Tea Party Libertarianism and Christian Ethics

The rise of the "tea party" contingent on the Republican Right signals a resurgence and intensification of libertarian strands in American political ideology in a time of great economic stress and political division. This libertarianism stands in sharp contrast with most recognizable Christian traditions of social thought. The contrast deserves unpacking.

I understand today's surging libertarianism as an early species of the ideology of political liberalism. Liberalism, which emerged in Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries, begins its approach to politics with the freedom and sovereignty of the (property-owning) individual as its fundamental starting point. The individual exists prior to the community, and enters as an equal into community with other individuals in order to protect his life and secure his property. He (gender-exclusive term intentional, in light of the history) does this by making a "social contract" with others in which each gives up a small measure of his freedom in order to secure heightened personal and economic security. The state is the product of that contract and serves essentially as a night watchman which allows individuals maximum freedom to pursue their goals as long as they do not harm others. On this theory the state pursues no real vision of the common good but instead protects individual liberties to pursue life's goods as each person desires.

But political liberalism evolved throughout all of the western democracies in the 19th and 20th centuries toward an approach that recognized a growing range of government responsibilities and at least a partial vision of a common good. This evolution was triggered primarily by the excesses of unfettered industrial capitalism, whose brutalities in the name of the liberties of free enterprise sparked moral outrage everywhere they appeared. Beginning in the late 19th century, western democracies began regulating free enterprise with varying degrees of intensity and also established the beginnings of a social safety net to deal with capitalism's losers and victims. One factor in the growing role of government was the hard-headed recognition that if capitalism did not submit to some government intervention, its miseries and moral outrages might lead to the communist revolutions prophesied by Marx and Engels. Government 's intervention was not Communism but was intended to prevent Communism.

So in the United States the long journey began with the legislation of the Progressive Era and intensified in the New Deal under FDR. Most Democratic political leaders since the 1930s have embraced these evolutions in political liberalism and continued to tinker with them for incremental gains in social well-being, while most Republicans have been far less enthusiastic. Still, it has been a long time since we have seen major national politicians so openly pine for the political economy of the 1920s.

I said in a recent interview that libertarianism is not an intrinsically Christian worldview and that Christian embrace of it makes for an uneasy marriage. My friendly Christian "tea party" correspondents beg to differ, but any review of the great traditions of Christian social and political thought bears out my claim.

The options are so rich. We could begin with the social thought of the pre-liberal "Christendom" era, in which the state was generally understood to be partner to the church in advancing a Christian social order that included care of both bodies and souls. Or if you don't like Christendom, we could look at the way Protestant social ethics responded to the urban squalor and workplace sufferings of Gilded Age capitalism with insistent demands not just for the factory-owners to soften their hearts but also for the government to pass laws to limit their depredations.

If you don't like Protestant "Social Christianity," there is the very rich Catholic social teaching tradition, which began with Pope Leo XIII's analysis of these same problems in 1891 and has continued unabated to this day. Catholic social teaching has constantly called for a more organic understanding of society and a vision of the well-being of the national (and international) community as a whole rather than merely its atomized individuals. The Catechism today teaches that the proper role of the state is to "defend and promote the common good of civil society."

Or if you don't like the Catholic social teaching, there is a great deal of historic and contemporary evangelical social engagement that calls for the state to join with others, each in their proper role, to advance public justice and the common good. Evangelicals were involved in most of the great social reform efforts of the 19th and 20th centuries, most of which called for government intervention -- whether in restricting workplace racial segregation or the market's role in providing abortions.

These kinds of Christian traditions certainly understand that individuals matter, but that if so, it is especially those individuals whose needs go unmet and whose rights are routinely violated that matter most. These traditions also affirm that humans are social beings, and therefore the well-being of the communities we have created also matters. They understand that we were made by our Creator not just to claim rights for ourselves but to serve one another, and that a society governed by raw libertarian individualism cannot be the best we can do. Today's libertarian resurgence is at best an uneasy fit with Christian principles. I will never back down from that claim.