The Theological Significance of Political Liberty

Troxell-Steckel House, 1756 (N. Whitehall, Pennsylvania)

While attending this conference this weekend, I happened in some of my offhand remarks during one of the discussion sessions to tip my political hand as “localist / libertarian-leaning.” Of course, questions of ecology and how to work with God’s creation eventually do lead to economic and political issues, though I felt the conference successfully mostly steered clear of such things. (My impression of its purpose was that it was for exploring and imparting proper theological vision, not for issuing policy memoranda.) But my one minor comment was later the cause of a minor private confrontation of sorts in which I was informed that libertarianism necessarily means Randian Objectivism and its basic ethic of “rational selfishness.” As such, libertarianism is not compatible with Orthodox Christianity, and it in no way is concerned for the common good.

This came as a bit of a surprise to me (even apart from the reality that both the notion of and the term for libertarianism pre-date Rand), as I’m sure it would to others who share similar political sympathies to mine. I am not, mind you, a doctrinaire nor partisan Libertarian, but even if I were, I would feel no special loyalty to Ayn Rand or her philosophy. Libertarianism, even in its many varieties, by no means requires that one be selfish. Indeed, libertarianism is not really about preventing oneself from doing things for others. Rather, it is about preventing oneself from doing things to others, most especially by means of political (and thus ultimately, violent) force. You can of course be a selfish cad and be a libertarian, but you can also be a great philanthropist and be a libertarian.

Anyway, I am not, properly speaking, a libertarian. I’m basically a localist, which is not a word that most people understand to have a political meaning. It does, though, and it implies at least a similarity with libertarian political philosophy. Political localism is, at its core, the belief that massive national systems are not so good, while local solutions to problems between neighbors (even politically) are much better. Many localists are also distributists, which is an economic philosophy whose core principle might be described as “don’t let anyone get too big for his britches.” It has anti-monopolism as a basic economic principle. I don’t yet know enough about distributism to endorse it explicitly, but if it is as one writer I once saw described it, essentially the economics of the Shire (where no one grabs more than is really proper for him), then I like it. In this, though, distributism is more of a culture and less a specific politically endorsed economic policy.

What this post is really about, though, is why a dedication to liberty is actually compatible with Orthodox Christian theology.

There is a variety of person who believes that Christ’s commands for us to love the poor should lead us to a progressivist political outlook, that we should expand the welfare state, because doing so is fulfilling His will. I really do not agree with that, if only because it smacks to me entirely to be too much like those ancient Jews who wanted the Messiah to come riding in on a white horse to inaugurate a political salvation. That approach doesn’t work, though. St. John Chrysostom tells us why:

Should we look to kings and princes to put right the inequalities between rich and poor? Should we require soldiers to come and seize the rich person’s gold and distribute it among his destitute neighbors? Should we beg the emperor to impose a tax on the rich so great that it reduces them to the level of the poor and then to share the proceeds of that tax among everyone? Equality imposed by force would achieve nothing, and do much harm. Those who combined both cruel hearts and sharp minds would soon find ways of making themselves rich again. Worse still, the rich whose gold was taken away would feel bitter and resentful; while the poor who received the gold from the hands of soldiers would feel no gratitude, because no generosity would have prompted the gift. Far from bringing moral benefit to society, it would actually do moral harm. Material justice cannot be accomplished by compulsion, a change of heart will not follow. The only way to achieve true justice is to change people’s hearts first—and then they will joyfully share their wealth.

But we as a society don’t like that method. We figure the best way to achieve justice is to enact massive programmes and legislation. This approach is endemic to our political culture, whether it is the progressivists on the right or on the left. Both of our major political parties have this essential narrative within their agendas. Neither of them are particularly interested in actual liberty of the sort Chrysostom speaks of here. (Alas, I have no citation for this quote other than its inclusion in the little On Living Simply volume.) There must be some kind of systemic solution to our justice problems.

But the localist in me distrusts any systemic solutions, because they fail to take into account the actual common good and only address theoretical constructs of what our society must be like. And the theologian in me (be he ever so simple) abhors systemic solutions, precisely because of what Chrysostom says here. It is far, far easier for me to vote for you to be charitable to someone else (and even to offer up my own money in taxes, as well) than it is for me to be charitable to someone right in front of me.

The common good is actually served when neighbors in communities care for one another, not when they facelessly vote for a faceless law enacted by faceless men, supposedly benefiting faceless people somewhere in the faceless Out There. There are those statists who say that our government is really just an expression of our collective will, and there is of course some truth to that. But it is one thing for our collective will to express charity, and it is another for our collective will to use the tyranny of the majority to force it out of others and ourselves.

But all that is only the negative, accounting for us, in moral and theological terms, why centrally planned “justice” is not terribly just.

