The three basic religions: Key to understanding and defeating tyranny? Some thoughts on Gary North
When I first stumbled upon libertarian thought and digested the essentials, I had two initial reactions: 1. Why had I not heard of this philosophy before and 2. Why, although it is so obviously the “right thing”, because it leads to the greatest possible peace, common wealth and happiness, does hardly anyone else embrace it? In short: What are people afraid of? I imagine this reaction is not untypical for budding libertarians. Leaving aside the first question, I found no satisfying answer to the last question until I was able to rephrase it into: Why do they cling to power – or to people who have power – as their hope of salvation?
I arrived at this question, and at the answer to it, with the help of the writings of “Christian Reconstructionist” and “Dominionist” Gary North. Or rather: some writings, because his output is huge. 50+ books so far and counting. 31 of which are a verse by verse economic exegesis of the Bible. Plus literally thousands of articles.
For some libertarians North is anathema, as he appears to be a proponent of some kind of Christian theocracy. However, as he largely agrees with the Austrian School of Economics, and is the only person who has ever thoroughly investigated the Bible from an economic point of view, coming to the conclusion that it is an “anti-socialist document”, I think he is someone worth listening to. At least he has done more than anyone else living or dead to pull the rug from under any Christian with socialist leanings and any socialist masquerading with Christian values. What’s more important however is that he may have found the key to the reason why liberty is failing around the world. Finding the key to a problem is just a step away from finding the solution. (That is not to say that unlocking – solving – the problem will be easy.)
Because North’s body of thought is so vast and deep, not to mention controversial, it’s difficult to know where to begin. North himself writes about his latest book, “The Covenantal Structure of Christian Economics”, published as a PDF last week: “It took me 54 years to come up with the structure. I was still working on this in the summer of 2014.” This book is to be “the penultimate stage in my calling”, he claims. He plans to follow it up with a multi-volume work on the actual content of Christian economics. In the meantime, anyone interested can delve into his 31-volume exegesis here.
Disclaimer: I’ve read a lot of North’s writings over the last 10 years or so. However, I don’t claim to be an expert on him. And I don’t agree with everything he writes. I’m not e.g. a biblical literalist. I believe that we are equipped to discover God-given laws, which some people prefer to call natural law, and that biblical “revealed” law is the result of thousands of years of trial and error in that regard. However, (and here I agree again with North) that does not mean that there is no Godly “covenant” which we ignore at our peril – individually and institutionally.
So, let me start with some Northian thinking which I consider to be very important and foundational. Julie Andrews had it right: “Let’s start at the very beginning”. That means here: Origin of the universe – creation or chance?
The answer to this question is not, as some libertarians might think, simply a private matter. You may be free to believe what you like, but it has consequences. This is hugely important: what we believe shapes everything else we do, think, strive for, plan and avoid. Thus it contributes to the shape of the society we live in. Another important aspect of this question (creation or chance?) is: whatever answer you think is the right one, there is no way to prove it. We are part of the universe, we were not there at the beginning. We were certainly not there “before” the beginning. In fact, there is no “before”. So the universe could either be the result of a chance fluctuation of vacuum (or some such thing), or it could be the result of conscious creation. (North is a six day, young earth creationist. I don’t think that the details of the creation are important – crucial is the belief in creation as a conscious act – or chance.) Whichever of these two mutually exclusive statements you believe, both of them are just that: a statement of faith.
Secondly, according to North, “there is no neutrality”. Everyone has a religion. In other words: there is no such thing as a separation of church and state. The only relevant question in this regard is: which “church”, i.e. religion, do the state’s representatives and other inhabitants adhere to? Everyone bases their thoughts, words and actions ultimately on their faith: chance or creation. If they believe in chance, then the ultimate authority is autonomous man and his reason. Whoever is the strongest has the power and freedom to shape the chaotic world as he thinks it should look like. All others have to follow him. He sets the rules, he enforces them. He adheres to them if it suits him. If not, not. He does not believe there are any consequences for him if he doesn’t. This is the essence of what North calls “power religion”. The question: “How do we decide who is on top?” is only secondary to the decision to follow that faith.
The attempt to avoid power religion by declaring autonomous man “free”, but still autonomous (methodological individualism) fails. Methodological individualism aims at efficiency, but morality somehow always trumps efficiency. North points to Rothbard, who “undermined his 1956 defense of the free market by means of value-free economics” when the latter “adopted Helmut Schoeck’s position on envy as a major social factor”. North: “If envy is immoral, as Rothbard believed in 1971, and if envy is a major factor in the political success of socialism, as Schoeck argued and Rothbard also believed, then what happens to social utility? In asserting a value-free defense of exchange as increasing the individual utilities of the exchangers, the economist must either dismiss envy as unprovable (Rothbard’s position in 1956) or else reject the envious position’s moral claim, and therefore his methodological right, to have the value-free economist consider the extent of his loss of utility.”
