Many Christians, especially conservatives in the US, will tell you that Christianity is compatible with liberty. Some will even say that it’s the foundation of liberty. After all, isn’t one of the Biblical Commandments, “Thou shalt not steal”? So the people in government have no business stealing through coercive taxation. And didn’t Jesus practice non-violence and admonish followers to give to the poor themselves, rather than forcibly taking money from others to donate? What business do the people in government have doing this, if they’re going by Christian morality?
Yet the countries of Europe have a long history of dictatorial rulers, while seeming to be very heavily Christian. In the Middle Ages, feudal lords ruled over their subjects–especially serfs–with near-absolute power. Kings and popes strove to maximize their authority over their subjects, to rule as Christian monarchs. In the 17th Century, the Christian king of France, Louis XIV, was especially successful at becoming an absolute monarch. The pope was extremely powerful, often like a monarch in his own right. This continued, even as priests and noblemen knew about the Roman Republic of antiquity.
During the Middle Ages, and even into the Renaissance, the Roman Catholic Church put people on trial for “heresies,” (differences of religious belief) and if they were convicted, they were handed over to civil authorities to be imprisoned, hanged, or burned at the stake.
Persecution for heresy was not even limited to official acts carried out by the civil/religious authorities. Ordinary people–commoners and peasants–sometimes formed mobs and burned alleged heretics themselves, without trial.
Popes sanctioned wars of conquest, like Charlemagne’s wars to conquer Saxony and Lombardy, the Norman invasion of England in 1066, and multiple crusades to conquer the Holy Land.
Even after the Protestant Reformation, there were Protestant despots like King Henry VIII and Oliver Cromwell of Britain, and Charles IX of Sweden who were cruel and tyrannical, and who violated the religious freedoms of their subjects. Religious wars continued to rage across Europe, such as the Thirty Years’ War.
All of this occurred during a deeply religious and almost universally Christian era in Europe’s history. By virtually every measure, people during the 1,300 years between the fall of the Roman Empire and the Enlightenment, were far more religious than in the past 300 years. They went to church more often, prayed more often, relied on the Bible more, were less concerned about earthly life and more concerned about whether they were headed for heaven or hell. They became passionate and even violent over religious disputes, and most of them had no tolerance for heresies, paganism, or atheism. (Atheism was basically unheard-of.)
Was all of the oppression and war some bizarre, inexplicable, 1,300-year fluke of history? Did a crazy corruption of Christianity somehow reign for 1,300 years, amid widespread and profound religiosity?
In the rest of this essay, I will argue that these 1,300 years were no fluke and no corruption of the fundamental ideas of Christianity. What may seem like a corruption to some superficial, modern interpretations of Christian ideas, is in fact a logical consequence of the deeper ideas of Christian morality. Christian morality ultimately supports statism and oppression of the individual, not liberty and individual rights.
The two major moral tenets that support statism are: self-sacrifice for others, and faith.
Christianity Advocates Altruism–Self-Sacrifice for Others on Earth
By fundamental doctrine, the Christian owes an ultimate duty to God. He was created by God, and lives under the ultimate authority of God. As a condition of salvation, God has commanded him to accept Jesus as his Lord and Savior. Part of accepting Jesus is following his teachings and trying to become “Christ-like” on Earth.
“If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.”
–Jesus (Matt. 16:24)
In the Bible, Jesus lived to serve others while on Earth. He continually admonished his followers to do likewise.
“If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven.” –Jesus (Matthew 19:21)
This idea, that your moral duty is first and foremost to serve others, is called altruism.
Altruism is not the equivalent of helping friends, or general benevolence to strangers. Altruism is putting the interests of others first, before your own. It is harming yourself and your life so that others may be better off (allegedly.) It is giving of yourself to others when it is against your long-term interests (mental and physical) to do so.
Jesus did not have concern for his own interests as a man on Earth. He lived to serve others. He even chose to make the ultimate sacrifice: to die a painful death on the cross for all of humanity. So if you want to follow him, you must “take up your cross”–metaphorically–and imitate him by living to serve others and sacrificing for them.
