The Theology of the Tea Party: Can the Philosophy of "Libertarianism" Be Reconciled with Christian Faith?

By Wallis, Jim | Sojourners Magazine, November 2010 | Go to article overview

The Theology of the Tea Party: Can the Philosophy of "Libertarianism" Be Reconciled with Christian Faith?


Wallis, Jim, Sojourners Magazine


THE INSURGENT "TEA PARTY" movement is rising, gaining new strength in the Republican Party. The movement has put forward many confident standard-bearers for the November election and has popular talk-show hosts such as Glenn Beck as its evangelists.

While the Tea Party is not one-dimensional and has no single spokesperson, its political commitments are rooted in the libertarian philosophy, which is not a new phenomenon in America (see the sidebar on one of its chief philosophers, Ayn Rand, on p. 21). Libertarianism, like other brands of conservatism and liberalism, is a political philosophy more than a religious one, and the Tea Party, while not yet as organized, is like the Democratic and Republican parties in seeking political power.

It is a secular movement, not a Christian one. As with both major political parties, some people who regard themselves as Christians are involved in, or sympathetic to, the new Tea Party, but that doesn't make it "Christian." And like the philosophies and policies of the major political parties, the new Tea Party can legitimately be examined on the basis of Christian principles--and it should be. Just how Christian is the Tea Party movement and the libertarian political philosophy behind much of it?

Libertarianism is a political philosophy that holds individual rights and freedom as its supreme value and considers government the major obstacle to personal liberty. It tends to be tolerant on cultural and moral issues, defending the rights of privacy, and conservative on fiscal and economic policy, preferring free markets over government regulation. The "just leave me alone, and don't spend my money" approach is growing in American political life. Tea Party activists often say they have three core values: a fundamental limitation of government, fiscal responsibility, and free markets. Many Tea Party advocates emphasize economic issues over social/cultural/moral issues, and don't talk very much about either abortion or gay marriage.

Of course, libertarianism has been an undercurrent in the Republican Party for some time, and has especially been in the news due to the primary election wins of several Tea Party-related Republican candidates. At least six Senate candidates are affiliated with the Tea Party, including two who defeated incumbent senators, along with a number of House candidates. One who has received a lot of attention is Rand Paul, the Republican candidate for a Senate seat in Kentucky and the son of presidential candidate Ron Paul.

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Rand Paul has spoken like a true libertarian. He criticized the 1964 Civil Rights Act as an example of government interference with the rights of private business. While decrying racism and discrimination, Paul told an interviewer that he would have tried to change the provision that made it illegal for private businesses to discriminate on the basis of race. He answered a specific question about desegregating lunch counters by countering, "Does the owner of the restaurant own his restaurant? Or does the government own his restaurant?" A few days later, he spoke about the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Referring to the Obama administration's criticisms of BP, Paul said, "I think that sounds really un-American in his criticism of business."

Is such a philosophy Christian? In several major aspects of biblical ethics, many would suggest that libertarianism falls short. Here are some points to ponder:

1. What should Christians think of the libertarian enshrinement of individual choice as the pre-eminent virtue? Emphasizing individual rights at the expense of others challenges "the common good," a central Christian teaching and tradition. The Christian answer to the question "Are we our brothers' (and sisters') keeper?" is decidedly "Yes." Jesus tells us that the greatest commandment is to love God and love our neighbor. Loving your neighbor is a better Christian response than telling your neighbor to leave you alone.

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