Monday 25 April 2011

Atlas Shrugged, Jesus Didn't

Isaiah J. Poole writes:

Just in time for Easter, the movie version of "Atlas Shrugged" is poised to be shown in an expanding number of theaters. And, as Ayn Rand would be the first to admit, you could not set up a sharper clash of world views.

There is Jesus Christ, who, the apostle Paul writes, "died for the ungodly." Then there is the atheist Rand—"by all accounts ... one of the central intellectual and cultural inspirations for the base of the Republican Party," Think Progress writes this week—who once told Alvin Toffler in a Playboy magazine interview that "nothing could make me more indignant" than the idea of a "man of perfect virtue" dying for the ungodly, "the notion of sacrificing the ideal to the non-ideal."

Rand is very clear: walking in the path of Christ and walking in the path of "Atlas Shrugged" hero John Galt will take you to two very different places. Which ought to give pause to political leaders who claim to embrace the values of Christ but adopt the politics of Rand.

Before Congress went on its Easter recess, the House of Representatives passed a 2012 federal budget blueprint drafted by Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., who credits Rand for inspiring him into entering politics, and who reportedly encourages his staff members to read "Atlas Shrugged." The budget unabashedly bears the trademarks of Rand's thinking: its glorification of individualism and private enterprise not as a companion to the collective pursuit of the common good but as a replacement for it; the gradual elimination of anything that compels the haves to share with the have-nots; the presumption that have-nots are "moochers" or "looters" and must be treated accordingly.

It is this view of how America should work that is at the root of such schemes as turning Medicare into weakly subsidized private insurance, shifting increasing health care costs onto seniors as well as the burden of negotiating a predatory insurance market.

Shades of Rand are also present in a speech Ryan gave on the House floor March 2010 in opposition to the health care reform bill. In that speech, Ryan turns the question about how the nation should make health care affordable and accessible for all people into issues of "rights" and false choices.

"Our founding fathers got it right when they wrote in the Declaration of Independence that our rights are derived from nature and nature's God, not from government. Should we now subscribe to an ideology where government creates rights, is solely responsible for delivering these artificial rights, and then systematically rations these rights? Do we believe that the goal of government is to promote equal opportunity for all Americans to make the most of their lives, or do we now believe that the government's role is to equalize the results of people's lives?"

Ryan gets it profoundly wrong. The opposite of Ryan's you're-on-your-own America is not an America where government creates or rations "artificial rights"—as if the ability to receive something as fundamental as health care is an "artificial right"—and then uses them to "equalize the outcomes of people's lives." Rather, it is closer to the view of American history that President Obama put forward in his speech in early April on the nation's fiscal challenges and how to meet them.

From our first days as a nation, we have put our faith in free markets and free enterprise as the engine of America’s wealth and prosperity. More than citizens of any other country, we are rugged individualists, a self-reliant people with a healthy skepticism of too much government.

But there’s always been another thread running through our history -– a belief that we’re all connected, and that there are some things we can only do together, as a nation. ... Part of this American belief that we’re all connected also expresses itself in a conviction that each one of us deserves some basic measure of security and dignity. We recognize that no matter how responsibly we live our lives, hard times or bad luck, a crippling illness or a layoff may strike any one of us. “There but for the grace of God go I,” we say to ourselves. And so we contribute to programs like Medicare and Social Security, which guarantee us health care and a measure of basic income after a lifetime of hard work; unemployment insurance, which protects us against unexpected job loss; and Medicaid, which provides care for millions of seniors in nursing homes, poor children, those with disabilities. We’re a better country because of these commitments. I’ll go further. We would not be a great country without those commitments.

Christians who want to endorse policies that grow out of Any Rand's worldview will run headlong into Jesus' response to the question of what is the greatest commandment. It is not, "Love yourself first." After loving God, Jesus commanded his followers to love their neighbors as they love themselves.

Then there is the nature of Jesus' ministry. Jesus worked to bring people together into a community in which individuals shared their abilities and their resources so that each person finds strength and fulfillment through their interdependence. The apostle Paul likened the result to how the organs of the human body support each other, benefiting mutually from health, suffering together from disease. How that community took shape in the earliest days of the Christian church, with the wealth of believers redistributed to "anyone who had need," would no doubt appall Ryan and his acolytes.

Over all of this is the significance of the cross that made Rand so "indignant." Yes, I believe, to use Rand's words, that a man of perfect virtue died for all of us who are imperfect. That was the climax of a life that featured healing people without questioning whether they had deserved to be healed, redistributing the contents of a young person's picnic basket to feed thousands, and preaching that the kingdom of heaven was a place that belonged to the poor that the wealthy would have to struggle to enter.

