Ebeling Defends Christian View of Rights

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Ebeling Defends Christian View of Rights

Editor's Note: Richard Ebeling's letter below concludes a discussion about religion and liberty that I initiated in a critical review of Ebeling's recent talk in Denver. Ebeling wrote a reply, to which I responded. I've also recently criticized religious arguments about morality and creationism. Here I give Ebeling the last word, though I believe the points I've already made withstand this latest reply. -- Ari Armstrong

Dear Mr. Armstrong:

Thank you for your most thoughtful reply to my comments on your original piece about FEE's seminar in Denver on December 3, 2005.

May I suggest that there are a number of issues that might be raised in the context of your observations about Christianity, freedom, and the source or basis of rights.

On the original issue, of whether or not Christianity implies or requires coerced altruism, I will still beg to differ from your own conclusion. There is nothing in the original Gospels of the New Testament, as I have read them, that suggests that Christ called upon his followers to compel others to follow him, or for his disciples to coerce anyone showing reluctance to accept Jesus and his teachings.

As I expressed it in my answer to the original question from that person in the audience: When Jesus asked people to follow him, if someone replied, "I'm sorry Jesus, but the temptations of the flesh are just too attractive," Jesus nowhere in the Gospels turns to his disciples and says, "O.K., boys, arrest him; five to ten in 'the Big House' for not acccepting and following my commandments."

The acceptance of Jesus as the Son of God, and the following of his teachings in one's daily life are matters of individual voluntary choice, and a choice that the individual must renew each and every day; the individual has the freedom to "backslide" at any time and return to his "sinful" ways, if he so chooses.

I have used the word "individual" intentionally, because a distinct quality of Christianity is that it is ecumenical, rather than exclusionary or tribalistic as Judaism is in the Old Testament. In the Old Testament, the Jews are a "chosen people," selected by God for a special dispensation. And the wrath of God can fall upon the sons and daughters for the sins of the fathers and mothers. In other words, collective reward and collective guilt.

Christianity is a path of salvation for all men, regardless of to which "tribe" they may belong. And it is individualistic, in that who one's parents are, or what group one belongs to, is irrelevant. Salvation, or its refusal by a person, is an individual matter, not a collective or group-based one.

All of this is discussed in what I think is a thoughtful manner by the famous 19th century Classical Liberal historian, Lord Acton, in his two essays, "The History of Freedom in Antiquity" and "The History of Freedom in Christianity," reprinted in Selected Writings of Lord Acton, Vol. I: Essays in the History of Liberty (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1985) pp.5-53.

Since the acceptance of Christian faith, and conduct on its basis, is a matter of individual choice, the very notion of coerced "charity" or forced other-orientedness is by premise inconsistent with the original doctrine.

During the 19th century, when Classical Liberalism was at its zenieth in terms of acceptance by people in society and restriction on the role of government in social and economic affairs, it was taken to be individual or voluntary associative responsibility to perform works of charity and benevolence, including by those devoted to the Christian faith. I have very briefly summarized some the examples of these private activities at this time in my column in the July/August 2005 issue of The Freeman, under the title, "No 'Buts' About Freedom."

That Christians in the 20th and now 21st centuries all too freqently have turned to the State to redistribute wealth, and to impose restrictions and prohibitions on various forms of individual and interpersonal conduct, is indicative of the statist and collectivist ideologies that have dominated our times. They, like many atheists, have come to view political means as an acceptable and even "necessary" mechanism to impose their will and desires on others.

Christians believe that all rights are ultimately given to man by God, man's Creator. They believe that there is only "one Lord," and He rules in Heaven. That all men are made in His image, and that all men are equally the children of God. No man may place himself above other men, as if he were God. It was this view of God and man and human relationships that led many of the Christians of the 18th and 19th centuries to be at the forefront of the anti-slavery movement, both in Europe and the United States.

It is also what made Christians such as Frederic Bastiat argue that both ethics and economic understanding precluded the right of the State to resort to what Bastiat referred to as "legalized plunder:" the use of the power of government to violate rights and property rather than to protect them from spoilation.

We live in a time when too many of our fellow human beings cannot resist the temptation to turn to the State for matters that should be left to individual choice, and voluntary association and agreement. The dilemma was explained back in 1927 by Ludwig von Mises in his book, Liberalism: The Classical Tradition (New York: Foundation for Economic Education, 1996) pp. 54-55:

"The propensity of our contemporaries to demand authoritarian prohibition as soon as something does not please them, and their readiness to submit to such prohibitions even when what is prohibited is quite agreeable to them shows how deeply ingrained the spirit of servility still remains in them. It will require many long years of self-education until the subject can turn himself into the citizen. A free man must be able to endure it when his fellow men act and live otherwise than he considers proper. He must free himself from the habit, just as soon as something does not please him, of calling for the police."

This includes, like many others in contemporary society, too many Christians who have forgotten the basis of their own faith and moral system.

American society, like the world, is made up of diverse philosophical, religious, and moral beliefs concerning the origin of man, the issue of personal values and the "meaning of life," and the nature of society. It is unlikely that there will ever be complete uniformity on these matters.

What is required for a free society to exist and to function effectively is a shared belief on the absence of force from all human relationships. And that the role of any political authority is to see to the protection of each individual's right to his life, liberty, and property.

What we must strive for is to find at least this minimal common ground. Without it, society will always be threatened with a war of all against all.

Please accept my sincere thanks, once again, for the thoughtfulness you have given to these issues that arose out of FEE's seminar in Denver.


Dr. Richard Ebeling
Foundation for Economic Education
January 6, 2006

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