Travis Hallman, 5/10/2018
Much has already been written about the Founders of this nation being Deists rather than orthodox Christians. That is, they had a worldview that a Supreme Being created the world and set things in motion, but then backed off from intervening in nature and human affairs. Nevertheless, part of that understanding was that the Creator had given human beings inalienable rights, and that when such rights were jeopardized by a tyrannical government, it is justified to rebel against it. In the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson wrote:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men [sic] are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness, –That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, –That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the people to alter or abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.
Even though active participation in organized Christianity has declined in America, it is worthwhile to explore the compatibility between the ideals of Libertarianism and the Judeo-Christian tradition that has shaped our history. One of the principles of Libertarianism is that, as Jefferson stated above, governments derive “their just powers from the consent of the governed.” A large majority of the governed have accepted the judeo-christian tradition as the basis for our national culture, even if they don’t participate in organized religion.
Judeo-Christian tradition first came to America along with the European colonizers who started settling in North America at the end of the 16th century and beginning of the 17th century. They saw themselves as the Chosen People of God—children of Abraham by faith if not by lineage. Therefore, they felt they had a God-given right to take land that was already occupied by a large, well-developed civilization. This follows how the ancient Israelites had taken land they believed was promised to them by God, even though it was already inhabited by the Canaanites.
Therefore, it is important to understand how both the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament shaped the mindset of the European colonizers. The history of the Hebrews involves a people who had been enslaved in Egypt. In a dramatic and seemingly miraculous rescue, they escaped their bondage, and after a period of wandering in the wilderness, were successful in wrestling the land of Canaan away from its original inhabitants. Importantly, however, they were commanded to continually ritually remember their origins.
In the beginning of their occupation, the Hebrews were organized in a loose confederation of twelve tribes, each independent of the others, with respected elders giving guidance. Whenever an external threat arose from surrounding peoples, a charismatic leader (called a “judge”) would emerge to galvanize the tribes to band together to respond to the threat. When the threat was defeated, the judge would return to obscurity. This seemed to work well and runs parallel to the Libertarian value of local government, where leaders are known and actions are taken by consensus of the community.
However, the Israelites began looking at other nations around them and became anxious about their growth in political power and influence. Around 1000 BCE, the Israelites began to clamor that they needed a king to protect them from the surrounding nations. The prophet Samuel warned them that this was not necessary because God was their king and was watching over them. If they adopted a human king, the result would lead to taxation, conscription of young persons to serve in the military, and in forced labor. Nevertheless, the people persisted, and Samuel anointed a man named Saul as the first King of Israel, claiming him to be the one God had chosen. This story is recounted in 1 Samuel 8-9.
Samuel’s prediction came true and a century later, during the time of King Solomon, the taxation and conscription had become so onerous that it led to civil war and the dividing of the land into two kingdoms—Israel in the north and Judah in the south. It seems the natural tendency of government is to become bloated and bureaucratic.
One of the basic tenets of Libertarianism is non-aggression toward one’s neighbors and their property. This value can be compared to the Golden Rule espoused by most religions. Jesus stated it as part of his famous Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 7:12): “In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the Law and the prophets.” According to the Jewish Talmud, Rabbi Hillel, who was a contemporary of Jesus, taught something very similar based on his understanding of the Jewish Law (Torah). It is unfortunate that the European settlers did not apply this Golden Rule to the native inhabitants already living in North America, nor to the African slaves brought to the continent.
The summary of the Ten Commandments, according to Jesus, was to love God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength; and to love your neighbor as yourself. (Matthew 22:37-40) Later, the Protestant Reformer Martin Luther would write in his Small Catechism that the commandments are not just prohibitive, but are also prescriptive—that is, calling for benevolent proactive actions on behalf of one’s neighbors. For example, in explaining the commandment, “You shall not steal,” Luther said that it is not enough merely to refrain from stealing from a neighbor oneself, but also to “help them improve and protect their property and income.” Similarly, the commandment against murder admonishes us to likewise “help and support them in all of life’s needs.” Certainly Libertarians encourage voluntary support and encouragement of one’s neighbors.
At issue for Libertarians is using government coercion through taxation to redistribute wealth and resources to those in need, rather than relying on voluntary altruism. There is evidence to suggest that non-profit social service agencies—both faith-based and secular—have a better and more efficient track record of meeting human needs than government agencies. They also tend to be marked with genuine compassion and they enable volunteers to support with their time, energy, and skills, as well as financially.
