Can a Christian Be a Follower of Ayn Rand?

There has been a video going around pitting Ayn Rand against Jesus, pushing the religiously conservative in the GOP to pick who they will follow. The video is mainly targeted at Paul Ryan's (R-Wi) district. Ryan, the architect behind the current GOP budget, is on the video saying, "Ayn Rand more than anyone else did a fantastic job of explaining the morality of capitalism."



The video is, clearly, a bit of political propaganda and I expect quite a few readers will want to take a moment to defend Rush, Paul, Fox and Friends, and Paul Ryan. Feel free to do so in the comments.

For my part, my interest in the video is less political than theological. The video made me wonder, given the ascendance of Rand among many American Christians, if Rand's worldview can be reconciled with Christianity.

My question is simple: Can you be a follower of Jesus and be a follower of Ayn Rand?

For my own part, while I love The Fountainhead, I answer that question with a "No."

This entry was posted by Richard Beck. Bookmark the permalink.

49 thoughts on “Can a Christian Be a Follower of Ayn Rand?”

  1. I haven't read Rand, but if what I hear is correct - it might not be - then my answer would have to be no. Surely following Jesus involves a concern for social justice, and there seems to be precious little of that anywhere in the US right. Or the right wing anywhere, for that matter.

  2. Coincidentally, I watched a brilliant piece of television last night which portrayed Ayn Rand and her views as part of a wider exploration of the causes of the present economic crisis and our relationship with technology.

    I think my very first reaction was neither political nor theological, but rather emotional and psychological.  Rand struck me as a deeply hurt human being - I could be completely wrong - for whom human relationship was extremely difficult.

    To echo a well-worn philosophical argument, I would take the view that her worldview was premised on her emotional need and not the other way round.

    However destructive her legacy, I am consoled by having read this morning that "every free act - even the act of hating God - arises from and is sustained by a more original love of God" (The Doors of the Sea, David Bentley Hart).


    N.B. I think you and my fellow-readers would really appreciate this poetic essay on suffering by an Eastern Orthodox theologian - I wonder if you've read it..?

  3. Driving home yesterday afternoon, I noticed the guy in front of me had two window stickers. One was an Ayn Rand quote on individualism; the other was a K-Love sticker. Sadly, I don't think he intended to be ironic. 

  4. Rand worships the $ sign. I read her in my youth. Her philosophy is self-defeating like a lot of confessions. 

  5. I really dislike Ayn Rand but ... at what particular points do you think Objectivism and Christianity are incompatible?

  6. I watched the video twice.  The word "Jesus" is never uttered once by anyone.  Sorry to see this clip characterized as "pitting Ayn Rand against Jesus".

  7. Sam. While "Jesus" is never mentioned, "God," "religion," and "Judeo-Christian values" are. So, the point of pitting Rand against Jesus is a very subtle, and thus clever one. However, Rand was a highly complex person - full of both good and bad, and this video obviously doesn't do her justice.

  8. I'd agree about the video not doing her justice. As I noted, I'm a fan of The Fountianhead. The vision of the uncompromising artist, staying true to yourself and your values, fits with a lot of what I believe. I think Christians should be Roark-like non-conformists in this sense. I think she's an interesting and necessary conversation partner for Christians.

    But taken to the nth degree, particularly when it comes to Rand's ethics and views about altrusim, I think a Christian has to, in the final analysis, part ways with her.

  9. " I think Christians should be Roark-like non-conformists in this sense."

    I don't think this view would do justice to a fully orbed ecclesiology.

  10. Yes, I see that. Mainly I was thinking about Jesus' courage to stay the course when everyone abandons him. The notion that being "popular", a big theme in The Fountainhead, isn't anything that should guide a Christian. 

    Of course, as you note, that's not the whole ballgame as there is a communal facet to the Christian life and virtue formation.

  11. I was (christian) home schooled and our co-op read "Atlas Shrugged" (minus a few scenes) for economics class. After that I consumed much of her work. Rand herself didn't see her philosophy as something that fit well with christianity. I credit her today with helping to make me a bleeding heart liberal, because she was right. The teachings of Jesus do not fit within a "virtue of selfishness."

