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Is that Rushdoony’s libertarianism, or someone else’s?
Apr 19, 2012
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Is American Vision contradicting itself?

If you read my article last Thursday, “Theonomy’s ‘Radical Libertarianism,’” but then read Dr. Talbot’s article from this

Wednesday night, “Libertarianism vs. Theocracy: Is Libertarianism a Christian Political Philosophy?,” you may be asking yourself (or us) questions like that.

Let me assure you there is no—or at most an insignificant—contradiction. This does not mean I don’t have any problems at all with Dr. Talbot’s article, which I will discuss in a moment.

What you’ve witnessed in the two articles is one of the tensions inherent in the work of advancing Christian civilization in the midst of a sinful society. There must be an ideal goal at which to aim. That is theonomy. Dr. Talbot elucidates this. But you must also address the question of how to get there from here, and the question of relationships to less pure theologies and ideologies along the way. This is the tougher assignment.

In short, Dr. Talbot was speaking in terms of theological foundations (with which I agree and also stated in my article), while I was emphasizing the working relationship between our theologically pure view and its parallels elsewhere in terms of political power and law. So in these respects, there is no contradiction, only differing emphases.

In fact, for the record, I am friends with Dr. Talbot. I know him, and I know he can be tenacious debater. And I know if there had been any specific point at which he intended to criticize my article, he would have quoted it and done so. But he didn’t, so I don’t think there are any problems there.

Before I make my critical remarks, let me say that I agree with about 90 percent or so of Dr. Talbot’s piece. Yes, we absolutely must make a distinction between humanistic and biblical foundations of liberty. As readers know, I did this in my article.

At their theological roots, secular and biblical libertarianism are antithetical: the former being based on human autonomy, and the latter on the rule of our Creator and Lawgiver Christ.

This being the case, there is no genuine liberty apart from Christ and His Law. Rushdoony wrote about this in a few places, occasionally criticizing the secular libertarians in the process.

So have I, and Bojidar:

Joel McDurmon:

Murray Rothbard on the Kingdom: A Response

Bojidar Marinov:

Can I be a Libertarian Without Christ?

Classical Liberalism Has No Place to Stand

The Only Possible Defense of Private Property

No Other Single Principle but God and His Image in Man

It might have been helpful of Talbot at least to recognize these before posting what several people have seen as a clear critical response to the views of my last article.

Even so, there is still no excuse for suppressing, ignoring, denying, or even not noticing Rushdoony’s working relationship with many of those very “humanistic” libertarians, as I documented in my article (even though he criticized some of them in other places). This must be explained.

Thus, my criticisms are: First, Dr. Talbot’s article detracts from the more important focus for the immediate time.

Second, it obfuscates the issue in the name of clarifying it.

Third, it poisons the well with unnecessary associations.

Fourth, it does not do justice to Rushdoony’s point about theocracy and “radical libertarianism.”

Fifth, in its criticism of Dr. Paul specifically (something I did not bring up), it is selective and thus unfair.

It is this final point which I find most egregious, and if you do not wish to read the entire article for its length (though I advise you should), you would probably be best enlightened by skipping to the information found in the section “Be Fair to Paul.”

Detraction from focus on substantial and acceptable progress

First, Dr. Talbot’s article detracts from what I consider to be the more important emphasis to be had at this time. Yes, the theological foundations are vital, necessary. They must be stated up front (and they have: thus, the articles linked above). But we must not—and Rushdoony did not—hold them as a litmus test for determining with whom and how we work in the course of history.

There are some people who had presented Rushdoony as holding such a standard of purity, and by that implying very strongly that by the word “libertarianism” he meant something entirely different than is understood in the common vernacular. He did not, and I thought it necessary to clear him of that charge and to clear those of us who had been implicated in “equivocation” of that as well. He worked with and sometimes promoted the works of libertarians, some of whom were even agnostics, and even called Nock’s book Our Enemy: the State one of the most important works of the last century.

Rushdoony’s view also reiterates the more important focus here: statism. Yes, humanistic libertarianism can be a problem and can lead to a Statism of its own down the line. But in our historical context, rolling back state power is our main political objective, and if a devout Christian who happens to lack in his Christian political philosophy in a couple of areas can seriously help us achieve this objective, it is enough. And if we have to be labeled “libertarian” in the process, big deal.

