Why Not a Libertarian Church?


A unique feature of libertarianism is its explicit ethical base. Accordingly, a church seems a particularly appropriate vehicle for the propagation of libertarian ideas. In fact, it may be more effective for this purpose than is political action. For there are liabilities inherent in libertarian politics. It is, fundamentally, a contradiction in terms. Libertarianism is not a program of political action, but of nonpolitical action. Libertarians are not urging political force as a means of solving problems; they are urging alternatives to political force. At the outset, then, politics is a means that contradicts libertarian ends.

Burdened by this inherent contradiction, the libertarian political candidate presents at best an ambiguous image. If political power were placed in his hands, would he use it? If not, the voter may well ask, why is he running for political office? While the professional politician comes across as a realistic man of action, the libertarian politician comes across as a Don Quixote tilting at windmills. He may win the sympathy and the sometimes grudging respect of the public and the media—but not their serious attention. And not their votes.

This brings us to the real liability of libertarian politics: the popular view of libertarianism as a utopian pipedream—and perpetual humiliation at the polls simply reinforces this negative image!

This is not to disparage the good intentions of those who engage in political action. While joining in their desire to introduce libertarian ideas to the marketplace, others of us suggest that submitting these ideas to the irrelevant test of "voter approval" may not be the best way to achieve this end. So, before dissipating our energies in the game of mass politics (a game fundamentally incompatible with our individualist ideas anyway), let's ask ourselves: Why should we play the political game, by political rules? Why shouldn't we play our game, by our rules?

A church is an especially appropriate vehicle for the promotion of libertarian ideas. Three advantages in particular may be mentioned.

First, as noted above, its format highlights that unique feature of the libertarian idea, its explicit ethical base. Few movements in history emphasize so clearly the premise of individual rights.

Consider classical liberalism of 19th-century England, a period we mistakenly regard as a high-water mark of philosophical individualism. True, scores of restrictive rules and regulations were swept away, and England prospered as never before. But the justification for this reform was not individual rights at all. The premise of classical liberalism was "utility;" the ethics it embraced, utilitarianism—the so-called greatest good for the greatest number. Later, when British leaders decided that even greater "utility" could be procured, not by extending freedom still further, but by restricting it once again, the old restraints were reimposed.

Classical liberalism, then, at least in its later stages, was based on something other than an ethical concern for individual rights. And nearly every other movement in history has been the same in this respect. But libertarianism is different. Based explicitly on the concept of ethical egoism, it holds that people should be free, not simply because it's good for the gross national product, but because each individual has the right, in a moral sense, to live his own life, for his own sake, in accordance with his own convictions. Libertarianism, then, is not simply another political or economic idea. It is fundamentally an ethical concept—although with political and economic implications, of course. But the ethical content comes first.

The second advantage of a libertarian church is that it brings to the movement the important ingredient of relevance to our everyday lives. The absence of bread-and-butter relevance has been a major reason for the failure to capture the interest of the general public. For example, when we turn on the 6 o'clock news, we don't see libertarians; we see politicians. First, we see a news conference with the President. Then, perhaps an interview with some high-level bureaucrat. Then another politician seeking legislation for this or that noble cause, and on and on.

But political leaders receive this attention for a very good reason. What they think and say and do does have a direct impact on people's lives in terms of roads and taxes and schools and you name it. Political action, whatever we might think of it, does have this bread-and-butter relevance, and as a result people are intensely interested in what's going on in and about the political arena.

Libertarianism, in contrast, has no perceptible impact on roads and taxes and schools. We talk about these things among ourselves (and perhaps even run an occasional quasi-political candidate), but since we reject political force as a means of running things, people fail to see how libertarianism could appreciably effect their lives one way or the other. Accordingly, popular interest in it is nil.

A libertarian church, however, can provide the missing ingredient. When such an organization can offer a channel for the individual's legally diverting a portion of his taxes to voluntary efforts and activities, that's relevance. People suddenly become very interested indeed in what the libertarian movement is all about. A church, then, can provide for libertarians what the political party provides for politicians: a vehicle that, because it has a dollars-and-cents impact on people's lives, attracts their curiosity, participation, and support.

