Tuesday, August 03, 2004

Does Lockean libertarianism require orthodox theological views to support it?

Edward Feser replied to Will Wilkinson’s reply to Feser’s original article purporting to debunk libertarianism’s claim of neutrality between various moral and social worldviews. Wilkinson, in his original reply, adequately answers most of Feser’s claims. Let me address one claim that Will didn’t. Feser lumps “natural law” libertarians with social conservatives. He focuses mainly on Locke and claims that since Locke ultimately tied rights to God, that Lockean libertarianism “obviously” favors “a decidedly religious social order.” And by that he means the religious social order posited by the religious right.

But invoking “God” as the ultimate source of our natural rights does not equate to an invocation of the religious right's worldview and hence, what they believe “individual rights” ought to be. There also exists a “religious left.” Liberation theology invokes God for a Marxist economic system. The Unitarians, Quakers and other various liberal Protestant Churches invoke God in performing same-sex marriages.

One might argue that these modern day “Christians” aren’t invoking an “orthodox” Christian God. But arguably neither was Locke. Although he claimed to be a Christian and Christianity to be “reasonable,” and thus gave the impression that it was the Christian God who grants us our natural rights, many modern scholars believe that based on what he wrote in total, he could not possibly have believed that the God of the Bible -- as opposed to a very different nature's God -- grants natural rights. Some argue that it was Locke who ushered in the age of liberal Protestantism that presently does such unorthodox things as perform same-sex marriages and lobby for abortion rights.

However, regardless of whether Locke was a bona fide orthodox Christian or whether he intended his teachings to transvalue such faith, what is beyond contention is that some of Locke’s earliest disciples did indeed appeal to an unorthodox God as the guarantor of rights.

Take, for instance, the Lockean Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson most certainly did argue that natural rights ultimately derive from our "Creator." But it was Nature’s God, not the God of the Bible, to whom Jefferson appealed. Here is Walter Berns, from his book Making Patriots, on the attributes of Nature’s God, as understood by such Enlightenment imbibed Founders as Jefferson and Madison:

Nature’s God issues no commands, no one can fall from his grace, and, therefore, no one has reason to pray to him asking for his forgiveness; he makes no promises. On the contrary, he endowed us with “certain unalienable Rights,” then left us alone, and with the knowledge, or at least the confidence, that he will never interfere in our affairs. Moreover, he is not a jealous god; he allows us—in fact, he endows us with the right—to worship other gods or even no god at all. This right can best be secured—Jefferson, Madison, and the others insisted it could only be secured—under secular auspices, under a government that takes no stand on the matters of faith.[1]

This hardly qualifies as any kind of orthodox theology necessary to support natural rights!

[1] Walter Berns, Making Patriots (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001), p. 32.

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