The “Libertarian Moment” Wouldn’t Exist Without Religion

Ed Kilgore takes issue with Robert Draper’s New York Times Magazine piece exploring whether the “libertarian moment” has arrived for the Republican Party because it ignores the role the Christian right has played in promoting small, limited government. Most observers think Christian right ideology and libertarianism are incompatible — because what could be greater evidence of government intrusion than interference in matters of sex, marriage, and reproduction? But Kilgore writes:

Unfortunately, to the extent there is something that can be called a “libertarian moment” in the Republican Party and the conservative movement, it owes less to the work of the Cato Institute than to a force genuine libertarians clutching their copies of Atlas Shrugged are typically horrified by: the Christian Right. In the emerging ideological enterprise of “constitutional conservatism,” theocrats are the senior partners, just as they have largely been in the Tea Party Movement, even though libertarians often get more attention.

I do think that non-religious libertarians played a role in elevating some of the Tea Party agenda to the fore of the Republican Party. But Kilgore is right that the Christian right — a movement very much at home in the Tea Party movement, and one which would take up a good deal of space in a Venn diagram of the coalition — made that libertarian-ish conservatism an ideology that could find a comfortable and uncontroversial place in a political party whose electoral fortunes hinge on holding together a coalition of religious conservatives and anti-regulation free marketers.

An essential dogma of the religious right is that government should provide minimal services for and impose minimal demands on the citizenry. Sound familiar? But the reason isn’t, as popular libertarian dogma would have it, because the government should keep its nose out of your business. Dating back to conservative Christian red scares, anti-union and anti-New Deal ideology, and to Christian Reconstructionist framing of the proper role of government in relation to the church, the family, and the individual, these principles emerge from the idea that the secular state is the enemy of a proper Christian ordering of markets, social norms, and family and religious life.

If you doubt that these dogmas have found common cause, remember that many of the supporters of the Tea Party godfather, Ron Paul, base their support for him on the belief that he shares, or at least would respect and act on their religious views.

The Tea Party movement, and the so-called “libertarian moment” that we may or may not be witnessing, owes a great deal to the perpetuation of these ideas by the Christian right, and the consolidation of them in conservative dogma and, indeed Republican Party orthodoxy. Actually, the Republican Party owes a great deal to this Christian right framing because without it, the party would be scrambling to hold together two parts of its coalition that are seemingly at odds with one another.

Will the hipster, gin-drinking libertarianism Draper so vividly describes dominate as the calling card of the 2016 GOP presidential candidates? I have my doubts, if for no other reason than the outsized role religious conservatives play in the primary process. But the rise of this libertarian streak in Republican politics does not conflict with the religious right as much as one might think.

Sarah Posner, author of God’s Profits: Faith, Fraud, and the Republican Crusade for Values Voters, covers politics and religion. Her work has appeared in The Washington Post, The Guardian, The Atlantic, The American ProspectThe NationSalon, and other publications. Follow her on TwitterRSS feed Email

  • Gideon

    A Christian Republican once commented to me that social programs provided by governments indirectly weaken the influence of churches by enabling citizens to obtain help without intrusive religious entanglement—though I think he referred to it as “moral guidance”, probably because he implicitly assumed that the poor have lots of moral failings to be straightened out.

  • Liya

    Astute observation! I am complimenting you of course,not him :)

  • http://www.agnostic-library.com/ma/ PsiCop

    Re: “… he implicitly assumed that the poor have lots of moral failings to be straightened out.”

    Lots of the R.R. think this way. It’s a result of the prevalent “Protestant work ethic,” which holds that if one is virtuous and hard-working, one will be wealthy. They view the poor through the lens of this proposition, and conclude that someone who’s poor must either be lazy or not virtuous. (And as it turns out, they’re likely to conclude any given poor person is both lazy and morally deficient.)

  • Maybe Not

    Supporters of Ron Paul who actually understand his positions would NOT expect him to “act” on their religious views politically. He only “shares” anything with them because he is a christian, but his record and his philosophy when it comes to government is never to conflate religion and state. Any of his supporters who suspect him (or any of his would-be successors) of such engagement just do not understand his work and do not understand libertarianism.

  • fiona64

    Oh, we understand Rand Paul, and libertarianism just fine. The overall philosophy of both is “Eff you, I got mine.”