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Theonomy’s “Radical Libertarianism”
Apr 12, 2012
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Opinions have been exchanged over the relationship between Christianity and libertarianism. Some of these have had reference to the heritage of theonomy (or Christian Reconstruction) and the use of the term “libertarianism.” One writer criticizes “professing theonomists” who support the modern Liberty movement with appeal to R.J. Rushdoony’s works:

if Rushdoony ever used the term “libertarian” to describe himself, these professing theonomists commit the fallacy of equivocation. For if Rushdoony considered himself a libertarian, he certainly did not mean it in the sense Ron Paul does. Thus while Ron Paul and Rushdoony may have in common the word libertarianism, they surely do not have in common its meaning; they might as well use two different words.

While I would certainly acknowledge a particular foundational theological difference between the two overall philosophies,(1) the practical political platform of both is strikingly similar. They had much more than the mere word in common.

And we know that whatever is held in common here is ultimately borrowed theonomic capital.

More importantly, in most cases, it is this practical aspect—lower taxes, honest money, balanced budgets, minimal government, end to empire, etc.—to which both sides refer with the label “libertarian,” and thus the charge of equivocation does not hold up. For in the scope of political structure and law, the two in fact do have the same meaning.

This is clear from Rushdoony’s writings. Rushdoony (RJR) strongly compared his view of civil government (“theocracy”) to libertarianism—and not just libertarianism, but “the closest thing to radical libertarianism that can be had.” He wrote,

Few things are more commonly misunderstood than the nature and meaning of theocracy. It is commonly assumed to be a dictatorial rule by self-appointed men who claim to rule for God. In reality, theocracy in Biblical law is the closest thing to a radical libertarianism that can be had.(2)

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Let that sink in: “the closest thing to a radical libertarianism that can be had.”

This was not from some occasional article or passing thought. It was from a Chalcedon Foundation Position Paper, titled “The Meaning of Theocracy.” If this is not a definitive statement, nothing is.

In other words, just to be clear: in terms at least of political platform, Rushdoony’s theonomic theocracy was “the closest thing to a radical libertarianism that can be had.”

It is important to note here that RJR was not redefining “libertarian.” He was not defining “libertarian” in terms of his theocratic views, but just the opposite. He was defining theonomy in terms of the commonly understood libertarianism of his day—which would have been theoretically secular and humanistic at its foundation (though some Christians embraced it).

In other words, RJR he could praise this secular “radical libertarianism” for its political theory without personally accepting its theological foundations. The point was that anything which reduces the power of the state to its biblical proportions is an improvement toward a biblical society, and thus is to some degree welcome:

What we today fail to see, and must recapture, is the fact that the basic government is the self-government of covenant man; then the family is the central governing institution in Scripture. . . . Civil government must be one form of government among many, and a minor one.(3)

Indeed, “The state in Scripture is a minimal institution, and so too is the church as an institution. The rule of God’s law is essentially through the lives of men as they apply their faith, and as they create tithe agencies to govern various areas and needs. Where faith wanes, then theocracy wanes.(4)

Perhaps without irony, Rushdoony’s “minimal institution” finds a counterpart in the Libertarian Party’s own tagline: “Minimum government, Maximum freedom.” This is, of course, not to endorse the Libertarian Party, but only to show the basic goal in regard to political power is nearly identical.

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None of this is to say RJR did not qualify his own view, or to ignore his critiques of the philosophical foundations of humanism. But it does mean that as far as the goal of minimizing statist power and political centralization—the two philosophies can work together to promote the common benefit of minimal government.

There is more that must be said in regard to this, and I will write about it in the near future, but for now, it is important to clear the air on this matter.

So let it be clear, Rushdoony did not necessarily, in all contexts, have a different definition of “libertarianism” from the political platform per se.

Nor did he find it necessary constantly to distant himself from secular or “humanistic” libertarians as if by working with them his own message would be compromised.

This latter point is important as the same critic from above has made it a point: he implies it is unacceptable even to recognize secular libertarians in a book, or to give “such libertarians as Rothbard, F. A. Hayek, and Ludwig Von Mises” public approbation.

But RJR was unabashed in his approbation for these very guys,(5) and many more. Consider the Introduction to his Roots of Inflation:

One of the encouraging facts of our time is the rise of many able economists who are calling attention to the economic fallacies of our time. These are men of the Austrian school in the main. My debt to them is great. . . . The writings of many men, such as Von Mises, Röpke, Hazlitt, Greaves, Reisman, and many, many more have taught me much.(6)

The same Intro acknowledges Gary North and other Christians, but also adds a hat tip to secular libertarian think tank, “The Foundation for Economic Education” (FEE). RJR actually did some of his early writing for FEE.

If there were ever a time to be concerned over equivocation, it would have using a libertarian publication to advance such a libertarian message, especially if you meant something different by “libertarian” than they did.

Rush apparently had no qualms about their relationship, or about using secular libertarians or libertarian organizations to advance his message.

Further, Rush footnoted their works as authorities on particular subjects: it appears he took part of his critique of meritocracy from Hayek’s Constitution of Liberty, as his footnote reveals.(7) He sourced that very Ludwig von Mises (Human Action) and Hayek again (this time Capitalism and the Historians) in order to support a claim about leftist revisionism.(8) Elsewhere, he cited Von Mises’ view of “a harmony of interests” within a free-market economy.(9)

Sometimes he went beyond mere footnote. On one notable occasion, RJR wrote, “One of the more important books of this century was Albert Jay Nock’s Our Enemy, The State (Caxton Printers, Caldwell, Idaho, 1935ff.).”

