Thursday, August 27, 2009

The Religious Roots of Liberty by The Rev. Edmund A. Opitz

David and Goliath.

A sincere tip of the boonie hat and slight genuflection to John G., who forwarded me this link from the von Mises Institute.

The home page has this biographical information on the Reverand Opitz:

The Rev. Edmund A. Opitz was a Congregationalist minister who for decades championed the cause of a free society and the need to anchor that society in a transcendent morality. For 37 years, he was a senior staff member and resident theologian at the Foundation for Economic Education. In the early 1950s, he had been part of Spiritual Mobilization, an organization that published the magazine Faith and Freedom, for which Murray Rothbard and Henry Hazlitt often wrote. It was sent to over 20,000 ministers. While at FEE, he started a small organization called the Remnant, a fellowship of conservative and libertarian ministers, using the main theme of a reprinted essay that FEE published, written by Albert Jay Nock in 1937, "Isaiah's Job."

I would put up the usual "heathern discomfort" disclaimer, but the last time I caught crap about how I didn't want non-believing Threepers for allies (most of those posts and emails didn't make the blog, many for obscenity), which is a damned lie. However, if you're going to share a foxhole with me, you're just going to have to put up with a little sermonizing now and again. Think of it, if you must, as a harmless idiosyncrasy.


Religious Roots of Liberty

Mises Daily by Rev. Edmund A. Opitz

Posted on 8/26/2009

Every variety of tyranny rests upon the belief that some persons have a right — or even a duty — to impose their wills upon other people. Tyranny may be fastened upon others by the mere whim of one man, such as a king or dictator under various names. Or tyranny may be imposed upon a minority "for their own good" by a democratically elected majority. But in any case, tyranny is always a denial — or a misunderstanding — of the mandates of an authority or law higher than man himself.

Liberty rests upon the belief that all proper authority for man's relationships with his fellow men comes from a source higher than man — from the Creator. Liberty decrees that all men — subject and ruler alike — are bound by this higher authority which is above and beyond man-made law; that each person has a relation to his Maker with which no other person, not even the ruler, has any right to interfere. In order to make these conceptions effective for liberty, they must be deeply ingrained in the fundamental values of a people. That is to say, they must be part of the popular religion. There was one people of antiquity for whom this was true, the people who gave us our Old Testament. It was among the ancient Israelites that the conviction took hold and emerged into practice that there was a God of righteousness whose judgments applied even to rulers.

No Royal Inscription

The science of archaeology has unearthed some spectacular ruins in Egypt, in Babylonia, in Crete and in Greece. All over the Middle East, patient researchers have turned up monuments and vainglorious inscriptions carved into rock or pressed into clay at the behest of proud kings. Except in Palestine! There has been nothing brought to light in Palestine comparable to the monuments extolling the vain kings of Egypt.

An authority states that there is not a single royal inscription from any of the Bible kings. The Prophets saw to that! No boastful king in ancient Israel would have presumed to leave an inscription dedicated to his own glory, much as he felt he deserved such. The Prophets would have quickly put such a king in his place, and popular resentment would have run high against such inflation of human pride.

In Greece and Rome there were men noted as great lawgivers: Lycurgus, Solon, Justinian and others. In other countries there were royal decrees by the thousands. A law would be promulgated with some such words as, "I, the King, command…." In Egypt and in Babylon, even as in Greece and Rome, authority for a law stemmed from a man, the ruler. But in Palestine the situation was different.
In Biblical literature there is not a single law emanating from kings or other secular authority which was recorded and preserved as permanently valid. Nor have archaeologists in Palestine unearthed royal decrees inscribed on clay tablets or graven on rock.

Now, no people live together without conforming to a commonly accepted code, and without having recourse at times to law. The people of ancient Palestine lived under authority, not in a condition of anarchy. If the king was not the source of their law, there must have been another and higher source. There is no doubt as to what their authority was: they looked to God as the source of their law.

"The Lord is our judge, the Lord is our lawgiver, the Lord is our king" (Is. 33:22). All, or nearly all, of the basic laws of this people were written as though emanating from God Himself. Instead of "I, the King," it was "I, the Lord."

