America needs to get back to religion, no matter what libertarians say

Here’s a quick lesson for young, self-styled libertarians: Nick Gillespie’s punk-rock stylings and irreverent attitude are not a formula for success.

Admittedly, few in the budding millennial libertarian “generation” will believe me. They are busy celebrating pot freedom and the right to marry whoever they want. Clearly, somewhere along the line between Leonard Read and the New York Times-dubbed “libertarian moment,” freedom turned into blissful sodomy and getting stoned. Should the trend continue, libertarianism will wither, and rightly so.

Gillespie, who is a thought leader in the trendy libertine-leaning freedom movement, is championing the decline. From his soapbox at Reason magazine, he preaches the principles of free association and non-aggression. Much of his work is laudable; his wittiness is a great tool showing how foolish the warmongers in Congress are. But even the wisest jokester is not immune to stupidity. Gillespie’s attitude, anti-authoritarian as it is, is a road map of the perilous direction that libertarianism is trending.

In a recent diatribe, the black jacketed sermonizer attempts to correct Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal on a topic of high importance: God and America. The governor, who is a convert to Catholicism, recently told a group of Christians and Jewish leaders the country has drifted away from God. This path is dangerous for America, he averred. As a possible 2016 presidential candidate looking to court social conservatives, Jindal was unambiguous about his warning, telling the crowd, “We have tried everything and now it is time to turn back to God.”

This is all wrong according to Gillespie. Issues of public policy, spending and debt, entitlement programs, civil liberties, and militarization are not matters of spiritual conviction. When it comes to politics, he maintains, “God has nothing to do with any of that.”

From a modern understanding, Gillespie is not wrong. In taking the Constitution’s separation of religion language to its most literal conclusion, he sincerely believes government must be barred from religious influence to protect republican-based democracy from morphing into theocracy. Practical matters such as protecting the country and balancing the national checkbook can be solved with secularized reason. If government can’t take sides with God, it has no business letting the holy spirit guide its actions.

This view, which is accepted by many conservatives and almost all liberals, is cancerous to the nation’s long-term health. The neglecting of religion as a force for public policy decisions has not brought forth an enlightened band of leaders to run the country. On the contrary, it has brought forth many of the irresponsible decisions we see in Washington.

The late cleric and Christian writer Richard John Nehaus saw the Constitution’s separation of church and state language very differently. Rather than isolate government from religious influence, he viewed it an enhancer of public worship. He saw politics as a question about what ought to be done to order society in a moral fashion. Religion plays a crucial part in answering this question and “the exclusion of religion from politics, or from public life more generally, violates the First Amendment guarantee of the ‘free exercise of religion.’” To exclude religion is to exclude a good deal of moral reasoning that informs political choices.

Nehaus believed “religion cannot be separated from politics,” and more importantly in “democratic politics.” This is especially true in the United States where the rights enshrined in the Constitution were not inspired by reason alone but also by the Christian view of liberty and society. Following the tragic shootings in the office of the French satire magazine Charlie Hebdo, Michael Brendan Dougherty brought attention to the truth that free speech is not a liberal value. Secularism, he writes, “creates a taboo against distinguishing between religions.” Like its cousin the strict separation of church and state, it is blind to the role spiritualism – namely Christianity – plays in its practice.

The values American democracy holds dear are informed by Christian-inspired reason. The right to vote is based on the intrinsic worth of every person. Freedom to express views without fear of rebuke is based on the “turn the other cheek” principle. Limited government is a concept that comes from the recognition that humanity is sinful and needs boundaries. What many think of as Western values are really, as Dougherty writes, an “epiphenomenon of Christendom.”

The very liberty Gillespie wants to savor developed first through Christianity. In a more recent piece for Time, he further excoriates Christian Republicans and contends “We really don’t need more moral instruction and biblical exhortation from elected leaders.” What country does Gillespie think he’s living in? Every politician, whether right or left, makes moral statements all the time. Pols aren’t machines that take inputs from the electorate and produce outputs that fit their desire. They are human beings who can’t help but act on a personal moral basis. If Gillespie truly wants Washington to balance the budget and get back to a simplified order, he should embrace a belief that teaches humility, grace, and love for others.

Gillespie is correct that religious adherence is fading from America. At the same time, crime rates are also falling. And even war has become less about massive armies slaughtering each other on the battlefield and more about targeted killing. But correlation has that nasty habit of not being causation. It’s comical to think these trends are due to the decline in church membership. If anything, the fall in violence happened in spite of secularism’s rise. We should thank God that disbelief is more benevolent than it has the capacity to be.

Gillespie dismisses religion ultimately because it makes for poor electoral prospects. He claims that if Republicans keep harping on the need to restore religion, they will alienate the growing number of agnostics and non-believers. This is a highly simplistic view. Elections can’t be counted on to maintain the health of a country. The formula for democratic success is too easy: you promise voters free stuff. If Republicans truly want to do as their name implies and protect the republic, they must use soulcraft. That doesn’t mean passing a federal law that punishes adulterers via stoning. It just means the character of voters must be influenced to save the country from devolving into a meaningless consumer paradise.

The old saying politics is downriver from culture still applies. Right now, Democrats win elections because their myopic and hedonistic views have been allowed to permeate freely among American culture. They victimize and cultivate feelings of loneliness and envy within isolated voters. The only way to combat this horribly cynical electoral tactic is to appeal to humanity’s great need for a moral order that supersedes government. Will Republicans take this lesson to heart? It’s doubtful; the Grand Old Party seems to enjoy squandering victory by pursuing short-term gains. But one can hope.

Comte recognized that religion plays a crucial role disseminating moral views that enable society to be civil and not self-destructive. Even with all our material advances, religion doesn’t cease to influence public life. It just becomes replaced with passion towards a new god, whether it be man, technology, Marxist dialectics, or even Allah. Gillespie should be careful about what he wishes for. The Christian God may be silenced in American politics, but no doubt something much worse will take its place.

(Image source)

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4 comments

  1. What coincidence, I just finished reading Jonathan Haidt’s “the Righteous Mind” and he kind of makes similar practical conclusions only aimed at the Democrats as much as at the libertarians.

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  2. Good read.

    But why equate advocating the option of an action to the action itself? (“…freedom turned into blissful sodomy and getting stoned”). And why smuggle in connotation (“blissful”)?

    And why should libertarianism wither for advocating what its logic entails, for being consistent? Or is it your view that these are not proper libertarian positions, and if so, why aren’t they? Or is it a gripe with the relative importance placed on these proper positions within the movement?

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  3. When speaking about excluding religion from politics, it is important to distinguish two quite different concepts. Confusion understandably arises because the constitutional principle of separation of church and state is sometimes equated with a widely supported political doctrine that goes by the same name and generally calls for political dialogue to be conducted on grounds other than religion. The underlying reasons for that political doctrine are many, but three primary ones are that (1) it facilitates discussion amongst people of all beliefs by predicating discussion on grounds accessible to all and (2) it avoids, in some measure at least, putting our respective religious beliefs directly “in play” in the political arena, so we’re not put in the position of directly disputing or criticizing each other’s religious beliefs in order to address a political issue and (3) since the government cannot (under the constitutional separation of church and state) make laws or decisions with the predominant purpose or primary effect of advancing religion, it makes little sense to urge the government to do just that. This political doctrine, of course, is not “law” (unlike the constitutional separation of church and state, which is), but rather is a societal norm concerning how we can best conduct political dialogue in a religiously diverse society. Reasonable people can disagree about whether the doctrine is a good idea or not and whether or how it should influence us in particular circumstances.

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