The third distinctive feature of a libertarian church is that it permits an ideological offensive. Take the situation today. Suppose a libertarian, after great effort and long delay, finally gains a face-to-face confrontation with his political representative.

"Senator Jones," says the libertarian, "with all due respect, I wish to point out that there's really no needed function performed by political force that could not be better performed by private, voluntary means. For example, A, B, C, and D."

The Senator listens with interest, but concludes: "Mr. Smith, I'm sure you're sincere in your beliefs, but I'm afraid your proposals are quite impractical. Your ideas are interesting—but I'm not convinced. And now if you'll excuse me…"

In general, that's about the extent of the hearing that libertarians will get today from their political leaders. Libertarians are interested in a nonpolitical approach to things, while politicians, by virtue of their occupation, have no interest whatever in nonpolitical solutions—or in those who propose them.

But now suppose our libertarian does something else. Instead of wasting his time trying to get the politician to change things, he changes things himself. Specifically, he sets up his church and proceeds legally to divert a portion of his taxes to the propagation of libertarian ideas. Sooner or later, this fact will be brought to the attention of Senator Jones. And sooner or later there will be another confrontation between the two.

"Mr. Smith," says the Senator, "what is the meaning of this? Maybe you can find a loophole in the law. Nonetheless, you have a civic duty to cooperate with your government, carrying your fair share of the load! What you're doing is unthinking, unpatriotic, and unconscionable, and you should be thoroughly ashamed of yourself."

"Well, Senator," answers the renegade, "it's like this. I happen to believe there's really no needed function performed by political force that could not be better performed by private, voluntary means. For example, A, B, C, and D."

Senator Jones listens as before and concludes as before: "…sincere beliefs,…proposals quite impractical…not convinced."

Now do you know what the libertarian says?

"But Senator, I don't have to convince you. If you don't like what I'm doing you have to convince me!"

When libertarians go on the offensive, in the correct way, something very interesting takes place. The burden of proof is lifted from our shoulders arid placed squarely on the shoulders of our detractors. And in this ideological contest between the individual and the State a very subtle and very important shift in the balance of power has thus been effected.

The First Libertarian Church of Los Angeles was formally established in February 1975. Its central doctrine is ethical egoism: the belief that each individual has the right, in a moral sense, to live his own life, for his own sake, in accordance with his own convictions. Accordingly, this church promotes a society based on voluntary exchange rather than political force.

The First Libertarian Church is neither theist nor atheist, persons of either conviction being welcomed as friends or members. It does not charter separate churches, but does ordain ministers who are legally empowered to perform marriages, baptisms, funerals, etc. The church is specifically engaged in a number of special projects, four of which are described below.

Libertarian Supper Club. Since its first meeting in February 1972, the supper club has evolved into the most prominent libertarian forum in the western United States. Speakers have included such nationally eminent leaders as Murray Rothbard, Nathaniel Branden, Robert LeFevre, and Harry Browne. Program topics have ranged from ecology to inflation, from anarchism to women's lib. The consistent theme of supper club programs has been the sovereignty of the individual and the improvement of his life and of the society in which he lives.

The typical meeting format is supper, followed by the evening's talk and an extensive question period lasting up to two hours or more. The supper meetings are as much social as intellectual, however, providing the opportunity to maintain old acquaintances while establishing new ones across the libertarian movement. Attendance ranges from 60 to 160, regularly including friends from as far away as Santa Barbara and San Diego.

Arbitration Service. Traditional arbitration, while attractive as an alternative to the ponderous and expensive court system, has one major weakness: suspecting that the arbitrator may tend merely to "split the difference" between opposing claims, the adversaries are often inclined to take extreme positions, each claiming the maximum damage, anguish, and harm, while minimizing that of the opponent. As a result, the arbitrator's view of the issues is much obscured, and the prospect for a reasonable solution is much diminished.

The First Libertarian Church offers a unique variation to the traditional arbitration process. Each party to the dispute presents what he regards as an equitable solution. Unless the arbitrator rejects both proposals as unreasonable and withdraws from the case, he selects that proposal which, in his judgment, is the more equitable. He does not combine or average or modify. He selects one of the two proposals totally, and that is his finding.

