Politics

The Libertarian problem: The “black hole” of religious freedom

How do you deal with a black hole? You stay far away from it

Finding themselves unable to vote for either Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump, some conservative Catholics looked hopefully at the Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson and were distressed to find him (on their principles) unacceptable too. What were they expecting, I thought as I read some anguished Facebook posts? He’s a libertarian.

What this means has come out more and more. “Under the guise of religious freedom, anybody can do anything,” Johnson recently told a writer from The Washington Examiner, in explaining why he supported the government forcing people to act against their conscience. This is his argument: “Discrimination on the basis of religion” will “open up a can of worms when it come stop discrimination of all forms.” Why, he asks, “shouldn’t somebody be able to shoot somebody else because their freedom of religion says that God has spoken to them and that they can shoot somebody dead?”

The black hole
He says nothing in the interview, or anywhere else I can find — the Libertarian party’s website says not a word about it — in defense of religious liberty (a.k.a. the First Amendment). It has no importance for him or his party. Later in the interview, he says, “I just see religious freedom, as a category, as just being a black hole.”

How do you deal with a black hole? You stay far away from it. Because in a world that doesn’t actually exist, the right to religious freedom might let a man kill another, he treats the idea as if it were too dangerous to allow. Because finding the line between what respect for religious liberty requires and what the government should forbid is difficult, as it is, he wants to toss out religious freedom.

The example the writer had given Johnson was New Mexico fining a photographer for not photographing a same-sex wedding. He seems happy with that degree of government coercion. It’s not, you would think, a libertarian position. You would think he’d defend the photographer’s right even if he criticized his practice. But no. Johnson thinks a man should not be free to follow his religious conscience in such cases, because that’s “discrimination.” The homosexual couple’s right to freely find a photographer trumps whatever rights the photographer has to choose his customers.

Yet Johnson and his party are perfectly happy with unrestricted abortion. Asked about abortion in the interview, Johnson said, “The law of the land is Casey v. Planned Parenthood. I have no intention of changing the law, and Casey v. Planned Parenthood says, ‘you, woman, you have the right to have an abortion up to viability of the fetus.’”

The abortion section of the party’s website says that he “believes in the sanctity of the life of the unborn” but, and we all saw this coming, “believes that such a very personal and individual decision is best left to women and families.” It says (or brags) that its vice presidential candidate William Weld is “an outspoken defender of a woman’s right to choose.”

Mainstream libertarianism
This is all mainstream libertarianism. Every time I’ve picked up Reason magazine or clicked through its website, I’ve found some snide and silly remark about religion or religious believers, and sometimes a lot, especially when Christians oppose the exploitation of embryos or otherwise impede their expansive view of what it is moral to buy and sell. Wired, founded by a “radical capitalist,” is the same way. The few pro-life and pro-marriage libertarians operate way outside the enterprise’s main organs and personalities.

Libertarianism’s five modern patriarchs — Ludwig von Mises, F. A. Hayek, Murray Rothbard, Milton Friedman, and Ayn Rand — were all un- or irreligious. Hayek thought highly of religion, but only because it was socially useful. Its American political patriarch, Barry Goldwater, spoke hostilely against religious involvement in politics, and was strongly pro-choice. It is not a Catholic-friendly movement, as I’ve written here before.

In the interview, Johnson explains: “I’m not a social conservative. I really do believe in people being able to make choices.” The nature of those choices he has clearly not thought through. He assumes much that he ought to argue. We have to choose between freedoms and balance competing claims.

This is the problem: Religion, because it holds some truths to be public truths about the universe, can’t always be balanced. Religious people free to act on their faith will prevent some people from making the choices they want to make. But that is true of Johnson’s secular commitments as well. The libertarian’s easy answer to the conflict is to declare religious freedom a black hole.

He says he wants people to make their own choices, but he doesn’t. He doesn’t want people allowed the principled choice not to photograph a same-sex wedding. He doesn’t want to give the unborn child the choice to live he would make were he able to make it. Even though a libertarian, he favors the coercive power of the state to ensure that people are able to make the choices he thinks they should be able to make and not make those he does not want them to make.

Liberty as Gary Johnson understands it is a solvent, and among the things it dissolves is religious freedom.

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David Mills

David Mills, former executive editor of First Things, is a senior editor of The Stream, editorial director for Ethika Politika, and columnist for several Catholic publications. His latest book is Discovering Mary. Follow him @DavidMillsWrtng.