The United States of America is, and always has been, a land of contradictions with regards to the marketplace of ideas. The US public is very fond at holding contradictory views of one sort or the other. One good example is the number of Christians, both liberal and conservative, that hold to Libertarianism as a political philosophy without recognition that the core principles of Libertarianism run contrary to the core principles of Christianity. While it may be true that ethical praxis that some Libertarians attach to their philosophy does not directly contradict the ethical praxis of Christianity as epitomized in the Golden Rule, the fact is that Christianity is far more than adherence to the Golden Rule and at a fundamental level, the tenets of Christianity are contradicted by the tenets of Libertarianism. Be this as it may, Christianity certainly has a different role for freedom. Rather than material freedom being an inviolable human right as in Libertarianism, moral freedom alone is a necessary but mitigated good subservient to other goods in Christian anthropology. Further, Libertarianism holds that any state which violates inviolable human rights such as political liberty is inherently unjust. But this tenet of Libertarianism contradicts not only the anthropology of Christianity but also what little political philosophy is explicitly stated in the New Testament.
Libertarianism tends to mean slightly different things to different people. Within the confines of this essay, I will follow Robert Nozick in defining Libertarianism as adherence to four principles but I will also add a fifth. The four principles Nozick applies to Libertarianism are:(1) every human person has an inviolable right to life; (2) Every human person has an inviolable right to freedom; (3) Every human person has an inviolable right to property; (4) Any government that infringes on any of these rights is inherently unjust. The principle I would add is: (5) a state that minimizes infringement on these inviolable human rights is both possible and a goal worth pursuing as it's attainment would be an improvement over any state that regularly violates any of these human rights.
Christianity also means different things to different people. And, in fact, the what it means to be Christian is a far more controversial topic than what it means to be Libertarian. Those who self identify as Christians span a large spectrum of beliefs ranging from the very liberal to the very conservative with regards to deciding the role of Holy Writ in the Christian Experience, exactly which works of the New Testament qualify as Scripture, and what (if anything) outside of the Bible can be considered a valid part of Christianity. For the purposes of this essay, I will only consider forms of Christianity that can trace themselves through history to the apostolic age with an unbroken succession. I will defer the above questions to the traditional answers of those forms of Christianity.
Some who would claim that Libertarianism and Christianity are compatible do so with the claim that there is nothing that is in Libertarianism that contradicts the either the three key commandments of the Gospels (The Golden Rule, The New Commandment to love each other as Christ has He loved his followers, and the exhortation to love God above all else) or the Decalogue. Let's assume that this is the case even though it is arguable that both the Golden Rule and the New Commandment is not compatible with the principles of Libertarianism. But the question remains of whether or not these three key commandments and the Decalogue are the only principles of Christianity. I would argue that Christianity is larger than it's praxis, the exercise of its moral teachings. After all, few would argue that Buddhism and Islam are compatible with Christianity on the basis that the five-fold path and the Five Pillars respectively are compatible with the Golden Rule and the Decalogue. Christianity also includes a distinct anthropology which implies a distinct political philosophy which includes the inherent justice of regimes which violate the human rights accorded by the Libertarian as inviolable.
Freedom, after all, is not the summum bonum of Christianity. Christianity does not even accord freedom as an inviolable right. Rather some freedoms (not all freedoms) are presented as a necessary efficient cause to finding the full and abundant life which Jesus of Nazareth claimed to bring to his followers. A writing attributed by Saint Nikodimos of the Holy Mountain, probably mistakenly, to Saint Anthony the Great puts the matter succinctly, ``Regard as free not those whose status makes them outwardly free, but those who are free in their character and conduct.'' [Palmer, G.E.H., Sherrard, Phillip and Ware, Kallistos (tr.), The Philokalia: The Complete Text Compiled by Saint Nikodimis of the Holy Mountan and Saint Makarios of Corinth Volume I. Faber and Faber, London. 1979. p. 332.] The point is that Christianity does not view physical and political freedom as necessary conditions for the human person to attain the fullness of humanity. Rather these sorts of freedoms are akin to physical exercise, of some limited value (I Corinthians 7:21, I Timothy 4:8), but certainly not ends unto themselves and certainly not inviolable rights.
