Gushee: Tea Party Libertarianism is Not Christian

In a post that is up today at The Huffington Post’s religion site, David Gushee argues that the Tea Party movement, and the libertarianism that informs it, “stands in sharp contrast with the most recognizable Christian traditions of social thought.

Here is the crux of his argument:

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.

While I may be a bit more open to having my mind changed, I find myself leaning toward Gushee on this issue. I have not yet found a compelling “Christian” argument for Tea Party libertarianism. See my posts on the issue here and here and here.

5 thoughts on “Gushee: Tea Party Libertarianism is Not Christian

  1. If government activism was the true expression of right Christian living why did not Jesus and his disciples spend time in Rome lobbying Caesar? I'm sure the slaves needed better pay, the gladiator games were inhumane, and infanticide rampant – just to list a few of the social ills they could have taken to the Senate in a sort of “top down” approach.

    As an opposing thought, I proffer politics – especially representative politics – are best viewed as being downstream from culture; that is, culture shapes politics and not the other way around.

    To Paul M's excellent commentary I would simply add that both Progressives *and* the Christian Right “believe that the State can make America a more righteous nation”. Prohibition and Sunday liquor laws spring immediately to mind – but both sides are “guilty” on many fronts.


  2. society governed by raw libertarian individualism

    That's a straw man; not the Tea Party position.

    I'm all for the Bible in the public square. However, the “social Gospel” should be called by its proper name, Christian charity, not “social justice,” which has a more expansive agenda than providing for the poor.


  3. As an evangelical who is a libertarian I would of course take issue with Gushee.

    I believe there are ample Biblical grounds for distrust of authoritarian governments. Romans 13, the famous passage where God gives government his imprimatur, roots governmental legitimacy in the fact that “rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong.”

    So governments that protect those who do right and punish those who do wrong deserve our obedience as Christians and citizens. Fine.

    But how about when governments prey on those who do right and reward those who do wrong? Does that government still command our unswerving obedience? These questions lead to a grey area of interpretation: what precisely is right or wrong for a government?

    But I think most Christians, of both the Left and the Right, would agree that simply because the government does something it doesn't make those actions inherently good. In other words, government does not have carte blanche authority in determining what is right or wrong (neither, for that matter, does the Church).

    Several principles for which I find support in Scripture are routinely violated by governmental authorities such as property ownership and the right to freely set contracts.

    But more importantly, I believe that Christian progressives from both the Right and the Left have an un-Biblical view of sanctification. We can discuss it more later, but simply put progressives believe that the State can make America a more righteous nation. The fundamental flaw in this idea is the belief that true sanctification can be coerced. By preventing someone from doing bad things you are making them more pleasing to God. Or, conversely, by forcing someone to do good things you are making them more pleasing to God.

    But this is not how the gospel works. As Christ reminded the Pharisees, those who do good externally but have wicked hearts are “whited sepulchres.” Government can, at best, make people behave in a certain manner by . It cannot change peoples' hearts.


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