The Wondrous J. Gresham Machen: Reformed Libertarian before there was such a thing

I was reminded of a passage in J. Gresham Machen’s book The Christian View of Man the other day that I had read years ago.  It was the passage which, in my mind, established Reformed Libertarianism before I had really considered every aspect of what it means to be a Reformed Libertarian.  I can hardly believe that I have never cited it on this site.  I am not the first individual to call Machen a Christian Libertarian, although he was perhaps not as consistent, or Rothbardian, as we attempt to be.  In this article, I want to walk through the excerpt of his book and discuss some of the implications of his statements, especially in light of previous arguments that have been made on this site.  I will quote and then comment.  The excerpts are from chapter sixteen of his book, entitled “The Majesty of the Law of God.”  The context in which the following paragraphs appear is the discussion of the loss of freedom in the Western world and the questions pertaining to what should be done about it.


Starting on page 191, Machen writes:

Well, what shall be done about it?  Many people not Christians at all agree with us in holding that something ought to be done.  Even materialists and atheist can see that.  Something obviously has to be done even to keep the animal, man [Machen is referring the materialists understanding of man here –CJE], in some kind of healthy condition upon the earth –to prevent him from destroying himself, for example, by another world war.

So all sorts of things are being proposed to check the ravages of crime.  One proposes that we shall all be finger-printed and be treated like paroled criminals required to show identification as we walk the streets, whenever required to do so according to the whims of the police, –no longer allowed to go about our business unhindered until there is some sort of legitimate suspicion that we are guilty of crime.  Another proposes that teachers even in private schools and Christian schools shall be regarded as government officials, being required to take an oath of allegiance as is done in Hitlerized Germany.  A thousand nostrums are being brought to our attention, different in many particulars but all alike in being destructive of that civil and religious liberty which our fathers won at such a cost.

Let’s stop there for a moment.  We may not have finger-printing being proposed, but we do have something far worse.  Orwellian spying mechanisms and international intelligence gathering, mostly done by the United States and its various agencies.  All too many fear that the authoritarianism is just around the corner.  They fear that America’s days of liberty are numbered.  But they do not understand.  We would be wise to understand the words of Garet Garrett, writing in 1938, which was just one year after Machen’s above statement.  Garrett wrote of the so-called authoritarian revolution that everyone in his day worried was soon to take place in the American government:

There are those who still think they are holding the pass against a revolution that may be coming up the road. But they are gazing in the wrong direction. The revolution is behind them. It went by in the Night of Depression, singing songs to freedom.

That is to say, Christians who value freedom as Machen certainly and heroically did, must realize that the Federal Government itself, the object of much idolatrous affection, is not the proper tool to prevent the loss of freedom in the modern age.  Indeed, all sorts of things, as Machen notes, are being proposed to improve nations.  And yet, the proposals do nothing except grow the state, which is the enemy of liberty!  And how many Christians do not think twice about endorsing all kinds of centrally mandated identification cards and the like?  The god of the land seeks to know its people.  My dear brothers and sisters, who is your god?

Machen’s final sentence staggeringly apropos!  The proposals and solutions and plans coming from all sectors of the society, especially those sectors related to the Federal Government, have one thing on common: they aim to remove more and more liberties.  It is cliche these days to say that the plans coming from the Republicans and the Democrats are awful.  But it must be said that they are awful, precisely because they cannot be anything but awful!  The corruption that exists in the largest government in the world is so profound and integrated that it is a downright necessity that rottenness should exude from the rotten core.

If one has trouble seeing past the two political parties these days, consider that Machen wrote in 1937.  And the moral status of America has certainly not improved.

Machen continues:

Such measures will never accomplish even the end that they have in view.  Patriotism can never be implanted in people’s hearts by force.  The attempt to do that serves only to crush out patriotism when it is already there.

And yet, every step that the Federal Government, or any government, takes on its inevitable end of domination and complete control, is done by force.  Like a jealous god, the Federal State yearns for our praise, for the attention of our hearts.  And beware the State when you do not give it the worship for which it longs.


The march of communism or other forms of slavery [in our day, we ought primarily be aware of Fascism –CJE] can never be checked by suppression of freedom of speech.  Such suppression serves only to render more dangerous the progress of the destructive ideas.

In other words, once we lose the freedom of speech, we lose the ability to speak out against evil ideas and doctrines.  Has not the rise of the legal classification of “hate speech” proven this beyond a doubt?  We are told that we must keep quiet, on threat of lawsuits, lest we offend those around us.  And yet, the Gospel itself is an offense to the unsaved and the self-conceited.


What then is the remedy for the threatened disruption of society and for the rapidly progressing decay of liberty?

There is really only one remedy.  It is the rediscovery of the law of God.