The prophet Ezekiel pointed this out in Chapter 34 of the book that bears his name in the Hebrew Scriptures. “Ah, you shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep?” he cries out in verse two. In this context, “shepherds” refers to politicians. There was a sense in Judaism that the King and his administration should provide for the minimum needs of the populous. But as with Samuel’s earlier warning that only God could be the rightful king, so, too, Ezekiel says that only God is the Good Shepherd.
Jesus also called himself the Good Shepherd, in one of his statements meant to associate himself as the Messiah, the Chosen agent of God—or, as Christians believe, God himself. There is a curious story about Jesus concerning the payment of taxes (found in Matthew 22:15-22; Mark 12:13-17; and Luke 20:20-26). The Jewish authorities try to trap him by asking whether or not one should pay taxes. If he said yes, then he would alienate his fellow Jews, who hated the Roman taxes imposed on them. If he said no, he risked arrest from the Roman authorities. Wisely, he asked them to produce a coin, and then asked whose likeness was on the coin. The answer, of course, was the Emperor, Caesar. Then Jesus responded, “Therefore, give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” On the surface, that may sound like Jesus is supportive of paying taxes. But his skillful and enigmatic answer leaves the question open, “Are taxes actually legitimate? Do they actually belong to the government?” Yes, the government mints money to regulate and expedite commerce, one could argue, therefore it legitimately deserves a tax to pay for that industry. But is it proper and ethical for any government to mint money at all? If so, should bartering also be taxed? These are issues of great concern to Libertarians.
There is actually a subversive undertone to Jesus’ answer about taxes in this passage. For both Jews and Christians believe that everything ultimately belongs to God. So essentially, Jesus is saying, pay taxes if you want, but remember that God created everything, and so it ALL belongs to God.
There are two more passages in the New Testament that need some consideration in terms of what the Bible says about government. The first is Romans 13:1-7 and the second is 1 Peter 2:13-17. Both have been traditionally used by Christians in support of government. It is important to note that many Biblical scholars think those verses in Romans are a later addition and not necessarily a part of Paul’s original letter. Similarly, most scholars agree that the letters bearing Peter’s name were NOT written by the leader of the twelve apostles, Simon Peter.
It is also important to note the context of the time in which these words were written. Christianity was a very small sect within the Roman Empire, and somewhat in competition with Judaism. Therefore, it was beneficial for Jewish leaders to foster enmity against the Christians on the part of the Roman Empire. Christians were said to be impious and seditious because they would not worship the Emperor as a god. These passages were specifically written in order to convey reassurance that Christians were not organized to oppose the rule of Rome.
Centuries later, European Christians living under Nazi power would wrestle with obedience to a government that embraced persecution of the Jews as legal. Some Christians concluded that when laws are unjust, there is a higher divine law that takes precedence. In our own times, the modern Sanctuary movement, in which Christian churches provide safety to undocumented immigrants, hiding them from immigration authorities, is similarly practiced because immigration laws and punitive enforcement of them are deemed unjust.
Finally, we should note that the last book of the Bible, the Revelation of Jesus Christ to St. John, has a very dystopic view of government. Written at the height of Roman persecution of Christianity, it noted that persons could not even conduct commerce—neither buy nor sell—without the stamped approval of the Empire. Libertarians question the multitude of professional and business licenses that are necessary, all of them supported by fees to the State. This book seems to be the antithesis of the passages from Romans and 1 Peter quoted earlier.
This is a very brief overview of some of the ways Judeo-Christian heritage intersects with Libertarian thinking. Judeo-Christian heritage and Libertarian thinking intersections are largely important because consistency improves legitimacy for a philosophy. Questioning, studying, then adopting the values upheld by Judeo-Christians and the values upheld by Libertarians is an option that empowers the individual to have a structured philosophy for decision-making that consistently remains non-contradictory. Neither Judaism nor Christianity are monolithic. There is a wide diversity of opinions within each religious tradition. This article can help Christians to be reminded that no government is perfect, and there is enough overlap between Libertarian principles and Christian principles not to outright reject Libertarianism.
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The author’s views and opinions expressed herein do not necessarily reflect those of the entire Ask A Libertarian Team or its followers.4