The Irreconcilability of Ayn Rand and Christianity
Stephen Prothero, the Boston University professor of religion who specializes in American Religion, recently drew attention to yet another ostensible contradiction in the public discourse of certain politicians and political commentators. This time the focus is on the incompatibility of the Russian-born philosopher Ayn Rand and Christianity. It seems that several prominent and self-described conservative politicians have been advocating the philosophical perspectives of Rand, while also claiming the identity as a follower of Jesus Christ. Among those Prothero names are Paul Ryan (R-WI), Ron Paul (R-TX), Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh. Prothero writes: “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.’”
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.
Prothero goes on to explain, from his actual expert opinion (the author of several books on the subject and a professor at a leading research university), that contradictions inherent in the varying philosophical, theological and political outlooks of the camp of Rand and the community of the Kingdom are staggering.
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.
Reference is made in this piece to the letter sent to House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) on the occasion of his commencement address at the Catholic University of America.
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.”…
In short, these Christians are telling the GOP that there is too much Rand in their budget, and too little Jesus.
I concur, as one might expect, with Prothero’s assessment. I have spoken and written frequently here and in other public venues about the temptation to re-create Christianity in our own sectarian, partisan and personal images and likenesses. The truth is that Christian discipleship is far more radical and challenging than most of us are willing to admit, this is perhaps why the lives of the saints (both the canonical and popular) are so astounding — they show us what it really means to follow the Gospel, and it isn’t usually what we want to do.
On the scale of individualism to communitarianism, the preaching and deeds of Jesus of Nazareth falls squarely on the side of communitarianism, always prioritizing relationship over personal interest and commanding sacrifice and service over individual gain. But why would a politician be interested in that? It certainly doesn’t get you votes and might just get you crucified.
Instead, those claiming to serve God end up just serving themselves, which by definition is the hubris known as the Fall — making ourselves into gods, serving our own base desires for wealth and power.