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. 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.

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

  3. 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?”

    1. 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. 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.

    As I’ve observed the current rise of statist progressives in American politics, I’ve wondered what Orthodoxy has to say about these men and their ideas. I think our father among the saints, Gregory of Nyssa, would agree with your conclusion when he writes, “”Some are saying that God, if He wanted to, could by force bring even the disinclined to accept the kerygmatic message [the Good News of Christ]. But then where would their free choice be? Where their virtue? Where their praise for their having succeeded? To be brought around to the purpose of another’s will belongs only to creatures without a soul or irrational.” The Great Catechism [383 A.D.]1034 [31]

    1. They’re not quite the same thing, though subsidiarity can be an element of a larger localist vision.

  5. My issue would be that once you bring ‘the gun’ into play, it suddenly becomes very tricky to justify where and when you decide it is and isn’t right to use. So, for example, if you’re willing to use force/violence to stop a woman from killing her child in the womb, why aren’t you willing to use it to prevent those who have the means and ability to save said child, after birth, from a death due to hunger or curable illness? Because the other side sees abortion as an issue of the woman’s ‘freedom’ just as much as you see someone’s ‘right’ to let other human beings die of starvation and lack of health care as part of theirs.

    I can get behind a Libertarianism that calls for a voluntarist society, but only one in which force and violence are gone completely.

    Also, its worth noting in this instance that of all of the crimes of Israel/Judah under the Old Covenant, which included sacrificing their children to Molech, the one which got them exiled from the land was failure to observe the Sabbath year. The Law commands that anyone owning a field or vineyard harvest it for six years, then in the seventh year leave it to let the poor and the beasts of the field it from it as they will. Neither Israel nor Judah followed this practice, and so, after 490 years of not observing it, they were exiled for 70 so that, according to God, the land could rest for its sabbaths. Note also that during the six years they were not to harvest it to the full, to leave the remaining gleanings for the poor. In the 50th year, Jubilee was declared, all debts were cancelled, slaves were freed, and any land that had exchanged hands returned to its original owners. So I find it difficult to make a Biblical argument that God is more concerned with anything than with the treatment of the poor.

    The idea of ‘property rights’ is antithetical to Christian morality, such that the only way I can see that you can argue against using violence in this critical moral area is to argue against using violence in a general sense. Nothing in this world belongs to us. All of it belongs to God, and therefore no one has a ‘right’ to deprive another human being of any of it, and doing so isn’t ‘freedom’ in the proper sense.

    1. “Thou shalt not steal” does not quite establish property rights as such, but it certainly means that we should not take what someone else has without his permission.

      As for “the gun” and the juxtaposition of abortion with failure to be charitable, there is a moral equivocation there that is deeply problematic. Abortion is an action against another human being, and it is only right to restrain murder. It is something else to use force to compel someone into doing what is morally positive.

      The baby would most likely have lived if the abortionist had not killed him. It is the abortionist who makes him die.

      But the person starving is not made to starve by the person who does not help him. If he were, then that makes God Himself morally culpable—after all, does He not have the means to prevent every possible evil and suffering? And are we not all therefore culpable if we do not spend every moment of every day and every last shred of resources we have to save others from suffering?

      Now, this is all apart from someone who defrauds another, extorts another, cheats another, etc. Those things are bad, and they are direct contributions to starvation. But merely having money in my pocket doesn’t make me morally culpable for the death of the person who might have been saved by it. If I stole it from him, then yes, I am culpable.

      Government’s wielding of the sword is not ideal. God did not create the world so that the sword was involved, so yes, non-violence is the ideal. But total pacifism is not permissible to the Christian so long as there are public menaces who are actively destroying the lives and livelihoods of others, who are violating the commandments “Thou shalt not steal” and “Thou shalt do no murder.” While law cannot prevent or address every moral wrong (especially sins of omission, except perhaps where someone is deeply bound to be responsible for another, e.g., a parent for his child), it can restrain those who are a menace to the public.

      Yes, we all should be seeking to help those in need, and God will judge us according to the good and evil we have done. But it is one thing to use force to prevent an evil act and another to use it to compel a good one.

      1. In order to understand what is meant by ‘Thou shalt not steal’ we have to understand what stealing means in the culture in which that was originally given, which is somewhat different than our current culture.

        For example, Zacchaeus the publican is identified as a thief. In fact, he voluntarily embraced the penance of returning to everyone five times what he had stolen. But what Zacchaeus did, collecting additional tax revenues beyond his quota owed Rome and keeping that excess for himself, was completely legal, acceptabl, and went with his job. But in the Jewish culture of the time, him hording and accruing that money for himself, backed with Rome’s violence, was stealing. Likewise, working ‘your own’ fields for seven years in a row was ‘stealing’ according to the Law.

        With regards to violence, I strongly disagree. I think total pacifism is the only option for a Christian, as exhibited by our earliest fathers in the Faith and Christ Himself. Christianity never embraced violent revolt against Rome, this even when Rome was slaughtering Christians by the thousands in hideously gruesome, public ways. Murder was literally a sport for the Romans, yet Christians never encouraged armed rebellion as the means to end it (contra Spartacus, contra most of the Jewish sects at the time). When Christ told Pilate that His Kingdom is not of this world, he established the primary difference, that if His Kingdom were of this world, His followers would take up arms to rescue Him. This world’s kings and kingdoms thrive on force and violence. It is their one ‘power’. Christ’s Kingdom repudiates force and violence. Even, as Christ, His Apostles, and the martyrs show us, in self defense.

