Widget Image
HomeFeaturedWhy don’t Libertarians care about the establishment of religion?

Why don’t Libertarians care about the establishment of religion?


I write both on libertarianism and issues surrounding the proper role of religion in politics. The issues don’t overlap all that much, in large part because there really is no libertarian theory about religion in politics, at least nothing as sophisticated as what we get from religious conservatives and secular liberals. One reason for this is that libertarians are skeptical about the value of politics, if not outright hostile to it (the same goes for religion in many cases), and so do not think the role of religion in politics is particularly important beyond attempts to use religion to coerce. In fact, libertarians tend to analyze religion and politics issues merely in terms of who initiates coercion. If religious people initiate coercion, then that’s bad. If religious people wish to not be coerced, and other people coerce them, that’s bad too.

This makes the libertarian position on the free exercise of religion clear enough – there’s to be lots and lots of free exercise given how little authority the state has to restrict it, if the state has any authority at all. I’ve said a lot about liberty and free exercise on this blog, however. In this post, I’d like to overview the puzzling lack of attention libertarians pay to issues surrounding the establishment of religion.

Consider the recent Town of Greece ruling, where the Supreme Court permitted a town board meeting to continue opening its sessions with religious prayers, most often explicitly Christian in nature, so long as other religions can open other sessions with prayers of their own. Libertarians passed over this ruling in silence, despite the fact that it’s getting a lot of attention in other academic and political circles, left and right. Now, why is this? Consider a few theories:

(1) Establishment Squabbles are Symbolic: insofar as establishment squabbles don’t involve coercion, the libertarian might argue, they’re really just expressions of arbitrary preferences and signaling group loyalty.

(2) Establishment Squabbles Makes Politics Too Important: the only reason that liberals and conservatives care about establishing or disestablishing religion is because they’re statists and so think it matters what the state talks about and endorses. But, the state does not have that kind of importance, so whether the state establishes religion or not just doesn’t matter that much.

(3) Establishment Squabbles Have Nothing to Do With Property Rights: really all that matters politically is that property rights are respected and that no one aggresses against them. So who cares whether a town meeting should open with prayer? Property rights aren’t at stake.

These thoughts are all related – libertarians just don’t care about the stuff that incites establishment fights. Conservatives often think that governmental institutions should acknowledge God’s authority, or at least not repress a public place for religion, whereas liberals often think that governmental institutions should be neutral between different religious views, and so either be aggressively or modestly secular or at least prevent Christian hegemony. Libertarians don’t think government should do much of anything, so what’s to fight about?

This approach is fine for some issues. Consider the following questions:

(i) Should we have “In God We Trust” on coins? Liberals: probably not. Conservatives: definitely yes. Libertarians: screw government money.

(ii) Should we say “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance? Liberals: probably not. Conservatives: definitely yes. Libertarians: screw the pledge.

(iii) Should Congress open its sessions with prayer? Liberals: probably not. Conservatives: definitely yes. Libertarians: screw the Congress.

But consider some harder questions. I’m guessing at the libertarian answer:

(i) Do school vouchers count as establishing religion if vouchers go primarily to religious schools? Liberals: probably yes. Conservatives: definitely not. Libertarians: probably not.

(ii) Given that we have a welfare state, should the government give money to private religious organizations to provide social services? Liberals: definitely not. Conservatives: definitely yes. Libertarians: probably not.

(iii) Should local public schools have the right to teach intelligent design alongside evolution? Liberals: definitely not. Conservatives: definitely yes. Libertarians: definitely not.

(iv) Do students have the right to talk about their faith in their graduation speeches? Liberals: probably not. Conservatives: definitely yes. Libertarians: definitely yes.

These are more important issues. And I think I’ve characterized libertarian attitudes properly. But are there consistent libertarian principles underlying these judgments? I’m not sure. My surmise is that (i) is driven by support for vouchers, (ii) is driven by hostility to the welfare state, (iii) is driven by hostility to intelligent design, and (iv) is driven by hardcore free speech. Libertarian doctrine alone doesn’t seem to give us an answer. And that’s interesting.

So should libertarians care about establishment clause issues? I think they should for two reasons: (1) given what I’ve said above, and that we live in a sub-optimal world, libertarians should ask which sorts of establishment/non-establishment arrangements tend to promote, realize or frustrate the values they celebrate and (2) discourse and symbol matter a great deal, and by not caring about such things, libertarians marginalize themselves and forget what drives a lot of people.

I won’t outline a view here, but I thought it worth discussing.

The article first appeared on Bleeding Heart Libertarian.


The Indian Economist has rebranded to Qrius. We’ll continue publishing authoritative commentary and analysis on issues you care about. Qrius is run by the same team as The Indian Economist, and continues hosting the talented contributors, writers & partners that produce the content you love. We look forward to your support.