  12. I think that when the most complimentary thing about how Rand's teaching fits in with that of Christ has to be hedged with such qualifiers, it might be time to consider the alternative that their teachings are disjoint :-)

  13. Do you mean, Dr. Beck, "follow" as in "sell out utterly to?"  As for qb, it's eminently possible to adopt the keenest, most useful insights (including those that actually *work* in economic terms) of Ayn Rand without selling out wholesale to the entire package of Objectivism.  Methinks you are setting forth a false choice.

    qb

  14. Re: non-conformism: another quote from The Doors of the Sea (see above):

    Easter is an act of "rebellion" against all false necessity and all illegitimate or misused authority, all cruelty and heartless chance.  It liberates us from servitude to and terror before the "elements".  It emancipates us from fate.  It overcomes the "world".  Easter should make rebels of us all.

  15. I've had recent interactions with an objectivist and subsequently read "Atlas Shrugged." While sure, there are aspects of Rand that are helpful (e.g. hard work), I find the utter disregard for the well-being of others - call it the absence of charity - contrary to the teaching of Jesus and the model of the early church. You can't love your neighbor without personal and even social sacrifice. I see none of that in Rand. I agree with you then, no! (I still loved the book, btw).

  16. >it's eminently possible to adopt the keenest, most useful insights
    (including those that actually *work* in economic terms) of Ayn Rand
    without selling out

    Surely you're right ... I mean, you could pick out one tenet of Objectivism and say "she's right about that" without also having to dump Christianity. Because surely their teachings aren't entirely incompatible, as Chris E suggests when he uses the word "disjoint".

    On the other hand, could it possibly make sense to identify as both an Objectivist and a Christian? Could you paint Jesus as a Rugged Individual and somehow reconcile the two? Or is there some essential way in which rand-following is incompatible with christ-following? And if so, /what is it/?

  17. I'm not familiar with Ayn Rand, however I recently read something that Lewis wrote in a Sept. 1, 1933 letter to Arthur Greeves that seems to fit here.

    "I have just re-read Lilith and am much clearer about the meaning ... The main lesson of the book is against secular philanthropy -- against the belief that you can effectively obey the 2nd command about loving your neighbor without first trying to love God."
    from The Collected Letters of C.S. Lewis, 1931-1949.

  18. A quick stab at the root difference before I run off to class might be this: The cross.

    Bonhoeffer calls Jesus "the man for others" and goes on to say that "the church is only the church when it exists for others." That, as best I can tell, is the exact opposite of Rand's ethics.

  19. The scientist who developed the mathematics of the 'selfish gene' theory subsequently became a Christian and literally gave all he had to homeless people he encountered.  He seemed desperate to disprove his own theory.  He eventually cut his own carotid artery with a pair of scissors in what seems to have been a bid to assert his free will.

    Despite the pathos of his story, I like to think that a yet deeper magic lay behind his desire that goodness should exist in creation.  To quote David Bentley Hart for the third time today:

    'It is impossible to desire anything without implicitly desiring the infinite source of all things; even the desire of the suicide for the peace of oblivion is born of a love of self - however tragially distorted it has become - that is itself born of a deeper love for the God from whom the self comes and to whom the self is called.'

    P.S.  I loved 'Lilith' (the book!) - one of the most hauntingly original and spiritually enlightening books ever.  Heartfelt thanks to you and Richard for pointing the way to MacDonald's novels.

  20. No....I don't find it "subtle" or clever, though I am an admirer of Dr. Beck's writing style.  I think it is intentionally provocative.  The intended effect was achieved, too.

  21. Oh, I think it's very provocative. That's why I called it "political propaganda."  Still, I am interested in thinking through how Rand and Christian commitments "hang together" among GOP Christians.

  22. I'm honored to have had a part in pointing you to MacDonald, Andrew. I had a hard time with Lilith, though I found the imagery vivid, but Lewis's explanations help the pieces fit.

    The scientist seems indeed to have followed the same path traced in Lilith, as Lewis writes, "Why do so many purely secular reformers and philanthropists fail and in the end leave men more wretched and wicked than they found them? ... (Such) succeeds first in waking (at the price of its own blood) and then in becoming the tool of, Lilith. Lilith is still quite beyond me. One can trace in her specially the Will to Power -- which fits here quite well -- but there is a great deal more than that.... After a long and stormy attempt to do God's work in Lilith's way, or Lilith's work in God's way, the soul comes to itself again, realises that its previous proceedings are 'cracked absolutely' and in fact has a sort of half-conversion. But the new powers of will and imagination which even this half conversion inspires (symbolized in the horse) are so exhilarating that the soul thinks these will do instead of 'death' and again shoots off on its own. This passage is v. true and important. MacDonald is aware how religion itself supplies new temptations. This again leads to another attempt to help the Lovers in his own way, with consequent partial disaster in the death of Lona. He finds himself the jailer of Lilith: i.e. he is now living in the state of tension with the evil thing inside him only just held down, and at a terrible cost - until he ( or Lilith -the Lilith part of him) at last repents (Mara) and consents to die."

