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There but for the grace of God goes … Ayn Rand?

Book Book Review, Title Atlas Shrugged, Author Ayn Rand, Rating 1.5,

Atlas Shrugged

Ayn Rand

Book Review



Politics makes strange bedfellows.”  William Shakespeare, the Tempest

I have been sometimes surprised by which ideologies have chosen to embrace Ayn Rand and for what reasons, wondering how she influenced anyone beyond selfish teens and the wealthy. I was particularly surprised to see signs of evangelical Christians embracing Atlas Shrugged, since on first inspection, it would seem a gargantuan stretch between the ideas of Rand, an avowed atheist who openly mocked the religious; who worshiped a small, wealthy elite of high producing and thinking individuals and denigrated most of the remainder of humanity as parasites; who rejected emotionalism, including the concepts of God, religion, altruism and love, for self-centered rationality alone; who emphasized only an earthly existence; as compared to the ideas of Jesus, who emphasized empathy, love, and caring for our fellow man; de-emphasized earthly wealth and power; and promoted a life centered around selflessness to focus on God and the afterlife he promised.  It would seem impossible for evangelicals to follow Ayn Rand; how did this come about?

Ayn Rand remains most popular among teens – no surprise, since her emphasis on selfishness aligns well with adolescent thinking. I read Atlas Shrugged, Ayn Rand’s self-proclaimed magnum opus, a monster of a book at well over 1,000 pages long, at the typical age of 19, while working a summer job in Soldatna, Alaska at a salmon cannery.  My job varied, but every other day it was to pull the cans of cooked salmon out of the steam retort cookers, which required me to work hard for perhaps half of the day, the remainder of the day idly waiting for the cooking to complete, and during those idle hours I read. The book was dismissive of all but the most powerful capitalists, and more than a bit of a pot-boiler, peopled with one-dimensional characters, and full of unappealing sexual attitudes.  (If forcible sex is to your taste, you will appreciate that Rand’s characters believe no means yes.)  The book could easily have been reduced by two thirds, so didactic and repetitive was the prose, hammering away at an overly simplistic and decidedly unattractive view of the world.  [Look here for a summary of the reviews of Atlas Shrugged when it was first published.

Ayn Rand and the philosophy of Objectivism

Rand created her own name for her philosophy, Objectivism, which has four tenets:  Reality is independent of human awareness, truth is reached by reason alone, what is right is reached by an ethics of selfishness, and a good society is formed by a politics of capitalism.  Her philosophy is existential, formed around mankind alone, mankind’s existence in this world alone, and man’s mind alone.  Rand chose to name her philosophy Objectivism because the title Existentialism was already taken.  (Objectivism refers to the first two tenets, one that the world is made of objects that are real, and are independent of how they are intellectually perceived, and two that objective rationality is the only determiner for morality and action).

-CC BY-SA 3.0, HKDP

Oh, to surrender to the simplicity of a Tea Party!. Attrib: HKDP, CC BY-SA 3.0.

Atlas Shrugged was written to popularize this philosophy; near the end of Atlas Shrugged can be found a 50-plus page summary of Objectivism, placed in the mouth of the mysterious hero figure and über-industrialist John Galt, who explains to his world-wide audience the utter contempt he and his fellow industrialists have for them, those who instead of just saying thank you for whatever society and work opportunity was generated as a result of the great industrialist’s mental acuity and wherewithal (job creators, trickle down economics, anyone?), wanted to suck the life and wealth out of the productive elite through governmental progressive taxation and wealth transfer, and because of this, Galt and his fellow industrialists were going to abandon them and watch them fall apart and die off so that the world can be repopulated from the now pure stock of true human beings, the super-productive wealthy and powerful (Atlas shrugged, get it? From Chapter VII: This is John Galt speaking.)   It would seem that the Tea Partiers, with their “I am John Galt” signs, don’t understand that they could never be John Galt; they are not part of Rand’s small Olympian elite, and in Rand’s eyes are in fact minnows in the vast sea of those who should just shut up and be grateful that they are simply the beneficiaries of Galt and his fellow demi-gods.

Alan Wolfe, by way of explaining why Rand has no standing in academia, pithily summarizes her philosophy: “Rand’s ‘thought,’ such as it is, boils down to two propositions. One is that selfishness is the highest of moral virtues. The other is that the masses, above all resentful of success, are parasites living off the hard work of capitalists far superior to them in every way. Self-interest is a useful concept, while selfishness is not. That, I believe, helps explain why Adam Smith is a first-rate thinker and Ayn Rand is an amateur.” You don’t have to be a philosopher to see that human achievement is a complex result of both individual and collective efforts (all societies rely on the baseline of individual effort, but infants and small children are helpless and require other people for survival, knowledge is both accumulated and passed on through a vast communal effort, etc.), that clear thinking and hard work don’t inevitably lead to wealth and power, that fortune plays a role in large scale success, that the out-sized advantage of class has not diminished with the emphasis on individual achievement, or to see that the emotional and the rational are both inextricably human.  Not for the tenderhearted is this philosophy, nor does it fit well as a model for a democratic society, with its vision of the powerful walking away from the undeserved in order to destroy them; her espousal of a rather totalitarian maneuver is in keeping with the paradoxical influences of her formative years in the turmoil of Russia one hundred years ago.

