The Common Good
November 2010

The Theology of the Tea Party

by Jim Wallis | November 2010

Can libertarianism be reconciled with Christian faith?

The insurgent "Tea Party" movement is rising, gaining new strength in the Republican Party. The movement has put forward many confident standard-bearers for the November election and has popular talk-show hosts such as Glenn Beck as its evangelists.

While the Tea Party is not one-dimensional and has no single spokesperson, its political commitments are rooted in the libertarian philosophy, which is not a new phenomenon in America (see the sidebar on one of its chief philosophers, Ayn Rand, on p. 21). Libertarianism, like other brands of conservatism and liberalism, is a political philosophy more than a religious one, and the Tea Party, while not yet as organized, is like the Democratic and Republican parties in seeking political power.

It is a secular movement, not a Christian one. As with both major political parties, some people who regard themselves as Christians are involved in, or sympathetic to, the new Tea Party, but that doesn’t make it "Christian." And like the philosophies and policies of the major political parties, the new Tea Party can legitimately be examined on the basis of Christian principles -- and it should be. Just how Christian is the Tea Party movement and the libertarian political philosophy behind much of it?

Libertarianism is a political philosophy that holds individual rights and freedom as its supreme value and considers government the major obstacle to personal liberty. It tends to be tolerant on cultural and moral issues, defending the rights of privacy, and conservative on fiscal and economic policy, preferring free markets over government regulation. The "just leave me alone, and don’t spend my money" approach is growing in American political life. Tea Party activists often say they have three core values: a fundamental limitation of government, fiscal responsibility, and free markets. Many Tea Party advocates emphasize economic issues over social/cultural/moral issues, and don’t talk very much about either abortion or gay marriage.

Of course, libertarianism has been an undercurrent in the Republican Party for some time, and has especially been in the news due to the primary election wins of several Tea Party-related Republican candidates. At least six Senate candidates are affiliated with the Tea Party, including two who defeated incumbent senators, along with a number of House candidates. One who has received a lot of attention is Rand Paul, the Republican candidate for a Senate seat in Kentucky and the son of presidential candidate Ron Paul.

Rand Paul has spoken like a true libertarian. He criticized the 1964 Civil Rights Act as an example of government interference with the rights of private business. While decrying racism and discrimination, Paul told an interviewer that he would have tried to change the provision 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, many would suggest that libertarianism falls short. Here are some points to ponder:

1. What should Christians think of the libertarian enshrinement of individual choice as the pre-eminent virtue? Emphasizing individual rights at the expense of others challenges "the common good," a central Christian teaching and tradition. The Christian answer to the question "Are we our brothers' (and sisters') 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. Without that commitment, the freedom of individual choice will often ignore the poor and marginalized.

2. Is private charity enough as a response to poverty, as libertarians assert? Both compassion and social justice are fundamental Christian commitments, and while Christian individuals and communities are responsible for living out both, individual charity alone does not fulfill the biblical imperatives of how we should treat the poor.

Serving the poor is clearly a Christian command, but advocating justice for the poor and oppressed is also a biblical calling, as multiple passages suggest. The biblical prophets, in their condemnations of injustice to the poor, 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, wrote, "He defended the cause of the poor and needy, and so all went well" (22:16). Amos instructs the courts (the government) to "Hate evil, love good; maintain justice in the courts" (5:15). Clearly the prophets hold kings, rulers, judges, and employers accountable to the demands of justice. Individuals, families, and congregations are needed to minister to the “least of these,” but the Bible says that kings, rulers, judges, employers, and governments also are held biblically accountable to the requirements of justice.

3. Christians on the right and the left have raised questions about the libertarian abandonment of the most vulnerable—whether that means unborn lives or the poor. Protecting human rights for others—not merely personal liberty for ourselves—is a critical calling for Christians. Is defending our personal space a Christian priority? What about making sure our public spaces are fair and that they uphold the rights and dignity of all, including those who have been left out and left behind?

4. Is an anti-government ideology really biblical? In Romans 13, the apostle Paul (not the Senate candidate) describes the proper role and vocation of government. The government, in addition to the church, plays a role in God’s plan and purposes. The chapter should be read in the context of chapter 12 (the separation between the two came much later), which outlines the life Christians are called to lead for the common good, including the admonition "do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly."

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! 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. Yet, Revelation 13 also 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 a 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 all government as the central problem in society -- is simply not a biblical position.

