Sixty-three years ago, when I was in my first year of college, our English professor required us to read and write a book report on Ayn Rand’s novel the Fountainhead. As I recall, I received a grade of C+ for my efforts. The professor gave me credit for identifying Ms. Rand’s writing skills, but harshly criticized my inability to articulate her philosophy of “Objectivism”, the morality of rational self-interest, that has influenced generations of her faithful followers.
Over the years, I became more familiar with Ayn Rand’s philosophy and her life’s story. I reread Fountainhead, searched for articles by or about her, registered with her website, the Ayn Rand Institute, and digested her last novel Atlas Shrugged, her magnum opus that was published in 1957. The novel has elements of mystery and science fiction, and at the same time includes a detailed description of “Objectivism” in a length monologue delivered by John Galt, the hero of the book.
Without going into all the details, the plot takes place in an imaginary time and place, when the United States is suffering from a collapse in its economy and its social structure (sounds prophetic). Galt emerges as the leader of a strike by industrialists, scientists, heads of corporations, etc. who sequestered themselves in a secluded mountain hideaway, where they built an independent free economy. Rand’s intention was to demonstrate that without these rational and productive entrepreneurs, these “job creators”, the plan for the new economy would collapse and society would fall apart without them.
In a 1959 interview by Mike Wallace on 60 Minutes, he asked Rand to outline her idea of Objectivism that Galt articulated in Atlas Shrugged. She replied that it was a system of morality, “…not based on faith or emotion, but on reason.” She went on to complain about what she called “…the gradual growth of social protective legislation, based on the principle that we are “our brothers’ keepers.” She also told Wallace, she was an atheist and rejected all religion and called it “…a weakness, even a parasite—one that convinces people their purpose is to work for the betterment of others. In fact, for man, the truth is just the opposite. ..Man’s highest purpose is the achievement of his own happiness.” She also stated that it was religion that was responsible for “moochers”, a derogatory label for those who live off the government, and the hard work of the “job creators”. Unfortunately, the term “moochers” is often used to cover everyone who seeks government assistance, no matter what their circumstances are. Apparently it wouldn’t include crooks like Bernie Madoff , or Kenneth Lay the former CEO of Enron.
Whether you or I agree with Ayn Rand’s philosophy is not my concern for this blog. I intend to go into the specifics of her dogmas in a future blog. What I want to deal with here is my on-going puzzlement about Rand’s fans: how do so many practicing Christians, especially Christian fundamentalist in high political positions or running for office, espouse her philosophy and still identify themselves as fervent followers of Jesus? I don’t wish to judge them. I’m assuming they are not just identifying themselves as Christians to attract votes, and that they’re sincere, in what seems to me to be a paradoxical position. I would just like to understand how they justify their position of being followers of Jesus, while adhering to Rand’s teachings on the virtues of “selfishness”. She even has a book entitled The Virtue of Selfishness. It consists of 19 essays, five of them written by her colleague and lover, Nathaniel Branden, (each of their spouses agreed to their affair).
For example, Representative Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, the author of the 2011 GOP budget proposal, is a zealous Rand fan. He even has been known to require staff members to read Atlas Shrugged to indoctrinate them into her thinking. He also describes himself as practicing Catholic. As a matter of fact he sent a letter to Archbishop Timothy Dolan, the bishop of New York and President of the United States Catholic Bishops Conference, with the hope that the archbishop and the Conference would indorse his budget proposal. To his credit, the archbishop wrote a very carefully worded and respectful response, suggesting to Ryan that his budget proposal didn’t mention our less fortunate fellow citizens, those that Jesus was most committed to assist. In other words, there was nothing in Ryan’s proposal that focused on Rand’s “moochers”. The archbishop reminded Ryan of Jesus’ compassion for the disadvantaged and as followers of Jesus our concern shouldn’t be just for the “job creators”. To put that in the OWS parlance, if we are really followers of Jesus, we need to be more concerned with the 99% who are in the middle class or below, than the 1%, the elite class, the so called “job creators”. By the way, where are all those jobs that “job creators” are supposed to be creating?
Another card carrying Catholic, who is a Rand fan is the Honorable Speaker of the House, John Boehner. In a November 14, 2011 article, entitled On Capitol Hill, Rand’s Atlas Can’t Be Shrugged Off, Andrea Searbrook quotes Speaker Boehner as if he was speaking directly from Ayn Rand’s playbook. “Businesses need to be set free. Instead, they’ve been antagonized by a government that favors bureaucrats over market-based solutions. They’ve been demoralized by government that causes despair, when what we really need is to provide reassurance and inspire hope.” He was speaking to the Economic Club of Washington D.C. Later in his speech he used the language of slavery when he said, “We need to liberate our economy from the shackles of Washington.” I just heard him on CNN this morning (12/21/2011) standing up for the 1%, which he identified as “job creators”.
Jason Miller in a article on Catholics United’s website on 12/15/11 described an ecumenical protest at Speaker Boehner’s office to hand-deliver a petition to remind him that “… people of faith want Wall Street to share in the sacrifice that so many American families are being asked to make.” The article went on to state “…it’s time for Speaker Boehner to follow the social teachings of the Church and heed the advice of the Vatican and Pope Benedict XVI to support greater Wall Street accountability.”
Catholic legislators and policies makers don’t have the corner on the market of preaching Rand’s gospel. One of her fans who carried on her legacy was the former chairman of the Federal Reserve Board, Alan Greenspan. When he was 26 years old, and a rising star in field of economics, he became part of the “Collective”, her inner circle, and remained a supporter of her economic theory, especially her disdain for the regulation by the government in the markets, throughout most of his career. In an article entitled, Alan Shrugged, by David Corn in Mother Jones magazine, October 23, 2008, he quotes Greenspan’s apology to the members of the House Oversight and Government Reform committee as he acknowledges in his testimony that his view of a free and loosely-regulated market and the financial world failed. He humbly admitted, “I made a mistake in presuming that self-interests (a key concept of Rand’s) of organizations, specifically banks and others, were such as that they were best capable of protecting their own shareholders and their equity in the firms.” http://motherjones.com/politics/2008/10/alan–shrugged
Not to belabor the point, but to mention just a few more fans: As far back as 1966, before he had entered politics, Ronald Reagan was an admirer of Ayn Rand; not surprisingly, Rep. Ron Paul, (R-TX) and his son Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) who is even a bigger fan than his father. Then there is Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, also a Rand follower, who was raised a Catholic and even spent several years in the seminary studying to be a priest.
Perhaps my perplexity, i.e., how Christians can follow the teachings of Rand and Jesus at the same time, boils down to what Jesus is reported to have said in the Gospel of Matthew 6:24, “No one can serve two masters. He will hate the first master and love the other, or he will be devoted to the first and despise the other. You cannot serve God and Wealth.” Amen!
I’d appreciate your thoughts on this issue.