And I think it just as necessary that Christians at this juncture have the same emphasis as Rush often did: engaging practical measures that will strip the power of the state, decentralize political power, end unnecessary war, return to honest money, etc. These are vital practical areas in which we can agree with “libertarians” despite foundational differences. And we should work together in these areas now rather than hold out for . . . what? socially speaking.

Purists who hold out like this remind me of the guy whose neighborhood was flooded: he climbed to his roof and prayed for miracle. His neighbor came by in a crude jon boat, but the man refused the ride saying, “I am confident God will send me my miracle.” The next day the water rose and a boat came by again, only to be refused. On a final day the water was to the man’s still-praying chin and a helicopter flew in lowering a rope ladder, but the man held out for his miracle.

After the man drowned, he met God in heaven and asked why he never received his miracle. God replied, “I sent you two boats and a helicopter, what more did you want?”

And now, some theonomists are missing the lifeboat.

Do not mistake me for what I am saying. I am not advocating “lesser of two evils” voting. Some people say they’d rather have half a loaf than none at all. They miss an important truth: when the whole loaf is rotten to begin with, I think none is better.

So when is it OK to vote for a candidate with whom you may not fully agree? Rarely. But when he is obviously a Christian, his values and platform are obviously informed by the Bible, and his objectives and track record above all are clearly directed at the reduction of the pagan central state power—drastically—then there’s no question, even if he may differ on a few philosophical points.

I will work side-by-side politically with even “libertarians” who share that view—because that view is biblical, and their holding of it means they are borrowing my capital, not vice versa.

And at the end of the day, I would rather argue religion with a skeptic who respects my liberty than with the next Religious Right anointed who thinks the State can take it away whenever “necessary.”

Granted, Talbot would never vote for that latter guy either, thankfully. But there are many people reading his post who will take it as justification for just that.

Obfuscation

Second, in the name of clarifying, Dr. Talbot’s article has the effect of obfuscating the issue by introducing foreign definitions unassociated with Rushdoony’s (or my) context.

Talbot cites Webster’s 1828 dictionary for “libertarian”: “pertaining to liberty, or to the doctrine of free will, as opposed to the doctrine of necessity (or determinism).” This, as he would acknowledge, was a purely philosophical definition and did not denote a particular political theory at the time.

But then it gets questionable. First, check this out. Talbot writes:

The term libertarian as it represents a political theory was derived from the French cognate Libertarie [sic] meaning anarchist meaning “the absence of governmental authority or the state of lawlessness.”

Libertarian political philosophy as we know it today has its roots in the classical liberalism of the European political philosophers. . . .

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.

Talbot’s version of the history is way too close to Wikipedia on “Libertarianism” (without attribution):

The use of the word “libertarian” to describe a set of political positions can be tracked to the French cognate, libertaire, which was coined in 1857 by French anarchist Joseph Déjacque who used the term to distinguish his libertarian communist approach from the mutualism advocated by Pierre-Joseph Proudhon.[37] Hence libertarian has been used by some as a synonym for left anarchism since the 1890s.[38] The term libertarianism is commonly considered to be a synonym of anarchism in countries other than the US. . . . During the 18th century, classical liberal ideas flourished in Europe and North America.

Now I’ll be the first to admit Wikipedia is a great source for initial research, but, man!

Let’s be charitable: Dr. Talbot seems to have forgotten a footnote.

That aside, perhaps some usages of the idea did derive from the French cognate, but that hardly means the modern use of the word is tied to that, or that Rushdoony had this in mind when he used it. If cognates and etymology are so important here, why not go back to the original Latin: libertas? Probably because that would reveal that the word has a very broad range of meaning and application, and thus the “the historical context” begins to favor libertarianism as an acceptably Christian term in certain contexts.

In fact, according to the Shorter Oxford Dictionary, the first political usage of the word “libertarian” in English did not appear until 1878 and then meant only the general “One who approves of or advocates liberty.” It wasn’t even around in the political context when Webster wrote.