"And ye shall keep my statutes and do them: I am the Lord" (Lev. 20:8). "Thus saith the Lord: Execute ye judgment and righteousness, and deliver the spoiled out of the hand of the oppressor; and do no wrong, do no violence to the stranger, the fatherless, nor the widow" (Jer. 22:3).

This is the system of law, laid down in the Scriptures, expanded and interpreted by human reason, of' which the Psalmist said, "[H]is delight is in the law of the Lord; and in his law doth he meditate day and night" (Ps. 1:2).

Nearly every man was learned in this law, and also deeply involved in the religious relation to God in which the law was rooted — and liberty was a precious by-product of these conditions. Establish these conditions — that is, widely held religious values in which God is regarded as the source of authority and justice, superior to any earthly power — and they provide a firm foundation for political liberty.

In these circumstances there is a continuous check to tyranny, should any such attempt to raise its head. Neglect these conditions, and liberty has no roots. It is like a cut flower which has no vitality in itself and does not last beyond the life it derived from the plant. The way is prepared for tyranny.

This is not to say that there are no economic and political problems peculiar to liberty itself, nor that liberty is not at times impaired by ignorance among a people whose religious values are intact. It is to stress the importance of maintaining the things on which liberty depends — and these are the things of religion. This foundation must be sound, but the structure erected on it must be sound, too.

Collectivist regimes, in the nature of things, must be profoundly irreligious, even to the extent of pressing a corrupted religion into service to shore up tyranny. Genuine religious experience entails the recognition of an inviolable essence in men, the human soul. It inculcates a sense of the worth and dignity of the person and breeds resistance to efforts to submerge individuals in the mass.

Men whose personal experience convinces them that they are creatures of God will not become willing creatures of the state, nor attempt to make creatures of other men.

For them, God is the Lord, whose service is perfect freedom; and Caesar is the ruler, whom to serve is bondage.

It was upon such a faith that this country was founded. Those who migrated to these shores in the early days did not always see the full implications of their beliefs, and sometimes acted contrary to them. But in the end those beliefs prevailed, and they are recognizable in American institutions.

I know it has been fashionable of late to depreciate the motives of the men who made the early settlements on American shores, but I am convinced that the judgment made by Alexis de Tocqueville 120 years ago is nearer the truth. Writing of the men who established Plymouth colony, de Tocqueville said, "[I]t was a purely intellectual craving that called them from the comforts of their former homes; and in facing the inevitable sufferings of exile their object was the triumph of an idea."

This idea was one which had been spreading in England since even before the Reformation, but it bears more directly upon the time when the English people had, for the first time, the Bible in their own tongue. The idea of a new commonwealth, fired by reading in the Old Testament of the people of the covenant, launched in America what de Tocqueville described as "a democracy more perfect than antiquity had dared dream of."

The first minister of the church in Boston in 1630 was John Cotton. Cotton Mather wrote of him, that he "propounded unto them an endeavor after a theocracy, as near as might be, to that which was the glory of Israel, the 'peculiar people.'" The Puritan regime, taken by itself, was pretty rigorous. But it matured, and in its maturity received an infusion from something radically different — the rationalism of the Enlightenment.

The Enlightenment by itself in France ran its course and became its own caricature. It teamed up with a revolution at the end of which was Napoleon. But in America the seemingly diverse elements fused. Here, we conceived the idea of a limited government under a written constitution; the idea of a separation of powers in the federal government and a retention of sovereignty in important spheres by the individual states; the concept of the immunity of persons from arbitrary encroachment by government.

An experiment based on those principles was launched on these shores less than two centuries ago. It was the result of a conscious effort to forge an instrumentality of government in conformity with the higher law, based on the widely held conviction that God is the author of liberty.

Basis of Political Liberty

Our political liberties were not born in a vacuum, but among a people who had a sense of their unique destiny under God. Our religious foundation has been alluded to in a Supreme Court decision (1892, 143 U.S. 457):

[T]his is a religious people. This is historically true. From the discovery of this continent to the present hour, there is a single voice making this affirmation.

