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Jesus, the Libertarian

October 20, 2009 

By Joseph David Price

Turn Neither to the Right Nor to the Left: A Thinking Christian’s Guide to Politics and Public Policy
Eric D. Schansberg
Alertness Books, 2003
Paperback (450 pages)

Whether America is a Christian nation is the question. Your answer may decide your politics. Quotes and conjectures about the view of the Founding Fathers abound, usually used to bolster the image of America as a Christian nation. Yet certain statements, particularly from those Founding Fathers whose life and work seems to be antagonistic to organized religion, are employed by the opponents of Christian America in order to refute its provenance. The intention of the major proponents of an historically Christian America—mainly evangelical Christians—is to justify religious-based political activism. It is often a blunt attempt at mixing church and state, although not as the Founding Fathers could have imagined. The church today is diffuse and individualistic; the state is grandiose.

Although not often noticed, church and state do mingle on the Left where Jesus’ love of, and generosity towards, the lowly becomes the reason to redistribute wealth and browbeat those who have acquired it. The Sermon on the Mount is often referenced, wherein the weakest are lifted up by the Beatitudes—above those corrupted by money. However, Christ never went as far as mandating governmental action. In fact, he seemed almost totally uninterested in the government, which is a fair interpretation of rendering to Caesar what it his and to God what is his.

On either side of the spectrum—as Eric D. Schansberg points out in his book Turn Neither to the Right Nor to the Left: A Thinking Christian’s Guide to Politics and Public Policy—“Christians must be wary that the State does not replace the Church.” In order to avoid this, Schansberg introduces Libertarian-style social and moral laxity coupled with a looser, pro-globalization economic policy. This combination, he insists, is a “consistent Christian philosophy of government.”

Church and state should remain distinct, that is the premise. And Schansberg says it is consistent with the Gospel, and therefore should be applied consistently in the body politic. The culprits of inconsistency are to be found throughout the political arena, as the title implies. In fact, the first and third sections of the book—dealing with legislating morality and economic redistribution, respectively—could be renamed, “How the Right Has Faltered,” and “What the Left Did Wrong.”

The spirit of the book is destroying the “idol” of government—not the ruling body itself but its popular adoration. Putting one’s faith in the power and ability of the government to solve the nation’s problems, in hope of Utopia, is an insult to the power of God. This is true whether the utopia lies in the past (the Right) or the future (the Left).  Government is for Schansberg, as it was for Paine, “but a necessary evil.”

The following idea of decentralized political action organizes Schansberg’s book: Christian activism should be local, with the church and Christ’s teachings at its center; it should not appropriate state power to force Christian morality and/or justice on the nation. The point of contention is not whether the ends are good but how such ends are achieved.
Much political activism has honest, Christian intentions—especially what originates from the Left. But its means are often ungodly (Europe has seen its share of these in the twentieth century). Schansberg builds a strong case against the unjust and impractical use of economic redistribution. Whereas Christ’s teaching often concerned poverty and the poverty-stricken, he never colluded with a government or used coercion to achieve his ends. Freedom is essential to the Christian faith, in the same way it was to its founder.

Freedom to choose a Christian life must always be protected, even if that means allowing other lifestyles, which are viewed as sinful, to coexist. The author points out that a forced moral action is not moral, since it is chosen without free will. This can be debated on philosophical grounds, but it is hard to disagree with the fact that something of the moral character of actions is lost when one is not free to do otherwise. And thus Schansberg’s point is conceded.

Schansberg—who is an economist—levels a criticism at the Left’s continual disregard for basic economic theory. Much of the book is based on the economic ideas of supply, demand, and the cost(s) of taking action. Parts of the Christian Left are romantic about the early church, especially the churches of the book of Acts. Although some early Christians lived communally, taking care of one another’s needs, it is clear that they did not live as proto-Communists. That is, the accoutrements of government did not replace Christian charity. The romantic communal (communist) vision of the early church is used to criticize the modern American church, with its reliance on capitalism and private charity. It is a simple calculus: they shared and held things together; whereas we divide and conquer, brother against brother. Who is more Christian? Clearly, the former were better Christians, at least in the idealized version of the story. But one cannot form an economic policy for the church and state from an example of intra-community charity in the church. Moreover, no serious economist still supports the theory of Communism as a viable economics for any community. It is bad for all, everywhere, and at all times.

