Libertarians' ethical gap: Why their alliance with Christians is based on contempt

As they try to attract "values" voters, the liberty crowd seems to forget one thing: government's moral component

Published March 17, 2014 3:45PM (EDT)

Rand and Ron Paul                                                       (AP/Manuel Balce Ceneta/Cliff Owen)
Rand and Ron Paul (AP/Manuel Balce Ceneta/Cliff Owen)

CPAC 2014 banished its would-be atheist booth, but religion was still a fraught issue among its attendees. While the conservatives of CPAC may have cringed at the evangelizing of American Atheists, it hardly proposed a much sturdier vision of the relationship between Christianity and the evolving American right wing.

Christian leaders at the conference, including CitizenLink’s Tom Minnery and Colorado Christian University Centennial Institute director John Andrews, seemed quick to urge Christian voters to accept and support politicians with patently un-Christian positions on various social issues. But this was no typical call for acceptance of imperfection or mercy on the flawed; it was a calculated political move to try to endear libertarian candidates to erstwhile Republican values voters.

Andrews lamented that the media "are doing their utmost to create divisiveness, fractures, factions, back-biting, family squabbles, between all who believe in liberty, limited government, free enterprise, and traditional Judeo-Christian values,” and urged conservative Christian voters to view their differences with libertarian candidates as a mere “family feud.” According to Minnery, "libertarians can learn from social conservatives about the importance of basic moral principles that create the sense of ordered liberty which is so important to our country." In other words, the two Christian leaders had in mind a kind of alliance – not unlike the initial marriage of convenience that brought together the Christian right and free market capitalists under Reagan.

But at least when the Reaganite revolution brought Christian values voters and free marketeers together, the profit-driven sect of the Republican Party was willing to campaign for the maintenance of some Christian political principles, such as the sanctity of life and the primacy of the family. CPAC’s message takes the alliance a step further from its Christian commitments by suggesting, more or less, that Christian values are negotiable so long as policies intended to bolster free market capitalism are upheld.

A brief glance at libertarian polls and policy goals is all that’s needed to underscore what a drastic move this is for the Christian right. Consider, for example, one of the greatest political victories of Christian coalitions within the last century: the Civil Rights movement. Do libertarians take a particularly rosy view of that push for equality and justice, as headed up by venerable Christians like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.? Not at all: Rand Paul famously suggested the matter of ending institutionalized racism should have been left up to, well, the racists who institutionalized it in the first place.

And on values issues, Christian values voters may find libertarians even chillier company. The Libertarian Party states on its website that it is for the legalization of prostitution, a principle that should doubtlessly unsettle members of the Christian right who are otherwise comfortable with its “pro-business” platform. After all, the state need not force individuals to participate in prostitution to nonetheless legitimize and increase engagement in the practice, and if family-oriented conservatives are concerned about the message sent by the legality of abortion, then they should be equally troubled by the prospect of legalized prostitution.

On the topic of abortion, libertarians are much friendlier to the practice than the Christian right. The Public Religion Research Institute’s 2013 American Values Survey found that while a mere 29% of white evangelicals would oppose legislation making it more difficult to get an abortion, a robust 57% of libertarians would oppose such legislation. Further, while only 29% of white evangelicals feel it should be legal for doctors to administer life-ending drugs to terminally ill patients, 70% of libertarians believe physician-assisted suicide should be legal.

And, while libertarians are still split on gay marriage – with 40% in favor of and 59% opposed – their divide is nothing on white evangelicals, among whom only 19% favor, while a solid 80% oppose. For a political faction so incensed at the idea of being taken to court for refusing gay couples wedding cakes and event photography, the alliance with a demographic so significantly less committed on the topic of gay marriage seems outright bizarre.

If the alliance is meant to be merely a matter of political convenience, then it’s short-sighted on behalf of religious conservatives. While it may benefit leaders like Minnery and Andrews to behave as though there is no moral or ethical component to government, there of course is. When we propose our ideal governments, we’re proposing in part a vision of justice – no one, after all, proposes an ideal government which is inherently unjust. In the debate over religious liberty, for example, members of the religious right insisted upon exemption from legal repercussions for turning away gay customers because in their view a government that allows religious people to practice their religion faithfully is the most just.

But that isn’t the case for libertarians. Take it from their party platform: “As Libertarians, we seek a world of liberty; a world in which all individuals are sovereign over their own lives and no one is forced to sacrifice his or her values for the benefit of others.” In other words, libertarians believe justice is accomplished by the maximization of liberty or freedom in the individual life. This is not the vision of Christianity, as is evinced by the Christian right's position on abortion: to maximize freedom would be to make sure each woman is free to choose to do what she likes with her fetus, but Christians resist such an arrangement on the grounds that the good should take precedence over neutral liberties.

And to judge by Minnery and Andrews, that way of thinking about Christian ethics is slipping. In order to ensure the future of free market capitalism – the one arena in which Christian right wingers and libertarians do overlap – people like Minnery and Andrews are willing to sacrifice a long Christian history of campaigning for the good and right. That there is a distinctive ethical gap between libertarianism and Christianity is hardly a barrier so long as everyone can be promised minimal taxes and maximal wealth. CPAC may have banned its atheists, but it’s hard to imagine a more profound contempt for a Christian vision of the moral state or common good than was peddled by Minnery and Andrews.

By Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig

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