Libertarianism 10: Edmund Opitz and Christian Libertarianism

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Today I am transitioning from my focus on libertarianism to consider the narrower topic that I’ve been researching over the last year: Christian libertarianism.  Libertarian philosophy has gained a foothold in contemporary Christian circles.  The Libertarian Christian Institute today maintains a regular online presence, publishing a blog, an academic journal, and a regular podcast devoted to exploring the intersection of Christian faith and libertarian ideals. Libertarian rhetoric–appeals for limited government and criticisms of social policies and programs that infringe on liberty–resonates even among many Christians who do not identify as libertarian. As a Christian ethicist, I am interested in exploring this posture further.

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Over the last year I’ve been focusing on a single person, the Reverend Edmund Opitz (1914-2006).  Opitz is an obscure figure in the academic circles that I frequent, though more widely known among libertarians. A former Unitarian-turned-Congregationalist minister, Opitz served for almost 40 years as a staff member of the Foundation for Economic Education (FEE), a libertarian thinktank once based in Irvington-on-Hudson, New York, now based in Atlanta, GA. Prior to his work with FEE Opitz was the regional conference director of Spiritual Mobilization, a national Christian libertarian organization that in its heyday published a periodical that reached over 20,000 Christian ministers.  Over his career Opitz authored several books in which he sought to defend capitalism and libertarian ideals as the natural embodiment of Christian theological commitment. Opitz was unrelenting in challenging  rival, more mainstream visions of Christian social ethics that in his view embraced the false gods of socialism and the social welfare state:

In addition to his books Opitz authored numerous journal essays and book reviews in the Spiritual Mobilization periodical, Faith & Freedom, and in FEE’s institutional journal, The Freeman. During his career with FEE, Optiz founded The Remnant, a national fellowship of conservative and libertarian-minded ministers and church leaders as well as the Nockian Society, an organization devoted to the work of libertarian iconoclast Albert Jay Nock. It would not be inaccurate to call Opitz the father of American Christian libertarianism.

In my research over the last year I have  uncovered previously unpublished letters and papers of Opitz that paint a clearer picture of his attempt to challenge mainline Protestant Christianity in the 1950s and 1960s, calling prominent Christian theologians and church leaders to embrace free market capitalism and reject the collectivist impulses of the National Council of Churches. Opitz’s personal correspondence includes letters written to and from major figures in 20th century American Christianity, including Reinhold Niebuhr, John C. Bennett, John Courtney Murray, Liston Pope, Amos Wilder, John Howard Yoder, Daniel Day Williams, Robert Handy, James Luther Adams, and civil rights activist Ralph Roy. Opitz’s private correspondence reveal a man deeply committed to advancing libertarian ideas in Christian circles but ultimately struggling to gain a hearing among Christian leaders who came to see him as little more than a shill for Big Business.

Beyond his correspondence with Christian leaders, Opitz pursued more sympathetic exchanges with secular leaders in the libertarian movement. Opitz corresponded with libertarian luminaries like F.A. Hayek, Ludwig Von Mises, Leonard Read, and Murray Rothbard as well as other more mainstream conservative figures like William F. Buckley, Jr. While these exchanges with fellow libertarians were more generous than those he shared with church leaders, Opitz did not shy away from challenging weaknesses he perceived in the work of his libertarian allies. In my archival work I uncovered an unpublished paper written by Opitz to Mises in which Opitz critiques the implied vision of human nature in Mises’s work Human ActionNot having closely read Opitz’s paper as yet, the gist of Opitz’s argument seems to be that Mises’s theory assumes an overly narrow account of human motivation. In Opitz view, libertarianism needs some larger account of transcendent value, something that Christianity itself offers. This surprising discovery suggests that Opitz perceived himself as a Christian thinker well positioned to critique both mainstream Christian collectivism and secular libertarian theory, which in his view depends on the religious grounding that Christianity offers.

I’ll wrap up this short introduction to Opitz.  Over the next several blog posts I want to use Opitz’s work to unpack in more detail the Christian libertarian position that he defends.  I plan to put this position in conversation with the alternative, non-libertarian vision that he is critiquing in the 1950 and 1960s.  While some of my work here involves historical recovery of a theological conversation between Opitz and his adversaries, I’m doing this with an eye to the lesson that can be learned from these exchanges.  More to come!

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2 comments

  1. Very interesting work, Vic. I look forward to your comments over this correspondence.

    Just to be clear, are you assuming that the “something transcendent” to which libertarianism must appeal is Christianity, or did Opitz declare this explicitly? Fascinating either way.

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  2. Based on my reading, I think that Opitz believed Christianity offers a true account of the world as it is and an ideal basis from which to reach libertarian conclusions about social ethics. Undoubtedly Opitz is aware that there are nontheists who share his libertarian convictions. Reading between the lines, I take Opitz position to be something like that of the position of a Catholic natural law theorist who appreciates the overlap between his moral beliefs and those of the atheist but believes the atheist to be unable to account for the basis of these moral convictions. In his book _Religion and Capitalism: Allies, Not Enemies_ (R&C) there are moments wheb Opitz appears to be criticizing versions of libertarianism that discount the religious impulse basic to a libertarian account of human rights. “[T]he idea of equal rights for all men within society,” says Opitz, “implies convictions about the sacredness of persons, and the idea of the sacred implies some convictions about the relevance of the idea of God to the life of man” (94).

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