the anguish of the Christian libertarian

This is a long post about Christianity, libertarianism, and environmentalism. You’ve been warned.

I explained in an earlier post why I will not be able to vote for Barack Obama, and said that I still had to decide whether I can vote for John McCain. At the moment I am thinking that the answer will be No. I could list reasons, but that’s not what I want to do in this post.

I’m a Christian who takes very seriously St. Paul’s claim that Christians are never fully at home in any earthly polis, that our citizenship is not of this world, that Christians, wherever they live, are, as Stanley Hauerwas and William Willimon put it, resident aliens. I am pleased and proud to be an American — I have always thought that it’s actually cool to be an American — but America will never be as important to me as the Church. That’s just how it is.

This means that when I think about American politics, I tend to ask what policies are best for the cause of Christianity — but unlike many of my fellow evangelicals, I don’t think this country ever should be “a Christian nation,” and do not want to see specifically Christian beliefs and practices embodied in the law of the land. I think such an eventuality would be bad for the country and even worse for Christianity. (I’m not going to defend this claim either. Bear with me, I’m getting to something.)

My own long-considered view is that Christians ought to be, broadly speaking, libertarian in their orientation. In a society characterized by a great deal of personal freedom, Christianity will not appear as coercively “normal,” as something enshrined in the formal or informal political order. Instead it can appear as properly counter-cultural, and, indeed, if there is no possibility that Christians will have their views so enshrined, they will be free to be as counter-cultural as their beliefs lead them to be, without being caught up in the absurd entanglements of patriotism-as-piety. Moreover, in a libertarian society characterized by smaller government, Christians would also be able to do greater works of mercy and charity, encumbered by fewer governmental regulations.

So, given my libertarian presumption, will I be voting for Bob Barr this fall? Perhaps — but I have a problem. Barr likes to say that “Everybody is libertarian about something in this country,” and that is almost certainly true, but it’s equally true that everybody is non-libertarian about something in this country. Even in the Libertarian Party, the gun-libertarians can draw the line at the legalization of drugs, and the drug-libertarians get queasy when they contemplate being in the same party with NRA members.

For me, the quease-inducing issue is not abortion, despite my fervent opposition to the practice. I could imagine that in a truly libertarian society — though probably not in our own — Christians and like-minded people could do a great deal to limit abortion even if it were legal. No, my chief concern is about what would happen to the environment — what we Christians like to call Creation — in a libertarian society. Now, according to, Barr has “no stance on record” regarding the environment — a fact noteworthy in itself — but we know that his core belief is this: “At the core of libertarianism is a trust in and respect for the personal choices of every individual.”

However, we also know that no empirical claim could possibly be better established than this: People, left to their own devices, simply do not make wise decisions about their natural environments. They almost invariably chose short-term goods that leave their descendants with damaged and impoverished conditions; and often the damage is irreversible. And even when hard lessons are learned by one generation, they are likely to be forgotten by the next, or the one after that.

Moreover, these the stakes in these matters are raised dramatically in technologically powerful ages such as our own. If a libertarian with a hands-off environmental policy were to be elected President in this country, and were to implement such a policy, the vultures would descend so quickly and do so much damage — especially to water resources, and especially in the West — in a single four-year Presidential term that recovery could take decades if it could be achieved at all. I think this would be a tragic result, and my reasons for thinking so are simultaneously civic and Christian (the latter deriving from the Biblical mandate for what people are now calling “Creation care”). Is a significant increase in personal freedom worth such a price? I don’t think I can say that, not given my current state of knowledge, anyway.

Of course, this is all speculative in the extreme. Bob Barr is not going to be elected President, and even if that miracle did happen he’d be faced with a Congress that wouldn’t let him do much of what he wants to do (repeal the 16th Amendment, for instance). So it might be worth my while to cast a symbolic protest vote for Barr, and I may well do that. But it makes me uneasy to contemplate casting a vote for someone whose candidacy I can’t truly endorse.