The American Values Network recently lambasted Rep. Paul Ryan for expressing pro-Rand sentiments in several statements and online videos. In a response ad geared toward Ryan’s supporters, AVN criticized Rand’s atheism and ethics, acting as though Christian conservatives would be shocked to learn of her beliefs.
How could we, as admirers of Rand, ever be aware of her rejection of the Judeo-Christian ethos? She’s sooooo subtle.
I doubt any Christian Rand admirers were surprised at the news. Most of us draw value out of Rand in very specific ways, and we are very used to hearing the majority of our conservative brethren rejecting and lambasting her views outright (see Whittaker Chambers). What the ad really did, then, was illuminate the way the Left continues to misunderstand conservatives, particularly when it comes to what value, if any, they see in Rand.
Let us remember: For progressives, Rand is the epitome of what they are not. She boasts an emphasis on individualism that, in its most basic orientation, is opposed to their top-down, mechanical view of human engagement and society. For them, it is (supposedly) all about the “other,” and for Rand, the other only matters insofar as she is beneficial to the self (not a charming alternative, if you ask me). Faulty ethics aside, in mere political application, Rand’s message is in many ways your typical pro-capitalism shtick — rational self-interest does not negate or disregard the other; rather, it allows humans to identify ways through which they can share, exchange, and collaborate in a productive manner.
Where conservatives typically differ with Rand is on her view of the human person — the nature of the individual himself — and the subsequent moral responsibilities we as individuals have toward others. For example, what precisely is our value? Is it intrinsic? What precisely is in our self-interest? Could it actually be selflessness? It is here that we move away from the political jabber — the primary kumbaya nexus of, say, Atlas Shrugged — and toward the more fundamental disagreements over philosophy and theology (still a largely evident feature of Atlas Shrugged, if not too much so).
Yet, I suspect, even on matters of philosophy and theology, conservatives and Christians can actually find more in common with Rand than they might assume (not to mention what they might learn from their differences). As a way of illuminating this, one might consider how Rand stacks up against other atheist or “non-Christian” thinkers. For example, I continue to hear Rand compared to Karl Marx, as though both of their philosophies are wrong or “anti-Christian” to the same extent — as if mere rejection of God is in and of itself an equal disqualifier and depicter of the rest of one’s ideology. As with most rash broadsides, taking such an approach avoids any and all nuance that both Rand and Marx bring to the table, producing an unnecessary disregard of any value that might exist therein.
This perspective, as I’ve most often encountered it, sees Rand’s error in the act of isolating the individual too much from society, the ultimate Marxist phobia. Yet such a view assumes that Marxism’s error was in integrating or “communalizing” the individual too much. The truth, of course, is that Marxism denies the individual outright, and by doing so, rejects true community along with it. Marx offers neither individualism nor community — even in the close-but-no-cigar version of Rand — but rather, a completely foreign, mechanistic vacuum, unfamiliar and ill-fitted to anyone born with basic individual desires (i.e. everyone ). I have argued this point extensively elsewhere.
Thus, Rand’s error is not that she reduces the human person to an economic island but that she elevates it to supreme deity, and does so in a predictably perverse and irrational way (sorry, “Objectivists”). Yet Rand does not reject the value of relationships altogether, as many seem to assume. Indeed, she believes that anyone who cares anything about himself will also care deeply about those who bring him joy (and yes, Christian love needs to go much further than this). This is close, though not close enough, to the Apostle Paul’s instruction that husbands love their wives “as their own bodies.” It is also close to the more widely known Second Commandment: “love your neighbor as yourself.”
But again, Rand’s error is that she pollutes all this with her secular humanism, limiting and distorting her picture of both self-interest and altruism. Such an approach amounts to nasty idol worship, but perhaps it speaks to the drastic error of Marx that we can at least praise Rand’s humanism for being at least humanism (as opposed to robotism).
For example, in many ways, Rand’s focus on freedom allows her to speak to the very same spiritual dimensions (or “mysticism”) that she claims to reject: our dreams, passions, imaginations, inherent desires, quests for freedom and truth, etc. She romanticizes many core features of the human person that Marxism fails to even recognize, and although she certainly takes them much too far in the wrong direction, are we really to say that such ethics are equally as invalid and/or disposable as those of Marx? This isn’t even to argue who has the more successful political or economic theory, which I would hope would be of less ambiguity.
Put simply, proper self-love mustn’t be ignored (see here), and when it comes to unlocking that mystery, Rand tries harder than many Christians. Her ethics and orientation are indeed improperly aligned, but there is something in Rand that can sharpen us, even, I would argue, bring us closer to God. With her jarring focus on freedom, truth and human progress, how could we not drag something out of Rand’s framework? As Rev. Robert Sirico eloquently put it in his response to the anti-Rand hubbub, Rand was, for all the things she got right, worshipping the wrong God.
Get that wrong, and your ethics and application will inevitably suffer. But that needn’t mean one’s ethics and application are necessarily as disposable as the next atheist’s down the block.
I have previously written on the stark differences between the teachings of Ayn Rand and Jesus. Here, I have tried to elaborate on the possible parallels. In the hopes of adding yet more clarity to the muddled back-and-forth going on in the media, I have asked a friend of mine — an Ayn Rand devotee and self-proclaimed rational egoist — to write two posts of his own: the first providing a brief overview to Rand’s actual ethics and the second critiquing Christianity in light of those ethics. (You know, for those of us ignorant-zombie conservatives who think Rand wanted the Sermon on the Mount attached to The Fountainhead as an appendix.)
My goal here is not to argue but to simply clarify two distinct perspectives — to help illuminate the overlap and crystallize the differences between two views that seem to be finding common cause (and common critique) on the political landscape. In the end, I hope to demonstrate that conservatives and Christians who admire Rand admire her for a reason, and it has nothing to do with “selfishness.”