The Bible continually reinforces this altruism, with respect to one’s own interests on Earth:
“But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you…” –Jesus (Matthew 5:39-44)
“What is more, I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them garbage, that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ…” –Paul (Philippians 3:8-9)
“We who are strong ought to bear with the failings of the weak and not to please ourselves. Each of us should please our neighbors for their good, to build them up. For even Christ did not please himself but, as it is written: ‘The insults of those who insult you have fallen on me.'” –Paul (Romans 15:1-3)
“The Spirit Himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ, if indeed we suffer with Him, that we may also be glorified together. For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us.” –Paul (Romans 8:16-18)
Share in suffering as a good soldier of Christ Jesus. No soldier gets entangled in civilian pursuits, since his aim is to please the one who enlisted him. –Paul (2 Timothy 2:3-4)
Mother Teresa was a very good example of Christian altruism. She continually sacrificed her own interests, and ultimately her happiness, for the sake of serving the needy and suffering.
“We must give until it hurts. For love to be true it has to hurt. It hurt Jesus to love us; it hurt God to love us because He had to give. He gave His Son. This is the meaning of true love, to give until it hurts.” –Mother Teresa
Like many Medieval monks and saints before her, Mother Teresa really practiced Christian “love”–i.e. altruism and the sacrifice of her earthly happiness.
How Altruism Undercuts Liberty and Promotes Statism
Under the Christian morality of altruism–and its modern, secularized versions–prosperous people should sacrifice for others. This is their moral duty, if they are to be a good person. If people are not prosperous, they are the poor and needy. The poor and needy can be good just by being faithful and sitting back and accepting the sacrifices of others. (“Blessed are the poor in spirit…” Mt. 5:3)
So let us ask: Is liberty necessary for this morality to be practiced? Well, we might say that someone who is imprisoned in a cell will have difficulty becoming prosperous and finding needy people to donate his money to. If everyone were idly imprisoned, there would be no one to support human life and keep the needs and sacrifices going.
But there is an alternative to idle imprisonment: slavery. If the government enslaves some of the population and forces them to produce for everyone, then there is a perpetual cycle of needs and people sacrificing to fill those needs. This is, according to altruism, a moral society. Of course, the people being enslaved did not necessarily choose to sacrifice; they were forced into it. If they didn’t want to sacrifice, but are only doing it because they were forced, then they’re not moral by the standards of altruism. But if they do choose to embrace their duties under their slavery, they can be moral altruists. The moral goodness, in the case of unwilling sacrificers, lies with their masters: In forcing these people to sacrifice for the needy, the masters have ensured that the needs of the needy have been met. The masters have also sacrificed themselves for the needy: Instead of pursuing their own lives and interests, developing their own talents, relationships, etc, the masters have chosen to devote their lives to serving the needy and running the government.
But sacrifice for the needy must be done freely and according to an individual’s own judgment to be moral, you say? Not at all. Who is an individual altruist to decide what the needs of others are? By his own moral position, he is the servant of others. It is not the servant’s position to judge what his master’s needs are–it is the master’s prerogative to tell the servant. Thus for altruists, so long as the government (which serves as the master-by-proxy) properly represents the will of the relevant “true master,” state enslavement can be perfectly moral. For Christians, the true master is “God”; for Marxists, the true master is “the proletariat” (“worker class”); for social democrats, the true master is “society as a whole.” (1)
So liberty is not necessary for the moral practice of altruism. What about property? Well, as we have seen, control over one’s own life is unnecessary for the practice of altruism, and the right to property is justified by the moral need of individuals to control and plan their own lives, in order to serve their self-interest. So it should be no surprise that altruism is compatible with violations of property rights. Under the morality of altruism, the product of an individual’s effort is not his. Morally, it belongs to the needy whom he serves. If he keeps and uses the product of his effort for himself, he is stealing what is rightfully theirs. Just like liberty, the right to individual property does not logically follow from an altruist moral framework.
Yet altruism is not only compatible with violations of capitalist rights, it actually encourages such violations. In a laissez-faire capitalist society, it is the rational egoists, producers and traders who prosper: they grow rich, become respected and influential. Those who regularly sacrifice themselves to serve others end up struggling: they are poor, worn down, and don’t have big voices in the culture. A laissez-faire capitalist society is suited to a J.P. Morgan, not a Mother Teresa.
Altruists sense this, and they don’t like it. They want higher social standing–consonant with being “the most moral people.” They want their voices to be more influential in their society, and so they want more wealth donated into the fund for the “needy.” They want the activities on which they have based their sense of self-worth to grow and triumph. And in their worldview, the happy, successful, powerful industrialists have gotten that way through immorality. A society that enables and encourages the success of immorality, while discouraging morality, is an immoral society.