Methodological individualism is based on an attempt at value free economics, which is an attempt at religious neutrality. It fails because those who are more conscious of their religion have more determination to see their vision of the world realized. In fact, value-free economists dismiss the notion of a “vision” of how the world ought to be. What is needed to avoid/defeat tyranny is a religion that undercuts the religion on which tyranny is based. Methodological individualism and value free economics is not up to it. Compared to power religion, it is nothing. “You can’t beat something with nothing.”
To counter power religion, North offers us “dominion religion”. What’s that?
If one believes in a creator, then the ultimate authority is this creator. If he has set rules, everyone has to adhere to them, even the highest (human) ruler. This is what North calls “dominion religion” (from God’s commandment to man to subjugate creation – dominium terrae, reign over the earth, Genesis 1,28 – but only according to God’s laws). Power religion and dominion religion are irreconcilable. They have been at war with each other for all of human history. North’s prime example is the Exodus story: Pharaoh, representative of power religion against Moses, representative of dominion religion. God has offered man a covenant. He has promised blessings if man adheres to his rules. He has also promised curses if man breaks these rules. One might complain that this is a somewhat one-sided covenant. An “offer one cannot refuse”. However, a creator is in a different category as a creature. If one believes in a creator, the concept of such a covenant is inescapable.
Talking of escape, there is a third basic religion according to North: “escapist religion”. Basically, the Don’t Knows, Don’t Want to Knows. These, North says in his book “Moses and Pharaoh”, in practice always end up following one of the other two religions. (They are “standing on the sidelines, waiting to see the outcome of the clash” between the other two religions.) They follow whichever one of the two is the stronger at any given time. And currently, the stronger religion is power religion. North sees this third religion represented in the Exodus story by those Hebrews who grudgingly follow Moses after his victory but want to return to the fleshpots of Egypt as soon as the going gets tough.
I think, regarding these “three religions”, North has discovered a deep truth about the human condition. The reason I believe this is because I think I have discovered an almost perfect analogy of this closed triad of religions in a surprising place outside the Bible: in Greek mythology. I’m talking about the Judgement of Paris. (In case you don’t know the run up to the following, click the link.)
Hera offers Paris to make him king of Europe and Asia, Athena offers him wisdom and skill in war, and Aphrodite offers him the world’s most beautiful woman (Helen of Troy). Here is how I equate them to Northian terminology: Hera obviously represents power. Athena is a representation – albeit incomplete – of dominion, because wisdom and skill “in war” could mean any aspect of life, see the universal applicability of Sun Tzu’s “The Art of War”. (“Incomplete” because there is no mention of a conscious creator). Aphrodite represents escapism, because to choose one of the other two means accepting responsibility and/or had work. Playboy Paris however doesn’t want responsibility. He wants the prize without the hard work. Sound familiar? If he had chosen either Hera’s or Athena’s path, he could still have had any woman he wanted. But he didn’t want the responsibility. And interestingly, it is Athena, not Hera, who causes him trouble for not choosing her. Just like North insists that turning away from God and his commandments (dominion religion) causes trouble down the line. Not necessarily like for like individually, but maybe for the heirs and definitely institutionally – e.g. for a whole nation which ignores its biblical laws or whose laws go contrary to the laws laid down in the Bible (which is, see above, an “anti-socialist document”). Taking the Greek example: Troy harbours Paris (and Helena, although she is already married), and Troy is destroyed. To continue the analogy, Paris relies on power to protect him from the consequences of his choice. He chooses escapist religion, ends up worshiping (relying on) power … and comes to a sticky end.
What this all means: Morality trumps efficiency, people are always looking for the “true” morality and the laws we all have to adhere to. There are two basic paths to choose from to find and enforce morality: power and dominion. Therefore people are either worshiping power (i.e. sliding into tyranny) or God. Not worshiping God ultimately means worshiping power. There is no neutrality, no spiritual vacuum, no escape. It means that our “freedom” is actually limited. Notice that Paris is not offered the option to tell the three ladies to leave him alone. Our freedom is limited by the simple fact of death. Even if we ever overcome individual death, will we overcome the death of the universe? We have some choice, and we have to choose from what is on offer. “Not choosing” is an illusion. We are always choosing something. Especially our religion. And our choices have consequences.