Under the GOP Big Top
Why social conservatives and libertarians meet in the same tent
by Sean M. Smith and Steve Walker
Before the identity of this election’s Republican presidential nominee became a settled matter
and the news media promptly ceased paying attention to the septuagenarian senator from
Arizona, the chattering classes appeared singularly focused on their perceived rift within the
Republican Party. The division, so it was alleged, was between Republicans who self-identified
as religious conservatives and those who dubbed themselves “moderates.” In Republican circles,
moderates are often libertarians. These folks would like to see the government off their backs,
and they would like to see the 10th
Amendment given more than passing mention. And they most
fervently wish that spiritual issues — particularly if they tend to be polarizing, like abortion,
restriction of sexually explicit materials, and gay marriage — be removed from the party
platform entirely. Many resent the decades-long “domination” of the party by the “religious
Politics may make strange bedfellows, but it’s curious that the GOP should have become the
home of the religious right in the first place. It wasn’t inevitable. If religious conservatives are
the self-righteous bigots and scolds they are accused of being and really do want to micro-
manage our lives, regulate our speech, and dictate our expression of sexuality, one could easily
imagine them more at home in the left ward of the two major parties. Doesn’t the list of charges
in the preceding sentence accurately describe the daily activities of, among other left-leaning
persons and institutions, environmentalists, tort lawyers, campus speech code enforcers, gender
feminists, diversity/sensitivity commissars, holier-than-thou consumer advocates, and the activist
federal judiciary that gives most of the aforementioned their stamp of legitimacy?
So something deeper must beckon religious conservatives and libertarians into the same tent,
their disagreements notwithstanding. There must be something of the biblical in the concept of
limited government and much that is freedom-oriented in Scripture. There must be overarching
principles common to both major camps within the GOP that make religious conservatism and
libertarianism less different from one another than superficial analysis suggests. What might they
Both libertarianism and Judeo-Christian theology are individual-centered.
“The smallest minority on earth is the individual. Those who deny individual rights cannot claim
to be defenders of minorities.” –Ayn Rand
Libertarians concern themselves foremost with individual freedoms. They believe, per Adam
Smith, John Locke, Thomas Jefferson, and other apostles of classical liberalism, that the greatest
overall good and deepest, widest prosperity in a society is ultimately achieved when individuals
are as free as possible to pursue wealth, success and personal fulfillment without any undue
interference from the state. This is a utilitarian view of the value of individual liberty.
“Be it remembered that liberty must at all hazards be supported. We have a right to it, derived
from our Maker.” –John Adams
“Outside the Judeo-Christian tradition, it has been rare for thinkers to suppose that God
endowed us with a nature of our own, that freedom is part of that nature, and that it is through
the exercise of freedom, and the errors that inevitably stem from it, that we fulfill God’s plan.”
–Remi Brague (professor of philosophy, Sorbonne and University of Munich)
Religious conservatives likewise believe in the primacy and inherent dignity of individuals —
that they are made in God’s image and endowed by their creator with natural or unalienable
rights. They believe that human creatures, being individually loved by God, cannot be
persecuted, enslaved or treated unfairly or arbitrarily by other humans without offending God.
Although from the very beginning, as described in the Book of Genesis, God created man as a
social creature requiring companionship, it’s interesting to note how God deals with people
almost exclusively as individuals. The Ten Commandments are grammatically targeted to
individuals: “You (singular) shall have no other gods before me …” (Exodus 20:3) and “You
(singular) shall not make an idol …” (Exodus 20:4) and so forth. Though at times God speaks to
nations and cultures, he nearly always appeals to the person when offering repentance and
forgiveness or demanding a change of heart. Believers posit that if God thinks it vital to deal
with humankind one person at a time, so should we.
Just how important the individual is from a Christian viewpoint was aptly observed by C. S.
Lewis in “The Weight of Glory”: “There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a
mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilizations — these are mortal, and their life is to ours as
the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit —
immortal horrors or everlasting splendors.”
Hence the utilitarian view of libertarians and Scripture-derived conclusions of religious
conservatives arrive at the same place with regard to the primacy of individuals as the basis for a
political system, even if they arrive there by different routes.
Both libertarians and religious conservatives recognize the danger of excessive power in the
hands of innately fallible beings.