Note the difference. Instead of being driven to opposing extremes, now each disputant must reconsider; each must be moderate, fair, and reasonable lest the other proposal be accepted and his own rejected. As a result, the contestants are drawn toward a common position, greatly increasing the probability that a mutually satisfactory solution will emerge.

Disputes are adjudicated by a panel of distinguished volunteer arbitrators, and the service has been made available for commercial as well as personal disputes. Medical malpractice is an area of particular interest.

Civil Liberties Council. Many organizations are active in upholding civil liberties in areas such as speech, press, assembly, and sexual expression. Little is done, however, in behalf of the most basic liberty of all—private ownership and control of property. Yet without the broadly based independence afforded by the institution of private property, no other civil liberties could long survive.

But the First Libertarian Church is especially concerned with the ethical implications of the concept of private property. This church affirms that private ownership and control of property is a fundamental human right. Property is the tangible extension of one's life, the result of one's productive and creative efforts. To be denied control over the products of one's own life is the fate of slaves, not of free men and women. Too often, however, the function of the State is not to protect property rights but to violate them. Through its various agencies, bureaus, and commissions, the State acts to transfer control of property from the hands of the owner to the hands of favored groups, blocs, and interests. The First Libertarian Church maintains that such invasions of property rights, even in behalf of some alleged "public good," are essentially acts of theft—legalized theft, perhaps, but theft nonetheless.

The Civil Liberties Council consists of lay and professional people interested in defending the institution of private property against State assault. Affirming the morality and justice of private ownership and control, the council will, in selected cases, submit amicus curiae briefs, offer legal advice and assistance, and otherwise aid and encourage those whose property rights are threatened by State action.

Charity. People cannot give away what hasn't been produced. Accordingly, the more basic virtue is not charity but productivity. Still, charity is an important element of any civilized society and is therefore one of the several interests of the First Libertarian Church.

A portion of the gross revenue of the church is allotted to charity; in particular, regular contributions are made to the St. Francis Indian School of St. Francis, South Dakota (Sioux), and to the St. Labre Indian School of Ashland, Montana (Cheyenne and Crow). The first was founded by Jesuits in 1877, the other by four Ursuline sisters in 1884. Both schools are today nondenominational, providing disadvantaged Indian children with a sound basic education while emphasizing the rich cultural heritage of the Indian people. Both schools are supported entirely by private, voluntary contributions.

This charitable effort, while worthwhile in itself, provides also the opportunity to make the distinction between charity and welfarism: charity is a voluntary response to one's own values; welfarism is a compulsory response to values imposed by others. While charity is a desirable quality of any civilized society, welfarism is a moral cancer of theft made legal by the State.

If we are concerned—as we should be—about those less fortunate, let us keep in mind that in free societies in which private rights are respected, rich and poor alike have fared best. Accordingly, the First Libertarian Church affirms first the morality of private self-interest upon which this genuine welfare ultimately depends.

A few words might be said about the legal status of newly formed churches. The First Amendment precludes the State from favoring one religious view over another. As the Supreme Court noted in Everson v. Board of Education:

The "establishment of religion" of the First Amendment means at least this: Neither a state nor the Federal Government can set up a church. Neither can pass laws which aid one religion, aid all religions, or prefer one religion over another. Neither can force or influence a person to go to or to remain from a church against his will or force him to profess a belief or a disbelief in any religion. No person can be punished for entertaining or professing religious beliefs or disbeliefs, for church attendance or nonattendance.

Moreover, a religion need not be theistic in nature. For example, the Supreme Court has declared that draft refusal on religious grounds does not require a formal belief in God, but only a sincere moral conviction on the subject of war. The absence of a theistic test was also demonstrated in a 1953 California case, Fellowship of Humanity v. Alameda County.

The terms "religion" or "religious" in tax exemption laws should not include any reference to whether the beliefs involved are theistic or nontheistic. Religion simply includes: 1) a belief, not necessarily referring to supernatural powers; 2) a cult, involving a gregarious association openly expressing the belief; 3) a system of moral practice directly resulting from an adherence to the belief; and 4) an organization within the cult designed to observe the tenets of belief. The content of the belief is of no moment. Assuming this definition of "religion" is correct, then it necessarily follows that any lawful means of formally observing the tenets of the cult is "worship" within the meaning of the tax exemption provision.

