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Libertarianism vs. Theocracy: Is Libertarianism a Christian Political Philosophy?
Apr 18, 2012
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by Kenneth Gary Talbot, Ph.D.
President & Professor of Theology and Apologetics, Whitefield Theological Seminary
Board Member, American Vision, Inc.

The late Rev. R. J. Rushdoony once 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.”[1] The term “theocracy” is, indeed, a misunderstood concept even among historic Orthodox and Evangelical Protestant Christianity. The misunderstanding is especially true in the 21st Century with the rise of “radical fundamentalism” among various world religions. Such radical movements have always given rise to “dictatorial” rule.

Theocracy, however, as properly understood in terms of Biblical law within the context of Hebraic and Christian theology denies the right of the dictatorial rule by one or a few men. The context must be understood in light of the Old and New Testament, God alone, as Creator, has given His Law-Word to rule and judge all men and nations. The question might naturally occur to a thinking individual, why did Rev. Rushdoony make a comparison then of “theocracy” with “radical libertarianism?” If one reads his article carefully in which this comparison is given, it will become evident as to his meaning. However, before we clarify this expression, we first need to understand the historical context and the development of political libertarianism.

The Historical Development of Libertarianism

It is helpful to understand the etymological development of a term, its historic context in which it was coined, and the ideology which it represented at that particular time. Yet, it is important that we remember terms eventually come to mean a variety of things, some not so closely associated with their etymological beginning. According to Webster’s 1828 dictionary, the word libertarian is derived from the Latin term liber meaning free or libertas which means liberty.[2] The term means “pertaining to liberty, or to the doctrine of free will, as opposed to the doctrine of necessity (or determinism).”[3] The term libertarian as it represents a political theory was derived from the French cognate Libertarie meaning anarchist meaning “the absence of governmental authority or the state of lawlessness.”[4] Libertarian political philosophy as we know it today has its roots in the classical liberalism of the European political philosophers. Some of these philosophers inspired the post-revolutionary governments of the latter 18th century in both the United States and France.

The basic tenets of this classical liberalism can be summed up as follows: Every individual person has a right to be left alone, to live out their lives independent of government and other individuals, just as long as they do not interfere or infringe on the rights of others so that they can legitimately pursue their lives independently of other individuals and the state. Thus, the only valid reason for the existence of government is to protect these rights of the individual citizens so that they can pursue, without interference or infringement, their desires and actions in an autonomous manner. The Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy defines ‘libertarianism’ as a philosophy that, “… advocate[s] the maximization of individual rights, especially those connected with the operation of a free market, and the minimizing of the role of the state.”[5]

The historical context in which this political-economic system is developed is critically important. What needs to be considered is that classical libertarianism must be considered in its historical context. Libertarianism originally was the term coined in 1857 by the Frenchman Joseph Déjacque (born December 27, 1821, in Paris, and died in 1864 in Paris) applying it to himself in defense against Pierre-Joseph Proudhon. The term itself was representative of his libertarian anarchical political philosophy.[6] However, this is not the first time the term libertarian was used. The term itself was used during the final years of the Enlightenment where the term was used philosophically to represent those who held to free will over-against determinism.

Classical Libertarianism: What does it teach?

In classical libertarianism, the main concept that is promoted is that of freedom of the individual over against any and all forms of determinism. Libertarianism, we maintain, contains the idea that man is free from all external constraints be it an over-powering individual or individuals (Dictatorial Rule) or an over-powering state (National Collectivism) or an over-powering church or God (Theocracy). Historically, the term libertarian is used in a variety of ways: first as representing classical liberalism; second as representing libertarian socialism or communism; third, a substitute for anarcho-communist; or as a synonym for anarchism.

