During my undergraduate years, I became a staunch libertarian. Quite fed up with the established two-party system in the United States, I was ecstatic when at eighteen I realized I had more than two parties to choose from. After a quick Google search for “political parties,” I quickly made a list of my most desired groups to join. My deep-seated American individualism was probably one among many factors that caused me to view my new libertarian political affiliation as just another part of my identity, like my favorite sports team, or my taste in clothing or music.
At the same time, it awakened me to the world of ideology for the very first time. It baptized me into my most idealistic (and most dogmatic) stage of life, as I felt that for the first time my opinions were guided by consistent principles rather than vague sympathies, and that I had a framework by which to judge and interpret my beliefs. What I did not recognize, however, were the underlying presuppositions of the principles and ideologies I was embracing.
Going through a “libertarian phase” is a familiar story I hear over and over from young men, especially Christian men with an interest in politics. It generally stems from wanting a break from the two-party system and a feeling that the political options left to us in America leave much to be desired. The move from a generic conservatism to a militant libertarianism was a popular move in the 1990s to early 2000s during the twilight of Ron Paul’s service in the House of Representatives and two presidential runs in 2008 and 2012.
Since then, over the last few years of political turbulence and increased division, the move seems less common. Back in the 1990s-2000s, what I call the “Ron Paul effect” led numerous young American men to a principled libertarianism founded on an utter rejection of the two-party system and a desire to destroy that bloated leviathan of bureaucracy, also known as the federal government.
Though at times it behaved more as a cult of personality, the movement was indeed strong, as evidenced by the Tea Party movement that started in 2009. The Ron Paul Effect today has lost some of its potence. But it is still strong enough to merit reflection over why many Christians continue to embrace the hyper-individualistic form of libertarianism that so often marks that transition.
Before I changed my party affiliation, slapped a star-spangled porcupine sticker on my car, and bought my Gadsden flag T-shirt, I was a Republican. While I was only a registered Republican for a short while after turning eighteen, I had grown up “knowing” that I was one. Like most Americans of my era, I only saw two political affiliations, and I knew my Christian convictions necessitated I remain in one camp as opposed to the other. Believing abortion to be murder and marriage to be between one man and one woman, in addition to opposing an overreaching government, had me embracing my conservative label and going on my merry way.
It is not that my family placed a great emphasis on politics or party. My family was firmly Christian, and this informed everything else. I was blessed by a family steeped in the Scriptures, which gave me the foundation to examine other beliefs in light of them; in our context, the Republican party seemed to be the better of two imperfect options.
Of course, I was quick to affirm that no one had to be a Republican to be a Christian—that would be blasphemous and idolatrous, among many other things—and every other Christian Republican around me in the Bible Belt agreed. Things were very different in the post-9/11, Bush-era America of my youth. The aisle did not seem so wide, and the issues being argued over seemed rather consistent and stable.
I remember arguing intensely with my best friend, a Christian and a Democrat, over the same issues at eighteen years old that we had argued over at eight. It wasn’t until we approached college and adulthood—the years of the Obergefell decision and Bruce Jenner’s transition—that the Overton window began to shift. It was this scramble to cope with new issues and a quickly changing culture that provided me with the opportunity to examine my beliefs and make the switch to what I saw as a more principled position.
What I failed to realize was that the conservatism I was shifting away from was not a historical conservatism at all—rather, it was a distinctly 2000s neoconservatism that I had assumed was the only flavor. The central issue that everything hinged on was this: I realized, so I thought, that the government could not legislate morality. You cannot save a soul with legal code, and you cannot govern someone into the kingdom. What was I doing advocating Christian morality in the political sphere?
If the government has no business legislating morality, we need other guiding principles to determine which laws to support. I do not remember where I first heard this, but it is a popular libertarian talking point, and it was this faulty assumption that led me into a hardcore, ideological libertarianism for a few years. When this assumption later collapsed, it led me right back out of it.
I still consider myself broadly libertarian and think many of the virtues that libertarians advocate are truly virtuous. However, I believe there is an issue with libertarianism as an ideology: it is an ideology. Many Christian libertarians are unaware of some of the foundational assumptions of ideological libertarianism, my younger self included.
The majority of libertarians are secularists, and it is the secularists who tend to be what I call “ideological libertarians.” These are the libertarians who embrace some materialistic foundations and secular presuppositions that undergird much of libertarian philosophy. I want to clarify this upfront: any criticisms of libertarianism from here on out are directed at these secular, libertarian ideologues, not libertarianism as a whole.
This is an internal criticism—I am still a registered member of the Libertarian party in my state, though I can only affirm about 65% of their platform, and even less of the ideological underpinnings of the broader movement. This is because in Oklahoma, where I live, there are only four options for party affiliation: Republican, Democrat, Libertarian, and Independent.
I still hate the two-party system and want to do my part to help grow a smaller party. More than that, I believe in limited government, laissez-faire economics, and non-interventionist foreign policy. But after years of arguing that the government “can’t legislate morality” and that we need to be guided by impartial, fair principles when advocating policy, I came to see the glaring hole in my argument: all legislation is moral.