Today, churches represent every shade of ethical conviction. Madalyn Murray O'Hair, the noted atheist, has founded a tax-exempt group the central belief of which is nonbelief. The Rationalist Church of America emphasizes the individual rather than a supreme being. Of particular note is the Universal Life Church of Modesto, California, whose only stricture is to do "that which is right."

A recent Federal court decision upheld the right of the Universal Life Church to its tax-exempt status. A U.S. District Court judge, James F. Batten of Sacramento, ordered the government to refund $10,377 in taxes paid by the church, plus interest, observing that the church met the legal requirements of an organization and engaged in a number of churchlike activities. Judge Batten refused to consider any other aspect of the church, declaring:

Neither this Court, nor any branch of this Government, will consider the merits or fallacies' of a religion. Nor will the Court compare the beliefs, dogmas and practices of a newly organized religion with those of an older, more established religion. Nor will the Court praise or condemn a religion, however excellent or fantastical or preposterous it may seem. Were the Court to do so, it would impinge upon the guarantees of the First Amendment.

While a church can be chartered under the umbrella of an existing organization (such as Universal Life Church), a group may establish its own independent church, virtually by fiat. The procedure need be little different from that for any community or fraternal or social organization. Although incorporation might be desirable for holding property, for limiting liability, etc., an unincorporated association is an adequate instrument for most purposes. The founders need only invent a name, designate a president, vice-president, and secretary-treasurer, and compose articles and bylaws. A bank account might be opened in the church's name. The board of trustees would consist of at least the three officers. (For corporations, the state may specify some greater number of trustees.) The board should hold regular meetings and keep minutes and books.

Of course, the church should articulate a coherent ethical doctrine and should engage in genuine church activities, such as distributing relevant literature, proselytizing, and holding services. Services may be held anywhere at any time and need include only a handful of people. These activities are not legal requirements of any sort, but would obviously enhance the credibility of the church as a church.

Up to 50 percent of one's income may be donated tax-deductibly to an exempt charitable group (IRS Code 170-b). And churches are presumptively tax-exempt; prior approval by the IRS is not required. While other tax-exempt groups (such as private, nonprofit foundations) must first apply for exemption by submitting Form 1023, a church is automatically exempt and submission of the form is optional. IRS Publication 557 explains:

Some organizations created after October 9, 1969, are not required to file Form 1023. These are (a) churches, their integrated auxiliaries, and conventions or associations of churches.…These organizations are automatically exempt if they meet the requirements described in this chapter. However, if such an organization wants to establish its exemption with the Internal Revenue Service and receive a ruling or determination letter recognizing its exempt status, it should file Form 1023 with the District Director.

It would appear, then, that the establishment of a church is a perfectly legal undertaking. In keeping with the precise intent of the First Amendment, the State is prohibited from discriminating against such efforts. Of course, any such endeavor is best conducted in accordance with prevailing laws, rulings, codes, and regulations.

It is not simply the tax-exempt church, but the tax-exempt church as an effective means of promoting certain ideas that are being propounded here. In this light, it's quite clear that the real purpose of a libertarian church can be identical to that of any other church: the propagation of a particular ethical position.

A libertarian church can provide what political mass action never can: a platform for meaningful individual expression. Through his libertarian church the individual can stand up and say: "Look! This is what I believe, this is why I believe it, and, what's more, this is what I intend to do about it!"

Further, consider this possibility: suppose a thousand, or ten thousand, or a hundred thousand such churches, each consisting of perhaps only a handful of people, began springing up spontaneously and independently. Here, indeed, would be a vehicle by which the entire libertarian movement could seize the ideological initiative in this country!

The significance of such a movement would go beyond ideology, however, for through such churches a crucial segment of the American people could legally and effectively direct its support away from the coercive institutions of society and toward those measures and efforts based instead on voluntary action. Make no mistake about it, should such a movement develop, the impact upon our present institutions would be profound.

Richard Wood is a cofounder of a libertarian church and the author of two books.