The Importance of Christian Thought for the American Libertarian Movement: Christian Libertarianism, 1950-71

Article excerpt

In his 1971 book, Betrayal of the American Right, Murray Rothbard argued that the Old Right in American politics, those isolationists and libertarians who had provided conservative opposition to New Deal liberal ideas since 1933, had been 'betrayed' by 1964. Led by William F. Buckley, the New Right had transformed American conservatism, a change marked by the Goldwater presidential campaign, by validating support for the welfare-warfare state that the old Right had so trenchantly opposed for the previous thirty years. Rothbard correctly identified the root cause of the ideological schism that had separated American conservatives since the establishment of Buckley's National Review in 1955; the extent to which the State should be involved in defeating communism abroad and progressivism at home. He, also, carefully related the contending philosophies of the Old and New American Rights. But what he failed to adequately explain was the importance of Christian thought to the libertarian movement. This article will remedy that omission by exploring the reasons why Christian libertarians, between 1950 and 1971, protested America's liberal public policies. It will also present their alternative vision of how the united states should be governed; or, more accurately, how and why Americans should govern themselves. For only by understanding the religious arguments for political liberty can we appreciate America's traditional defense of individual freedom.

Spiritual values were the predominant justification for espousing a libertarian viewpoint before 1971, and continue today to provide the founding convictions of many American libertarians and conservatives. In fact, if the beliefs of the founding fathers are taken at face value, then Christian libertarianism--the defence of individual freedom as the will of God--is the first and most enduring American political and moral philosophy. A case can even be made that Christian libertarianism forms the foundation of any claims for 'American Exceptionalism.' And as a body of political thought, largely as a consequence of the pressures exerted upon individual freedom by New Deal liberalism and events of the early cold war, Christian libertarianism received its fullest exposition in the 1950s and '60s. (1)

The winter of 1949--50 marked a transitional moment in the history of the intellectual conservative movement in the United States. Before the traumatic events of that period of the cold war conservatism existed only as the philosophy of a marginalized, in Alfred Jay Nock's term, 'Remnant,' of scattered and isolated opponents of the liberal juggernaut. After that critical winter of 1949--50, however, conservatives, instilled with a new apocalyptic urgency, slowly began to coalesce as an organized movement dedicated to ending liberal dominance in Washington. Historians of post-World War II conservative intellectualism have paid most attention to the emergence of the New Right in the 1950s, especially the establishment of the National Review in 1955 by William F. Buckley Jr. and associates. Historians have also commented extensively on the pivotal role of the old Right libertarian journal the Freeman in helping build the rudimentary outlines of a philosophy that, by 1964, could immediately be identified in the political arena as a conservative alternative to the existing liberal consensus.

Far less attention, however, has been given to two journals, Christian Economics and Faith and Freedom, which first appeared in 1949--50. Both journals promoted the theory of Christian libertarianism, and their importance to the history of intellectual conservatism is twofold. First, their defense of individual freedom and the free market, based on religious principles, provided conservatism with a moral foundation--or certitude--upon which to confront the menace of both international communism and domestic liberalism. Second, an appreciation of Christian libertarianism dispels once and for all the lazy association of libertarianism with, as one historian has claimed, an "atomistic economism found wanting by conservatives who see humans as spiritual creatures, reflecting a superior side of human nature. …