So long as men accepted the basic affirmations of religion — that there is a God of all people with whom each individual has a personal relationship — our liberties were basically secure. Whenever there was a breach in them, we possessed a principle by which we could discover and repair the breach. But when there ceases to be a constant recurrence to fundamental principles, our political freedom is placed in jeopardy. Political liberty is not self-sustained; it rests upon a religious base.

All men desire to be free, and the will to be free is perpetually renewed in each individual who uses his faculties and affirms his manhood. But the mere desire to be free has never saved any people who did not know and establish the things on which freedom depends — and these are the things of religion. The God-concept, when cherished in the values of a people, is the universal solvent of tyranny, for, as Job said, "He looseth the bond of kings" (Job 12:18).

Many "monuments for posterity" are being built today in our country. Are they mostly dedicated to man and his vain decrees, or to the Creator of man and the higher law?

The future of our civilization rests on the answer to the spirit of that question.


Larry said...

Personally, I don't know how you could be a threeper without believing in God and a resurrection. Why else stand in the gap? What good is a sheep dog with out the Good Shepherd? There would be no point, really.

Anonymous said...

I get it.

Generally speaking I have problems with religion as put forth by man because... I'm not much for authority or somebody else 'telling me' that's just the way it is. This might be why I identify with the III'pers. This doesn't mean that I don't believe in a Supreme Being but religion generally irks the shit out of me.

Gary North is putting out book that he calls his 'lifetime achievement' which consists of a central theme of Biblical support for liberty and free markets.

He also wrote a very interesting treatise years ago on the origins of the US Constitution as a major departure from that of the Western world for which he stated all previous writings that put forth state power acknowledged that God was the highest sovereign (even over the King). The first document to depart from that (in the West) was the Constitution of Rhode Island and the second was the US Constitution which calls the highest sovereign 'The People'. Something to think about....

The Tocqueville quote is interesting because Tocqueville also had reservations with regard to Democratic Republics and thought they could tend to become much more pernicious destroyers of liberty than a monarchy ever could. The results speak for themselves.

If somebody gave me the choice of having a Jahova's Witness for a neighbor versus a UC Berkley professor of sociology, I would pick the Jahova's Witness any day because the former has no faith in the government while the latter has total faith in the government or... 'The People'.


Dr.D said...

Mike, Heathens is a term that is often inaccurately applied to atheists and agnostics. It specifically refers to the those people who "lived on the heaths" often followers of the "old religion" (prechristian), it was meant to be used in a manner similar to that used by city folks referring to their "redneck" cousin in the country.
I am a "Heathen", Literally. I am also a card carrying, venom spitting, fire breathing Libertarian, and I'd be proud to share a fox hole with you any time, even if I have to listen to your prayers to Jehovah. It would be a small price to pay for Liberty.


rexxhead said...

Some will want to read this as saying 'only religious people can be moral'.

As a godless heathen (not really, but some here could easily mistake me for one) it seems clear that religion mated to enlightenment is nothing more than what we commonly call 'morality'. What's being said here is nothing more than 'only a moral people can be free' and that is undeniably true. Religion may be a good source of morality, but it is not the only source, and it's not the only ingredient.

A good friend calls Islam 'a gutter religion' because it lacks the enlightenment which is necessary to draw from religion morality. The fervent Muslim is single-minded about religion and therefore cannot find the path either to morality or to liberty. The fanatic Muslim shows us that religion alone is insufficient.

Whether one is deeply religious or just kinda' religious or even not-very-r-at-all, one can still (if reason is part of the equation) be 'moral', and it is that (reason) which is the necessary ingredient.

Unfortunately, there is a substantial presence in our culture of amoral people whether religious or not. These will never be free, and if we insist on being free, we must eventually part company with them.

And the day of parting is drawing ever nearer.


Anonymous said...

By all means let the atheists and the heathens fight for our side. But when the war is over they better accept that this will be a Christian country and they will be governed according to Christian morality.

LSP said...

Thanks for that; interesting to note how far the Supreme Court has wandered in recent decades.

Geoff said...