Nevertheless, many of the most respected modern economists do oppose all forms of governmental economic action; they trust in the Invisible Hand. Although this is the best method of wealth creation, it is not a Christian economic policy in the way that marriage is a Christian institution. At best, it is merely not an anti-Christian economics. Thus, it is here that Schansberg seems to fall into the idol worship from which he warns both the Right and Left to flee. He wants Classical Liberal activism in the name of Christ, “and thus makes little mention of the failures of unrestrained capitalism to protect the consumer—for which he is so concerned, the Creation, and the church.” The modern corporation, with its pretenses to personhood, should also have been considered in relation to Biblical teaching and Christian theology. The market should be something which is conceptually divided from both church and state—although it is impossible to free it from either in practice—so that one can see what the Christian should subject to the market and what he should withhold. No matter how the topic would be engaged, the Christian must deal with the free market neither as a neutral aspect of normal life nor as a Christian form of economics, but as a powerful force that must be controlled, lest it control us. Even Adam Smith himself understood the necessity of virtue in this capacity, as illustrated by his early writings.

A general concern of the author is how the legislation of morality is seen by non-Christians. Central to the Christian faith is the spread of the Gospel, which includes Christian virtues, some of which have a public nature. Activism is the usual way these make it into politics. Since not everyone is Christian, such activism must be viewed both from the eyes of the believer and the non-believer. Ultimately, salvation is the goal of the church, and thus Christians must be careful what image of God, the church, and her members they portray.

Schansberg does a thorough job of justifying his methods with Biblical support and empirical evidence. By presenting a biblical justification and following it with secular and practical reasoning, both the spiritual and rational are addressed. Because the economic and political discussion that follow are always in the context of a Christian worldview, a Christian can be satisfied that in acquiescing he is not in effect sacrificing his beliefs. Whether such policies are wise and would be effective toward the intended end is another matter.
Yet, following the recommendations in this book would be a daring task indeed: It would require a great amount of activism both against social programs and for more lenient economic policies. It would call for an end on the war on drugs and the battle against abortion, dissolution of the department of education and increased education about adoption. It would drive the partisans crazy because its political inconsistency would result from its ideological consistency.

To any partisan Schansberg’s stance is radical. However, he asks only that the political Christian obey the first commandment, put church before state, and crush the idol of government. Otherwise, let Caesar be. Christ said it to Pilate, “My kingdom is not of this world.”  Even if one has less trust in Classical Liberalism than Schansberg, his first principles would nevertheless serve as sound guidance.


6 Responses to “Jesus, the Libertarian”
  1. joel kauffman says:

    I take this book to be the ranting of an ultra conservative screwball with absolutely no understanding of the philosophical back round of the writers of our Constitution. They based that document on the writings of such men as Voltaire, Locke, Hume and of course Tom Paine. Peddle this stuff somewhere else. Maybe Hagee would like it.

  2. eric schansberg says:

    Thanks for your kind words. A few comments by way of reply:

    -Libertarian political philosophy does not necessarily imply moral laxity. It merely speaks to whether govt should be invoked to deal with various forms of (acknowledged) moral laxity. A great example is John 8– where Jesus doesn’t chuck any rocks but does exhort the adulteress to leave her life of sin.

    -I’m not sure about the extent to which Church and State should mix. In any case, the larger issue is surely the impact of the State on the Church rather than vice versa. Beyond that, religious belief and the State must mix. One cannot form political beliefs in a religion-less vacuum.

    -As for policy prescriptions, I try to distinguish between active and passive forms of support and opposition. For example, I think it is prohibitively difficult to make a case for Christian political activism against gambling. But it does not follow that Christians should devote energy and resources to fight for legalized gambling.

    -Finally, an overarching theme– and again, I may fail to be clear enough on this. But I’d say the book (or at least my beliefs) are more anti-govt than pro-market. In other words, it is a negative approach to the question of the extent to which Christians should embrace govt as a godly and practical means to godly ends– rather than a positive defense of markets per se.

    Thanks again for your thoughtful review.
    Grace, eric

  3. Robert says:

    The libertarianism Mr. Schansberg is apparently celebrating is that which assumes, supports, and inculcates the notion of the autonomous individual. This doctrine is fundamentally incompatible with Trinitarian Christianity. It is destructive (that such destruction is “creative” is little comfort) of family, community, culture, and Church.

    I sympathize with his rejection of the totalizing State. But being asked to choose between the two modern heresies of centralized utopia and libertarian anarchy is not much of a choice. Instead, let us seek the mind of the Church and Christian tradition. Let them speak into and shine a light on the the Modern mind rather than us attempting to fit them into these Modern boxes.