  23. You may be a more competent typist than I am, but thank-you for taing the time to present this fascinating passage.  I believe one narrative of 20th Century politics, economics, medicine etc is that of a litany of well-intentioned ideas that have nevertheless left people in a worse state than before.  Bentley Hart (4th time!) defines evil, amongst other things, as "power without justice".  It seems the most powerful few are always ready to exploit altruism for their own ends.  Perhaps it is this capacity to exercise power without justice that the cross exposes in each of us.  MacDonald sounds prophetic in this context, as in so many others.

    I always look forward to and appreciate your posts, Patricia.  Thank-you & please keep them coming.

    Blessings

  24. OK, but that doesn't clarify.  Any Christian worth his or her salt is likely to agree that ultimate allegiance to anyone but Christ is out of bounds.  But how many people really think of Ayn Rand as their personal savior and mountaintop guru?  Far fewer, probably, than those who think that she had some keen insights about the way things actually work.

    By the way, if you find "the virtue of selfishness" a first-order, ethical loser, try this test:  next time you're on an airplane with one of your children and the cabin depressurizes, ignore the flight attendant's instructions and start helping everyone else with their oxygen masks.  I think that upon reflection, you'll see the other-directed virtue that is bound up in the primary act of selfishness...just as Adam Smith was able to see in his exposition of the "invisible hand."

    qb

  25. The airplane example makes perfect sense.

    I guess the question I have is if Rand ever makes the turn toward the other? Or, in a correlated way, if capitalism ever makes the turn to the other?

    That is, to stay with your example, once I have enough oxygen to live would I not help everyone else get oxygen? Or share my mask? Or my extra oxygen?

  26. Richard, an opportunity for you to combine evo-psych with Christian meditations (loosely put - and wide enough to mean almost anything) to marshal hard core data from biology alongside your favorite list of Christian heros – a panorama of grand evidence for altruism. Randians have as much or more trouble from biology as from religion. Methinks. My take is that the hurdles to merging ethical egoism with Christian faith are less ideological/theological hurdles than practical and emotional ones. Just because Alan Greenspan reneged on his love affair with objectivism and his beloved rational self-regulating markets in his testimony before Congress after our spectacular economic meltdown doesn’t mean that the Christian god-of-the-gaps will become the Default Public Favorite for rescuing us, especially because ethical egoism (aka selfishness) by any other name really is too powerful and too true a description for way, way too much of Christian history, be damned Christian theologies of lovey-dovey unselfish, self-sacrificing love. I’m not sure whether metrics help here much? Despite the fact that kin selected reciprocal altruism is highly tractable to mathematical measurement and description against Saint Ayn’s atlas-like naysaying, what says the current trendiness in measuring religious fits-of-theory/theology-to-behavior, except to point out our normative hypocrisy, against our atlas-like Christian naysaying? Does hifalutin theology do us in (in re hypocrisy studies)? I’ve often wondered why at least a sub-cult of Christians couldn’t embrace ethical egoism head-on and exactly because faith really is the self-interested thing to do (yeah, yeah it’s cheap and easy to invert any theory), and with all the fancy cascades and tomes of hifalutin theological justifications for making Saint Ayn the new Mother Mary left up pretty much to what a whole lot of theology is already left up to anyway – sheer human imagination. In this case, it wouldn’t take a lot of imagination. A little would do. It should - kinda - come, naturally. That’s not my option. There’s too much war in my members. Who is there to deliver me from this body of death? Jim

    My take is that the hurdles to merging ethical egoism with Christian faith are less ideological/theological hurdles than practical and emotional ones. Just because Alan Greenspan reneged on his love affair with objectivism and his beloved rational self-regulating markets in his testimony before Congress after our spectacular economic meltdown doesn’t mean that the Christian god-of-the-gaps will become the Default Public Favorite for rescuing us, especially because ethical egoism (aka selfishness) by any other name really is too powerful and too true a description for way, way too much of Christian history, be damned Christian theologies of lovey-dovey unselfish, self-sacrificing love.

    I’m not sure whether metrics help here much? Despite the fact that kin selected reciprocal altruism is highly tractable to mathematical measurement and description against Saint Ayn’s atlas-like naysaying, what says the current trendiness in measuring religious fits-of-theory/theology-to-behavior, except to point out our normative hypocrisy, against our atlas-like Christian naysaying?

    Does hifalutin theology do us in (in re hypocrisy studies)?