5. Is the libertarians’ supreme trust in the market 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 -- for example, the enormous power of banks and corporations in our society, even over governments.

When government regulation is seen as 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 God's creation. Libertarians sometimes seem to believe in the myth of the sinless market and that the self-interest of business owners and corporations will serve the interests of society -- and if they don’t, libertarians assert, the free market will correct it; it’s not government’s role.

But such theorizing ignores the practical issues that the public sector has to solve. Should big oil companies such as BP simply be allowed to spew oil into the ocean? Is regulating the 10 banks that control 90 percent of the entire U.S. credit card market 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? Should liquor store owners 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 believed 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 -- just as it is essential regarding government. And God’s priorities -- not those of the Chamber of Commerce -- should determine our priorities.

6. Is the implicit libertarian preference for the strong over the weak a Christian value? "Leave me alone to make my own choices and spend my own money" is a political philosophy that puts those who need help at a real disadvantage. And those who need help are central to any Christian evaluation of political philosophy.

"As you have done to the least of these," said Jesus, "you have done to me." The libertarian beatitude "Blessed are those who are just left alone" has still not joined those in the Sermon on the Mount. When the system is designed to protect the privileges of the already strong and make the weak even more defenseless and vulnerable, something is wrong, and Christians should care about that.

7. Finally, does the fact that the Tea Party movement is mostly white raise questions? A recent CBS News/New York Times poll of self-identified Tea Party activists showed they were 89 percent white and 1 percent black. Does that mean every member of the Tea Party is racist? Of course not. In fact, one Tea Party leader was asked to leave after writing a racist blog post.

But I still wonder if an undercurrent of white resentment is not a part of the Tea Party ethos. I wonder if there would even be a Tea Party if the president of the United States weren't the first black man to occupy that office. It's time we had an honest discussion of that question.

What do we owe each other? Are others' human rights as important as our personal liberty? Is holding corporate interests publicly accountable really "governmental totalitarianism," or is it a good and necessary part of a democracy? Can we, in a democratic society, seek for those ethical questions to shape our organization of public life, not just our private choices?

Dr. Chuck Gutenson, COO of Sojourners and a former professor of theology and philosophy at Asbury Theological Seminary, has thought and taught about these issues for years. Gutenson says that, given the underlying commitments of libertarianism, it is the position most difficult to align with scriptural teaching -- that it is the furthest political philosophy from Christian faith. Is that too strong, or is he right?

Jim Wallis is editor-in-chief of Sojourners.

*****

Jesus Shrugged?
To follow Ayn Rand and her vision, one must give up Christ and his cross.

Amazon sales of Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand broke into the top 10 soon after President Obama’s inauguration. Her writings have become popular among Tea Party activists, and have never stopped being popular among libertarians. Rand has long been seen as a champion for the primacy of individual rights, low taxes, and limited government. The book, telling the story of a dystopian America with a collapsing economy and bumbling politicians, has been hailed by her disciples as a prophetic word for the American situation today.

For those not interested in making the journey through the whole thousand-page novel, Rand gives a one sentence summation: "My philosophy, in essence, is the concept of man [sic] as a heroic being, with his own happiness as the moral purpose of his life, with productive achievement as his noblest activity, and reason as his only absolute." The contrast is stark to Jesus’ summation of his own teaching: "Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength and love your neighbor as yourself."

In her novels Rand regularly condemns altruism and the giving of any sort of gifts. Grace, by its very definition, cannot find any place within Rand’s philosophy. The idea of offering or receiving that which is "undeserved" is, by her definition, immoral.

Rand, as a staunch atheist, was well aware that one could not simultaneously follow her teachings and those of Jesus. In her published letters, Rand writes about the "great, basic contradiction of Jesus." She holds him up as one of the first great teachers of individualism who taught "the salvation of one’s soul as one’s first concern and highest goal." But when it came to the code of ethics, Rand wrote, Jesus gave people "a code of altruism, that is, a code which told them that in order to save one’s soul, one must love or help or live for others ... This is a contradiction that cannot be resolved."

Rand was clear that her philosophy, known as objectivism, was incompatible with that of Jesus. For her, any system that required one individual to live for others and follow anything beside his or her own self-interest was immoral. For Jesus, any system or behavior that does not take into account living for others and acting on their behalf is immoral. Christians should take Ayn Rand’s words as a warning. To follow her and her vision, one must give up Christ and his cross.

Tim King is communications manager and special assistant to the CEO at Sojourners.

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