  4. eric schansberg says:

    Mr. Kauffman provides a rant while accusing me of the same.

    To the more thoughtful post of Mr. Pankey, a few thoughts:

    1.) I don’t celebrate Libertarianism per se. I find that Christian political activity lines up nicely with the recommendations of Libertarian thought.

    2.) I don’t get to those conclusions through the assumptions of Libertarian which cannot be fully reconciled with a Christian worldview.

    3.) I neither advocate anarchy nor see Christian activism in utopian terms. I also advocate a stronger role for the church to pursue its Biblical callings.

  5. Scott Pennington says:

    1) the passage wherein Jesus says, “Render unto Caesar . . .” was an escape from a trap laid by the Jewish authorities (as was the passage concerning the woman taken in adultery). It is an example of His wisdom whereby he escaped the trap, not an exhortation to separation of church and state.

    2)”. . . but it is hard to disagree with the fact that something of the moral character of actions is lost when one is not free to do otherwise.” The argument about allowing “moral laxity” instead of imposing a Christian moral law does not stand up to logical criticism. Many laws restrict moral choices. Merely mandating that Christian morality be a protected option for those that chose it is insufficient. Refraining from murder, incest, adultery, etc. should not just be options but mandatory. Such a Christian libertarianism is not at all Christian but totally libertarian.

    3)”A great example is John 8– where Jesus doesn’t chuck any rocks but does exhort the adulteress to leave her life of sin.” A woman who had been caught in the act of adultery was brought to Jesus. The Jews who brought her there wished Him to judge her under the Law of Moses. They did this because Roman law prohibited the Jews from executing offenders. Thus, Christ was caught between a rock and a hard place (much like in the “Render unto Caesar” situation). His solution was to escape by using the nuances of Jewish law: As head of the bet din (the Jewish court hearing the case) it was His right to qualify witnesses. In such a case, the witnesses themselves had to be the ones to cast the first stones. He decided that the standard for reliable witnesses in this particular case was sinlessness since birth. None could meet it and thus the woman was spared (in accordance with Jewish law). He did not condone adultery, nor did he abolish the death penalty. All He did was escape a trap using divine wisdom.

    4)”Much political activism has honest, Christian intentions—especially what originates from the Left.” That is simply untrue. Liberal Christianity is an attempt to gut traditional Christian theology and morality and insert modern progressive liberalism. It is disingenuous and evil.

    5) Finally, a general observation: It is tempting to look at the New Testament period as a romantic ideal. In fact, there was considerable persecution because Christians lacked political power. Eventually, due to evangelism and Constantine’s desire to unite his empire, Christianity became the dominant religion of the empire. Post-Christian society has degenerated into unspeakable evil. That is not to say that Christendom was anywhere near perfect. But the normalization and institutionalization of sin as rights is largely a post-Christian phenomenon. Better to have a less free society where Christian morality is enforced than a libertarian/pagan one.

    The moral climate of a society perpetuates itself. Culture forms the public’s sensibilities every bit, if not more, than the public forms culture. This is so because culture tends to be formed by the few, the leaders (for purposes of this discussion, I consider the American press to be a sort of fourth branch of government and a leader). In establishing a society wherein there is a synergy between the Church and state in which the state enforces Christian morality, you are not just imposing an unwanted morality on some of the public. You are also forming the morality of many others along Christian standards. On the other hand, if you allow all points of view to be equal, you are not only allowing everyone to indulge themselves at will, you are also educating future generations to be immoral.

    Freedom is the problem, not the solution.

  6. Steve says:

    Ha! Wow … that last post was something else. I hope he meant “License is the problem, not the solution.” Because saying “Freedom is the problem” is about as anti-Christian and anti-Founding Fathers as I can imagine.

    License is the ability to do as you will in accordance with permission from a governing body. Most people, for instance, get in trouble with the law for killing because they don’t have a license to do so. But some people are licensed by the government to kill and would not be put in prison for doing so.

    Meanwhile anyone is FREE to kill another, but they may not be allowed by government (in which case they get in trouble if caught); and they certainly don’t have license from God, excepting perhaps a defense position. Here, they will reap what they sow in one way or another.

    In other words, a Christian (or those of most any faith) should trust in freedom, because it comes inherently with responsibility. What they should mistrust, perhaps, is government license.

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