The Hebrews, on the other hand, did live under anarchy, with God's approval. God told them not to demand a king, but to continue to live under their voluntarily-funded system of judges. Their response? "But we shall have a king, and we also will be like all nations: and our king shall judge us, and go out before us, and fight our battles for us." Take a gander at 1 Samuel 8 if you want to see what God said about their desire for a terrestrial, tax-funded ruler. He wasn't particularly happy about it.

Larry said...

Remember that it was God that proclamed liberty throughout the land (Leviticus 25:10, Psalms 119:45, Isaiah 61:1), long before the "Age of Enlightenment" which came after the Word was translated and made widely available. Hummmm, may be a connection there...

Billy Beck said...

"Personally, I don't know how you could be a threeper without believing in God and a resurrection. Why else stand in the gap?"

Some people value life -- on this planet and in this, their time -- and that's good enough for them to fight for. That's why. You can take me, for one, at my word.

This is not difficult, so please don't make it so.

Billy Beck said...

"...and they will be governed according to Christian morality."

That's what you fuckin' think. You'd better pack your lunch for that fight, sonny.

Johnny said...

I reject the idea that I should accept another person or persons claim to transcendental knowledge.

My personal understanding is that it's simply a matter of fact that nobody is competent to tell another adult how to conduct their own life - and death. Live fast and die young or devote to the ascetic ideal, that is something for the individual to decide... especially if it's your very soul at stake.

I am left with empirical observation and deduction: that the family and living in consanguineous groups was what has made the existence of humanity possible and, indeed, would be what would save it should so-called civilization collapse; that collectivism of the left and the right has historically lead to mass death and tyranny; that technocrats who have predicted the future have never been shown correct by hindsight in any meaningful sense.

Collectivists, and especially those technocrats with their "solutions" to invented problems, are what we should fighting rather than a religious war, IMHO.

Anonymous said...

Look up Dennis Prager's If There Is No God essay it covers these issues better than I can or care to at this time.

Anonymous said...

Excellent essay Mike. Thanks, I really enjoyed it.

Isn't the culmination of liberty and freedom the freedom of choice? Should not every human choose his own way of finding his moral compass? What is all this bickering about God?

In my mind and home God is there also and I despise religion. I don't try to push my beliefs on to others even though I am not closed mouth about them. Our Republic was possible through the melding of a very diverse bunch of folks. We might want to think about following the example if we ever expect to Restore the Republic.


parabarbarian said...

I don't mind a little sermonizing. Humor can be hard to find on a battlefield.

"One man's theology is another man's belly laugh"
(Robert Heinlein -- Notebooks of Lazarus Long)

Anonymous said...

The first document to depart from that (in the West) was the Constitution of Rhode Island...--Cory

Roger Williams is responsible for this secularizing development. He would argue thusly against Opitz:

[T]he state of the Land of Israel, the kings and people thereof in peace and war, is proved figurative and ceremonial, and no pattern nor president [sic] for any kingdom or civil state in the world to follow.

William's argument was meant as a defense to freedom of conscience. He never explains what men must do when the magistrate violates conscience, so we must conclude that he intends for men to suffer such evil without rebelling.

If Williams had offered a theology of resistance, he would have more credibility with me.


RegT said...

I'm with rexxhead on this. Morality is the basis of Judeo-Christian values, as well as some other belief systems, (with the possible exception of islam) but you needn't be religious to be moral. I've known many religious people who were not moral in their behavior, especially toward others.

Reason is also important, for I don't believe it is possible to apply moral values to life, perhaps even to judge what is truly moral, without reason. Reason, for example, shows us how impoverished of morality the "religion of peace" really is, no matter that the muslims believe they are moral by their own lights. Just as reason allows us to see how impoverished of honesty and morality most liberals are.

But I would willingly share a foxhole with Mike and listen to his sermonizing, for what I have read of his words leads me to believe he is a moral man, reasonable and considerate of others, and definitely a champion of freedom.

I was selfishly hoping the center would hold long enough for me to complete my journey here without having to take to a foxhole, but I'm coming to the conclusion that my hope is forlorn. Well, as an older man who has spent time and disposable income on a moderate collection of "muskets, balls, and powder", I've got the tools. I just hope I have enough talent left.