You can’t reconcile Ayn Rand and Jesus
By Stephen Prothero on Jun. 05, 2011, under USA Today News
The new darling of the Republican Party is pro-choice and anti-religion. She once wrote that, since “an embryo has no rights,” abortion “should be left to the sole discretion of the woman involved.” And when asked by Playboy magazine whether religion “ever offered anything of constructive value to human life” she answered “no,” adding that “faith, as such, is extremely detrimental to human life.”
Her name is Ayn Rand, and though she died in 1982 this novelist, philosopher and anti-communist crusader is the hot new thing in the GOP. The American public may have met the April opening Atlas Shrugged, a film based on her novel of the same name, with a collective shrug, but Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh tout her books, and her genius. And the opening line of “Atlas Shrugged” (“Who is John Galt?”) pops up regularly on handmade signs at Tea Party rallies.
Among Rand’s adoring acolytes on Capitol Hill is Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, who at a Library of Congress symposium held in 2005 on the centenary of the Rand’s birth called her “the reason I got involved in public service.” Texas Rep. Ron Paul, who announced his third presidential run last recently, has invoked Rand in the House on matters as disparate as NASA and the post office. His son, Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, used her novel Anthem in Senate hearings in April to argue against government regulations to phase out the incandescent light bulb.
When asked to name his favorite political philosopher, George W. Bush named Jesus Christ. But Ayn Rand is the GOP’s new savior, and no one seems to be taking notice of just how opposed their two philosophies are.
Individualism vs. collectivism
In Rand’s Manichaean world, it is not God vs. Satan, but individualism vs. collectivism. While Jesus says, “Blessed are the poor,” she sings Hosannas to the rich. The heroes of Atlas Shrugged (which, alas, is only slightly shorter than the Bible) are captains of industry such as John Galt. The villains are the “looters” and “moochers” — people who by hook (guilt) or by crook (government coercion) steal from the hard-won earnings of others.
Turning the tables on traditional Christian morality, Rand argues that altruism is immoral and selfishness is good. Moreover, there isn’t a problem in the world that laissez-faire capitalism can’t solve if left alone to perform its miracles.
I first read Atlas Shrugged and her other popular novel, The Fountainhead, while festival-hopping in Spain after graduating from college, so I can attest to the appeal of this philosophy to late adolescents of a certain gender. As an adult, however, Rand’s work reads to me like a vulgar rationalization for greed lying on top of a perverse myth of the right relationship between individual and community. So when Ryan says that, “Ayn Rand, more than anyone else, did a fantastic job of explaining the morality of capitalism, the morality of individualism,” I have to question his use of the word “explaining.” “Duping” seems like the more appropriate verb.
As someone who has written extensively on the religious illiteracy of the American public, I am not surprised that few Republicans today seem to understand that marrying Ayn Rand to Jesus Christ is like trying to interest Lady Gaga in Donny Osmond. But there is nothing Christian about Rand’s Objectivism. In fact, it is farther from Christianity than the Marxism that Rand so abhorred. Despite the attempt of the advertising executive Bruce Barton to turn Jesus into a CEO in his novel The Man Nobody Knows (1925), Jesus was a first-class, grade-A “moocher.”
I am somewhat surprised, however, at how few GOP thinkers seem to see how hostile her philosophy is to conservatism itself. Real conservatism is first and foremost about conserving a society’s traditions, including its religious and political traditions. But Rand’s Objectivism rejects in the name of reason appeals to either revelation or tradition. The individual is her hero, and God and the dead be damned.
Real conservatism is also about sacrifice, as is authentic Christianity. President Kennedy was liberal in many ways, but, “Ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country” was classic conservatism. Rand, however, will brook no such sacrifice. Serve yourself, she tells us, and save yourself as well. There is no higher good than individual self-satisfaction.
One of the reasons we are in our current economic quagmire is that none of our leaders is willing to ask us to sacrifice. Democrats call for more spending and more taxes; Republicans call for lower taxes and less spending, and what we get is the most fiscally ruinous half of each: lower taxes and more spending.
A budget of too little Jesus
Over the last few weeks, various Christian groups have criticized Republican leaders for proposing a 2012 budget that in their view is both un-Christian and anti-life. First, dozens of professors, priests and nuns at various Catholic universities criticized House Speaker John Boehner for a legislative record on the poor that was, in their estimation, “among the worst in Congress.” “Mr. Speaker, your voting record is at variance from one of the Church’s most ancient moral teachings,” they wrote. “From the apostles to the present, the Magisterium of the Church has insisted that those in power are morally obliged to preference the needs of the poor.”
Then a consortium of evangelical and Catholic groups aired an ad scolding Ryan, who spearheaded that GOP budget, for his own “anti-life” stands. In this ad, Father Thomas Kelley, a self-described “pro-life” priest from Elkhorn, Wis., insisted that “God calls us to protect life at all stages,” not just in the womb.
In short, these Christians are telling the GOP that there is too much Rand in their budget, and too little Jesus.
I don’t see either Atlas Shrugged or the Bible as holy writ. I think the Bible is more wise, better written and, ironically, less likely to come across as holier than thou, but I have not come either to bury Ayn Rand or to lament her recent resurrection. My aim is to force a choice.
If you are going to propose a Robin Hood budget, you have to decide whether you are robbing from the poor to give to the rich, or robbing from the rich to give to the poor. Because you cannot do both. You cannot worship both the God of Jesus and the mammon of Rand.
I don’t agree very often with the Watergate criminal and evangelical leader Chuck Colson, but he has it right when he refers to Rand’s “idolatry of self and selfishness” as “the antithesis of Christianity”
Rand’s trinity is “I me mine.” Christianity’s is the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. So take your pick. Or say no to both. It’s a free country. Just don’t tell me you are both a card-carrying Objectivist and a Bible-believing Christian. Even Rand knew that just wasn’t possible.
Stephen Prothero is a religion professor at Boston University and the author of the book God is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions That Run the World — and Why Their Differences Matter.