The early libertarian movement represented a view that man had the absolute authority over his decisions. His decisions were an extension of his rights to be absolutely free from any form of infringement or constraint that would hinder him from choosing or determining for himself! Dagobert Runes in his Dictionary of Philosophy writes that freedom of the will meant, “The freedom of self-determination consisting in decisions independent of external constraint but in accordance with the inner motives of ideals of the agent.”[7] This type of ‘freedom of self-determination’ is nothing more than humanistic autonomy. It is individualism taken to the extreme. Even in matters pertaining to economics it is unbiblical. Dr. Rushdoony wrote:

Man without God seeks to expand his power exponentially, whereas, man under God seeks to place his entire being under the law of God. Statist power will increase and develop to the degree that the state and its peoples are not Christian. The non-Christian who wants to limit the power of the state will seek then to increase his own. Humanistic libertarianism is an exceptionally good critic of state power, especially in the economic realm, but it then warps its own position too commonly by replacing the power of the state with the power of the individual to be lawless sexually; homosexual freedom has become basic to all too many libertarians. The Marquis de Sade pursued the logic of libertarianism, or anarchism, relentlessly. Total freedom for the individual means total power to do anything; every man as his own god means every man as his own law and judge. Karl Marx understood that this anarchism undermined socialism and communism, which presupposes a common order, and hence his bitter attack on Max Stirner for his radical anarchism. Without God and His law man and the state will expand their powers ceaselessly. Total statism and total anarchy are the outcomes.”[8]

Dr. Rushdoony demonstrates that the classical usage of the term libertarianism is to be rejected because it views man as “god” and promotes “lawlessness.” In this same context he also states: “Thus, libertarian economics, which holds strictly to totally private property, leaves property as rootless as does socialistic economics: it divorces it from the past and the future. Property then becomes existential: its meaning is limited to the meaning the existentialist individual gives to it, and no more. Socialism, and also existentialism, ties property to the existence of the state.”[9]

The point is that libertarianism, in and of itself, which operates with the philosophical ideology that man is to be self-determining with absolute power and authority over his own life and choices (rights) is to be rejected by Christians as being just as horrific as an ungodly statism. Why? It is because both notions are antithetical to biblical law and fails to understand God’s absolute right of ownership and therefore to rule over His creation. Libertarianism in and of its self is not Christian! However, in the right context of a theocracy, that is, where God’s law is properly instituted in our society, there are libertarian concepts that are comparative in principle and if modified by the Word of God, do closely align with the Scripture.

Libertarianism is not Christian

It is in this context that we can now understand the use of the term Libertarianism in Rushdoony’s language when he says “In reality, theocracy in Biblical law is the closest thing to a radical libertarianism that can be had.” It is not that theocracy as expressed in biblical law is libertarianism, not at all! Rather, a Christian theocracy in the context of applying biblical law, where God has, through Jesus Christ’s redemption, freed man from sin to serve God according to His Law-Word (self-government), and restricts the power of government as originally intended by Him. St. Paul says in Romans 13 that all power and authority comes from God alone. Government is under the authority of God and His Law-Word.

The purpose of Government is to punish evil and promote and protect the good, not as the state defines evil and good, but as God defines them in the Holy Bible. In this way man is freed from unbiblical restraints of an oppressive state and yet is restricted from excessive individualism that seeks to free him from God’s rule. Dr. Rushdoony states:

There is another important aspect to God’s law. It may seem to a modern lawyer or judge that 613 laws are too few. The truth is even more radical. As we shall see, of the 613 laws, many are not enforceable by man, but only by God. This means that the jurisdictions of church and state are very limited. We have here a godly libertarianism which severely limits the powers of all human agencies. Biblical law seems oppressive only to those who want freedom to sin. God’s laws have as their purpose our good. In Deuteronomy 10:13, God orders us through Moses: “To keep the commandments of the Lord, and his statutes, which I command thee this day for thy good.”[10]

Now the opening statement by Dr. Rushdoony is in the context of what the meaning of “theocracy” is and he states that most people today do not understand what the term itself implies. They see it as a “dictatorial rule” of a few over the whole. Then he makes a comparison: “In reality, theocracy in Biblical law is the closest thing to a radical libertarianism that can be had.” It has a strong emphasis against an oppressive dictatorial rule by men. In this sense, it is just the opposite! The closest thing to compare a Biblical Theocracy would be a “radical libertarianism.” God’s Word clearly advocates a limited state power and authority. The Bible also speaks to the rights of the people to be self-governing, but only within the context of His Law-Word. What classical libertarianism lacks is “Biblical law” and that is why it is rejected by Dr. Rushdoony, and rightfully so.

