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Life of a Law Student, University of Houston Law Center

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Griffin on the Libertarian Religion of Ron Paul

Professor Leslie Griffin, who teaches a well-regarded course in Law and Religion at the University of Houston Law Center, for which she has recently published an excellent Law and Religion casebook, takes Presidential hopeful Ron Paul to task in a recent blog post for his Libertarian Religion.

The bases for Paul’s policy stances appear various and complex. Paul should be subject to liberal criticism if he bases his votes about prayer, abortion, marriage and other topics on biblical or Christian principles. Religion is not the appropriate basis for government in this democracy, which should be based on shared constitutional principles. What should liberals make of Paul’s libertarian commitments, which have connected him to a “network of true believers” in market-oriented policies? Are such principles more politically appropriate because they are secular and economic, not religious?

No. Political liberals expect politicians to bracket their religious and philosophical commitments and to govern according to political and constitutional principles. Christians justifiably complain of discrimination when they are asked to ignore their deepest convictions while non-religious politicians pursue their secular moral ideals. When setting public policy, Paul should be a constitutionalist first, not a Christian or a libertarian.

I’m not sure how Libertarianism can be called a religion in this instance and is still distinguishable from any other strongly held belief, but when you’re a hammer all the world’s a nail, so let’s accept it for the sake of argument. My first question would be – what are these shared constitutional principles we speak of? Separation of powers? Limited Government? In our era of 5-4 decisions I’m not sure there’s enough common ground beyond these basic tenets to reach the question of Constitutionally acceptable economic policy.

Professor Griffin goes on to quote Justice Holmes’ Lochner dissent in noting that “a Constitution is not intended to embody a particular economic theory,” but Holmes was arguing for the Court to give substantial deference to the collective wisdom of the legislature to embark on any half-baked economic scheme it saw fit to enact as a democratically elected legislative body. Paul hasn’t been nominated to any Court, he’s running for office and part of the strange beauty of democracy is that we can elect any damn fool we’d like. If Paul is on the other side of that deference, and surely he is as a legislator, then his libertarian ‘religion’ is an entirely appropriate basis for his votes in Congress, and the Court is bound to uphold it even if the only rational basis for his particular vote was that Jesus Christ and Milton Friedman appeared to him in a dream and explained the danger the post office monopoly posed to our general welfare.

As to whom we should vote for, would we prefer that Paul cloak his libertarian and religious views behind the shroud of shared constitutional principles, whatever we take that to mean? The Constitution is a remarkably short document and there’s a lot it leaves out. Are we to return, Thomas-like, to the original agrarian economy envisioned by our founders? Are we to accept the socialized-capitalism of our New Deal inheritance as our text as revealed by St. Roosevelt? When our next President must make a difficult choice and allocate our limited resources to what she or he believes to be it’s highest and best use, to what Article or Amendment are they to turn? In this respect the Constitution is like a shoe in that it protects and aids us on our journey, but it cannot be made to walk on its own.

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