The simple thing I did not realize was that any law, no matter what it is, is an affirmation of one moral action and the repudiation of its counter. To outlaw murder is to make the statement that it is immoral to kill, and to outlaw hate speech is to make the statement that it is immoral to express hatred. At the very least, these laws declare that it is immoral to tolerate these things in society at large without consequences.
I had bought into the false notion that policy could be divided into either economic, foreign, or social categories, and so considered myself to be guided by a principled libertarianism on social issues. I believed that I could privately and personally oppose a practice, while not advocating publicly that it be made illegal.
In many cases this is true—after all, not every sin can be made a crime. But my line of thinking completely missed the fact that in the Christian tradition and in Scripture itself, sins and crimes are distinguished, yet all crimes were still moral in nature. The “principle” I tried to use to justify my thinking was that something should only be made illegal if it directly harms someone. This is how I justified remaining pro-life, while still being what I saw as a consistent libertarian.
This principle sounds nice on the surface, but it is intellectually lazy, and cannot be applied consistently. Exceptions must be made, and philosophical questions still arise (the trolley problem is the classic example). Not to mention that it begs the question—why is it wrong to “hurt” people, and why should that be the standard? To answer that question, one must assume a moral framework, and so we have not actually resolved the issue at all. The all-consuming form of libertarianism I embraced had another issue as well, which is that it is not simply a set of principles—it is an ideology.
Ideology is at its core a product of modernity, and it came of age in the twentieth century. The bloodiest century in human history, the century which saw unparalleled advances in technology, was also the century that ripened ideologies and fed them to the masses. As an ideological libertarian, I consumed all the classic material needed to make myself what I thought would be an educated, principled, libertarian man: Rothbard, Mises, Hayek, Friedman, Adam Smith, and John Locke.
I choose the word “consumed” intentionally. Being a college student in the internet age means it would be far too generous to say I actually read any of these writers. Nonetheless, my thinking was consumed by the Non-Aggression Principle, my political thought categorized every action into two strict categories of constitutional and unconstitutional, and my philosophical understanding of “rights” was constantly categorizing all human issues into Life, Liberty, or Property.
Though I owe much to these intellectual titans, and though I still hold to many of the central positions I did then, there was an absolutely crucial issue with my way of thinking. My libertarianism was the grid by which I interpreted all other things, including my Christianity. Thus, we arrive at the central problem with ideology itself. Ideology is not worldview. Ideology seeks to usurp worldview and set up its own matrix in its place. Ideology replaces religion and brings in doctrines of its own.
An ideology is a faux theology; it is a framework by which one can examine human nature, and determine sins and their punishments. Ideologies come with their own soteriology and eschatology. In Marxism, the great sin is wealth inequality and oppressive classes, and the proletariat can be saved by seizing the means of production and distributing wealth. In liberalism, the great sin is oppressive traditions, and man can reach the beatific vision of being totally free and self-determining, completely enlightened and happy. And in libertarianism, the great sin is the bloated, federal leviathan, and the final redeemed end is achieved through the market, through dismantling oppressive governments, and through letting free enterprise produce a balance that has never been achieved. These ideologies all fail, because they are crude mockeries of Christian truth—that man is sinful, and can be saved through Jesus Christ, and all creation redeemed in Him.
A People and a Place
As I reflect on the process of moving from being a young man with Christian convictions and conservative leanings to a young man who was obsessed with the free market and my hatred of big government, and, now, to being an adult who finds himself more at home in a traditional “people and place” broad conservatism, I am grateful for many. I am grateful for the thinkers, writers, Christians, and influences who helped me along the way in correcting and deepening my thinking.
The shift from a purely humanistic vision of the world and the political realm to a vision more deeply informed by Christian convictions about family, society, morality, and government was guided by great, Christ-centered men whose works shaped my mind. Some examples of men who helped nudge me along include Pastor Douglas Wilson, whose books, sermons, and lectures helped break me of some modernist thinking I did not even realize was there. They include Pastor C.R. Wiley, whose books and other works showed me how far modern America has drifted from a biblical vision of what family life should be. They include writers like Ray Bradbury, whose emphasis on the importance of nature, people, and place, and a rejection of technocracy demonstrated to me that there was more to man than his individuality—and that a freer man is not always a better one.
The list could go on, but the two biggest names on the list that finally made the difference are C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien. I had read and admired these two throughout my Christian life, but the deeper I journeyed into their works, their thoughts, and their convictions, the more my soul was reshaped. My sentiments were molded into a new form, one that realized the human need for community, and the human need for family. One that recognized the government has a legitimate role in promoting righteousness and suppressing evil, not simply in enforcing property rights. One that recognized the regular human need for a good talk with good friends over good beer and was repulsed by radical individualism. I am grateful for the journey. I am still a libertarian where it counts, but economic policy does not interest quite so much these days. More than anything, I am a Christian. Christ is my Lord, and the Church my people.
Image credit: “Statue of Justice, Central Criminal Court, London, UK, on a cloudy day” via Wikimedia