Are Libertarianism and Eastern Orthodoxy Compatible?

Orthodox Icon of St. John

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.

For more on this topic, see and

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Is there a “Christian” federal budget?

Progressive Evangelical leader Jim Wallis doesn’t realize he is asking the government to threaten violence against its own citizens.  He correctly asks for the military budget to be cut, but doesn’t understand that each time he calls for more welfare spending, the government has to use more force and coercion to obtain the funds for those programs.He is now sporting the exceptionally unpresumptuous slogan, “What Would Jesus Cut.”  For Wallis, things are quite simple.  Jesus would cut the military budget and keep or increase the entitlements budget.  He is so sure the government should be spending taxpayer money on welfare that he advocates “praying that God would change the hearts and minds of those in Congress.”

But is it really that obvious Jesus would be for all of the U.S. welfare programs?

In order to have an understanding of the proper role of government, one must have a proper understanding of what government actually is.  Wallis seems to view the government as above standard moral laws.  But why should it be held to a different standard of conduct than every individual since it is only composed of a group of individuals?

It is immoral and illegal for me to kidnap a CEO or use force against him if he refuses to pay me $400.  Even if I give his money to my poor neighbor, the way I obtained the money would still be morally inexcusable and illegal.  However, when the government demands taxes from a CEO so they can give his income to a citizen in poverty and then threatens violence, or imprisonment if the CEO refuses to pay, this is considered by some people to be a great act of compassion.    Why classify the act by a private citizen as theft and kidnapping while the same act by the government is an act of compassion?

The libertarian economist and philosopher Murray Rothbard said taxation may even be on a lower moral pedestal than individual theft since taxation occurs “on a grand and colossal scale which no acknowledged criminals could hope to match.”

It is true some taxation may be voluntary but surely not all taxation.  Rothbard continues: “What would happen if the government were to abolish taxation, and to confine itself to simple requests for voluntary contributions. Does anyone really believe that anything comparable to the current vast revenues of the State would continue to pour into its coffers?”

Since Jesus’ response to the woman who committed adultery was non-violent, it is difficult to make the case that He would approve of the government threatening violence and imprisonment against those who don’t want to give to the poor.  But Wallis must maintain that Jesus would approve of using coercion to redistribute money to the poor.

If Wallis believes all assistance to the poor should be voluntary, he should only be advocating for private charity.  But instead, he says, “Women, Infants, and Children (WIC), a program that helps provide food to hungry mothers and their children faces a $758 million cut. Also, the proposed budget cuts $544 million in international food aid grants for organizations such as World Vision.”  What if I wanted my money to go to a microfinance organization like KIVA instead of World Vision?  Not really an option…Uncle Sam’s violent arm awaits me.

So what would Jesus cut from the federal budget?  My personal opinion is that He would probably cut everything but police and courts and he may keep a drastically downsized military.  Of course, many libertarians like Rothbard have good arguments for privatizing those government functions as well.

In an article promoting the “What Would Jesus Cut” slogan, Wallis says, “the moral test of any society is how it treats its poorest and most vulnerable citizens.”  I agree.  But as we’ve seen, the government does not constitute “society.” It constitutes coercion and violence.  Webster’s defines society as “a voluntary association of individuals for common ends.”  This means the only way to “test” a society would be to look at its voluntary contributions to the poor.  And as history has shown, when government “charity” gets out of the way and genuine charity takes over, America wins the test every time.

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The Constitution can bridge the conservative/libertarian divide

If you put the vice president of the libertarian Cato institute David Boaz and the president of the traditionally conservative Family Research Council Tony Perkins in a room and asked them to talk about the benefits of reducing marginal tax rates, they’d be two peas in a pod.

But since conflict always makes for better entertainment than does agreement, such a meeting is not likely to  happen in our lifetime.  Instead, the only conversation that the two men will ever have in public will be the same back and forth (click for a link to their recent op-eds) over social issues.  Boaz thinks that social conservatives are first of all, incorrect and secondly, focusing on irrelevant issues.  Perkins believes that Boaz’s advocacy for gay marriage and drug legalization will rip apart the American family at the seams and turn society into a godless, libertine, degraded orgy.

Both can’t be right…so which ideology holds the truth?  The fate of the entire United States is at stake!  Right?  Well…not if libertarians and conservatives could agree on one little thing: what the Constitution says.

The problem is that some conservatives and libertarians are somewhat inconsistent on their interpretation of the document.  Conservatives don’t want to give states the opportunity to decide how to deal with drugs like marijuana and cocaine and some libertarians don’t want to give states the opportunity to decide how to deal with gay marriage.  The federal government has no constitutional authority to wage a drug war or to define marriage.  Both of these issues belong with the states.

Never in my life have I heard a social conservative say that the drug war is unconstitutional.  For some reason, many conservatives don’t see the tenth amendment applying to this area.  Libertarians rightly point out that we had to amend the Constitution for prohibition, so why don’t we have to amend the Constitution to prohibit drug use?

Another problem with conservatives is that many of them want to amend the Constitution to get rid of abortion and prevent gay marriage.  Conservatives don’t seem to realize that if they amend the Constitution to prohibit abortion in every single state, this would produce an enormous and vociferous pro-choice movement in the country.  This movement wouldn’t quiet down until it got an amendment legalizing abortion nationwide. This would simply put social conservatives back where they started.  The only civil way to resolve social issues is to let them go to the states.

But suppose that conservatives and libertarians did come to a consistent state’s rights interpretation of the Constitution.

If this came to be, then true conservatives and libertarians could actually agree about everything that the federal government should be doing domestically!  This would open up the opportunity for guys like David Boaz and Tony Perkins to get together and gripe about high marginal tax rates.  This is a possible solution to the tea party’s libertarian/social conservative divide.  Some people complain that the tea party talks about the Constitution too much, but if they haven’t yet realized that it holds the answer to the libertarian/conservative divide between them, they aren’t talking about it nearly enough.

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