“We shall never prevent the abuse of power if we are not prepared to limit power in a way which
occasionally may also prevent its use for desirable purposes.” –F. A. Hayek
“If men were angels, no government would be necessary.” –James Madison
But as men most assuredly are not angels, it becomes simultaneously necessary both for
government to exist and for it to be limited. Just as human societies would descend into an
earthly hell of the strong preying on the weak and the mob overrunning minorities without any
government in place, the blood-soaked history of governments has demonstrated beyond any
serious question that despotism, genocide and other horrid depredations inevitably result from
governments gaining excessive power. Virtually every monstrous failure by governments to secure basic human rights began with flawed men and unchecked power. And as British
philosopher Roger Scruton recently noted, “Atheists and nihilist doctrines have, from the
Jacobins to the Maoists, far outperformed the old religions when it comes to massacres and
Nations with limited governments, institutionally protected individual rights and the rule of law
have prospered whenever and wherever they have existed. Though all such systems have been
far from perfect, they have generally succeeded in allowing the greatest overall happiness to the
greatest number. Libertarians tout this utilitarian view.
The correlating spiritual understanding of the need to limit government power can be derived
from innumerable passages in Scripture, both in its consistent condemnation of tyranny and in
the distinctly Christian recognition that we are all wretched sinners, each of us weak and faulty
in one measure or another. All of us fall short of the sinless example set by Christ, and each of
us, given the right circumstances, is capable of malice, bigotry, self-dealing — perhaps even
murder. It is axiomatic that such creatures should not be granted unfettered power over their
“The modern state does not understand how anything can be guided by something other than
itself.” –Richard M. Weaver
Tyrants display a disturbingly uniform tendency either to quash religion entirely (atheistic
Marxist systems) or at least to severely limit religious freedom by allowing only state-sanctioned
faiths and puppet clergy. Totalitarian systems cannot abide allegiance to anything except the all-
powerful state. This goes a long way toward explaining why those seeking religious freedom
have so often been at the vanguard of history’s bravest and most inspired advances of liberty.
“Of all varieties of men, the one who is least comprehensible to me is the fellow who immolates
himself upon the alter of what he conceives to be the public interest ... What I am chiefly unable
to understand is his oafish certainty that he is right — his almost pathological inability to grasp
the notion that, after all, he may be wrong.” –H. L. Mencken
Not only are humans not angels, we are not omniscient. The supreme arrogance of people with
political power, which breeds resentment in libertarians and religious conservatives alike, is their
smug confidence that they know what’s best for us. They do not, as they cannot. Free exchange
between individuals and markets is not simply the most efficient way, but the only way to
determine what needs to be manufactured, bought or sold, and at what price. Bureaucrats the
world over have tried to manage these activities from on high and have failed in every instance.
Planned economies have never worked. No human bureaucrat or benevolent dictator has ever
had the omniscience necessary for such a system to succeed.
Campaigning recently, Hillary Clinton said she would be “ready on day one to be commander-
in-chief of our economy.” Has God returned to Earth in the form of a white, female lawyer in her
Judeo-Christian theology also explicitly rejects the notion that heaven can be created on Earth,
which has been the nominal objective of every utopian system built around state supremacy and
subordination of individuals. One might recall Barack Obama’s statement, repeated several times
at evangelical churches in October last year about creating “a Kingdom right here on Earth.”
God, it would appear, has switched form to a black, male lawyer in his 40s. To anyone with a
historical grasp of Marxists’ visions (and their nightmare realities), statements like this should
seem creepy, even alarming.
The Biblical view of government is that all legitimate human authority comes from God
(Romans 13:1, 1 Peter 2:13). When Pilate claimed absolute authority to Jesus, the latter corrected
him by pointing out that his power was delegated, not autonomous. Like the family and church,
which also have delegated authority, the state as an agent of God is responsible to him, and will
ultimately be required to answer to him (Romans 13:4).
The purpose of government is to establish and enforce laws that promote social order and the
peaceful coexistence of citizens, and to restrain evil and punish criminals (1 Timothy
2:1, Romans 13:2-5, 1 Peter 2:14). These bear a strong resemblance, probably not entirely
coincidental, to the limited and enumerated powers of government set forth in the Constitution.