So altruists tend to feel the need to destroy the success of industrialists. They do this by attacking the institutions that allow industrialists to succeed: governmental protections of liberty and property. In place of the pursuit of individual happiness, they advocate sacrifice for the “common good.” In place of the justice of individuals earning what they get by personal effort, they advocate “social justice” and equality of wealth. In place of private property, they advocate “communal ownership.” In place of the necessity of individual rights, they advocate the necessity of individual obligations to others. And as we saw earlier, from their perspective, there is nothing wrong with these obligations being enforced by the state.
From an altruist perspective, laws that enforce sacrifice are helping to thwart people’s temptation to “sin” by being greedy and self-interested. People can choose to embrace their moral and legal obligations, or not, but at least the laws keep immoral behavior out of public view and away from many impressionable children. If children are good and law-abiding, they will choose the “moral life,” rather than “criminal activity.”
So as long as Christians think the government represents Christianity–that is, as long as the government was established or sanctioned by the Biblical God–they will have no solid moral arguments against government violations of individual rights. Since God is supposed to be on the side of morality, God will ultimately be thought to be on the side of the statists.
Christianity Advocates Faith–Belief Without Reason and Evidence
Another key idea in Christian morality is faith: To be virtuous, to the extent one can as a flawed human, one must have faith in God and Christ.
Faith is belief in something beyond what reasoning from observable evidence warrants, or in willful contradiction to the conclusion that is most logical, based on the evidence a person has. In short, it is belief not properly justified by factual evidence.
Christian doctrine clearly promotes faith: In the Bible, Jesus holds up children as models for believers. He says, “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, whoever takes the lowly position of this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.” (Mt. 18:3-4, NIV) And again, in Mark 10, Jesus says: “Let the children come to me; do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of God. Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.” (Mark 10:14-15, ESV)
The reason that Jesus holds children up as models to emulate is that they tend to be “intellectually humble” (i.e. naive) and will often accept religious teachings simply, without challenging the adults by asking too many difficult questions. Ask virtually any religious 6-year-old why he believes in God, and you won’t get anything resembling rational, philosophical arguments. He accepts God because that is what his parents and minister have told him.
Jesus generally showed no signs of caring how people come to believe in him. Jesus said, “whoever believes in me has eternal life,” not “whoever believes what reason and evidence support has eternal life,” or “whoever rationally judges that I’m God has eternal life.” (John 6:47) Sheer belief is what’s important for faith and salvation, not thinking or reasoning about evidence.
The Bible routinely analogizes the relationship between the Lord–or his earthly representatives–and the average believer to the relationship between a shepherd and his flock of sheep. Psalm 23 says:
The Lord is my shepherd, I lack nothing. He makes me lie down in green pastures, he leads me beside quiet waters, he refreshes my soul. He guides me along the right paths for his name’s sake.
Jesus said, “I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me…” (John 10:14) and Peter told church elders, “Be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care, watching over them…” (1 Peter 5:2–For many other references, see this link.)
Sheep are appropriate metaphors for good Christian believers, because they group together and follow each other and their shepherd mindlessly. They are helpless in the face of predators (Satan) and rely completely on their shepherd to protect them. One sheep on its own will not survive long in the wilderness, without its shepherd.
Finally, we should note that the Biblical Apostle Paul denigrated and virtually dismissed human knowledge and wisdom in relation to God: “For the wisdom of this world is foolishness in God’s sight. As it is written: ‘He catches the wise in their craftiness'” (1 Cor. 3:19) and “[T]he foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength.” (1 Cor. 1:25) The lesson here is that humans can’t trust their reasoning minds. God’s ways are beyond human comprehension. So once again, Christians are expected to simply believe, rather than to rely on their “human wisdom” and reasoning.
How Faith Undercuts Liberty and Promotes Statism
People who act on faith must rely on the authority and guidance of others in this world. People do not actually hear the voice of God in their heads. Nor are they simply able to find the truth by the “feelings of their hearts.” If Christianity were the truth, and people were able to do either of these things on their own, there would be many more Christians, and many fewer people of other religions and worldviews. Only the willfully dishonest and corrupt would not be Christian. Children of Muslims and Hindus would be just as likely to become Christians as the children of Christians.