The reader must pay close attention to Machen’s following statement and my succeeding comments, so as not to misinterpret them.  For this is perhaps the most important aspect of Reformed Libertarianism, and even has implications for our interpretations of secular philosophers like Murray Rothbard. Underlines are added for emphasis.

If we want to restore respect for human laws, we shall have to get rid of this notion that judges and juries exist only for the utilitarian purpose of the protection of society, and shall have to restore the notion that they exist for the purposes of justice.  They are only very imperfect exponents of justice, it is true.  There are vase departments of life with which they should have nothing whatever to do.  They are exceeding their God-given function when they seek to enforce inward purity or purity of the individual life, since theirs is the business only of enforcing –and that in necessarily imperfect fashion — that part of righteousness which concerns the relations between man and man.

Let’s break down this vital paragraph.  I pray for clarity here.  To start, criminal activity is first a breach of God’s moral law, and only secondarily a breach of legislation.  Murdering another human being is not immoral because the government says so, but rather, because God says so.  Law and order on earth then, can only be achieved if the masses respect the law of God.  Since man is evil and will thus generally not respect the law of God, it follows that law and order will generally not be achieved on earth.  I hope this argument is clear enough.  The fact that humans despise the law of God is the source of social calamity and ethical chaos.  And, to be honest, it is the people working at the highest levels of world governments who have breached the law of God to the greatest degree, whether we are speaking of lying, murdering, or stealing.  Legal plunder is man-centered, and is certainly an abomination to God and His perfect moral law.

Secondly, Machen’s statement that judges and juries do not exist for utilitarian purposes such as society’s protection is so wonderfully consistent with Rothbardian theory that it is truly a delight to read!  Oh, that Christians would refrain from looking to the State for protection and security!

This might seem an odd concept to the libertarian not familiar with such nuances.  Earlier this year, I edited and republished my own post entitled “A Christian Perspective on Murray Rothbard’s ‘Why Be Libertarian?'”.  Rothbard’s answer to the question posed was this: justice.  Libertarianism, according to Rothbard, is most importantly not about social benefits, although those are certainly produced by freedom, but rather about justice.  Such is the motivation for the libertarian.  In my article which gave my perspective, I noted that only the Christian, who is certainly happy that Rothbard is focused on justice, can actually epistemologically justify the concept of justice itself.  Justice requires a law giver.  Rothbard is right to say that liberty must not be defended on utility, but the Christian can actually defend his position.  I recommend that you read the article for clarification on this point.

Now, what about “protection of society?”  In a strict Rothbardian libertarian world, protection from criminals is distinguished from punishment of those criminals.  There might be disagreement among libertarians about whether the government should protect and punish, or only focus on punishment. But it is important to note that protection is indeed a different function in society than criminal punishment.  My point is this: while I may disagree with some on the role of protection services (I think that protection, security, and police should be provided voluntarily on the free market), I do think that the role of government (even if the government itself is a free market or voluntary firm [that is, not a State properly defined] as Murray Rothbard wanted) was intended by God to enact punishment on the criminal and not necessarily to provide protection services.

Classical liberals (such as John Locke and Thomas Jefferson) always love to note that government exists to “secure” (Locke used “preserve”) the rights to “life, liberty and property.”  But it is my even more libertarian view that we should think of this role as “punishing” those who breach others’ rights to life, liberty, and property.  The “authority to punish” a criminal comes from God for, in the words of Machen, this is the “God-given function.”  But the laws which they are enforcing, again in the words of Machen, and entirely consistent with the libertarian Non-Aggression Principle, is “that part of righteousness which concerns the relations between man and man.” Not man and God, for God will take care of these sins.

And as Murray Rothbard once noted:

For it should never be forgotten that a libertarian society does not mean the total absence of coercion but only the absence of coercion against noncriminals. Those who invade the rights of others by violence deserve their proper check and punishment by the force of law.

Machen continues in full-fledged proto “Reformed Libertarian” spirit:

Society will never be preserved by attaching savage penalties to trifling offenses because the utilitarian interests of society demand it;  it will never be preserved by the vicious practice (followed by some judges) of making ‘examples’ of people in spasmodic and unjust fashion because such examples are thought to have a salutary effect as a deterrent from future crime.


Ah, but all that does not touch the really important matter.  Underlying all these considerations of nations and of society is the great question of the relation of the soul to God.  Unless men are right with God, they will never be right in their relations with one another.

The problem today is not that men are too free, which assumes that the State needs to be expanded to protect mankind from their actions in the market or in society.  The problem is not that the State needs to be more efficient at what it does and needs to bring the multitudes in line with its own legislated standards.  No, society can never be fixed by the State.

Mankind lacks respect of God’s law.  Humanity needs to repent and turn from their sin.  And until that happens, the State, which is the false god of the ages, will continue to expand and take over every area of our lives.  The almighty State, to take an Augustinian concept, is both the punishment, and the result, of our sinful souls.


Update: Also see Mark Nenadov on Machen here.

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