Saturday, April 3, 2010

The Christian Case for Freedom

Freedom is a concept that is often discussed in politics (at least by one side of the aisle), and in general, but doesn't get discussed in biblical or religious terms often. Perhaps because the word itself doesn't appear in the Bible (I don't think)[1]. Perhaps because so many secular people's conception of God is totalitarian or dictatorial. But I'm not sure why Christians are reticent to discuss God's clear, though often not explicit, endorsement of freedom.

In the public sphere there are essentially two types of freedom, political and economic. Political freedoms would include things such as freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom to own property, bear arms etc. Economic freedom is the freedom to engage in economic transactions as you, and the party with which you engage with, see fit. None of these topics seem particularly Biblical, at first glance. And in any explicit sense, they really aren't. Jesus Christ was expected to be a political messiah, but he turned out to be apolitical. Why then should we be concerned with these matters, if Jesus wasn't?

The primary way God reveals his intent on these matters is through his created order. This notion that God speaks through both the Bible, and through his creation, is known as dual revelation. The two sources of revelation being wholly compatible and reconcilable. So what does his creation have to say about these matters? And how does the Bible confirm that which the created order has to say?

Freedom is a doctrine that is intrinsic to the Christian faith. It's so fundamental, so basic, that it needn't be preached explicitly. After all, what is there to say about the subject that isn't self-evident? You are free to choose to do as you wish. You are free to follow me. You are free to turn from me. This is how we were created. It is the essence of our being. There is not much that needs to be revealed or 'taught' on this subject. It is revealed in our very nature, and we don't need to be told to make choices and decisions. We are compelled to do it. We can't not do it.

Economic Freedom

You may often hear juvenile arguments from people on the left of the political spectrum along the lines of "Republicans love Jesus, but Jesus was all about giving to the poor, and they aren't!" or "Jesus was a socialist." It should be obvious that the people who make these arguments are referring to the lessons that Jesus taught regarding charity, material wealth and treatment of the poor. Of course charity in general, and especially, caring for the poor (both through monetary charity, as well as through acts of service), are a primary focus of Jesus' social teachings. These teachings are wholly compatible with that which the right wing preaches which is economic freedom in the public arena (i.e. laissez-faire capitalism), and private charity in the private sphere [Matthew 6:1-2].

We see where the doctrine of private charity comes from Biblically; directly from the words of Jesus Christ himself. But where do I derive the 'good' of economic freedom and laissez-faire capitalism from? How is founded Biblically or extra-Biblically through the revelation of creation?

Laissez-faire capitalism is, essentially, freedom extended into the economic arena. It is the economic system that would arise out of Eden, had Eden gone unspoiled. It is merely the uninterrupted interactions between individuals. Because Eden was befouled, and because of everything that has happened subsequently, a system of true, complete, pure laissez-faire capitalism is not really attainable or practical today for various obvious (and some not-so-obvious) reasons. But the closer we move toward that ideal, the closer to Eden we get. And all of the empirical data on economic systems throughout history showing their various failings and successes reveal this to be true, when the data sets are placed in their proper contexts. [2]

As the success of free markets (as compared to centrally planned economies) became readily apparent and empirically verifiable throughout the 20th century, even most communist and socialist countries began to turn to free markets. But where they may have seen the light of freedom and it's benefits as applied to it's economic sector, and thus reaped the rewards of that more efficient system, these same countries fail to see the same light regarding freedom in the political arena, and systematically deny those freedoms to it's citizens.

Political Freedom

In contrast to economic freedom, which can be mutually beneficial to all members of a country, including the rulers and ruling class of that country, political freedoms are a one-way street. They benefit the individual, sometimes to the detriment of society, sometimes in it's benefit (depending on which freedoms, and depending on your perspective), but always to the detriment of the ruling class. Because a gain in freedom for the individual represents a net loss in power and control for the ruling person or class. Therefore it's not really a question of empirical observation, as with economic freedom. A ruler, or ruling class, may be fully aware that political freedom is beneficial to the individual, and to society as a whole, and still have every vested interest to not provide those freedoms because doing so will result in that person(s) own loss of influence or power. Unlike the economy where there exists a fairly objective criterion for success (i.e. standards of living of citizens, economic growth, etc.), political goals are more subjective. And if your political goals consist of usurping large amounts of power at the cost of the rights and freedoms of your citizenry, then no amount of empirical data is going to convince you that political freedom is a 'good thing'.

Still other people who don't have political power at stake will also object to certain political freedoms, and do so on behalf of what they feel is 'a greater good', and therefore hold that property rights need to be limited, the right to bear arms needs to be repealed, the right to political speech must be limited etc.

But what does the Bible and/or the created order have to reveal on the subject? As discussed in the opening segment, the created order couldn't be more explicit. We are beings endowed with the ability to make choices and determine what paths we will take, while we're compelled to accept any consequences, or benefits, that derive from those decisions. The right to make these choices is full and complete, and only reaches natural limits when those freedoms become an imposition on another individual's rights. Thus the only justifiable function of the state is to protect it's citizens against fraud, coercion, theft, murder, assault, invasion, etc.

At this point one might argue, "well, in order for the state to exist, and exercise these duties, won't it necessarily have to usurp some degree of freedom?" The answer is unfortunately 'yes'. And, as with economic freedom, there are pragmatic considerations that come with living as fallen man in a fallen order. However, as with economic freedom, the closer we come to the ideal (political freedom), the closer we come to Eden. Thus the minimal state is the closest we can get to Eden politically, on this Earth. [3]

While I believe this case can be made solely on the basis of the created order, the Bible contributes to, and confirms these conclusions. Jesus Christ recognizes that two hierarchal orders exist within this world; that of God's Kingdom (where God > us), and that of a political nature (where our governments > us) [Matthew 22:21]. Other than that he recognizes nor affirms any hierarchal structure amongst ourselves on any basis; race, gender, wealth etc. (excepting perhaps merit.) His recognition of governments is only as a fact of nature, as I referred to in the last paragraph. Not as an ideal, or as a good; simply as an is. This conception of government's role in our lives (where Jesus wastes very little effort and energy discussing or dealing with governments in general, contrasted with how much focus He puts on our personal lives and personal interactions) is very consistent with the state-of-nature conception of a minimal state that I have outlined. The state is something that is a nuisance. Something that must be tolerated and dealt with. But not something that should be given much thought or time out of our day. And if a government is usurping our God-given freedoms, acting as a coercive power over us, that is going to require much of our attention, unfortunately. In this way Jesus implicitly affirms the necessity of governments in our current reality, while at the same time refusing to bestow upon them any great significance or ultimate importance. Which is completely in line with the conception of a minimal state.


If you reduce the infractions of governments against their people to the root offenses, it becomes apparent that these are explicit infractions against their people, even in Biblical terms. For example, using taxation as a means of stealing from one person to give to another violates 'thou shalt not steal.' However, as a broad, general concept, Freedom is an assumption in Christianity. Not something that requires specific attention. It's literally a given.

[1] A search at just revealed me to be wrong. There were 11 instances of 'freedom', but none really proclaiming it's virtue.
[2] I don't have space to fully connect the dots on this point, but see the writings of Adam Smith, Milton Friedman, Thomas Sowell etc.
[3] See Anarchy, State & utopia - Robert Nozick

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