So faith in the authority of others–parents, clergy, etc.–plays a significant role in bringing adherents to Christianity. To become Christians, people must hear about Jesus from others, then choose to have faith in him, based on their words. And as we saw, the Bible tells people that their reasoning is inherently faulty in moral matters. They can’t trust their own judgment in how to live their lives. They are like sheep who need to follow a shepherd who will tell them what to do.
So what do these mindless Christian sheep need liberty for? To pick a good shepherd? Well, since the faithful can’t trust their rational judgment or “human wisdom” in moral matters, can they select a shepherd based on the Bible? The Bible has many different interpretations, as we can see from the many Christian sects that have arisen over the past two thousand years. How does the believer know that his shepherd is following the right one? It would seem that the only means a believer has of choosing a shepherd is by his emotional feelings. Yet we know, from a Christian perspective, that feelings often lead people into false worldviews like Islam, Hinduism and atheistic humanism. Feelings can even lead people into dangerous cults run by disturbed power-lusters, like the People’s Temple of Jim Jones. So, just like sheep, a faithful believer is unable to use his liberty to make an independent judgment about which shepherd to follow. The believer can only pick the nearest one, or a random one based on feelings, not knowing whether the shepherd is good or bad.
This blind reliance on authority is precisely what statism feeds off of. If people can’t trust their own judgment, then they’ll obey the orders of whoever seems like an authority. They’ll submit to state control, rather than rebel. After all, who are they to think for themselves? They’re just following one of their shepherds, like their religion has taught them.
Now, if the government is oppressive and does not claim to be inspired by Christianity, some Christians may be tempted to rebel in order to establish a Christian government. But, if they are really faithful, they will not have much confidence in their own “fallen” judgment, and thus in their cause. And as it turns out, the Bible does not support them, anyway. In the Epistle to the Romans, Paul tells his brethren:
Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. (Romans 13:1)
And if this can be said of the same pagan Roman authorities who already crucified Jesus, why would it not apply to any other non-Christian government? It’s rather clear that Paul meant this as a general statement, since he goes on to say:
Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and you will be commended. For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer. Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also as a matter of conscience. (Romans 13:2-5)
So Christians should really have no objections, if the current government is a Christian theocracy that enforces their own religion. As Paul said, it was clearly established by God’s authority. Its laws against sins are helping the flock avoid Satan’s temptations and persevere in Christian faith. If the government prevents the accumulation of “excessive” earthly riches by taxation and regulation, it is reducing people’s temptation to be caught up in worldly affairs and the worship of wealth. Thus it is helping them shift their concern to the afterlife, where it should be:
Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. –Apostle John (1 John 2:15)
The Bible makes it extremely clear that liberty is not necessary for faith and salvation. The Epistles repeatedly admonish slaves to obey their masters, since faith and reverence for the Lord in their hearts is what is important:
Slaves, obey your earthly masters with respect and fear, and with sincerity of heart, just as you would obey Christ. –“Apostle Paul” (Ephesians 6:5)
Slaves, obey your earthly masters in everything; and do it, not only when their eye is on you and to curry their favor, but with sincerity of heart and reverence for the Lord. –“Apostle Paul” (Colossians 3:22)
All who are under the yoke of slavery should consider their masters worthy of full respect, so that God’s name and our teaching may not be slandered. –“Apostle Paul” (1 Timothy 6:1)
Slaves, in reverent fear of God submit yourselves to your masters, not only to those who are good and considerate, but also to those who are harsh. –“Apostle Peter” (1 Peter 2:18)
Being politically free on Earth is of no real consequence to your salvation. Slaves can be perfectly faithful Christians. So why fight for earthly freedom? Better to get your spiritual house in order to prepare for your earthly death and heavenly judgment.
If a vocal faction arises in a semi-free society, calling for a transition to Christian theocracy, Christians are in no intellectual position to oppose it. The logic of their basic premises leads to the conclusion that they as individuals should submit to state control, especially if that state is officially Christian.
As we can now see, Christianity does not support earthly liberty, but a lack of concern with this world. The logic of Christian morality supports statism at a fundamental level, through the twin ideas of altruism and faith. The 1,300 years of brutal government oppression and holy war, between the fall of Rome and the Enlightenment, were no aberration of Christianity, they were its deepest expression. It was not earthly joy that mattered, but faith, self-sacrifice and the salvation of souls. And if the divinely-appointed authorities decided that war and slaughter were necessary for people’s salvation, who was the average believer to reject their authority? He had been taught by his faith to obey and sacrifice.