Born in 1905, Ayn Rand grew up in Russia on the cusp of the Soviet era and never got over the shock of the Russian Revolution; she started high school as young teen in a bourgeois family under the Tsar, and completed her university education under the radically different Soviet system. These formative years scarred her for life, as her father’s pharmacy business was confiscated, and she and her family went from a comfortable middle class existence to extended periods of near starvation, along with millions of others.  Under the Communists she was allowed to enter the university, something far more rare for a woman under the Tsar, and when her degree was nearly at hand, was temporarily purged from the university along with other former bourgeois students, then reinstated and allowed to complete her degree.  Rand’s lifelong antipathy for anything Communist came from this life passage;  her early experience with the brutal and distorted collectivism of Soviet Russia was decisive and limiting.

The Enlightenment reaction to Reformation-era European religious warfare,  impelled by the destructive effects of irrational religious expression, was to place a heavy emphasis on rationality and to de-emphasize emotionality.  Marx’s works of the 19th century reflect this point of view, and were a primary influence on 20th century Russian Communism’s anti-religious and arid rationality, which permeated the curriculum when Rand was at university. Ironically, Rand the dedicated anti-Communist was deeply influenced by these Marxist ideas; she became a committed atheist whose philosophy denied the value of the emotional and promoted only the rational, and in direct contradiction to her espoused philosophy, deliberately mimicked the manipulative methods of Communist propaganda, writing her novels in a demagogic and highly emotional style in order to sell her ideas.  Rand has sometimes been described as an inverted Marxist:  As critical as she was of Communism, collectivism, socialism and Marxism, she was equally uncritical in her embrace of  laissez-faire capitalism, the bogeyman of Marx.  Her enduring theme of the wealthy and powerful being allowed societal carte blanche comes too close to the unchecked behaviors of the oligarchical and totalitarian Soviet regime she so despised.

Republicans and Ayn Rand

That the modern conservative Republican party has had and today has many Ayn Rand adherents, prominent among them Ronald Reagan, Jack Kemp, Ron Paul, Alan Greenspan, Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh, Clarence Thomas, Charles Murray, and, most recently, Rand Paul and  Paul Ryan is not a surprise, given the Republican Party’s historical support of the rich, their reflexive anti-Communism, and their opposition to social safety net policies that go back a century or more. Rand’s Revolt of the Rich narrative in Atlas Shrugged is in some ways a description of today’s Republican Party, who today seek to eliminate aspects of government that put a burden of responsibility on the wealthy, while seeking to increase their power by disenfranchising poor and minority voters.

This kind of thinking, now almost exclusively promulgated by the conservative Republican Party, was once found in pockets of both the Democratic and Republican parties, each of which at one time harbored a broad spectrum of liberal and conservative politicians; in the past thirty five years or so the polarization of implacable political thinking into conservative and liberal camps has been exacerbated by the movement of more conservative thinking voters to the Republican party and more liberal thinking voters to the Democratic party.  One consequence of this has been to exaggerate the plutocratic tendencies of Republican conservative thinking, with the Democratic party aligning even more with the poor and disadvantaged classes.   [For a more in-depth discussion of the romance between Ayn Rand and the Republican Party, see  Jonathan Chait’s article:  Wealthcare:  Ayn Rand and the invincible cult of selfishness on the American right.]

Republicans and Evangelicals

Prior to the 1960’s, evangelical Christians were well-represented in both the Democratic and the Republican Parties:  In the Mid-West, most of them were Republicans, in the South, most of them were Democrats. Today the vast majority of evangelicals nationwide are members of the Republican Party. This consolidation reached critical mass in the late 1960’s with the Republican Party’s “Southern Strategy“, which appealed to Southern voters to change their centuries-old allegiance from the Democratic Party to the Republican Party, the old allegiance based on the Democratic Party’s long history of support for first the enslavement and then suppression of the civil rights of black people.  The largest impetus for this change of allegiance was the Democratic party’s brave but politically inexplicable decision in the mid-60’s, led by the Southern Democratic president Lyndon Johnson, to support civil rights legislation, most immediately to address the lack of black people’s civil rights in the segregated South.  In this effort, the Republican party moved eagerly to embrace a more “conservative” set of cultural values to align themselves more with Southern voters, with crucial leadership from transplanted Southern segregationist Strom Thurmond, to include support for anti-homosexuality, limited immigration, anti-abortion, the reduction of social policies like welfare, a strong defense, more limited government (adopting the Democratic Party’s historical use of state’s rights to make end runs around Federal law, particularly in support of segregationist policies) and getting tougher on crime, particularly drug-related crimes that were skewed heavily towards black perpetrators.  Some of these policies had already long been supported by the Republican Party, in particular the reduction of social policies, limited immigration and crime legislation, but Republican policies moved to be more in sync with Southern sensibilities by moving further away from their abolitionist roots and moving to suppress black and minority voting in the South as once the Democratic Party did (Abraham Lincoln would be rolling over in his grave at the current state of the self-proclaimed Party of Lincoln), by taking further steps away from its historical support of international isolationism (which did not require a large defense establishment, something that was looked upon with suspicion in Republican quarters as late as Dwight Eisenhower’s administration), by becoming more aggressive regarding gun ownership, by embracing evangelical moral concerns around homosexuality and abortion, and by becoming more moralistic in its tone and in its kneeling to evangelical populists such as Jerry Falwell and his Moral Majority, Pat Robertson and more recently, Bryan Fischer and Mike Huckabee.

