Libertarianism is hedonism, relativism and libertinism. How could someone claiming to be an Orthodox Christian embrace such a godless philosophy? Well if that’s really what libertarianism is, it would be absolutely impossible to be both an Orthodox Christian and a libertarian. Thankfully, none of those words correctly describe libertarianism. The late Fr. James Sadowsky, a Jesuit priest and professor of philosophy at Fordham U, grounded his libertarianism in the objective moral principle of non-aggression. He defined the principle thusly: “We may not initiate violence against others. We say “initiate” because we may certainly employ violence against those who have initiated it against us.”
So let’s apply the non-aggression principle to an area where many would see Orthodox Christianity and libertarianism clashing: hard drug use. The use of cocaine is looked on as a sinful activity in Eastern Orthodoxy, since our body is the temple of God and wasn’t intended to have psychologically and physically harmful drugs put in it. But does the fact that the use of cocaine is sinful mean we can use coercion or threaten violence against the cocaine user? If you say no, then legalizing cocaine use is the logical conclusion. Drug users and perpetrators of all victimless crimes like prostitution agree to go to jail because if they don’t, violence and force will ensue. Is this use of force and threatening of violence moral? I don’t believe it is.
But what if the drug user essentially goes insane and loses the ability to make any rational decisions (this rarely happens by the way)? Or what about the issue of suicide, especially assisted suicide? Or what if sex trafficking increases after we legalize prostitution? Or what if someone wants to sell himself into slavery? Would force and the threat of violence be permitted to solve any of these circumstances? I would answer with a very qualified yes, because I also believe in what libertarian philosopher Murray Rothbard called the inalienability of the will. Man does not have a right to give up or alienate his will, even through contract or implied contract. The non-aggression principle can be overridden in special circumstances and other moral principles can take precedence over it. But this is certainly the exception and not the rule. (For a libertarian argument against assisted suicide, see here)
So what about statements from Orthodox bishops on social and political issues? Can one believe drugs should be legalized and still be a faithful Eastern Orthodox Christian?
There is in fact, no definitive teaching in the Orthodox Church on the issue of legalizing drugs, prostitution, gambling or other victimless crimes. The Russian Orthodox Church has indeed spoken out on legalizing drugs and prostitution but this does not mean what the Russian Church teaches on this matter is binding on the Orthodox Christian. There are certainly binding teachings within the Orthodox Church but almost none of them touch on political philosophy. There are several ways to distinguish between binding teaching and non-binding teaching. If a belief or practice ends up in the liturgy, it is at least universally believed, though technically only dogma (the statements in the Nicene Creed) is binding. Also, a teaching can become so widespread that if an ecumenical council were held, we can be sure what the Church would say on the issue. Our understanding of communion and salvation falls into this category since no ecumenical council has dogmatized an Orthodox understanding of justification or the real presence in the Eucharist, although we could easily predict what such dogmatic declarations would look like. Abortion also falls into this category. It has been taught at all times and in all places throughout the Church’s history that abortion is indeed the murder of an unborn person. Under libertarian philosophy, murder violates the non-aggression principle, so abortion should indeed be prohibited by the state except in rare cases where the health of the mother is in danger.
The idea that the Church as a whole, has always been against the legalization of vices like drug use and prostitution is disingenuous. St. Augustine, in his De ordine, regards prostitution as a necessary evil:
“What can one find that is more ignoble, more deprived of honor, more charged with turpitude, than commercial women, procurers and all such scourges. If one suppresses prostitutes, the passions will convulse society; if one gives them the place that is reserved for honest women everything becomes degraded in defilement and ignominy. Thus, this type of human being, whose morals carry impurity to its lowest depths, occupies, according to the laws of general order, a place, although certainly the most vile place, at the heart of society.” (Corbin 1987, p. 213-214)
Although we Orthodox certainly don’t consider Thomas Aquinas as one of our own, he concurs with Augustine on this point: The state should “leave certain things unpunished on account of the condition of those who are imperfect, and who would be deprived of many advantages, if all sins were strictly forbidden and punishments appointed for them.”
More than Protestants or Catholics, the Orthodox Church has consistently emphasized God’s mercy (take for example, the “Jesus Prayer” and our understanding of the atonement). But where is mercy when we imprison drug users who can maintain otherwise normal lives? Where is mercy when we give incentives to mostly black males to stay out of school and sell narcotics at ridiculously expensive prices, eventually killing each other in gang wars over turf? Have we really furthered mankind’s salvation by imprisoning drug offenders and prostitutes? Are these offenders’ souls purified because a coercive monopoly of violence and force was used against them?
Christ’s response to the woman who committed adultery in John 8:8-11, is definitely a pacifistic libertarian response:
“Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her…At this, those who heard began to go away one at a time, the older ones first, until only Jesus was left, with the woman still standing there. 10 Jesus straightened up and asked her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?”
“No one, sir,” she said.
“Then neither do I condemn you,” Jesus declared. “Go now and leave your life of sin.”
It is hard to imagine Jesus approving of the Roman authorities coming to imprison her after this episode. Instead, He showed the woman mercy, and if she would have committed adultery again, He would have shown mercy again. The threat of violence or coercion doesn’t play into Jesus’ thought at all. Neither should it play into ours.