Yes, we know the words “liberty” and “libertarian” have been used by various miscreants, but this does not make everyone who uses the words a miscreant.

Besides, this is no way to argue in general. For example, Talbot believes, I assume, with the apostles’ creed, in the “holy catholic church.” Is he ready to apply this same tactic and say, “before we clarify this expression, we first need to understand the historical context and the development of ‘catholic’.” Would he be ready to load the entire history of the word “catholic” into his own belief? I hope not. Would he pick the most objectionable expression of it and use that? Again, I hope not.

And we shouldn’t treat “libertarianism” that way, either, especially when Rushdoony uses it.

Poisoning the well

Closely related to the last point, Dr. Talbot includes the observation that the French cognate for “libertarian” means “anarchism,” which the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary defines as “the absence of governmental authority or the state of lawlessness.”

Again, must we really drag this exigent association into Rushdoony’s and my context? No.

In fact, had Dr. Talbot stuck with Webster’s 1828, just a couple words down from where he was at “libertarian,” he would have noted that Webster included the anarchistic idea under “Libertine”—“not under the restraint of law or religion”—which he considered separately from “libertarianism.”

This whole section about “the historical context and the development of political libertarianism” is enlightening, but it doesn’t really touch on the main quotation from Rushdoony. Talbot says “before we clarify this expression, we first need to understand the historical context . . . ,” but if the theoretical and historical context in which Rushdoony was writing (favorably) about “radical libertarianism” is at all different than the repulsive contexts Talbot emphasizes, then the whole point is largely moot. We don’t really need to understand that context at all. In fact, if clarity is the goal, we should probably leave it out altogether.

A response might come something like, “So you think all historical context and development of worldviews is moot, huh?” Of course not. These things are very relevant, when and where they’re actually relevant. And the anarchistic expressions of libertarianism are largely irrelevant to Rushdoony’s and my points about cooperation with “libertarians” in regard to rolling back tyranny.

Rush’s own personal history, relationships, and citations are, however, highly relevant here. And if historical context of ideas and development are so important, Talbot might want to address Rushdoony’s own in this particular case. I outlined several of those connections in my article. He addressed not one of them.

Worse, since Talbot’s history—as correct as it may be—drags in mental associations like “anarchism” that are foreign and derogatory to Rushdoony’s point, then it is a classic case of poisoning the well. It’s a fallacy that was not necessary to bring into this argument.

Sadly, too many Christians today carry the false associations of “libertarianism” with “anarchy” or “libertinism” in their heads. Talbot’s article unfortunately reinforces that. And to reinforce that prejudice in today’s American churches is to reinforce by default also their widespread embrace of Statism, socialism, and war.

Please, don’t poison the well of liberty.

Rushdoony’s Point

Only after this context and much more does Dr. Talbot say “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.’” He continues,

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. . . .

Note two things: first, Rushdoony doesn’t use the term “Libertarianism” with a capital “L”. This sounds pedantic but is important. A capitalized term denotes a particular philosophical position with all of its particular sets of assumptions. Rush used the little “l” which means he was speaking more casually. The meaning of the term was more general, then, and this is reinforced by the indefinite article: “a radical libertarianism.”

Second, Talbot’s “not at all!” is true only if we first assume all that he has loaded into the term “libertarianism.” But in light of what we’ve seen already, and the casual use of the term just argued, it is simply not justified to act as if such a great gulf exists between the political platform of Rushdoony’s theocracy and his “radical libertarianism” generally understood. In fact, Rushdoony was not contrasting but comparing, which Dr. Talbot acknowledges:

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.

Yes it was indeed a comparison, but it was hardly as qualified as Talbot presents. If Rush intended to say as compared to, or relative to “an oppressive dictatorial rule by men,” theocracy could be viewed as a radical libertarianism, he would have said something closer to that. But he did not. He did not say, “The closest thing to compare a Biblical Theocracy would be a ‘radical libertarianism,’” No. He said it is the closest thing to a radical libertarianism that can be had. He did not say, “In this sense,” he said, “In reality.”