Conclusion

Libertarianism today is not Christian. Modern libertarianism does seek “a form” of self-government and seeks “to limit” the power of the state or government, but it does not do so in terms of God’s law, but rather in the declaration of the absolute rights of men. Therefore, both authoritarian statism and authoritarian individualism always eventually leads to tyranny in one form or another; and in relation to God’s law they are both anarchist! Once example of this can be contextualized when Libertarian Ron Paul was asked – what influence would Christianity have on his political decision making? His answer was clearly humanistic. Paul stated: “Well, my religious beliefs wouldn’t affect [my presidency]. My religious beliefs affect my character in the way I treat people and the way I live. The only thing that would affect me in the way I operate as a president or a congressman is my oath of office and my promises that I’ve made to the people.”[11]

While I have a great deal of respect for Rep. Ron Paul, and hold too many of his recommendations about changes that need to be made in our country, his Methodist “semi-pelagian” theology is bankrupt as to how, as professed Christian, he should govern our nation if chosen to be President. This is the problem. This kind of libertarianism has no biblical world and life view which sees all things under the absolute power and authority of Jesus Christ our Supreme King. I doubt that Rep. Paul has any idea that he is promoting a humanistic political-economic theory. However, if he does, then he is simply advocating the “pretended autonomy” of man and while it is conservative, it is not Biblical. While much of his ideas would be pragmatically helpful, they are not the biblical solutions to solve our nation’s problems. For the Christian, the answers to America’s problems cannot be found in an unbiblical statism or individualism, but only from the Law-Word of God.

The warnings are given to us in Proverbs 14:34: Righteousness exalts a nation, But sin is a reproach to any people; and in Psalms 9:17: The wicked shall be turned into hell, and all the nations that forget God. The blessings of God cannot come when a nation refuses to follow the Law-Word of God. The blessings of God only come when those who honor Him and His Law-Word are being implemented into our society. The Wise King Solomon wrote in Proverbs 29:2: When the righteous are in authority, the people rejoice; but when a wicked man rules, the people groan. As Bible-believing Christian we desire neither a humanistic libertarianism nor humanistic statism. Rather, our desire is for a Christian Republic where true justice is rightfully understood in light of the “crown rights of King Jesus” that is, where all men stand equally before the Moral Law of God and where that Law is rightfully enforced.


[1] Roots for Reconstruction, pg. 63, Chalcedon Position Paper No. 15

[2] An American Dictionary of the English Language, 1828, Foundation for American Christian Education

[3] An American Dictionary of the English Language, 1828, Foundation for American Christian Education

[4] Merrian-Webster On-line Dictionary, http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/anarchy

[5] The Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy, Second Edition, Simon Blackburn, Oxford University Press, 2005

[6] Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas. Volume One: From Anarchy to Anarchism (300CE-1939). Montreal, Canada: Black Rose Books

[7] Dictionary of Philosophy, Dagobert D. Runes, 16th Edition, Revised, Philosophical Library, Inc. Copyright 1960

[8] Institutes of Biblical Law Volume III, Rousas John Rushdoony, pg. 156, Ross House Books, Copyright 1999

[9] Institutes of Biblical Law Volume I, Rousas John Rushdoony, pg. 392-393, Ross House Books, Copyright 1982

[10] Op Cit, pg. 157

[11] http://berkleycenter.georgetown.edu/resources/quotes/ron-paul-on-the-influence-of-his-religious-beliefs-on-his-office-at-the-cnn-florida-gop-debate

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About author

Kenneth Talbot

Dr. Kenneth Talbot is President of Whitefield College and Theological Seminary. He is an ordained minister in the Reformed Presbyterian Church General Assembly and serves as the Presiding Minister at Christ Presbyterian Church. Dr. Talbot is a Board Member of American Vision. He is an author and hosts four different podcast shows at WhitefieldMedia.com and is the host of the webcast show rightwingreverend.com. He lives in Lakeland, Florida, with his wife and daughter.

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