But could not one argue that if Christianity sees some value in freedom that the Libertarian view of maximal human freedom does not contradict this? One could, but then one would be wrong. There are many things compatible with Christianity in limited degree that are contrary to Christianity when sought for their own ends: the sex act, consumption of alcohol, physical exercise. All of these things are good insofar as they serve as means to a virtuous end and not as ends into themselves. For example, the sex act is only good when it serves to unite husband and wife into a unity. To say that the sex act is an inviolable human right and its maximization leads to a human being made more human is to distort its value as part of what it means to be human. The consumption of alcohol is good when used medicinally or to celebrate special events such as the wedding at Cana. But the consumption of alcohol is neither an inviolable right nor something that the Christian should seek to maximize. So too, freedom.
Presented as such, this leads to a rather obvious objection. If material and political freedom are not necessary for an abundant life, does it not follow that Christianity allows use of humans beings as means to some ends (as living tools) rather than treating them as ends unto themselves? To some extent, yes, this conclusion is justified. But let us consider this conclusion in light of the fact that wage labor does the same thing. The capitalist uses workers as means to make a profit. The difference between slavery and wage labor (with respect to using human beings as means to an end rather than treating them as ends unto themselves) is not a difference of kind but a difference in extent. One can argue that the slave has no choice but to work while the wage laborer chooses to work, but this choice is illusory unless the wage laborer either lives in a society where material needs are guaranteed or one views the choice to die of starvation or exposure as a rational choice. It is, in effect, the same choice as the slave has to either work or be beaten or killed.
There is also a fundamental contradiction between the way that Christianity and Libertarianism view the injustice of a state that infringes on life, liberty or property. The Libertarian views such such states as inherently unjust because of this infringement. The classical Christian view does concede that there is a sense in which all governments are unjust but it also goes on to say that government is a just response to a irrational situation. Augustine of Hippo noted that the cosmos consists of a rational order where the higher rules over the lower: rationality rules over irrationality; God rules over man; the intellect rules over the passions. When this natural order is upset, as when man usurps the role of God and rules over other men, it is fair to say that there is a sense in which an injustice occurs. But this injustice is seen as a rational action for an irrational state of being, the fallen nature of mankind. Inasmuch as humanity imperfectly reflects the image and likeness of God, civil government is justified so long as it keeps temporal order. In other words, the Christian could concede that something akin to Libertarianism would be the ideal form of government in an world absent the fall from Paradise but that human nature as it is in the world requires a different sort of government.
While it took until Augustine to fully develop this view, it is also present in the New Testament. The Apostle Paul wrote that civil government exists in order to keep temporal order (Romans 13). Consequently, inasmuch as a government is able to keep civil order, it is justified in the mind of the Christian regardless of whether or not it respects the rights that the Libertarian sees as unjust. What the Libertarian sees as an argument to justify the regime, the Christian can only see as a mistaken argument about what the best regime might consist of. In a way this parallels the difference between classical and modern political philosophy. Most classical philosophy took government as a given and argued about its best form. Most moderns argue that government needs a sound basis in order to be valid. The view presented in the Bible, and held to by most Christians through most of history is the former, that we can argue about the best form of government but that all governments are both inherently unjust in a certain sense but fully justified in another so far as they keep civil order.
This view of course will immediately raise a in the minds of most people. On the one hand, if all governments are inherently unjust in a certain sense, does that mean that we have to hold that Germany under Adolf Hitler and the Soviet Union under Stalin had just regimes? As much as it pains me to concede that this question must have an affirmative answer, it does. But is a very qualified affirmative answer. Inasmuch as these regimes did keep civil order, they were just. But it is clear that much of the disorder of the Stalinist and Hitlerian eras was perpetrated by the state. And it must also be said that inasmuch as the state perpetuated civil disorder, they were also unjust. Unlike some qualities, justice is not a binary property. Instead it exists on a spectrum.
The astute reader may also find another objection in the above distinction between arguing for the state's validity and arguing for the best form government given a pre-existent state. We live in a democracy, so is it not possible that a Christian could believe that Libertarianism is the best form of government and pursue democratic channels to make the US a more Libertarian society? This is certainly a possibility and many Christians hold this very belief. But it must be said that, as argued above, the tenets of Libertarianism do contradict key tenets of Christianity. Libertarianism takes a view of liberty that is exaggerated from the point of view of the Christian. Libertarianism also, by not taking into account the fallen nature of humanity, levels the charge of being inherently unjust at regimes that the Christian sees as inherently just. Consequently, the Christian Libertarian is being pulled in two different directions by two different, incompatible systems of belief. As such, the Christian Libertarian exemplifies the American tradition of holding to contradictory beliefs. At least in that sense, Christian Libertarians are true Americans.