Now I will be the first to agree that “What classical libertarianism lacks is ‘Biblical law,’” except I would qualify it to say that it does not lack Biblical Law entirely as political expression. Thus, Rush did not “reject” classical libertarianism wholesale in the way suggested. He rejected its philosophical foundations and excesses, usually sexual, to which some adherents take it. But otherwise he believed and practiced that their commonalities were borrowed biblical capital and thus parallel.

So I think we should at least stop being so afraid of the label libertarian, and just use it properly. Liberty is only the result of godly rule, biblical law; only We have it; and we should as Christians take dominion over and reclaim the proper right to the terms libertarian and liberty.

Be Fair to Paul

Let’s be clear, this article cannot be an endorsement or defense of Paul or his campaign. But since his name was brought up critically it is fair game, and I think this will provide an example of how we should treat fellow Christians especially—but even enemies—in representation and debate.

Paul is most often maligned by certain Christians for two main reasons: 1) his stance on homosexuality, and 2) some comments on personal religion and the presidency.

(He is also blasted by Christians on foreign policy for allegedly not “supporting” “Israel”, but I’ll leave that ignorance for another time.)

Take these in reverse order. Dr. Talbot references Paul on his personal view of religion influencing his federal office:

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.”

Sounds a bit soft, honestly, but is this as “clearly humanistic” as Talbot claims? Consider this additional passage:

Why then is there, in the main, an absence of reference to Christianity in the Constitution? . . . There was an absence of reference because the framers of the Constitution did not believe that this was an area of jurisdiction for the federal government. It would not have occurred to them to attempt to re-establish that which the colonists had fought against, namely, religious control and establishment by the central government.

This is certainly correlative to Paul’s view. Is this clearly humanistic as well?

If so then R. J. Rushdoony is “clearly humanistic” in his view of the Constitution, for the quotation is from R. J. Rushdoony.(1) It was Rushdoony’s view of the Constitution that the Federal government had no jurisdiction in regard to religious matters. Ergo, by deduction, a federal official’s religion could only clearly come into play in his personal execution of his office, not in using the office to advance the distinctives of any particular faith, good or ill, beyond what is already expressed in the nature of the Constitution itself.

And that sounds an awful lot like Paul’s personal view of religion and the Presidency—a constitutional office, after all.

Rush goes on to explain that religious establishment by States, as a State’s Rights issue, is preserved by the Constitution, while it is simultaneously prohibited to the Federal government, and I suspect Paul would agree.

Are there important differences, still, between Rush and Paul? Of course, no doubt. But I think we should be a little less quick to build antinomies where they don’t necessarily exist, and a lot more contemplative as theonomists in our understanding of the Constitution.(2)

Besides, do you really think the oft-cited version Talbot implies is the most charitable interpretation of Paul’s statement (given impromptu during a debate)? Do you really think Paul meant his religion would have no influence at all on his presidency? He in fact said that it defines his character. Does that not of necessity mean it would also influence his presidency—at least in procedure and execution if not legal decision, too?

Of course it would. This is why he can write things like,

I am running to Restore America Now, and by that I mean that it’s time to protect and promote the basic God-given rights inherent in the promise of America. . . .

We must stand for life – not allow millions of innocent children to continue to be slaughtered with the government’s approval.

We must follow the Biblical mandate of using honest weights and measures – not printing money out of thin air in almost complete secrecy and then handing it over to oppressive dictators.

In light of this, obviously, his “not influence my presidency” comment has been misunderstood and/or mistreated.

Indeed, rarely searched, found, or reproduced in this context has been Paul speech at the Values Voters Summit, 2011, at which Paul won the straw poll. He placed his view of civil government clearly in terms of biblical law and biblical sanctions:

[S]o the people came and said to Samuel, what we need is a king. We need a king to take care of us. We want to be safe and secure.

And Samuel, although he knew he wasn’t going to be around long, he advised the people of Israel not to accept the king, because the king, he warned, would not be generous. He would undermine their liberties. There would be more wars. There would be more taxes. And besides, accepting the notion of a king would reject the notion that, up until that time, since they had left Egypt, their true king was their God and the guidance from their God.

But the governing body was the family. And they did not have kings, but they had judges. And that’s what Samuel was. But this was the time there was a shift away from the judges and the family into a king. And I think a lot of that has happened to us in this country. We have too often relied on our king in Washington, and we have to change that.

