– April 22, 2019

I was in church yesterday (I attend a Catholic, Franciscan church, if it matters), on Easter Sunday.  The friar talked about the conflict between the expectations placed on Jesus by the Jews of Jerusalem, and what actually happened.

Specifically, on Palm Sunday Jesus arrived in Jerusalem.  People went nuts: “The king is here and the king is going to kick some Roman butt and set us free.” Instead, of course, Jesus went around the city, foresaw what was coming, and went to the Last Supper where he instructed the Apostles what to do.  Then he washed their feet, humbling himself. Some king.

The point of the friar’s homily was that the message of Jesus was not military dominance, where justice and a new theocracy would be imposed by force. The fundamental message was instead deeply libertarian, and for me at least it’s the very core of Christianity: Belief, to be salvatory, has to be voluntary.  

Full stop, no exceptions, no qualifications.

If you are forced to perform the  “sacraments” in Catholic Christianity, they are meaningless rituals. Only if you believe, in your heart and of your own will, are the sacraments endowed with any meaning.

The three great “book religions” of the West (and you could count Mormonism as a fourth) all have traditions and teachings of how believers got this wrong.  Believers want a powerful state, an imaginary Messiah or Caliph who is mainly a general, leading troops in battle to smite the enemy and impose justice by force. But in all three of the books, the Torah, the New Testament, and the Koran, there are important passages that say honest, voluntary belief is not just sufficient, but also necessary, for salvation.


When I teach the problem of state authority in my college clases, I always start with the Hebrew story of Samuel. It’s in the first book of Samuel (for the Torah reference, it’s actually NEVI’IM, and then First Shmuel, not technically part of the Torah, but rather “The Prophets”).  Samuel was old, his sons were corrupt, and there was a lot of dissatisfaction about the whole “follow the law because it’s the right thing to do” rules.

So the elders of the tribe came to Samuel, and demanded that instead of a voluntary law they have a king, a real  “king to judge us like all the nations.” The king, of course, would compel people to do what’s right, for their owned good.

Samuel told God about this. According to the text, “the Lord said unto Samuel, Hearken unto the voice of the people in all that they say unto thee: for they have not rejected thee, but they have rejected me, that I should not reign over them.”

Interestingly, God proposed that Samuel go back and make a consequentialist argument: You guys are nuts. You don’t want a state; the state sucks. (I’m paraphrasing, but only a little). You have a coherent law, you have judges, sure the system isn’t perfect, but you need to accept that voluntary action is better. Or, to quote the Lord:  “Show them the manner of the king that shall reign over them.”

And [Samuel told the people] “This will be the manner of the king that shall reign over you: He will take your sons, and appoint them for himself, for his chariots, and to be his horsemen; and some shall run before his chariots. And he will appoint him captains over thousands, and captains over fifties; and will set them to ear his ground, and to reap his harvest, and to make his instruments of war, and instruments of his chariots. And he will take your daughters to be confectionaries, and to be cooks, and to be bakers.

And he will take your fields, and your vineyards, and your oliveyards, even the best of them, and give them to his servants. And he will take the tenth of your seed, and of your vineyards, and give to his officers, and to his servants. And he will take your menservants, and your maidservants, and your goodliest young men, and your asses, and put them to his work. He will take the tenth of your sheep: and ye shall be his servants. And ye shall cry out in that day because of your king which ye shall have chosen you; and the Lord will not hear you in that day.”

Again, to paraphrase: this king you think you want will impose taxes, and make you work for him, and make you fight his wars.  You will be the servants of the king, not vice versa. That sucks. Don’t do it.

The people would have none of it; all the cool kids were getting a king, and so they wanted one, too.  “That we also may be like all the nations; and that our king may judge us, and go out before us, and fight our battles.”  

To say they weren’t listening is an understatement. What I love about this passage for teaching is that people never learn. You don’t have to change many words to get exactly the current argument in favor of the Green New Deal. THIS time is going to be different. Instead of misusing enormous power, the state is going to use all that ability to coerce responsibly and for good; we won’t have to fight, because AOC and her friends are going to go out before us, and fight our battles.  Then, when it turns out (again) that the people pay all the costs and suffer from lack of voluntary consent on which states depend, we act all surprised.

Samuel was essentially arguing for “anything voluntary,” keeping a formal state out of it, because a formal state will use force rather than persuasion to enforce the law. But as always the people wanted force, because they thought they could control it. And so began the era of the Kings, who ruled by force,  replacing the Prophets and Judges, who ruled by persuasion.


The theme of the requirement that faith, to be salvatory, must be voluntary was developed at length by some (but not all) Protestants.  Roger Williams’ THE BLOODY TENENT OF PERSECUTION ( 1644), John Milton’s AEROPAGITICA (also 1644), and John Locke’s LETTER ON TOLERATION (1689)  both make the case that both basic rights and a concern for the souls of the lost required full civil rights for non-believers.  False views cannot be censored or suppressed, precisely to ensure that people can be voluntarily persuaded.

None of these were anarchists, to be sure. But they were all concerned with the problem of voluntary action, and believed that coerced action or compelled recitations of creeds without belief endangered the soul. Liberty is thus not just a right for individuals; protecting liberty of belief, conscience and speech is compulsory on the state. Any state that violates those rules is unjust, and illegitimate.

Further, and perhaps more importantly, the story in the Gospels, in Acts, and in Paul’s letters over and over hits on this theme. People wanted a warrior-Messiah, and they got a humble washer of feet. Yes, the warrior-Messiah thugs often coopt that message, as in the Crusades, the Spanish Inquisition, and almost any list of banned books and authorized beliefs. But it’s not the core message.


Finally, making the case that Islam requires faith to be voluntary to lead to salvation is easily done, though the interconnections between Islam and civil law make the connection with actual acts more problematic.  But the central theme is summarized in 2:256 in the Quran, an English translation of which goes: “There shall be no compulsion in religion; the right way has become distinct from the wrong way. Whoever renounces evil and believes in God has grasped the most trustworthy handle; which does not break.”

In 109, the Quran highlights this notion of voluntariness:  “Say, “O disbelievers. I do not worship what you worship. Nor do you worship what I worship. Nor do I serve what you serve. Nor do you serve what I serve.  You have your way, and I have my way.” Further, in 5:3 God admonishes Muhammed: “Those who disbelieve have despaired of your religion, so do not fear them, but fear Me.”  Finally, at 53: 38 we are told: “No soul bears the burdens of another soul. And that the human being attains only what he strives for. And that his efforts will be witnessed.”

Voluntary Matters

I understand that this (superficial, and selective) reading of the three “book religions” of the west is likely to put off some readers who do not believe, and may be offensive to others who do believe but who think faith can be compulsory (though such folks are not likely to be readers, at AIER).  And it is true that all three, but particularly Christianity and Islam, have been coopted by states and tyrants as justifications for oppression and murder.

The core of all three major religions is on individual faith, independently arrived at conclusions arrived at through persuasion, and the voluntary pursuit of worship. This is something to be celebrated, along with Passover, Easter, Bara’a Night, or whatever you have voluntarily decide to believe is holy.

Michael Munger

Michael Munger

Michael Munger is a Professor of Political Science, Economics, and Public Policy at Duke University and Senior Fellow of the American Institute for Economic Research. His degrees are from Davidson College, Washingon University in St. Louis, and Washington University. Munger’s research interests include regulation, political institutions, and political economy.

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