Republicans and their evangelical members, having belatedly “discovered” that Rand is an atheist,  have simply disavowed the atheism but have not refuted Rand’s political or economic philosophy. Rand was explicit regarding her atheism; the question of how evangelical Christians could have missed that for so many years is an obvious lesson in intellectual isolation: It seems all too easy to ignore facts unpalatable to the thrust of one’s own arguments.  Given that everyone struggles with this by, for example, reading and watching and talking to sources that only reinforce their beliefs, it is still remarkable that devout Christians could ignore Rand’s atheism, since the basis of their belief system begins with the existence of God!  Having now sidestepped Rand’s atheism, it is no less remarkable that so many evangelical Christians continue to embrace Rand’s political and economic philosophy of selfishness, naked greed, and wealthy elitism, a philosophy that is the antithesis of the ethical system of Jesus. There is ample evidence that evangelicals can be just as charitable and sometimes more so than those outside of their belief system, so how is it that their politics are in important ways at such odds with their beliefs?

The politics of religion and morality in today’s America has been led primarily by those recent Republican converts, the Southern neo-Confederates and evangelicals.  The longstanding Republican policies in support of a plutocratic elite, when mixed with old and persistent Southern attitudes towards blacks and other minorities, and when mixed further with the selective political and moral concerns of the Republican-aligned evangelicals, which leave by the wayside many of Christ’s moral teachings regarding the poor and the wealthy, has produced the apparently impossible:  Christians who embrace the philosophy of one of the most anti-Christian writers extant – the open atheist and the ethically non-Christian Ayn Rand.  It would be a boon to the country if those evangelical Christians who uncritically support the Randian selfishness of the Republican Party recognize how far their politics have taken them from the creed of Jesus, and if they, rather than abandon that political party, take just as fervent a role in changing it to be more in alignment with the ethical teachings of Jesus rather than with those of Ayn Rand.

Updates

1.  Here are links to two recent articles that point to some evangelical trends moving away from their current Randian dance with the conservative Republican Party:  Marcia Pally’s Evangelicals who have left the right, and David Gushee’s Rethinking the word “evangelical”January 16, 2013.

2.  The celebrated Christian novelist, Marilynne Robinson, in an interview for The American Conservative:

Well, what is a Christian, after all? Can we say that most of us are defined by the belief that Jesus Christ made the most gracious gift of his life and death for our redemption? Then what does he deserve from us? He said we are to love our enemies, to turn the other cheek. Granted, these are difficult teachings. But does our most gracious Lord deserve to have his name associated with concealed weapons and stand-your-ground laws, things that fly in the face of his teaching and example? Does he say anywhere that we exist primarily to drive an economy and flourish in it? He says precisely the opposite. Surely we all know this. I suspect that the association of Christianity with positions that would not survive a glance at the Gospels or the Epistles is opportunistic, and that if the actual Christians raised these questions those whose real commitments are to money and hostility and potential violence would drop the pretense and walk away. October 30, 2013.

3.  Elizabeth Stoker, in The Week, underscores Rand’s anti-Christianity in her review of the upcoming film Atlas Shrugged III:  

[William F.] Buckley, like [Whittaker] Chambers, didn’t capitulate to Rand and her philosophy; they understood correctly that there is no room for Objectivism in a coherent, genuine Christianity. While Rand’s ideal human is self-interested and self-sufficient, the Christian person is devoted to serving others and is always in need: of God, forgiveness, grace, mercy, and the love of Christ. The ideal Randian person, on the other hand, is entirely capable of managing and perfecting his own satisfaction, a far cry from the Christian understanding of a person as perfectable, but not through his own means.   Of course, that aspect of Christianity is a problem for those who prefer to think of themselves as John Galt–esque supermen. Indeed, the disturbing trend[6] of trying to force Christianity to accommodate Rand’s antithetical philosophy is likely a result of her seductive appeal to the very egoism Christianity warns against. It’s a shame conservatives like [Rand] Paul, [Glenn] Beck, and [Sean] Hannity have lost the courage of conviction that motivated Buckley and Chambers (among others) to call a spade a spade when it came to Rand; the resulting “philosophy,” if it can be called that, amounts to a vitiated version of Objectivism as well as a pathetic Christian testimony. That Paul, Beck, and Hannity intend to peddle this mess to their broad audiences bodes poorly for a right wing that once knew better. June 24, 2014.

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