregating lunch counters by countering, "Does the owner of the restaurant own his restaurant? Or does the government own his restaurant?"

A few days later, he spoke about the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Referring to the Obama administration's criticisms of BP, Paul said, "I think that sounds really un-American in his criticism of business."

Is such a philosophy Christian? In several major aspects of biblical ethics, I would suggest that Libertarianism falls short.

1. The Libertarian enshrinement of individual choice is not the pre-eminent Christian virtue. Emphasizing individual rights at the expense of others violates the common good, a central Christian teaching and tradition. The Christian answer to the question "Are we our brother's keeper?" is decidedly "Yes." Jesus tells us that the greatest commandment is to love God and love our neighbor. Loving your neighbor is a better Christian response than telling your neighbor to leave you alone. Both compassion and social justice are fundamental Christian commitments, and while the Christian community is responsible for living out both, government is also held accountable to the requirements of justice and mercy. Both Christians on the Right and the Left have raised questions about Libertarian abandonment of the most vulnerable -- whether that means unborn lives or the poor.

Just look at the biblical prophets in their condemnation of injustice to the poor, and how they frequently follow those statements by requiring the king (the government) to act justly (a requirement that applied both to the kings of Israel and to foreign potentates). Jeremiah, speaking of King Josiah, said, "He defended the cause of the poor and needy, and so all went well" (Jeremiah 22:16). Amos instructs the courts (the government) to "Hate evil, love good; maintain justice in the courts" (Amos 5:15). The prophets hold kings, rulers, judges, and employers accountable to the demands of justice and mercy.

2. An anti-government ideology just isn't biblical. In Romans 13, the apostle Paul (not the Kentucky Senate candidate) describes the role and vocation of government; in addition to the church, government also plays a role in God's plan and purposes. Preserving the social order, punishing evil and rewarding good, and protecting the common good are all prescribed; we are even instructed to pay taxes for those purposes! Sorry, Tea Party. Of course, debating the size and role of government is always a fair and good discussion, and most of us would prefer smart and effective to "big" or "small" government.

Revelation 13 depicts the state as a totalitarian beast -- a metaphor for Rome, which was persecuting the Christians. This passage serves as a clear warning about the abuse of governmental power. But a power-hungry government is clearly an aberration and violation of the proper role of government in protecting its citizens and upholding the demands of fairness and justice. To disparage government per se -- to see government as the central problem in society -- is simply not a biblical position.

3. The Libertarians' supreme confidence in the market is not consistent with a biblical view of human nature and sin. The exclusive focus on government as the central problem ignores the problems of other social sectors, and in particular, the market. When government regulation is the enemy, the market is set free to pursue its own self-interest without regard for public safety, the common good, and the protection of the environment -- which Christians regard as God's creation. Libertarians seem to believe in the myth of the sinless market and that the self-interest of business owners or corporations will serve the interests of society; and if they don't, it's not government's role to correct it.

But such theorizing ignores the practical issues that the public sector has to solve. Should big oil companies like BP simply be allowed to spew oil into the ocean? And is regulating them really un-American? Do we really want nobody to inspect our meat, make sure our kids' toys are safe, or police the polluters to keep our air clean? Do we really want owners of restaurants and hotels to be able to decide whom they will or won't serve, or should liquor store owners also be able to sell alcohol to our kids? Given the reality of sin in all human institutions, doesn't a political process that provides both accountability and checks and balances make both theological and practical sense? C.S. Lewis once said that we need democracy not because people are essentially good, but because they often are not. Democratic accountability is essential to preventing the market from becoming a beast of corporate totalitarianism

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