        You cannot stop violence with more violence. And we don’t have to create a kingdom in this world that is voluntary and practices persuasion over armed coersion, because we’re both members of one, the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church, which is the new nation which is called by His Name. We can’t turn the State into the Church, though we can hope like Dostoevsky in The Brothers Karamazov that one day She will expand to encompass the whole world, letting the State wither on the vine as an unnecessary barbarism.

        1. Is it therefore wrong for a man to defend his home against someone who would rape and kill his wife and children? What about the saints we have who are praised for their military defense against invasion? What about the times in Scripture that God explicitly tells His people not only to defend, but actually invade lands and take them from their inhabitants? Now, I do not believe that the light of the full revelation of Christ in the New Testament would condone the invasion of Canaan, the assassination of Ehud, or Elijah’s slaying of the prophets of Baal, but God’s active involvement in those things precludes an absolute doctrine of pacifism. And Romans 13 is clear that the state “beareth not the sword in vain.” You are right that armed rebellion against the state is not a part of our tradition, but armed defense of the state and of one’s family certainly is.

          Fr. Alexander Webster has written extensively on the parallel traditions in Orthodoxy of pacifism and what he calls “justifiable war” (essentially wars of defense), and the data is pretty strong that while violence is never considered ideal by the Church, it is understood essentially as necessary in certain circumstances, and the defense of life is clearly one of those. The canonical tradition reflects this, as well—the traditional penances for murder are pretty big, but the penance for a soldier who has killed in battle is considerably less. (Webster uses the data in some places to support the “global war on terror,” but I very much disagree with him over that application. He also believes that war can be a “virtue,” but I don’t agree with that, either.)

          Yes, ideally, the Church should so expand as to make the state irrelevant. And while physical force is always a spiritual harm in need of repentance, sometimes it is an appropriate action.

  6. Well, it seems like you’re having it both ways. You’re wanting to say that total pacifism isn’t the ideal, but at the same time admit that violence is always an (at best necessary) evil. It should be noted that in all of the Old Testament examples you give of violence, the perpetrator was penanced in some way, or at the least (in the case of Ehud) cast in an at best ambivalent light. But your Romans reference is particularly on point here. Keep in mind that St. Paul is talking about not just Rome, but Caligula’s Rome. Taking his statement about the sword as an endorsement of that government’s actions (though that is done quite frequently) is somewhat absurd on the face. Rather, St. Paul is referring to the way in which God has historically brought about His judgment on peoples and nations through the means of other nations and empires, i.e. Assyria and Babylon sending Israel and Judah into exile. He is most definitely not throwing in His lot with pagan empires and their pretensions.

    Though I, off hand, don’t know of any saints who are saints because they utilized violence (I can think of many who are saints for rejecting violence, or in spite of violence, and many many more who are saints for suffering violence without retaliating), I’m sure with the level of Philetism and Caesero-Papism that infected the Church in various eras there might be some out there. But these few would prove to be at best the exceptions that prove the rule, given the overwhelming presence of the choir of the martyrs.

    With regard to defending one’s home and family, Christ’s teachings are hard, and there has been a great effort over the years to find ‘wiggle room’ or to conform them to what we think we are able to actually accomplish. When He said to turn the other cheek when struck, to give more to the one who steals from you, etc. I believe, frankly, that He meant it literally. Even more to the point when He told us, “Do not resist an evil man.” Were the families of the martyrs somehow failing morally by not taking up arms to defend their family members who were tortured and slaughtered? What of the Christian community that steadfastly refused to use violence to protect its own against Rome?

    Its true that despite turning to Christianity, the Caesars continued to make war, to torture, to enslave, to execute, to ignore the plight of the poor, etc. etc. But the fact that they claimed Christianity and acted in that way does not make those actions a valid part of the Christian Tradition. Our monastic tradition is utterly unified in pacifism and a complete rejection of violence, and if we’re looking for consistency of witness to Apostolic Tradition, the monastic tradition is far more reliable than the Imperial one.

    In his homily on the Rich Man and Lazarus, St. John Chrysostom says plainly that the Rich Man, by not sharing his wealth with Lazarus at his gate, is guilty of stealing from Lazarus, and of murdering him. It seems to me nonsensical to argue that violence is justified in preventing some types of theft and murder but not others. Rather, I think that St. John is arguing against using force to compel virtue across the board in a general sense, in union with the monastic tradition which formed him. Let us also not forget that St. John was himself a victim of Imperial violence.

    1. I do not believe that either Scripture or Christian history align with the idea that it is sinful to protect the innocent by means of force.

      Also, I did not quote St. Paul to suggest that he was endorsing everything the Roman government did. Nevertheless, if wielding the sword for any reason were utterly wrong in every case, then God would not ever have told anyone to do it. Yet He did. He did not simply permit it but commanded it.

      Also, you are conflating two things here, especially in the last paragraph: It is one thing to use force to restrain an evildoer, but it is another to use force to coerce virtue. Restraining an evildoer does not make him virtuous or coerce him into a virtuous act; it protects others from harm.

      As for martyrdom, I don’t think that can be absolutized into a doctrine of pacifism, especially when we have examples such as St. Demetrius blessing St. Nestor to kill Lyaeus, precisely in order to prevent him from martyring any more Christians. (Nestor’s battle cry was “O God of Demetrius, help me!”)

      We may also think of St. Constantine’s vision and his victory at Milvian Bridge. Whatever one may think of Constantine’s other acts, Orthodox tradition holds that his vision was real, that God really did say to him, “In this sign [i.e., the cross], conquer.”

      In any event, I think it’s clear where each of us stand. I’m closing comments from here on out.

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