On Easter Sunday, millions of people will hear the message that Jesus' death and his triumph over death enables us to triumph over our own spiritual death and have a seat at God's table. We will hear that we are at that table by God's grace and unconditional love, not by the fruit of our individualism.

We have spent the past three decades as a nation scorning mutuality and interdependence and orienting our economy toward Rand's objectivism, thanks to such believers as former Fed chairman Alan Greenspan; key policymakers in the Reagan, Bush 41 and Bush 43 administrations; and conservative members of Congress promoted by right-wing organizations such as FreedomWorks. Cleaning up the resulting wreckage of our idolization of individualism and greed and building a new economy and a better nation is the great challenge of our time. The conservatives who are now doubling down on "Atlas Shrugged" ideology would have us go back down that road to disaster, only more unabashedly. And the lure to go there is as strong as the serpent's offer to Eve to forsake obedience to God for the promise of being like God.

But when I contemplate the risen Christ on Easter Sunday, I won't be able to see how we could be true to his act of mercy, and the mercy he calls us to live in our own lives, and embrace the Ayn Rand view of a nation in which the central organizing principle is everyone for themselves.

Causing John to comment:

Isaiah J. Poole has an excellent piece on the total conflict between the thought of Ayn Rand and the teachings of Christ. I cannot think of a better article for this year’s Easter, as a new film adaptation of the first third of Rand’s novel Atlas Shrugged is currently in theaters. The film and its philosophy are being promoted by Tea Party organizations such as FreedomWorks and can be seen as part of the revival of the libertarian Right. This is a very important development because it should make religious conservatives think twice about the movements and ideologies they are currently allied with. For example, Rand was a virulent atheist, a supporter of abortion, and an advocate of sexual hedonism, as Megan Gibson points out in her article at Cif America. For these and other reasons, more traditional American conservatives such as William F. Buckley and Russell Kirk were dismissive of Rand and Objectivism. Rand's ideas simply could not fit into the fusion of laissez-faire economics and traditional Christian morality that Buckley and his allies were developing at the National Review.

Unfortunately for Buckleyite conservatives, fusionism largely needed the threat of atheistic communism in order to give the movement a reason for existence. With liberal capitalism's victory over communism, the fusionists are now in the sticky position of having to explain to the average American why their cultural, social, and economic life has stagnated or declined over the past thirty years, despite the fact that conservatives have gotten much of what they wanted in the economic sphere while scoring few recognizable victories in the Culture War. Indeed, many of the major political victories in the Culture War have been won by members of the Democratic base, primarily African-American and Hispanic voters. It is becoming clear that while many Republicans campaign on Christianity, family values, and other popular manifestations of social conservatism, they are primarily concerned with endless wars, privatization, tax cuts for the wealthy, and the annihilation of organized labor. With this in mind, Christian conservatives must choose: Ayn Rand or Jesus Christ?


  1. All this is very lofty and worthwhile. But it falls down, like every conservative apologia for large-scale government action, when we reach an example:

    as if the ability to receive something as fundamental as health care is an "artificial right"

    Does it really come down to the right to spend any resources that happen to exist in a society on the extensive medical care that happen (historically uniquely) to be available to us?

    Of course the ethics of Jesus and the ethics of Rand are ultimately incompatible. The "radical right" (to use a convenient label) and conservatives (like me) will ultimately disagree; but until government spending is back down to its historic norm we can make some common ground.

  2. What, when and why was that "historic norm"?

  3. Thank you so much for this great piece and for drawing people's attention to Rand's philosophy. This is a really important issue. I came across your blog while doing my own research on Rand for the non-profit, the American Values Network (AVN). My apologies for reaching out through the comments section, but I couldn't find another way to reach you. In case you might do further writing on Rand, I just wanted to make sure you were aware of this resource that AVN put together that might be useful to you - It's a pretty exhaustive collection of her quotes, broken down by topic, specifically focused on what she said the goal of her books and teachings were. Specifically, we focus on how she stands in complete opposition to Judeo-Christian morality and her condemnation of Christ’s teachings and those who follow them. And for her quotes, we supply specific Biblical passages on what the Bible teaches on these subjects. Thank you again for raising these issues. Please feel free to use AVN's memo however you would like if you find it useful.

  4. Very many thanks. It's a pleasure.