Now compare that view to Rushdoony’s view which I quoted in my last article:

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.(3)

Is Paul unconcerned about the role of morality in society in relation to government? He continued:

But he also said that if you depend on the king, the morality of the people will be rejected, the emphasis on the people themselves; the morality should come from the people and not from the king. . . .

You know, morality of the people or the lack of morality of the people can be reflected in the law. But the law never can change the morality of the people. And that is very important.

And again, hear this:

If people could be made moral by law, it would be a simple matter for the board of supervisors or for Congress to pass laws making all Americans moral. This would be salvation by law. Men and nations have often resorted to salvation by law, but the only consequence has been greater problems and social chaos.

We can agree, therefore, that people cannot be saved by law, but it is one thing to try to save people by law, another to have moral legislation, that is, laws concerned with morality.

Please note: this is the exact same teaching both times, the latter example not from Paul but from R. J. Rushdoony.(4)

But it is a couple of Paul’s comments on homosexuality that are most quoted in criticism. Many Christians have emailed and messaged me concerning Paul’s interview by John Lofton in 2007. In that interview Paul waffled on answering whether homosexuality is flatly a sin, stating he didn’t see the issue in such simplistic terms.

It sounds soft on homosexuality. It is soft, in this segment. I suspect it is not his whole view. First, is Paul soft on morality and sexual license in society in general? Second, how does his personal view relate to his view of the Constitution and the federal office president?

I simply cannot say fully on the first question, BUT, it is highly interesting that those who quote him from that Lofton interview never quote his general views of the Bible and social mores from earlier in the same interview. Lofton summarizes:

Paul agrees it is not the role of civil government, at any level — Federal, state or local — to feed, house, clothe or educate anybody and that this would also be un-Constitutional.

He believes Scripture is God’s Word and thus inerrant and infallible.

He says: “Defiance of God’s Law will eventually bring havoc to a society.”

He believes our country came together by God’s Providence “just as, Providentially, it may end, by God’s Will.”

Just consider that statement, theonomist: “Defiance of God’s Law will eventually bring havoc to a society.” And why have we not heard this about Paul until now?

Nevertheless, how does Paul’s personal view of homosexuality—should it be so depraved as some suggest—relate to his view of the presidency (again, a federal office)?

You could say that the guy is just terribly inconsistent in his views. Or, you could realize that he believes “If I leave it up to the States, then it’s up to the States,” which was closer to Rushdoony’s view, and was certainly Rushdoony’s view of the Constitution, too.

Rush believed not only in State’s rights, but County Rightsmy focus!—and believed both civil and criminal law, as well as all police power, should reside ultimately at the county level.(5)

In other words, Paul’s personal view of homosexuality would not come into play as President, because he believes it shouldn’t be Federal government’s jurisdiction anyway.

Now, perhaps you disagree with that stance. But from the perspective of theonomy, God’s law and civil government, consider that this is not only Paul’s view, but that of most prominent theonomists, as well as that of the theonomic-founded Constitution Party itself (Mr. John Lofton the interviewer himself a close associate). The CP Platform says on its website under “Family”:

No government may legitimately authorize or define marriage or family relations. . . .

The law of our Creator defines marriage as the union between one man and one woman. The marriage covenant is the foundation of the family, and the family is fundamental in the maintenance of a stable, healthy and prosperous social order. No government may legitimately authorize or define marriage or family relations contrary to what God has instituted. We are opposed to amending the U.S. Constitution for the purpose of defining marriage.

Again, not an endorsement. Just note the dual aspects of 1) affirming the biblical doctrine and biblical law, while 2) denying the Federal government should be involved in it.

So tell me, again, why this view of the issue as a political issue is so bad?Endnotes:

  1. The Nature of the American System, 1978, 3.()
  2. Personally, I have different views than Rushdoony on the Constitution, but that is a contemplative discussion for another time.()
  3. Systematic Theology, 2:1142; my emphasis.()
  4. Law & Liberty, 1984, 3.()
  5. See Nature of the American System, pp. 8–11, 158–166.()
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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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