The Bible is a Liberal Document
By Alec Rawls © 1999. (1700 words) Originally published in The Stanford Review 12/?/99.

The essence of genuine liberalism is limited government, a principle that is widely embraced by American conservatives today, as well it should be, for what greater is there to conserve in the land of liberty than liberty. The opposite of conservatism is not liberalism but illiberalism and the political opponents of conservatism, the proponents of unlimited government, are not liberal, they are illiberal. Accepting this use of commonly misused terms, it should not be too jarring for conservatives to hear me call the Bible a liberal document.

Still, the claim is a little hard to swallow at first. Consider the following barbaric law, supposedly given directly to Moses from God: "When a man strikes his slave, male or female, with a rod and the slave dies under his hand, he shall be punished. But if the slave survives a day or two, he is not to be punished; for the slave is his money." [Exodus, 21:20.] How can the tolerance of slavery, never mind the killing of slaves, be considered liberal when slavery is the annihilation of liberty?

Granted then, the Bible is not a thoroughly liberal document, but only because it was not a thoroughly revolutionary document. Slavery was a universal institution at the time of Moses. Other civilizing steps had to be taken before fundamental institutions could change.

If we look past the tolerance for slavery, we see that the law about killing slaves actually asserts the basic liberal principle: that government (the law) should stay out of those areas where people have private incentive to behave responsibly. "[F]or the slave is his money." This is the fundamental principle of limited government. What can be left to liberty should be left to liberty. Government should only intervene where necessary.

Another place where the Bible is liberal, and this will jar some conservatives, is on the matter of abortion, or more specifically, the status of life in womb.

Very often there is life on both sides of an abortion decision. Bearing a child now means forgoing the plans one had for children in the future, or falling short of fulfilling parental obligations to the children one already has, and in general government is less well equipped to make these life vs. life decisions than parents are.

The willingness of others to adopt an unwanted child changes this calculus considerably, leaving the life of the unborn child in possible conflict only with the liberty interests of the woman for the duration of her pregnancy, but others are not always willing to adopt. Absent religious conviction that the life of the unborn must be treated on a par with life of a born child, there is no sound basis for arguing that the state's interest in the life of the fetus dominates the other life and liberty interests that may be at stake. Anti-abortion absolutism depends on a religious conviction that abortion is murder.

Here the Bible is absolutely clear: killing a fetus is not to be considered on a par with injury to a born person: "When men strive together, and hurt a woman with child, so that there is a miscarriage, and yet no harm follows [to the woman], the one who hurt her shall be fined, according as the woman's husband shall lay upon him; and he shall pay as the judges determine. If any harm follows, then you shall give life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe." [Exodus 21:22.]

Permanent injury to a woman is punished harm for harm, but the life of a fetus incurs only a fine, set by the father. Again the Bible manifests the fundamental liberal principle: decisions should be left to those who have private incentive to account the value at stake, not handed over to government. None are better able to account the life of an unborn child than the father (today we would include the mother) and so it is the father who should judge the value at stake.

I would revise this ordinance. If a child is wanted then any conflict between the life of the unborn child and other life and liberty interests is set aside. The decision has been made to nurture this life and hence there is no reason to withhold from it the same protections that are afforded for a born life. If in attacking a man a person kills the man's child instead, either born or unborn, then unless the attack was in self-defense the killing should be considered a murder, and punished by death.

But the Bible offers no such articulation. It simply asserts that the lives of the unborn are not to be weighed on a par with the lives of the born. Those who embrace the Bible would seem to commit themselves to erring, if err they must, on the side that the Bible errs on, undervaluing the life of the unborn. Certainly, they should get right what the bible gets right: those decisions that people have private incentive to manage prudently for themselves should be left to liberty.

Liberty is the great engine of good in the world, allowing people to pursue their discoveries of value, creating progress and prosperity. Liberty powered the rise of modernity. It is the essence of the American experiment and it is a pillar of the Bible. Liberalism is a central legacy that all conservatives, secular and religious, should conserve.

At present religious conservatives are one of the most genuinely liberal segments of society, opposing unlimited government in almost every instance, and it is easy to see why. Unlimited government (powered by the vast number of illiberals who call themselves "liberal") takes over more and more of what should be private life and, under the guise of separation of church and state, systematically extirpates all religion from it. Two glaring examples are the socialization of charity (the welfare state) and our nation's socialist monopoly on education (where the merest trace of religious teaching is strictly verboten). Religious conservatives have met the enemy and it is government.

The one weak link in the limited government bonafides of religious conservatives is their tendency to be illiberal on on abortion, embracing a priority for the life of the unborn that is rejected by the Bible and placing it ahead of the Bible's own priority for private prudence over government authority. I'm not saying that this illiberalism is worse than the immoralities of the pro-choice side, which militantly opposes encouraging pregnant girls to have their babies and give them up for adoption. Their motto "every child a wanted child" is a call for abortion whenever a pregnant girl does not want her baby, completely ignoring the fact that adopted children are wanted.

On abortion, there is enough moral error to go around, but that should not make pro-lifers complacent about their share of it, because abortion is just the tip of an iceberg. The coming decades will see a bio-technology revolution with proliferating opportunities to spare children from genetic disease, to arm their immune systems against external threats, to strengthen their hearts and heighten their faculties.

The liberalism of America and the Bible demand that the decisions about what is in the interest of children be left to the parents who care for them, not placed under the authority of democratically empowered communists who want to choose for everybody. Yet pro-life activists, extracting from their anti-abortion convictions a principle of non-interference with natural processes, are already in the forefront of opposition to the use of genetic technologies to screen out disease. What these religious conservatives know to despise about communism in the education of children--that supplanting parental choice with government dictate is an abomination--they are determined to impose on the conception of children.

It is horrendous enough to have the government decide how all children will be taught. Under a system of parental choice, experiments like teaching children to guess at words rather than sound out the letters would only be tried by a few confused parents and teachers and would quickly be abandoned when children failed to learn to read. Only what worked best could ever become pervasive, yet the public school commissars are still trying to impose word guessing and no-right-answer math on everyone else's children.

Imagine if the same collectivist evil were to win authority over the coming genetic technologies, choosing for every parent what genetic options must be incorporated or eschewed in reproduction. Instead of a diversity of prudent experimentation in those areas where the benefits seem to outweigh the risks (revealing where the benefits really do outweigh the risks) we will get universally imposed uninformed choices. The only thing that ought to be off limits is experimentation where the risks clearly outweigh the benefits. That is (in accordance with the principle of limited government) government intervention must be necessary.

Of course the champions of unlimited government want no limits on government control of bio-technology. Thus the unholy alliance is there for the joining, and has already been joined, between religious conservatives who don't comprehend the Biblical principle of limited government and "liberals" who have no comprehension of liberalism.

I have long advocated that the way to reach illiberal "liberals" is by calling them illiberal. That gets their attention (whereas calling them liberal merely confirms their sense of propriety). By the same token, I believe the way to reach religious conservatives is also to simply use the correct label and call them liberal, pointing out that their positions on almost all issues are in fact definitively liberal and that the Bible is an explicitly liberal document which in several places clearly invokes the fundamental principle of limited government, including in reference to the unborn.

So what will it be Christians? Are you going to follow your Bible, or are you going to ally with the illiberal hoard that loves unlimited government and hates religion? I suggest you curl up with a good book and think about it.

(Alec Rawls is pursuing a Ph.D. in economics)


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