Liberty and the Bible

29 But Peter and the apostles answered, “We must obey God rather than men.”
Acts 5:29

Denizens of the libertarian social media milieu who opine on Christianity reliably fall into one of two camps.

In one corner, a loud minority of militant atheists regularly attempt to offend and alienate Christians. In the last several days, libertarian outlets on facebook have decorated my newsfeed with a depiction of Lucifer as the first libertarian à la Mikhail Bakunin, a picture of Christ and Satan making out, and an image of some centuries-past witch-burning – accompanied by text telling Christians to stop calling themselves libertarians.

7b699628-02a5-42c7-a0a5-d2780d447fa9Opposite these paragons of pragmatism and cultural sensitivity, a quiet majority of libertarian Christians meekly contend that that liberty and their faith are not incompatible.

As a libertarian Christian[1], I’m frankly more offended by the weakness of this latter camp than the ignorance of the former. Christianity is not merely compatible with my libertarianism – it fundamentally grounds and invigorates it.

Moreover, I’m of the opinion that the church is one of the largest and least tapped reservoirs of potential libertarians in America. I don’t blame atheism-first libertarians for their sophomoric shock tactics, however. I blame the libertarian Christians who too often fail to respond by emphasizing the motivating power of their faith.

I’ll very roughly detail that power here.

The Parable of the Trees

Nearly as long as I’ve been a Christian, Judges 9:8-15 has been one of my favorite pieces of scripture. Rarely does its poetry fail to produce chill-down-my-spine reverence.

From the American Standard Version:

The trees went forth on a time to anoint a king over them; and they said unto the olive-tree, Reign thou over us.

But the olive-tree said unto them, Should I leave my fatness, wherewith by me they honor God and man, and go to wave to and fro over the trees?

10 And the trees said to the fig-tree, Come thou, and reign over us.

11 But the fig-tree said unto them, Should I leave my sweetness, and my good fruit, and go to wave to and fro over the trees?

12 And the trees said unto the vine, Come thou, and reign over us.

13 And the vine said unto them, Should I leave my new wine, which cheereth God and man, and go to wave to and fro over the trees?

14 Then said all the trees unto the bramble, Come thou, and reign over us.

15 And the bramble said unto the trees, If in truth ye anoint me king over you, then come and take refuge in my shade; and if not, let fire come out of the bramble, and devour the cedars of Lebanon.

In the community of trees described in Judges, power attracts a tyrant – bramble – but is passed over by the virtuous olive, fig, and vine – all of whom choose God over the might of the shrub state.

borntobebadAs this passage beautifully elucidates, a Christian[2] is called to buck the kingdoms of the Earth for a compounding of reasons. “We must obey God rather than men” – to quote Peter – not simply because earthly authority may find itself overruled, but because man, intrinsically, is fallen.

Power may corrupt, but more fundamentally, it attracts people who are already corrupted. Because mankind is imperfectible, such people will always emerge and be attracted to power to the extent that it is offered.

If man is a perfectible blank slate, this obstacle to statism does not exist – or, at least, is less of a problem. As a possible example, Muslims categorically reject the doctrine of original sin; the regimes of the Islamic world are generally more authoritarian than those of the West.

I’ll further assert that earthly utopianism is, and has been historically, more common among secular than religious Westerners. The word “Utopia” may have been popularized by a believer, but I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Thomas More’s fictional island was not a Christian one.

Israel Demands a King

In 1 Samuel 8, the elders of Israel come before an elderly Samuel and tell him to “appoint for us a king to judge us like all the nations.” Apparently upset by this desire for an earthly governor, Samuel prays for guidance.

God replies by telling Samuel that, in demanding a human king, the Israelites “have rejected me from being king over them.”  He instructs Samuel to “solemnly warn them and show them the ways of the king who shall reign over them.”

From the English Standard Version:

Samuel’s Warning Against Kings

10 So Samuel told all the words of the Lord to the people who were asking for a king from him. 11 He said, “These will be the ways of the king who will reign over you: he will take your sons and appoint them to his chariots and to be his horsemen and to run before his chariots. 12 And he will appoint for himself commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and some to plow his ground and to reap his harvest, and to make his implements of war and the equipment of his chariots. 13 He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. 14 He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive orchards and give them to his servants. 15 He will take the tenth of your grain and of your vineyards and give it to his officers and to his servants. 16 He will take your male servants and female servants and the best of your young men[a] and your donkeys, and put them to his work. 17 He will take the tenth of your flocks, and you shall be his slaves. 18 And in that day you will cry out because of your king, whom you have chosen for yourselves, but the Lord will not answer you in that day.”

