Property Rights and Religious Liberty

Larry P. Arnn
President, Hillsdale College

Larry P. ArnnLARRY P. ARNN is the twelfth president of Hillsdale College. He received his B.A. from Arkansas State University and his M.A. and Ph.D. in government from the Claremont Graduate School. From 1977 to 1980, he also studied at the London School of Economics and at Worcester College, Oxford University, where he served as director of research for Martin Gilbert, the official biographer of Winston Churchill. From 1985 until his appointment as president of Hillsdale College in 2000, he was president of the Claremont Institute for the Study of Statesmanship and Political Philosophy. He is the author of Liberty and Learning: The Evolution of American EducationThe Founders’ Key: The Divine and Natural Connection Between the Declaration and the Constitution; and Churchill’s Trial: Winston Churchill and the Salvation of Free Government .

The following is adapted from a speech delivered on October 16, 2015, in Omaha, Nebraska, at a Free Market Forum sponsored by Hillsdale College’s Center for the Study of Monetary Systems and Free Enterprise.

Many Christians, while they cherish religious liberty, seem to believe that property rights, and the commerce that arises from the establishment of property rights, are somehow un-Christian. At the same time, a lot of free marketers seem to think that all we need are property rights and the rest will take care of itself. Neither of these views is correct, and I will explain why with reference to both James Madison and Winston Churchill.

Pope Francis is one who sometimes seems to be an example of the Christian who reads the New Testament as pointing in the direction of socialism. Commerce appears, in some of his writings and speeches, to be a grubby business purely based on self-interest—maybe even on exploitation, the opposite of charity. This reading of the New Testament—which I think flawed, by the way—is why Karl Marx, although he was famously an atheist and militantly opposed to Christianity, praised Christianity in one respect: that it declaimed against private property in the name of an otherworldly denial of self.

In writing my book on Winston Churchill, I spent a number of months reading about the founding of the Labour Party in Britain—Churchill detested the Labour Party from the beginning, so I was interested in its origin—and I found that Christians cooperated in its founding, and thus in the founding of British socialism. There were two strains of Christianity involved, one of them sounder than the other I think. The first was a strain that took its inspiration from Jesus’s insistence that we take care of the poor. The second strain—one that is much less sound in exegetical terms—held that since Jesus came down to earth, our task as Christians is to build a heaven on earth. Lots of Quakers in particular seem to have thought that. Although many socialists were atheists, many Christians took up with them for either or both of these reasons.

Today in America we can see as well that at the heart of the leftward movement in our government is a claim against property. The claim goes this way: the divisions among us are as deep as they are because of economic inequality, and if we do not address that inequality today, it will worsen tomorrow. Many well-meaning Christians think this way.

On the other side, recognizing that property is at the heart of the political argument we are having these days, are those who say that all that is needed is to protect property rights. Get money right and get property right, these people think, and leave it at that—leave morality and religion out of the political equation. But that way of thinking too is foolish.

The most formidable enemies of property rights are formidable precisely because they know better than to separate the issue of property rights from the issue of other freedoms, including freedom of conscience and religious liberty. They know better because they see that human beings are an odd integrity of soul and body. Marx is clear-sighted about this. He understands that if you like the way the human being is organized—if you like this integrity—then you are going to have to protect it all. And if you do not like it, you are going to have to uproot it all. Thus he makes clear in the Communist Manifesto that overthrowing the age-old institution of property will involve as well “the most radical rupture with traditional ideas.” If private property is going to be abolished, everything will have to be abolished. Marriage and religion are two prominent examples in Marx’s writings.

Several decades later, in the Fabian Essays in Socialism that led to the founding of the British Labour Party, George Bernard Shaw and others tried to downplay that side of Marxism. They claimed that they intended only to destroy property rights—that socialism is not about getting rid of the family or religion. But they were not entirely convincing. Shaw, for instance, wrote that “a married woman is a female slave chained to a male one; and a girl is a prisoner in the house and in the hands of her parents.” Graham Wallas, another leading Fabian and co-founder of the London School of Economics, argued that it is inefficient for families to eat their meals separately in their houses, and lamented that it would be a long time “before we cease to feel that an Englishman’s home [is] his castle, with free entrance and free egress alike forbidden.” Clearly, then, the Fabians’ ideal society involved more than the redistribution of wealth.

There are obvious parallels in our own time and country. In 2008, President Obama campaigned on the idea that we should “spread the wealth around,” and had little to say about the family and religious liberty. But money is not all that he and his allies are interested in, is it? The President has altered his position about the nature of marriage, and now the enforcement of a new understanding of gender identity is pressed upon us through powerful means, both legal and social. We at Hillsdale College, servants of an old mission that requires promotion of the Christian faith, wonder if it will remain legal for us to separate our student body into dormitories for men and women. Will we be compelled to join the swelling chorus that denies any connection between nature and sex, and that conjures up countless new so-called genders and writes protections for these so-called genders into law? Did you follow the recent campaign over the measure that sought to do this in Houston? Are you following the case of the Little Sisters of the Poor versus Obamacare? It is not inconceivable that what we teach at Hillsdale College, and what we have taught for over 170 years, might someday soon be declared illegal. So it is not just a fight about property, is it?