After the Enlightenment, there were movements that advocated for more liberty, while using the Bible as alleged justification. Chief among these was the abolitionist movement against slavery. Abolitionists appealed to the Bible and Christianity to support their cause. But as we have seen, the Bible actually supports slavery, both in its fundamental moral ideas and in its explicit instructions.
What actually drove the anti-slavery movement was the idea of natural, individual rights, established by the relatively secular Enlightenment. The largely secular philosophy of John Locke was the dominant influence in Enlightenment-era America and Britain, and this philosophy was eventually applied to blacks, along with everyone else. To get the idea of natural rights, Locke combined the British civil law tradition of noblemen having rights apart from the king, with the idea of natural law that came from Thomas Aquinas. This natural law component of Aquinas’ philosophy, in turn, came from the ancient Greek philosopher, Aristotle.
The mystical faith and altruism of Christianity was a cultural force opposing human rights. It had held political sway for 1,300 years before the founding of the USA. The abolitionists of slavery distorted Christianity and the Bible to serve their goal, because for most people, religion was the “language of morality.” After 1,300 years of cultural saturation by Christianity, people weren’t ready to admit to themselves that they were acting on anti-Biblical ideas and explicitly break away from their long-cherished religion. So advocates of any moral cause distorted and cherry-picked the Bible to win people to their side. (Even our common term for any moral cause, “crusade,” comes from the Latin word for the “cross” of Jesus.)
If you now want to advocate for liberty effectively in the modern world, you must acknowledge the reality of the Bible’s teachings. You must understand that Christian morality is fundamentally anti-liberty. It preaches renunciation of this world and suffering in the name of Christ, for the sake of the afterlife. Thus it takes political liberty as superfluous and even harmful to people’s spiritual development. Blessed are those who are poor, humble, persecuted, mourning, suffering, dying martyrs’ deaths! Suffering and dying for what? Political liberty, human rights and prosperity on Earth? No, suffering and dying to convince people to sacrifice life’s pleasures, despise this world, and have blind faith that Jesus is the Son of God. (Mt. 5:3-12, 1 Jn. 2:15, 2 Cor. 5:7, Gal. 2:20)
The actual basis of liberty is that it makes human life and prosperity possible on Earth. The extent to which individuals have liberty is the extent to which they can plan their own lives, enjoy the fruits of their labor, and achieve happiness on Earth. Liberty is critical for the ability of individuals to use their minds to make their lives–and those of people around them–better. Liberty enables people to live in harmony with others, having win-win relationships, rather than using the government to oppress each other and steal each others’ products.
In short, liberty is necessary to practice the morality of rational egoism, as advocated by Ayn Rand. Ayn Rand was the culmination of the pro-liberty philosophers. Previous philosophers like John Locke had advocated for political liberty and individual rights, and they were moderately successful, in that they shaped some countries of Europe, and produced the “Nation of the Enlightenment”–the United States of America. But these philosophers had always made concessions to Christian faith and altruism in their philosophical theories. Their ideas did not consistently support liberty. Thus the ideas of liberty were open to intellectual attack, and their credibility was gradually demolished in Western culture. The Lockean philosophy of individual rights was replaced by utilitarianism, Marxism, Progressivism, Rawlsianism, etc. This has led to the deterioration of our liberty in the US over the past century-and-a-half.
Ayn Rand is the first philosopher in history whose whole philosophical system (Objectivism) consistently and rigorously supports liberty. It’s the way toward a bright future. If you want to see liberty triumph, I urge you to study Ayn Rand’s ideas in depth. You can start with my Introduction to Objectivism, as well as the Ayn Rand Institute’s website. On that site, I especially recommend the free video courses, such as The Morality of Freedom.
Beyond that, I recommend Ayn Rand’s novels, as well as her and Leonard Peikoff’s nonfiction. You can find lots of Objectivist nonfiction on my Books and Links page.
Many of Ayn Rand’s written statements about individual rights can be found here: Individual Rights @ ARL. Her theory of rights is also explained in this video:
(1) Note here that, while I’m focusing on Christianity as a religion that advocates altruism, the same basic analysis would apply to the many other religions that also advocate altruism, such as Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism. They promote statism as well. There is nothing particularly wanton about Christianity among religions. There are also a good number of secular philosophies that promote altruism, such as utilitarianism and Marxism.
[Edited: 1-9-17: Altered the content of the second paragraph.]