Ayn Rand Institute senior fellow Onkar Ghate did something very bold last summer. He wrote an op-ed on the Fox News website contrasting the political philosophy of Ayn Rand and the teachings of Jesus Christ, saying that what America needs is Ayn Rand, not Jesus. You would think that such a statement would have caused a scandal among Christians in America like when John Lennon said the Beatles are “bigger than Jesus” in 1966. Yet I haven’t heard of any church youth groups making Atlas Shrugged bonfires as they did with their Beatles records back in the day.
Now it shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone reading this that a Christian pastor would have a problem with Ghate’s statement. But I’m glad that Ghate came out and said it because the teachings of Christ and Ayn Rand are utterly incompatible, even though many politicians today need for their voting base to remain confused about this fact. I’ve been trying so hard to hold my tongue about politics, but I’m tired of Jesus getting pimped by people who don’t have any intention of following His teachings. Seriously, I don’t have any stake in the red side or the blue side. But I am going to go after any ideology that sullies Jesus’ name by throwing it around in support of ideas which contradict His teachings.
As Paul Krugman has observed, there really are two entirely different moral visions operating in America right now. I disagree with Krugman about where the fault-lines come down. The deepest debate is not over whether the state or private charity should provide a safety net for the poor. Within that conversation (which is still a Christian one), there is still a common underlying presumption that society should provide for its poor, and the debate is over how this can be done most effectively. The irreconcilable disagreement is between: 1) those who think that if you profit from doing business within society using material God created, then you thus owe something to God and society and 2) those who feel that people should be free to do what they like with their money provided they earned every penny of it and they stay within the law.
The latter perspective is the libertarianism of Rand and her disciples. Since Rand was as an atheist who believed that nature was the product of randomness, there was no reason for her to see all material objects as the gifts of our Creator. If you don’t believe that everything you have is a gift from God, then you have no basis for thinking you ought to share what God has given you with others; sharing is something extra you do when it benefits your self-interest by improving your public image, creating a social debt, earning fans, etc.
Christians, on the other hand, believe that “the Earth is the Lord’s and everything in it” (Ps 24:1). Thus, “private property” really isn’t private at all since it belongs to God who gives it to us as stewards to use for His purposes. Giving to others in need is not a bonus activity we engage in to get our name on a plaque after we’ve spent all the money we’re going to spend on ourselves. We are supposed to prayerfully plan out how we spend every penny of what God has given us, some on ourselves, most on people who really need what we have, and maybe a little on the church’s building campaign.
Here is how Ghate describes the incompatibility of Rand’s teachings with Christianity (note that he is arguing why people should reject Jesus and embrace Rand):
Rand’s moral teachings are fundamentally different from Jesus’ teachings. A rational morality, Rand argued, teaches us the crucial values that make up successful and happy life. Above all else, it instructs us to uphold reason as an absolute in our lives, as our only source of knowledge and only judge of values, and to achieve self-esteem in our souls. True self-esteem is the knowledge that by your own choices you’ve created a rational mind “competent to think” and a personal character “worthy of happiness.”
In terms of virtues, Rand’s is a moral code that upholds rationality not emotionalism or faith; intellectual independence not authority or obedience; earned pride not humility or the belief in man’s inherent sinfulness.
In Rand’s argument, morality is not about subordination or service to others or to some “higher power”; it is not about self-sacrifice. Hers is a morality that upholds egoism and individualism: it seeks to teach you the difficult task of pursuing the values that achieve your own individual self-interest and happiness.
To be fair, “pursuing the values that achieve your own individual self-interest and happiness” is not the same thing as reckless hedonism. If you start snorting cocaine, it might make you happy in the short-term but it will undermine your self-interest in the long run. Rand’s philosophy basically describes an ethic of individual responsibility in which your duty is to be successful and happy within the bounds of the law. This maps very well into laissez-faire capitalism’s concept of the “invisible hand” of the marketplace by which everyone in society automatically gets taken care of through the economic exchanges that result from each individual’s pursuit of his/her own self-interest. Many Christians today follow this ethic of individual responsibility on a daily basis and have an intellectual “belief” in humanity’s sinfulness and need for Christ’s salvation superimposed on top of it.
If “self-esteem” in “your own choices” is your basis for identity (which is the case for many “born-again” Christians), then your belief in sin and Christ’s atonement are never going to be more than intellectual propositions. People who actually experience themselves as sinful and have faced times in their lives when they would not have made it without the deliverance of God do not value “intellectual independence” over “authority” and “obedience.” When you know that no goodness has its origin in you but that all of it comes from God, there is no place for “earned pride.” Knowing my “inherent sinfulness” is the important basis for Christian ethics because it helps me realize that any good I do is itself a gift from God and not something for which I should expect compensation. I cannot take joy in the good that God accomplishes through me if I want to get paid for it. As a forgiven sinner, my gratitude compels me to help others who are suffering. Were I a self-reliant individualist, helping others would be an immoral encroachment upon their individual responsibility for themselves.
I really think that Ayn Rand vs. Jesus may be the ideological battle of the decade if not the century. I hope that Christians will have the integrity to question whether their Christian “beliefs” are a superimposed topping that covers up the functional atheism of individual responsibility. God is responsible for all the good that happens; we are responsible only for obeying God and allowing Him to use us to share His love with the world. Furthermore, this is not a responsibility we assume individually, but one which we share collectively as the body of Christ.