Evangelicals and the State

A law professor makes a case for a libertarian Christianity.


The Choice Principle: The Biblical Case for Legal Toleration, by Andy G. Olree, New York: University Press of America, 274 pages, $37

Before his fall from grace, the cherubic Beltway operator Ralph Reed was one of the most influential evangelicals in American politics. So it was significant when Reed, a former executive director of Pat Robertson's Christian Coalition, described the religious right as part of an anti-statist "Leave Us Alone Coalition" alongside taxpayers, gun owners, and property rights activists. In his 1996 book Active Faith, Reed wrote that "most of the tension between moralists and libertarians was overstated" and agreed with then–House Majority Leader Dick Armey that social conservatives and free marketeers "are singing the same song" in "freedom's choir."

Well, it looks like the choir has broken up. At this point, one of the few things moralists and libertarians seem to agree about is that they don't like Ralph Reed, whose role in the Jack Abramoff scandal managed to offend both tribes. (When Abramoff's clients in the casino industry wanted to squash some potential competition, Reed helpfully launched an anti-gambling crusade and directed it at the appropriate target.) Armey has become a pungent critic of James Dobson and other "self-appointed Christian leaders" whom he views as "big government sympathizers who want to impose their version of 'righteousness' on others." The New York Sun's Ryan Sager published an entire book, The Elephant in the Room, about the conflict between evangelicals and libertarians, charging that the former are turning the Republican Party into a "God and government coalition." The maverick conservative blogger Andrew Sullivan is given to similar complaints about "big government Christianism."

God and Caesar do seem to have reconciled. Even prominent evangelical critics of the Christian right, such as Jim Wallis and Tony Campolo, tend to be strong proponents of activist government: Instead of having the government police sexual behavior, they want the state to redistribute income and enact environmental regulations. Some religious conservatives, represented in the 2008 presidential field by Sam Brownback and Mike Huckabee, combine both tendencies, touting big government in both bedroom and boardroom.

But it isn't that simple. Yes, Christian conservatives have launched many crusades to restrict or prohibit behaviors they consider immoral. But there is another side to evangelical activism: politics as a defensive maneuver. There are Christians who prefer homeschooling to abstinence-only sex education in public schools, who would rather have lower taxes than "faith-based" federal largess. Some, like the intellectuals clustered around the Acton Institute, consider themselves libertarians. Many more remain active in conservative circles, combining unlibertarian stands in some areas with surprising defenses of personal freedom in others. Phyllis Schlafly's Eagle Forum, for instance, has been strongly critical of the PATRIOT Act and of national surveillance. "If Bill Clinton were still in the White House," Schlafly growled, "Republicans would be on the march against Bigger Government and Bigger Spending."

Now Andy Olree, an evangelical Christian and an associate professor at Faulkner University's Jones School of Law, has published a book that takes a very un-Reedian view of government. In The Choice Principle: The Biblical Case for Legal Toleration, he attacks both the welfare state and morals laws, citing Augustine, Aquinas, and the New Testament for support. By his lights, Christians can legally tolerate many activities they regard as sinful, including prostitution, assisted suicide, homosexuality, and drug use. He says that whether abortion should be outlawed depends on when human life begins, a question he does not answer—and contends that the Bible does not answer either. He also opposes redistributive taxation. For Olree, governments should exist only to punish acts that victimize others through force or fraud.

The post-Reed Christian Coalition has been roiled by debates between members who want to maintain their alliance with free market supporters and those who wish to apply their political muscle to an even longer list of issues, ranging from broadcast decency standards to global warming. The rift cost the coalition four state chapters last year. Similar discussions have been reported within the National Association of Evangelicals. The Christians coming down on the small-government side of these arguments are fiscal conservatives but seldom consistent anti-statists. They are also at a disadvantage without a theological tradition robust enough to compete with the Social Gospel on the left or Christian Reconstructionism on the extreme right. Olree's book is an early step toward furnishing one, exposing evangelicals to the arguments of a nascent Christian libertarian movement.

An important part of Olree's thesis is that you can believe in moral absolutes without legislating morality. Indeed, he argues, God may prefer a legal order in which Christians tolerate sin rather than use the power of the state to stamp it out.

Olree quotes Paul's description of civil government as "God's servant for your good. But if you do what is wrong, you should be afraid; for the authority does not bear the sword in vain. It is the servant of God to execute wrath on the wrongdoer" (Romans 13:4). At first blush, this sounds like it would be more compatible with "big government Christianism" than with Olree's more permissive prescriptions. Except that the specific government Paul described as "God's servant" was a pagan one that permitted abortion and prostitution while funding forms of idolatry. And if, as Paul says earlier in Romans, "There is no one righteous, not even one," then what sense does it make to identify a separate class of "wrongdoers" who need to fear civil authority? If all have sinned and none are wholly good, then perhaps government's purpose is only to punish a specific kind of wrongdoing.

