Minister to Liberty

Minister to Liberty

Edmund Opitz showed that capitalism and Christianity are not enemies.

Norman Horn

If a patron saint for the libertarian movement were to be chosen, at the top of the list would be Rev. Edmund A. Opitz, minister and theologian for liberty. He was a good friend of Murray Rothbard and many others in the freedom movement—he was present from the beginning and knew almost everyone. From the 1950s through the 1990s, Opitz called the church to an integrated understanding of religion, economics, and individual liberty. He passed away in 2006, creating a void yet to be filled but leaving this world much better than he had found it.

Opitz trained for Christian ministry at Andover Seminary and initially ministered in the Unitarian Church. But during his early years of ministry Unitarianism became more and more influenced by liberal Protestantism and the social gospel, whereas Opitz consistently grew more theologically conservative. He eventually left the Unitarian Church for the Congregationalist denomination and continued to promote conservative values and a thoroughly free market outlook upon social life.

Religion, Opitz would say, is far more than an academic exercise in one subject among many others; rather it is the fundamental way one approaches, understands, and evaluates all subjects. One’s religion, or worldview, makes all the difference in how one interacts with the world. Opitz’s Christian faith led him to the realization that liberty was the only reasonable organizing principle for society. Liberty and faith are not merely compatible – they are inseparable. “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 … . Each person has a relation to his Maker with which no other person, not even the ruler, has any right to interfere.” Reciprocally, Opitz believed a philosophy of liberty presupposed a background of Christian philosophy. Whether or not one accepts this notion, certainly Western civilization is indebted to Christendom for the understanding that natural law provides an absolute rather than relative standard—that there is something higher than the whims of men.

Opitz understood this philosophy of liberty as the true meaning of individualism. He repeatedly emphasized the importance of individual liberty in religious conviction: “Men must be free in society because each person has a destiny beyond society which he can work out only under the conditions of liberty.” The concept of individualism is often lost in the modern church. One frequently hears in religious circles that “individualism has no place in the life of the church,” but this constitutes a misunderstanding of the word itself. At its core, individualism means the individual is responsible for his own actions, in particular before God, and thus individual liberty is necessary for living out the dictates of conscience. Opitz would agree that one cannot be in Christ (Galatians 3:28) without the body of Christ—the church—but many Christians take this much too far and find themselves promoting collectivism rather than community. Individualism is not social atomism: “We have no inclination to be hermits; we are social creatures, and we achieve our full humanity only in association, in mutuality, and in community.” Voluntary action is the very essence of community, and thus the collectivist is actually acting against the spirit of community he seeks to promote.

The natural outgrowth of holding a consistent philosophy of political liberty is supporting a free market economy. Opitz understood that the free market was absolutely essential to maintaining a free society. “Economic freedom is to be cherished for itself, just as we cherish every one of our liberties. But economic freedom is doubly important because it sustains all the rest [of our liberties] … . Economic freedom represents our livelihood, and whoever controls our livelihood has acquired critical leverage over every other aspect of our lives as well.” In this insight, Opitz recognized that Christianity, which mandates a free society where individuals can peacefully fulfill their responsibilities before God, and capitalism, which supports and maintains the free society, are not enemies in the least. Rather, they are critical allies,  the best of friends. Opitz elaborates upon this topic at length in his appropriately titled book, Religion and Capitalism: Allies, Not Enemies.

But how can individual freedom be protected from tyranny? The solution, according to Opitz, lies in returning to classical-liberal political ideals. “There is a place for government in the affairs of men, and our Declaration of Independence tells us precisely what that place is. The role of government is to protect individuals in their God-given individual rights. Freedom is the natural birthright of man, but all that government can do in behalf of freedom is to let the individual alone, and it should secure him in his rights by making others let him alone.” Thus, if government is to have any purpose at all, it is only to secure the rights of individuals in their persons and property. Anything else is nothing short of criminal, for the standard of morality does not change when one dons a government uniform. Opitz saw the American governmental system as a unique solution in the history of man that had yet to be matched. To him, minimal government was the best way to restrain tyranny.

With these principles in mind, it is no surprise that Opitz was patently opposed to the so-called “social gospel” that was popular in the church for much of the 20th century. The central tenet of the social gospel was that the chief function of the church was to provide for the physical needs of the destitute by all possible means. Though charity is indeed a great part of the Christian way of life, social-gospel activists in effect renounced charity and condoned the use of force to achieve their meta-goals of social and economic equality through government programs and wealth transfer. Opitz’s keen outlook history and philosophy led him to write scathing critiques of the actions of social-gospel proponents, and in many respects he single-handedly turned much of the tide against this deviant theological point of view. (See his book The Libertarian Theology of Freedom for an excellent history of the social gospel.)

Opitz’s strong belief in freedom was coupled with action. Early in his career, he helped form and manage a group called Spiritual Mobilization, which disseminated newsletters promoting free-market ideas to over 20,000 ministers nationwide. Following the dissolution of Spiritual Mobilization, Opitz joined the Foundation for Economic Education (FEE) as a senior staff member (and resident theologian). While at FEE, he founded the Nockian Society, which helped keep Albert Jay Nock’s writings in print, and “the Remnant,” a small fellowship of conservative and libertarian ministers named after the theme of Nock’s essay “Isaiah’s Job.” He spent 37 years at FEE, retiring in 1992.

He made a great impact upon the libertarian movement through his writing. The paper trail of his thoughts is voluminous. While a part of Spiritual Mobilization, Opitz was a frequent contributor to the magazine Faith and Freedom. He left an indelible mark upon FEE’s publication, The Freeman, with his numerous book reviews and articles. Religion and Capitalism is considered a classic text in both economics and theology. His manner of writing matched his manner of person—gentlemanly, persuasive, and humble—worthy traits that all libertarians should emulate.

Opitz could see the ramifications of the war of ideas that has been fought for centuries between liberty and tyranny. He saw the trajectories of the prominent ideas of his day—social gospel, collectivism, socialistic economic policy—and he used his abilities to promote what was good and right. “With how little wisdom do we organize our lives, especially in the areas of government and the economy. We’ve been going by dead reckoning for too long, and our dumb luck has just about run out,” he wrote in the August 1992 Freeman. Libertarian Christians should remember that Opitz helped pave the way for us to make a difference. Let us honor his legacy by telling Christians in America the answer to the problems society faces is not the State, but rather liberty and faith.

 

Norman Horn is a graduate research assistant in the Department of Chemical Engineering at the University of Texas at Austin.