From the Christian perspective, the state is not the ultimate authority in society (a model called
“totalitarianism”). The examples in Scripture of individuals defying the state, when complying
with man’s law would be immoral, in order to comply with the infinitely higher authority of God
On this overall theme of the need to limit the power of government due to human frailty, we
again find broad agreement between libertarians and religious conservatives, even if they again
arrive at their conclusions by different analytical pathways.
Both understand that freedom and individual responsibility cannot exist separately.
“Why be thrifty any longer when your old age and health care are provided for, no matter how
profligate you act in your youth? Why be prudent when the state insures your bank deposits,
replaces your flooded-out house, buys all the wheat you can grow, and rescues you when you
stray into a foreign battle zone? Why be diligent when half your earnings are taken from you and
given to the idle? Why be sober when the taxpayers run clinics to cure you of your drug habit as
soon as it no longer amuses you? Why be faithful when there are no consequences at all to
leaving your family in search of newer and more exciting pleasures?” –David Frum
Libertarians are critical of the welfare state and excessive regulation because these institutions
stifle individual responsibility and initiative, independence of thought and innovation. Again,
libertarians arrive at these conclusions through pragmatic observations. When the able-bodied
and firm of mind can opt to be idle and still live in relative comfort, it’s a given that a certain
percentage of them will choose to do so at the expense of the productive. They will never
become self-sufficient with no incentive to do so.
Libertarians also understand that when every facet of life and the economy is hyper-regulated,
and every innovation will face the near certainty of being regulated to death or kept from its potential by a government that would do more good staying out of the way, few among us will
bother to invent the sorts of things that better the human condition.
“The Judeo-Christian tradition has portrayed God as standing in a free relation to his creatures.
He has not sought to compel our love — for love is not love when forced.” –Roger Scruton
(British philosopher and theologian)
Religious conservatives also arrive at the unavoidable link between freedom and responsibility.
They view God’s moral law as the ultimate law and recognize that it can only apply to
individuals, not the collective. “Charity” at the point of a sword is nothing of the sort. It is
inherently repugnant to Christians to force charitable behavior by taxing the hardworking and
productive to benefit the idle. Often, libertarians and religious thinkers converge on this point.
From libertarian economist F. A. Hayek: “Only where we ourselves are responsible for our own
interests and are free to sacrifice them has our decision moral value. We are neither entitled to be
unselfish at someone else’s expense, nor is there any merit in being unselfish if we have no
choice.” There is little to distinguish Hayek’s conclusion from that of theologian John Milton:
“If every action which is good or evil ... were under pittance and prescription and compulsion,
what were virtue but a name, what praise should then be due to well-doing, what gramercy to be
sober, just, or continent.” In the Christian world view, no love, charity or good may exist unless
given freely, just as it is impossible to love God when one is only following prescribed rules with
a corrupt and loveless heart.
“The preservation of liberty depends upon the intellectual and moral character of the people. As
long as knowledge and virtue are diffused generally among the body of a nation, it is impossible
they should be enslaved.” –John Adams
Libertarians and religious conservatives alike recognize that morality, civic virtue and tolerance
are necessary for freedom to exist, let alone endure. They may differ, but it often boils down to
quibbling over points of emphasis. One needn’t be religiously observant to grasp the point that
self-governance requires self-restraint and individual responsibility. The spiritually ambivalent
Thomas Jefferson once wrote, “It is the manner and spirit of a people which preserve a republic
in vigor. A degeneracy in these is a canker which soon eats into the heart of its laws and
The divisions between these two GOP constituencies may well be exaggerated by the media, but
it would do much to foster harmony and reconciliation were conservatives to recognize that they
do not hold a monopoly on morality and civic virtue, just as libertarians would do well to
appreciate that the groundwork for the traditions of liberty was laid down by patriots motivated
by deep religious convictions. And both should recognize with equal urgency the need to pass on
to our children the values centered around freedom and personal responsibility.
Sean M. Smith is a lawyer, business executive and regular contributor to BrainstormNW.
Steve Walker has a Doctorate of Ministry from Western Seminary in Portland and is a senior
pastor at Redeemer’s Fellowship in Roseburg.
BrainstormNW - October 2008