Sunday, July 10, 2011

Jesus and Ayn Rand -- Common Good and Individualist Good

The current political debate, which is in part being fueled by a rather radical attempt to role back more than a half century of social policy that has brought us Medicare and Medicaid, the Clean Air and Clean Water Act, and more. has really changed the conversation.  It's not just the issue of government spending that is in question but the whole question of our responsibility as a nation to provide support and care for  the other.  Some argue that government aid is inefficient, and that we should leave it to nonprofits and churches (those of us involved in these kinds of work know that the need is much greater than what we can accomplish).  But there is another philosophy at work, one that is radically individualistic.  At the heart of this movement, which has been embraced by members of the Tea Party and many in the leadership of the Republican Party is a now deceased woman named Ayn Rand.  

Although I had seen this name before this recent surge in anti-government rhetoric, I really hadn't paid much attention to the person.  But now her name is to be found on the lips of folks from left and right.  Many in the Mainline churches who are concerned about social justice have sought to contrast her ideology with the teachings of Jesus.  Rand was, herself an atheist and as anti-religion as Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, if not more so.  She had no room for religion, and especially Jesus, because she insisted that the individual has priority and Jesus seemed to suggest that we should be concerned about our neighbor as well as the common good.

Now the question has been raised:  Can one be a follower of Jesus and be an admirer of Ayn Rand?  

Many on the religious left say no, while many, though not all, on the right are giving her a pass.  Rooted in this discussion must be the question of whether the teachings of these two people stand at odds?

I'm no expert on Rand so I need to be careful about what I say, but I thought this Fox op-ed by a Rand devotee and scholar named Onkar Ghate is telling.  I want to give you a taste of what he said and invite you to read the whole piece.  He makes the point that the teachings of Rand do contradict the Sermon on the Mount.  Now I will admit that the vast majority of Christians fail to abide by these teachings, but should we toss them aside and embrace these other teachings that stand in stark contrast with the teachings of Jesus? 

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.
Only an explicit or implicit individualist and egoist, Rand held, will understand and demand the rights listed in the Declaration of Independence: his inalienable rights to his own life, his own liberty, and the pursuit of his own happiness. He will demand his political freedom and reject all government controls designed to restrict his liberty and make him sacrifice for the “public interest.” He will oppose the welfare state.
Given her positive teachings, Rand must reject what is usually taken to be the core of Jesus’ moral teachings, the Sermon on the Mount. But before you dismiss this as unthinkable, ask yourself the following question. Did Jefferson and the other Founding Fathers not reject the Sermon’s advice in creating America?

Read more:

Ghate asks the question, one that Christians need to wrestle with as we move forward and discern whether social justice and the common good are a prime concern.  Do we need Jesus or do we need Ayn Rand?  Ghate prefers Rand -- whom do you prefer?   


Brian said...

When I was a teen I was moved deeply by the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus shaped my world-view, even though at the time I didn't think in terms of "world-view". It is still the Jesus that I met in the pages of that Living Bible back in the 1980's that is the foundation of my life. I know some Christians would see me as a closet atheist, but I know what is in my heart. Jesus leads me to a collectivist perspective. It is because I because of Jesus that I basically agree with a Marxist approach to understanding history....past and present.

Personally, I've never read Rand. I admire her creativity and pluck, but she's the opposite of what I stand for.

Gary said...

I would not defend Ayn Rand, or promote her views. But I have to marvel at anyone who thinks Jesus was, in any way, a socialist or Communist, or promoted a "welfare state" or "social safety net" run by the government. Except for his execution, nothing Jesus did required the use of the government.

It has always interested me that those who insist on the separation of religion from the civil government when it comes to abortion, homosexuality, origins, etc, are often the same people who say that we should have a welfare state because Jesus demanded it.

Pastor Bob Cornwall said...

Gary, I'm not saying we should have a welfare state because Jesus demanded the government to provide such a thing.

I believe that the government is the best equipped entity to provide a safety net. I believe that Jesus' embrace of the 2nd Commandment to love my neighbor compels me to pursue the common good, and to me that means supporting those government entities and programs that help provide it. It would be great if the church could do it all, but the situation is a bit bigger than this, in my estimation. Does that mean we don't try -- no. I'm committed to the common good on all fronts!

Dan Bayer said...

I am just now getting to know who Ayn Rand is and what she believed and stood for - I am also in the process of reading Atlas Shrugged for the first time - - It amazes me that so many Hard Core Conservative Christians buy hook line and sinker into the blatently hard core Anti Christian values of this self proclamed Atheist without even being aware of the contradiction - - and even go so far as to rationalize that her values are somehow compatable with the values of Jesus as found in the Scriptures - -

Brian said...

Gary -

I'm not suggesting that Jesus was proposing a system of governance for the 21st century. I do, however, see the Gospel of Jesus in The Communist Manifesto. Please note that I'm under no delusion that my views are normative for Christianity. They most certainly are not. They are, however, my honest views.

Besides, in my post I shared how my Marxist leanings are mostly in the realm of historical/social analysis. I'm not 100% with his program for implementation of these ideas, BUT I'm moved by the fact that he doesn't leave analysis at analysis, but takes it to the point of implementation.

Anyhoo, back to Jesus. Even as a child I resonated with the ethical human Jesus much more than the fairy tale Jesus who "died for my sins". We are to be as children, not adults with childish views.

Random Arrow said...

Bob, thanks for your other response too - on Salazar and Martin Marty and the secularization of Christian iconography.

Which ties directly into your comments on Rand and her so-called totalizing/secularizing of the polis.

My two-cents – the literary mediocrity of Rand and her monotone of ethical egoism is really just a convenient sound-byte for American capitalism which wants a novelist and narrator for capitalist idols. Rand is used by the right like a Nevada prostitute is used by former Minnesota governor Jesse Ventura. Nothing new in capitalism. But Rand is a vapor and a cloud and a false target. If Rand works to lend mediocre sound-bytes to the public, then Greenspan-types who still believe in the larger global economy of rational self-interest will whore-out and out-source Rand to do the heavy lexical lifting for her enamored public, while economists with hidden agendas do the fancy math in the High and Holy Name of Capitalism.

Forget Rand!

Look at the money trail.

Please – please – do not read into my comments any meta-agenda or meta-political philosophy.

My sensibility re. Rand is informed by far more modest and more humble and limited observations by biologists who observe, catalogue, and who use biometric maths to prove Rand wrong about altruism – there are known and proven measures (not quite Newtonian in regularity – but pretty darn close!) to show reciprocal altruism is real and at work among humans. And other mammals.

That’s the better counter to Saint Ayn on her ethical egoism. IMHO.

The real question underneath the skirted veils of Saint Ayn worshipers is ...

... can a Christian be capitalist?

Holy cow!

To be, or not to be – a capitalist – that is the question.

How many Christians – American Christians – will not give up their – “In God We Trust” – greenbacks until Greenspan and camp as the real hidden hands behind economics, jerk Christian greenbacks from cold, dead, Christian-capitalist hands?

The Cross is already secularized ( Salazar), so why not sell off all the rest of the Christian farm at the firesale of our recent economic meltdown?

Don’t Christian capitalists really enjoy bailing out exorbitant salaries of corporate boards?

Again – this is not meta-political cant!

What would Jesus do to this Temple?