For years now we have been hearing about the small conservative "vote" that exists in Canada and, therefore, the need for right-wingers of different stripes to build bridges between each other in order to increase the strength of our political influence.
The reason why we have been hearing so much about this situation is because so little is happening to change it. Rather, within the conservative camp, the strong divisions that have existed for years still remain. The most well-known classifications are "conservatives," "libertarians," and "Christians." Another popular divide is that between "social conservatives" and "economic conservatives."
If the only alternative to such divisions is to become unprincipled, then such divisions are worth keeping. It is my view, however, that correctly understood, “Conservatism,” “Christianity,” and “Libertarianism” have more that unites them than divides. Or, to put it another way, that social and economic conservatism are two sides of the same coin. In the context of the current terms of debate, I would classify myself as a Christian libertarian, and certainly consider myself a conservative, rather than a liberal.
To many, the merger of these ideas is an exercise in irrationality. Many Christians see libertarianism as an inherently “secular” worldview. Libertarians see “the legislation of morality” as antithetical to their fundamental outlook.
How, then, can these ideas be compatible? The first place to start in answering this question is to clear up some misconceptions.
Common ground between Christians and Libertarians
To be sure, the underlying libertarian philosophy of individualism is incompatible with Christianity. “The libertarian philosophy begins with the idea of self-ownership. ... Therefore, each person has the absolute right to control his or her own life, body, speech, actions, and honestly acquired property.” (David Bergland, Libertarian Party candidate for the US Presidency in 1984). The Libertarian ideal, however, is quite compatible with Christianity. Libertarians essentially advocate maximum freedom for human behaviour. In order to curb unacceptable behaviour, they emphasize self-government over civil government.
This is not an anti-Christian concept. In fact, as I will argue later, it reflects a very Christian view of government.
Libertarians explain this view as follows: “We hold that all individuals ... have the right to live in whatever manner they choose, so long as they do not forcibly interfere with the right of others to live in whatever manner they choose.” (US Libertarian Party Statement of Principles). Standing on its own, such a view sounds like anarchy. Anarchy, however, advocates the complete abolition of civil government, a view not advanced by libertarianism.
The starting points for Libertarianism and Christianity are very different - but their visions of a just society are very similar. In fact, I believe that the “libertarian” vision for society can only be realized by utilizing Christian principles, not by the concept of "self-ownership" as defined above.
Libertarians cannot run from Christian history
One of the problems with modern libertarianism as it is often advanced in Canada and the US today is that it scarcely ever acknowledges the explicitly Christian roots of the “American experiment.” Libertarians, in illustrating their ideals, draw freely from the principles defined in the American Constitution and from those principles applied accurately in American history. Attempts to draw on early America for the best historical examples of libertarianism in action without acknowledging the importance of the Christian faith that was so much a part of the foundation of those principles is disturbing evidence of historical revisionism and intellectual dishonesty.
What choices should be criminalized?
Many Libertarians see a divide between themselves and conservatives because the libertarian view of maximum human individual liberty is at odds with the long list of choices that many conservatives want criminalized. This list would include gambling, prostitution, drug use, and pornography, amongst others. We need to ask ourselves, however, whether it is libertarians or conservatives who are at odds with conservatism. Is the essence of conservatism opposition to wrong choices (and the promotion of good choices), or does conservatism, by definition, demand the criminalization of all choices believed to be wrong?
Many, if not most, conservatives who oppose bad moral choices — “social conservatives” — identify themselves as a Christian of one sort or another. Basic to Christianity is affirmation of the truth of the Bible. I am convinced that Christians today, therefore, need to be far more diligent in their examination of Biblical teaching about government. I believe that as they do, they will discover what the Christians who founded the United States on largely “Christian Libertarian” principles believed — that the Bible does not advocate the criminalization of all wrong actions.
The Bible places enormous importance on self-government, not because man owns himself and, therefore, should not be governed by any other, as libertarians argue, but because he is ultimately responsible to God for the choices he makes and will eventually be judged accordingly. The Bible also teaches that the family and the church have judicial roles to play in society. Very little is given over to the “civil magistrate” to be governed by the state. When we abandon the directives in the Bible, choosing instead to make and abandon laws based on our own dubious notions, we tread on dangerous ground.
While “Libertarianism” can deteriorate into anarchy, “Christianity” can just as quickly degenerate into tyranny (as the testimony of history repeatedly demonstrates).
Is abortion a hand-maiden to libertarianism?
One area which has prevented social conservatives from being attracted to libertarianism (often seen as synonymous with “economic conservatism”) is the assumption that libertarianism is inherently a "pro-choice" ideology. It is important, however, to note that libertarianism does not require a particular position on abortion. Libertarianism does not advocate murder. A libertarian is free to believe that an unborn child is a human being, and if he does, he would oppose abortion as a form of murder. Ron Paul, probably the most intellectually consistent Libertarian Congressmen in the US, is as far as I can tell staunchly pro-life. In fact, if libertarianism rightly understood is a Christian view, then a pro-life belief would be far more consistent with libertarianism than would a pro-pro-choice position.
I maintain that, without the moorings of Christian truth, the heart is cut out of libertarianism, reducing it eventually to nothing more than anarchy and license. Libertarianism presupposes that man is by nature good and therefore will, if given the opportunity, prove himself to be a respecter of other people’s freedom in the exercise of his own. Christianity, on the other hand, teaches that man by nature is corrupt. Therefore, the parameters to freedom prescribed in the Bible are necessary to develop a civilized society. To legislate beyond what is prescribed, however, is to move in the direction of tyranny.