Olree posits that because the Bible teaches individuals not to seek revenge, God needs a "servant" to "execute wrath on the wrongdoer." He argues that "what is forbidden is individualized vengeance. The first verses of Romans 13 strongly imply collective vengeance through the civil government is not only permissible, but part of God's plan." Libertarians may balk at the idea of government having a divine mandate for collective vengeance, but such a mandate is clearly very limited. And it becomes even more limited as Olree continues. "Will any and all otherwise sinful action be sanitized," he asks, "whenever the government is the actor?" He answers his own question with a resounding no: "In fact, in most contexts of wrongdoing, we should probably assume that the moral nature of an act does not change, no matter who the wrongdoer is." Olree's ideal government is at least presumptively bound by the same ethical rules as its subjects.

The obvious retort to all this is that most politically active Christians do embrace a more active role for government, and that they surely read the Bible as closely as the author. Olree suggests that this is because they don't treat what constitutes appropriate political action as a separate question from what the Bible teaches about personal morality, "perhaps… because they have never understood this to be a logically separate question."

Olree even devotes a chapter to whether Christians should participate in politics at all. He concludes that they should, but to limit government rather than expand it: "If Christians have a duty to help make law," he writes, "they may also have a duty to help keep it in its proper place."

The framework Olree proposes for effective Christian civic involvement that nevertheless respects the limits of secular law is something he rather obtrusively describes as the Choice Principle: Just public policies should generally seek to expand human choice rather than reduce it. Choice frequently carries negative connotations in conservative Christian politics, not least because of its association with legal abortion. But perhaps this should not be the case, especially for evangelicals.

After all, the evangelical faith depends on a choice: the choice to receive salvation by accepting Jesus Christ. The most important thing evangelicals believe God asks of them —in their view, the most important thing of all—is something they must choose freely. For evangelicals, God does not coerce people into being saved and accepts their decision in the matter as final.

The political implications of this become clear when Olree dissects the arguments of the Princeton legal scholar Robert P. George's 1994 book Making Men Moral, which he praises as "a forceful and scholarly case for legal moralism" that represents "some of the best the other side of the argument has to offer." Indeed, the section critiquing George is where Olree really rises to the occasion as a polemicist.

Up to that point, while Olree is methodical in making his own arguments, he never really engages the opposing side's positions. He suggests, for example, that the version of American history promoted by the evangelical activist David Barton, popular among Christian conservatives, is fraudulent, but he never bothers to delineate its flaws and inaccuracies. He also casually dismisses some of the country's best-known conservative evangelicals—Robertson, Dobson, Jerry Falwell, "Ten Commandments judge" Roy Moore—as "the Fearmongers," an approach that's likely to turn off unsympathetic evangelical readers. But George, unlike Robertson and the rest, is a man Olree respects, and that respect helps him clarify the case against legal moralism.

While Olree seeks to "maximize overall Choice," George believes the law should promote a "moral ecology" in which virtue flourishes as immorality withers on the vine. George's vision would be implemented through the prohibition of vices such as prostitution and pornography, gradually and selectively reducing opportunities for bad behavior.

Olree counters that this is directly contrary to a Christian understanding of virtue, which requires "right heart" (correct intentions) as much as the right outward behavior. By taking away opportunities to sin, you are also taking away chances to behave in ways that please God. Consequently, secular law can only advance the appearance of virtue, not virtue itself.

Before turning to government, an evangelical must ask why God Himself did not choose to remove the opportunities to sin that trouble so many social conservatives. A Garden of Eden without the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil would, Olree writes, "certainly have exemplified the 'good moral ecology' that George advocates."

Many evangelicals would be shocked by Olree's radical recommendations. They might also object to Olree's frequent resort to the language of classical liberalism, seeing it as yet another attempt to dress up a secular ideology in the veneer of Christian theology. But before rejecting The Choice Principle, they should ask themselves why they would give the government powers that God Himself does not assert. They should also wonder if their fellow Christians, many of whom converted after acknowledging their own sins, would have been better off being coerced into false virtue by the state.

And there is another reason evangelicals might want to depoliticize their faith, one Olree implies but never fully articulates. Rather than "leading America back to God," the excessive identification of Christianity with politics may be repelling more people than it attracts. Consider Amanda Marcotte and Melissa McEwan, the two bloggers who left John Edwards' presidential campaign because of their history of posting comments critical of Christians on their own blogs. Perhaps they would have been hostile to Christianity in any event, but it is difficult to avoid the suspicion that much of their hostility stemmed from conflating the faith with the Republican Party.

Christians may yet be persuaded that affairs of the heart play a larger role in their Great Commission than affairs of the state. By Olree's reasoning, government can be more of an obstacle to the transmission of their faith than an effective vehicle for it. Disenchanted evangelicals who contemplate his arguments may decide they have a place in freedom's choir after all.

W. James Antle III is associate editor of The American Spectator.

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