Monday, June 9, 2014

Christian and Libertarian

At a conference this last week in Washington, DC, a group of Catholic bishops and thinkers gathered to discuss the deep schism between Catholic teaching and American libertarian thought.  The title of the conference laid out the core premise pretty clearly:

"Erroneous Autonomy: The Catholic Case Against Libertarianism."

The speakers and presenters weren't there for dialogue with the libertarian movement.  They were there to present the Vatican's position, which is pretty solid.  That position is it is manifested in the United States right now...libertarian thought is fundamentally opposed to Catholic teaching.

The reasons for this are various.

The most obvious, is that the "libertarian" thought typified by Ayn Rand and some right-wing masters of global capital is utterly alien to the teachings of Jesus.  You cannot hold the poor, the outcast, and the weak in contempt and consider yourself a Christian.  You cannot have personal profit or "shareholder value" serve as your primary moral compass and consider yourself a Christian.  That cannot be so.

This is the thrust of the Vatican's case against what often passes for "libertarian" thought in American political discourse. What does this look like?

It looks like the cretin wandering through Target with a faux-assault long gun.

It looks like the CEO who couldn't care less about workers, customers, clients, or community, but only thinks about maximizing profits.

If you use your freedom to threaten or prey on others, Jesus has beef with that.  In that, I find myself in agreement with my Catholic brothers and sisters.

I'm not totally there, though, because I think it's easy to assume from the morons and magnates who tend to become the public face of libertarianism that that's all there is to it.  That's a flawed assumption.

I'm also aware that Catholicism is a deeply hierarchical and authority-based faith tradition.  If you are a traditional Catholic, all autonomy is erroneous.  Final authority for all spiritual matters rests with the Vatican.  One can resist, of course, or disagree.  And I know folks do, and still consider themselves Catholic.  But within that system of faith, autonomy is not a core value.

Or to put it another way, when Catholicism errs, too much freedom ain't the error.

While it is not possible to be an acolyte of Ayn Rand or Milton Friedman and also Christian, it is entirely possible to be libertarian and Christian.

I can speak this with confidence, because I've bothered reading the Bible.  Jesus has plenty to say about freedom and the law, in both his actions and his teachings.  While he honored the intent of the law in both his actions and his teachings, he was also not willing to be bound by authority when authority itself transgressed against the purpose of the law.

The Apostle Paul--not "deutero-Paul," but the Apostle himself--taught precisely the same value set.  Honor and respect the law, even if it kills you.  He'd say this.  But at the same time, he recognized that following Jesus meant we no longer felt under the pressure of coercive power.  There's one law.  Just one.  Other than that, we're completely free.

That's the same position held by the Letter of James.  The "Royal Law" is also the Law of Liberty.

The Gospels and Epistles make it clear: liberty exists so long as love is the rule of our life.  If we do not love our neighbors as ourselves, then the systems and cultures we create will become the enemies of our own freedom.

If this is how you live, valuing your neighbor's freedom as deeply as your own, then liberty is a meaningful value for you.  You're both Christian and libertarian.

If not?  If all that matters to you are your rights, your wealth, and your power?  It is not a love of liberty that guides you.

That so many in our culture choose to understand liberty otherwise creates an interesting and observable irony: profit-driven capitalist "libertarianism" is the enemy of human freedom.  It controls with hunger and fear, and zealously defends its selfish freedom even if the liberty of others is trampled in the process.

So we can talk endlessly about liberty, while doing everything in our power to destroy it.  It never ceases to amaze me how many novel ways human beings can come up with to screw things up.