Are Religious Conservatives Welcome on the Libertarian Left?

By Kevin Vallier

Bleeding Heart Libertarians

A number of my co-bloggers strongly identify with the libertarian left. Typically being a member of the libertarian left in the libertarian movement means holding that standard libertarian political views are natural compliments to standard left-wing social views, such as concerns about racial or gender privilege, institutional racism, support for alternative lifestyles, same-sex marriage, etc. I won’t rehearse the arguments here, but the generic idea is that different kinds of social liberation go together: if you support restrictions on state coercion, you have similar reason to resist social ostracism of different lifestyle choices. And if you support equal political rights for persons, then you should support social equality between races, genders, etc.

I have a question for co-bloggers and readers that identify with the libertarian left in something like the sense I’ve described: to what extent should religious conservatives feel comfortable among you?

For our purposes, let’s restrict the notion of a religious conservative to someone (i) with orthodox Jewish or Christian theological beliefs, (ii) that adopts many of the social positions commonly associated with those beliefs, in particular a belief in the immorality of abortion, adultery, pre-marital sex, homosexual sex, and perhaps contraception and (iii) that believes marriage is restricted, on moral and theological grounds, to a man and a woman and that both parties should voluntarily agree to give men a greater share in leadership in the marriage.

There are so many religious conservatives – arguably hundreds of millions. And there are tens of millions in the United States alone. Obviously these individuals can adopt thin libertarianism qua their religious conservatism. And some do. I think of Ron Paul and Rand Paul as religious conservatives, though I’m not quite sure of their position on (iii) (I suspect they affirm it, even if they would waffle in public.) Israel Kirzner and David Gordon are good cases. And basically any conservative Catholic or evangelical Christian is going to count.

Now, it’s important to stress that religious conservatives as I’ve described them can learn a lot from the libertarian left. They are typically racially egalitarian, so there’s no in-principle reason they can’t have standard leftist concerns about racial privilege. There’s no reason religious conservatives can’t recognize objectionable gender privilege, even if they support (iii), and while they may have conservative sexual views, they may still be able to see the great merit in resisting slut-shaming, legalizing gay marriage, and so on. So I don’t mean to exaggerate the differences.

But differences there are. And they’re major. So this raises a question: are they to be cast out of the libertarian left?

Here are some reasons to think so:

(a)   While theological orthodoxy is not necessarily a threat to the values of the libertarian left, it inclines the orthodox to believe in forms of authority, servitude and irrationality that will make them uneasy supporters of liberty.

(b)   Judeo-Christian theological orthodoxy leads to morally ostracizing at least some people who exercise freedom of sexual expression. Consequently, religious conservatives are opponents of the broader, thicker form of liberation that members of the libertarian left embrace.

(c)   The views expressed in (ii) are oppressive and repressive in unhealthy ways. They impose chains on people’s free choices incompatible with the appropriate degree of egalitarianism and respect for individual liberty that characterizes the libertarian left.

(d)   The gender inequality suggested in (iii) is repulsive and inegalitarian and renders those who affirm it morally defective in a serious way or at least inconsistent with the aims of the libertarian left.

Despite these reasons, basically all the libertarian lefties I know are super nice to religiously orthodox individuals and almost never express anti-religious sentiments common among, say, secular progressives, Objectivists and generic New Atheists (you should see the way David Gordon and Roderick Long carry on. It’s a genuinely beautiful, if bizarre, thing). In fact, I’ve never seen or heard of a libertarian lefty making libertarian religious conservatives feel uncomfortable, bigoted, stupid, crude or anything but welcomed. What’s more, I’ve never known any prominent lefty libertarian to make such claims about religiously conservative libertarians unless those libertarians adopted a religiously conservative position that goes well beyond (i)-(iii) (such as Christian Reconstructionist views, or extremely traditionalist Catholic views). The worst I’ve encountered is incredulity that anyone could hold religiously conservative views I without some serious cognitive failing. But that’s just the result of not paying attention to contemporary analytic philosophy of religion.

Perhaps my experience isn’t representative, but whenever I meet religiously conservative libertarians at I.H.S. meetings, for instance, I’ve never known any to feel unwelcome or rejected at all. I don’t know anyone who has ever felt out of place.

If libertarian lefties are consistent, this should not be. Religious conservatives should be corrected, at least in a nice way. Their views are not left-libertarian. After all, if religious conservatives came to libertarian events and criticized thin libertarian views, no one would hesitate to disagree and argue. But when you bring up religiously conservative positions, lefty libertarian attitudes are totally different.

My surmise is that libertarian lefties think the libertarian commitments of religious conservatives keep them from running afoul of libertarian leftism. Religiously conservative libertarians don’t seem to be foes of reason or slaves to irrationality. They typically have a “live and let live” attitude compared to other religious conservatives, so they don’t ostracize much at all. Since religiously conservative libertarians are not so interested in ostracism, they pretty much keep their “repressive” sexual opinions to themselves, so there’s no reason to fool with them. And even when religious conservatives do affirm gender inequality, their relationships and marriages don’t seem affected by these beliefs at all. So in the end, religiously conservative libertarians have a great many views that conflict with libertarian leftism, but since they’re libertarians, those views don’t have their typical “nasty” effects. So that’s why libertarian lefties tend to not only leave religious conservatives be but welcome them with open arms into the liberty movement. At least, that’s one theory.

Another theory is that libertarian lefties are conflict-averse and don’t want to start needless controversy. But, well, LOL.

1 reply »

  1. As someone who is neither on the left nor a libertarian in any sense other than possessing a strong antipathy for big government, I am curious to hear the perspectives of anyone who falls into either category on this issue. It seems obvious that there is great potential for religious conservatives to provide a serious challenge to centralized government, and this naturally makes an alliance with them attractive to any group with goals of decentralization–be they libertarians, anarchists, or otherwise. However, as an apolitical (antipolitical?) religious person, I would personally find it difficult to trust someone who viewed my most deeply held beliefs as merely politically useful.

    This is not to say that I would be averse to forming a legitimate bond of solidarity with people whose causes I have no stake in. My interest in pan-secessionism is that it seems to be a sound tactic by which religious minorities can defend the autonomy of their communities against what Keith Preston has aptly termed “totalitarian humanism.” However, I don’t feel that pan-secessionist tactics can work if they manifest only as a provisional alliance used to liquidate a strong central government, because once this common foe has been vanquished, it seems obvious that those combatants with political, rather than religious or cultural motivations, would have much to gain by seizing power and little to gain by the continuous (and perhaps costly) defense of ways of life that are fundamentally incompatible with their particular political vision. To use your example, this would mean the political left defending communities that refuse to recognize marriage as anything other than a religious ceremony establishing a bond of union between a man and a woman. I simply can’t see it happening. Upon the collapse of the central government, there would be every reason, from a political perspective, to turn the attack toward these communities, since they would be the next biggest bloc of resistance.

    Especially on the left, political movements are goal-oriented and end-focused. Religious and cultural groups, on the other hand, tend toward maintaining a continuous and undisturbed transmission of their way of life through multiple generations. Admittedly, many Christian, Islamic, and Buddhist groups have historically taken a more aggressive approach, seeking to absorb groups around them. Be this as it may, there are many stable, non-conquering religious and cultural groups in whose interest it would be to maintain a perpetual alliance against disruptive forces. To my mind, successful application of pan-secessionist tactics all but requires that the alliance be formed solely of such groups, because this seems to be the only kind of alliance that would be anything other than provisional. To wit: religious conservatives probably have good reason to tread carefully in any alliance with the left, libertarian or otherwise.

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