The Lord Grants Israel’s Request

19 But the people refused to obey the voice of Samuel. And they said, “No! But there shall be a king over us, 20 that we also may be like all the nations, and that our king may judge us and go out before us and fight our battles.” 21 And when Samuel had heard all the words of the people, he repeated them in the ears of the Lord. 22 And the Lord said to Samuel, “Obey their voice and make them a king.”

This story constitutes a clear-cut call to libertarianism. God does not respond to Israel’s request for a ruler “to go out before us and fight our battles” by ordaining a theocracy – He characterizes their statism as idolatry and warns against taxes.

Jesus Clears the Temple

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As a teenager, I was as hostile to Christianity as are many of the people I’ve criticized here. In particular, I was fond of cherry-picking horrifying verses from Zechariah and Isaiah and throwing them in the faces of Christians who weren’t prepared to respond to them. In doing so, I painted a narrative that put God on the side of oppressive earthly authoritarians.

Gradually, I began to suspect that the opposite might be true. In Matthew, for example, Satan’s tempting Christ with “all the Kingdoms of the world and their glory” implies that these Kingdoms are Satan’s to offer. When I discovered “Jesus Clears the Temple Courts” in John, I felt this suspicion was wholly affirmed.

From the New International Version:

13 When it was almost time for the Jewish Passover, Jesus went up to Jerusalem. 14 In the temple courts he found people selling cattle, sheep and doves, and others sitting at tables exchanging money. 15 So he made a whip out of cords, and drove all from the temple courts, both sheep and cattle; he scattered the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables. 16 To those who sold doves he said, “Get these out of here! Stop turning my Father’s house into a market!” 17 His disciples remembered that it is written: “Zeal for your house will consume me.”[a]

18 The Jews then responded to him, “What sign can you show us to prove your authority to do all this?”

19 Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days.”

Although Christians may be relatively unfamiliar with these verses, I do think the passages have contributed to an intrinsic – though underutilized – anti-authoritarian character in Christendom.

This streak is the reason many young Christians grew up reading the Left Behind series, which centers around resistance to a tyrannical government (I’ve admittedly not read any of them myself). Additionally, I’d wager it’s one reason that the many Senators who recently filibustered for 13 hours to obstruct unilateral executive power were a bunch of conservative Christians.


[1]Besides its policy implications, I enjoy debating about my faith itself. Depending on your level of interest, you may wish to check out a short piece here or a much longer piece there.

[2]I feel like there’s a good scriptural case to be made for original sin on Judaism alone. However, as I know Jewish scholars traditionally reject the doctrine, I’ll leave the applicability of my arguments to Judaism for another day. If any Jewish readers would like to comment with their take on this, I’d be interested in discussing the matter further.

4 thoughts on “Liberty and the Bible

  1. Compelling and articulate. I have never believed in a positive state (except perhaps in the case of education as a necessary evil), but I believe that a just, Bible-founded society should “legislate morality” in a negative sense – whether that entails punishing murder or defining marriage Biblically. I support punishing all vice as a proper role of the state, but I reserve promoting virtue as the role of individuals and organisations such as the church. There doesn’t seem to be a line the state can draw between classes of vices since the Law has always been in effect even though Christ’s redemptive actions has added grace to it. But, of course, there is always a huge gap between what ought to be and what can be… this is just another affect of man’s imperfectibility.

    I do not frame the debate as freedom vs. tyranny, because freedom is not the ultimate goal. The goal is not even in this life. The goal for Christians is in the life to come. The challenge for Christians is to identify and work for the model of the state that maximizes the ability of Christians to evangelize and live according to God’s word. Ultimately, I believe that the fight we are called to fight as Christians is not in the structure of our state but in the hearts and minds of ourselves and the people around us. The political battle is just a piece of all what we are called to. Ephesians 6:12. In many ways the construction of America was a great Christian experiment and believe that as American Christians we are called to preserve and shape our nation into the best of our abilities.

    Sorry this is so long, this is just an abbreviation of all my thoughts on the subject. As a reference though, my political views are closest to those of Alexis de Tocqueville as far as political thinkers go that I know enough about.

  2. Pingback: Liberty and the Bible | ajrogersphilosophy

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