At last night’s session of the Republican National Convention, we heard some well-delivered speeches by former Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice and 2012 vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan. The latter railed strongly against the Obama economic policies and “central planners” of our time. While apparently some of his facts are in question (see here and here), he nevertheless performed strongly and delivered some real zingers.
While Paul Ryan is now a heroic figure to many on the conservative side, his appreciation of the conservative economic philosopher, social thinker, and atheist Ayn Rand (1905-1982) has caused some to wonder whether he is an appropriate choice for a party so heavily favored by people of religious faith. The question of Ayn Rand and Jesus has been mentioned again and again.
I’ve just finished reading a recent biography of Rand entitled Goddess of the Market: Ayn Rand and the American Right, written by University of Virginia historian Jennifer Burns. I commend the book to you as a well-written, academic, yet accessible take on a fascinatingly strange woman of compelling ideas. Though I’ve not read any of Rand’s work, based on my reading of her biography I’d have to agree that being a complete Randian and a Christian are mutually exclusive propositions. Rand was, to begin with, a rather militant atheist who felt that self-interest was the key to advancing society. Altruism (in other words, a good deal of the stuff Jesus talks about) for her was a great flaw that derailed the course of prosperity and economic development. All of this detail, of course, in the midst of a fascinating story about a woman with a complicated existence.
So then, is this an attack piece? Am I saying that Paul Ryan should be avoided at all costs? That because he has expressed an admiration for Rand that he is as thorough-going an atheist as she is? No. Holding free-market economic ideas similar to hers does not require the same personality or militant atheism; it is a completely acceptable position to have. Being a capitalist or libertarian in varying degrees need not completely cast you out of Christian communion. It does mean, however, that Ryan should be asked continued questions about how “Randian” he is. How cold his ideas of competition, free-market policies, and self-interest really are, and whether his Catholic faith–and the Americans who would vote for him–are compatible with these beliefs.
Paul Ryan aside, one of the interesting things I’ve learned from reading Goddess of the Market is this: in contrast to what we normally hear about Communism being the great atheistic system in the world, Ayn Rand provides a clear example of militant capitalism being just as God-denying. If two vastly dissimilar set of beliefs can be religiously united against Christianity, might they both not have the potentially for existing in a Christian fashion as well?
Christian Communism and Christian Capitalism. Now that’s something to think about.