The positive side of the dedication to liberty, even political liberty, is that it serves one of our basic theological affirmations, that the human person is free. God never compels us to act morally, though He does sometimes restrain us from becoming public menaces. Likewise, if we who are made according to His image would attain to His likeness, we should do likewise. In a real sense, pursuing limited government is not just a “conservative” or “libertarian” “value.” It is rather a means of trying to treat our neighbors as God Himself treats us.

Yes, we should restrain the public menace, but we cannot (and I use this phrase with much delicious irony but also much literalism) legislate morality, whether that is the morality of the bedroom or the boardroom. Yes, of course, we want people to behave themselves in both the bedroom and the boardroom, but the best means to promote that is to aim for their souls’ salvation, not for their means’ taxation.

We must change people’s hearts first. Anything less will fail, anyway. No just people was ever legislated into being. But the prophet Jonah succeeded in inspiring Nineveh to repent. And Jesus, even while appearing before the authorities, did not lobby them. Rather, He died for them and then rose from the dead, and the sun then rose on a kingdom unlike any other, where true freedom resides in men’s hearts and is given unconditionally by their God, where no one is compelled to love another. Love under compulsion isn’t love, anyway.

Update: I haven’t been able to track down the source of the Chrysostom quote, so I cannot be sure that it is authentically from him. Nevertheless, whether Chrysostom said it or not, what it says about the spiritual ramifications of coerced charity is true, so I leave it in place for its wisdom.


  1. says

    Father, this is key:
    The positive side of the dedication to liberty, even political liberty, is that it serves one of our basic theological affirmations, that the human person is free. God never compels us to act morally, though He does sometimes restrain us from becoming public menaces

    Great quote. Really, we should side-step “human rights” and talk about “human freedoms.” All humans have free will. “Human rights” language has too often been co-opted in ways with which I’m not always comfortable and I’m concerned that behind that phrase lies secular humanism. I think we Orthodox should work hard at articulating an Orthodox libertarianism of sorts.

    • Fr. Andrew says

      Yes, we must somehow eliminate the culture of “Gimme,” which is nihilistic in its orientation, as is the notion of “rights.” Where we are dedicated to freedom and duty, however, what we come away with is communion, an orientation toward the Other which goes far beyond what I’m not allowed to take away from you (the older notion of “rights” in our Constitution) or what I have to give you (the emerging notion of “rights,” e.g. the right to health insurance).

  2. Stephen says

    Either “Amen” or “Hear! Hear!”, depending on whether one is emphasizing either a theological or a civil/political perspective.

  3. Anam Cara says

    Yes, I agree that until people’s hearts are changed, there is no REAL change, no salvation for the people. We may outlaw abortion, but until people see how wrong it is, the next group may vote it back in again. The way to end all abortion is not to make laws, as easy as that may seem. It is for people’s hearts to believe that it is wrong.

    That having been said, I disagree with your statement, “but we cannot … legislate morality, whether that is the morality of the bedroom or the boardroom.”

    Every law legislates morality. The question is, “whose morality will it legislate?”

    • Fr. Andrew says

      No, we cannot legislate morality. We can attempt to restrain evil, but that does not make those so restrained into moral people, nor does it even force them into moral action. Morality only can come from within.

      To be sure, though, Law itself is an expression of morality, but Law is not legislated into being! Indeed, that we should have laws is an expression of morality from a people.

      Part of the problem here comes from a notion of morality as adherence to a legal code, whether the legislation is from man or from God. In the Orthodox Christian faith, by contrast, morality is not mere adherence to a code, but it is rather the free actions of people acting according to nature, that is, according to how God created them. Morality is rather a power that has been set free rather than mere restraint or a failure to transgress. (See Christos Yannaras’s brilliant The Freedom of Morality for more on this.)

      With regard to abortion and related issues, such things constitute a public menace, which is why we outlaw murder and don’t merely admonish people not to commit it. No one who believes in liberty (at least, none that I know of) believes that murder should be legal, which explains why there are so very many pro-life libertarians (Ron Paul comes to mind), whose dedication to life is such that they would outlaw the taking of it from the innocent. I’m one of those.

      Outlawing abortion, other forms of murder, and every such public menace does not, of course, eliminate their occurrences, but it does draw a line in the sand, one that is necessary if we are not to devolve into a barbarous people in which the power of violence is the ordering principle of society. We should still seek to change such barbarians’ hearts even while we stay their hands.

  4. Ethan says

    Fr. Andrew, thank you for writing this post. You’ve articulated and validated my own thoughts about the intersection of political liberty and Orthodox theology in the context of man’s God given free will. This theological principle, that man is created free to choose to love God or to deny him, drew me away from Calvinism to Orthodoxy