Nock was a one-time Episcopal minister who had left the clergy and, it appears, the faith altogether. He spent his later years as something of a recluse bordering on misanthropy.

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And it is not that RJR did not know these things: he acknowledged their differences. He went on to say of Nock:

Without agreeing with Nock in all things, it is necessary to agree with him that the modern state is man’s new church and saving institution. The state, however, is an anti-social institution, determined to suppress and destroy all the historic and religiously grounded powers of society. With F.D. Roosevelt and The New Deal, the goal of the statists became openly “the complete extinction of social power through absorption by the State.”(10)

Apparently, Rush had no problem with applauding the libertarian principles of people who did not fully share his Christian view of libertarianism—even if they were secular, agnostic libertarians.

Indeed, he thought Nock had written one of the most important books in the whole last century. Indeed, RJR said “it is necessary to agree with him.”

Sometimes, it is necessary to agree even with secular libertarians.

Not only did RJR footnote and uphold these guys himself, he published other people who did, too. He published Gary North’s articles in the appendices to his Institutes. In these appendices, North footnotes Mises three times(11) and later refers to F. A. Hayek’s “masterful book” The Road to Serfdom.(12) There was no outcry from Rushdoony as publisher.

Like I said, there is much more to say on this issue. In fact, it will be vital for me in the near future to make some important delineations. But for now, it is important to understand that the charge of equivocation against us theonomists who point to congruities between the political platforms of Rushdoony and representatives of the Liberty movement is absolutely unfounded.

There is no reason, then, for the sake of the advance of liberty, that we should distance ourselves from the vital contributions of the libertarian-minded in this regard.

This leaves open the question of to what extent a theonomist could support particular libertarians in office—which also raises important questions in turn. For example, if the choice for a president, or a nominee, were between a libertarian-ish Evangelical—who was not purely theonomic in his philosophical foundations—and any form of statist, wouldn’t this still technically be a “lesser of two evils” vote? Is there any difference in these types of cases at all? Are the differences in degree only, or also in principle? I hope to get to these questions before, say, late August.

In the meantime I think the liberty movement is vitally important in the sense that it is raising awareness, and more importantly, asking very candid and tough questions that have not been asked for centuries. This fervor and honesty must continue for future decades if real change is to come. And ultimately, the movement must grow foundationally Christian or it will fail.

The question now is about how best to proceed in the work of advancing liberty.

For the goals of the liberty movement, it will not be sufficient to achieve the presidency. It may, in fact, not even be necessary; but it certainly will not be sufficient. Liberty is not achieved through the mechanisms of tyranny—that is, the very offices of the central State that bred the tyranny to begin with.

Even if we, through the presidency, successfully stripped away all the tyranny that has grown up since 1789, what good would it do to takes us back to the top of the same slippery slope we’ve already gone down? It would be at best a holding action. A greater foundational change is needed.

Rush is clear that this must be done by spread of the Gospel and Christian self-government, not by top-down political implementation:

The essential government comes from the self-government of the Christian man. The U.S. was best governed when it was least governed, not because less control from the state was the essential ingredient but because Christian self-government was central in the eras of good government. Without strong, self-governing Christians taking back self-government under Christ in health, welfare, education, and more, we cannot return by politics to less statism.(13)

What this type of statement does is alert us to the main political enemy: statism.

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In light of this, the modern liberty movement has Christian enemies on two fronts: those who are statists, and those who are too pure to acknowledge a “libertarian” who is not theonomic enough.

The truth is that there are very few if any of the latter. Most are some form of statist when it comes down to it, and statism is by far the greater enemy than too much liberty.

And while RJR rightly believed we could not roll back statism by mere politics alone, it is a much greater shame that so many Christians ignore or dismiss the liberty movement for largely bogus reasons while trying to achieve aspects of a biblical society (life, marriage) through the unbiblical means of the central state.

RJR would applaud the modern Liberty movement, even if he would critique its theological foundations. But as for the statists, RJR called their attempts “the practical denial of Christ.”(14)

Choose this day whom you will serve.Endnotes:

  1. and it is ultimately vital, and I would side with Rushdoony()
  2. Roots of Reconstruction (Vallecito, CA: Ross House Books, 1991), 63.()
  3. Roots, 64.()
  4. Systematic Theology: In Two Volumes (Vallecito, CA: Ross House Books, 1991), 2:1141.()
  5. With the exception of Rothbard.()
  6. Ross House Books, 1982, i.()
  7. Rushdoony, The Institutes of Biblical Law (The Craig Press, 1973), 643n.()
  8. Intellectual Schizophrenia (Vallecito, CA: Ross House Books, 1961 [reprinted 2002]), 15.()
  9. Roots of Inflation, 85.()
  10. Roots of Reconstruction (Vallecito, CA: Ross House Books, 1991), 65.()
  11. pp. 802, 804, 806()
  12. p. 819()
  13. Systematic Theology, 2:1142; my emphasis.()
  14. The Foundations of Social Order, 170.()
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About author

Dr. Joel McDurmon

Dr. Joel McDurmon

Joel McDurmon, Ph.D. in Theology from Pretoria University, is the Director of Research for American Vision. He has authored seven books and also serves as a lecturer and regular contributor to the American Vision website. He joined American Vision's staff in the June of 2008. Joel and his wife and four sons live in Dallas, Georgia.

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