Rand Paul Is Right: Social Conservatives Should Embrace Libertarianism

The growing state, after all—not the atheist—is religion's biggest rival.


David Gunter/Flickr

These days, to even suggest the possibility that a fiscally conservative economic outlook is compatible with faith is a matter of hypocrisy.

"I am afraid that (Rep. Paul) Ryan's budget reflects the values of his favorite philosopher, Ayn Rand, rather than the gospel of Jesus Christ," the Rev. Thomas Reese of Georgetown University told The Huffington Post not so long ago. "Survival of the fittest may be OK for social Darwinists, but not for followers of the gospel of compassion and love."

Surely, you recall this Bible passage: "Then the Lord said to Moses, 'Smite the supply-sider. I will utterly blot out the memory of all who back block grants from under heaven.'"

So it's refreshing, then, to hear would-be fusionist Rand Paul point out the distinction libertarian critics will not. At Robert P. George's American Principles Project last week, Paul argued that a dose of libertarianism not only would help the GOP broaden its base but also would be philosophically compatible with socially conservative values.

"Libertarian and liberty doesn't mean libertine," he explained. Paul might have added that libertarianism isn't synonymous with "being uncharitable" or "selfishness" or "social Darwinism," either. He might have argued that libertarianism would do a lot more than just help orthodox Christians politically. It may even be the most conducive political philosophy for their thriving.

Obviously, for those who measure the nation's virtue by the size of the Department of Health and Human Services budget, Rand's proposition must seem absurd. Take Elizabeth Stoker, who believes that "Rand Paul's audacious new sham" is "a phony religious epiphany." She wrote in Salon:

"If what Paul intends to say here is that Christianity and libertarianism are amenable to one another because Christianity provides the moral compass libertarianism doesn't have … the question is: Why would someone with such a commitment to Christianity ever commit themselves to a political philosophy without a similar commitment?"

Why? Because these are two distinct and often nonconflicting ideas. Though votes are often informed by a person's faith, for many Americans, a political philosophy isn't a religion.

I'm no theological scholar, but I tend to believe that one can do good works without supporting a top marginal tax rate increase. Christians commit themselves to God, which, as far as I can tell, doesn't prohibit them from supporting a political philosophy that emphasizes free will over a state-ordained "morality." No doubt, most Christians appreciate that our collective national political decisions and their personal moral compasses will not always be synchronized. That's where the religious freedom comes into play.

Should social conservatives "commit themselves" to a political philosophy that not only strives for gay equality but also seeks to impel others to participate in these new norms despite religious objections? Should they commit to a philosophy that impels them to fund contraception coverage and abortions—through either direct funding or fungible dollars? A philosophy that continues to force them to send their kids to crappy public schools that often undermine their faith-based beliefs? A philosophy that attacks parents who seek alternative means of education, such as home schooling? Or should they be more interested in wedding themselves to a political philosophy that downgrades the importance of politics in everyday life and allows citizens to work together to structure their communities without interference?

The growing state, after all—not the atheist—is religion's biggest rival. And intentionally or not, government is crowding out parts of community life that have traditionally been taken care of by civil society. It's draining resources once used by communities to implement services and take care of their own. And even more destructive, perhaps, is that government is becoming a source of moral authority for so many.

Admittedly, it seems counterintuitive to suggest that social conservatives embrace a laissez-faire political philosophy. And I'm definitely not Pollyannaish about my fellow human beings. Paul is right to advocate sentencing reform and a more judicious foreign policy, but he's also right when he says that libertarianism doesn't mean: "Do whatever you want. There is a role for government; there's a role for family; there's a role for marriage; there's a role for the protection of life." (Abortion is a debate about when life is worth protecting. Despite the misconception by many in the media, there is no single libertarian position.) As is often pointed out, Adam Smith wrote The Theory of Moral Sentiments before he wrote The Wealth of Nations. One does well with the other. There is no conflict between political freedom and faith.