    I’ve often wondered why at least a sub-cult of Christians couldn’t embrace ethical egoism head-on and exactly because faith really is the self-interested thing to do (yeah, yeah it’s cheap and easy to invert any theory), and with all the fancy cascades and tomes of hifalutin theological justifications for making Saint Ayn the new Mother Mary left up pretty much to what a whole lot of theology is already left up to anyway – sheer human imagination.

    In this case, it wouldn’t take a lot of imagination. A little would do.

    It should - kinda - come, naturally.

    That’s not my option. There’s too much war in my members.

    Who is there to deliver me from this body of death?


    Jim

  27. I greatly appreciate that, Andrew. I also always look forward to your thoughtful and gracious posts. 

    I so agree that much of the well-intentioned acts of the wealthy, powerful and governmental elites do little more than pour gasoline on fire, creating more dilemmas than they fix. MacDonald sums it up this way: "Am I going to do a good deed? Then, of all times -- Father into thy hands: lest the enemy should have me now."

  28. ... sorry about the redundancy above ... I’m a techno-numphty, wed to the simplicity of Blogger ... I hate disqus, I love disqus ... what I had to say wasn’t worth saying twice, and my not-too-ethical-egoism doesn’t need any help from disqus ... (god, I hate this new system – after hours of tinkering, trying two new browsers, throwing switches I don’t understand, I still can’t see the posts half the time, a blessing maybe) ....Jim


    Jim

  29. ".... I guess the question I have is if Rand ever makes the turn toward the other? Or, in a correlated way, if capitalism ever makes the turn to the other?"

    Richard!   Ah, Richard, I love you.  But it’s called contract – CONTRACT - pal!

    Such a small thing.  Contract is the engine that drives Rand’s system.  And no little part of capitalism.  Once vaunted by the ultra-conservative (pre-Randian) Supreme Court (turn of the century) as the sine qua non, the holiest of holies of all rights between ‘others’ – contract. 

    Only a little less holy now, slightly less sacred (but these things go in waves).  But contract is still at the heart and soul of capitalist objections to forced individual mandates of such small things as ... Obamacare. 

    Rand’s contracts are exactly mutual recognitions of the 'other,' mutual turnings to each other.  Philosophically (I’m leary and don’t buy this - but, so the theory goes), if you de-sanctify the right of the ‘other’ to make contracts with ‘others,’ then there’s nothing left of any real ‘other,’ except the ‘otherless’ blob of a totalitarian mass. 

    What better proof of ‘other’ relatedness than contract? 

    The existence and question of the ‘other’ isn't neglected in Rand's, nor in capitalism's system, but instead, the ‘other’ is fully enshrined.

    What really bugs you (and me) is the nature of that 'other.'

    But, like it or not, the 'other' is there.

    And worse, the ‘other’ is not an implicit guess about some foggy and vague theological ‘other,’  but rather, the ‘other’ is an overt, express, in our-face 'other,' who is fully competent to say “yes/no” to our solicitations. 

    Scary!   Scary to give the 'other' such power!  Scary as hell (pun intended) that ‘others’ have power to naysay us. 

    You could almost start a protestant-reformation based on the ideal of such a powerful 'other,'  competent to say to me, "take a hike!" 

    If Rand's 'other' isn't churchy enough, then what does it really mean when you or I agree (contract/covenant) to join a church?

    For me, it’s all about the yummy pastries and coffee in the lobby.  And that I get ‘em before ‘others’ belly up to the bar and grab 'em before I do! 

    In ever-loving, sugary agape, Jim

  30. Patricia,

    Sorry for the interrupt (is that possible in a forum?)  I wanted to mention before I forgot since you were just talking about George MacDonald.  I feel I have to share half the credit I give Dr. Beck with you for exposing me to him.  I saw you talking about MacDonald in a post a few months back that sparked my interest.  This led me to read Richard's blogs about him, which led me to find that Unspoken Sermons are free on Kindle...which resulted in my head exploding. 

    But seriously, short of the Bible, I never read something so irrepressibly amazing.  So thank you!  I think I owe you and Richard a coffee.  :)

  31. Not sure if Rand made that turn or not...but that's qb's piont anyway.  At root, I couldn't care less if SHE does or not; I've never thought of her as an object of allegiance.  But if it is true that "all truth is God's truth," and qb certainly subscribes to that idea, then any insight within Objectivism (or Buddhism, or Confucianism, or Taoism, or any other -ism) that accurately describes reality is an insight that Christians have a duty to take seriously, as expositors of the canonical Proverbs routinely make clear.

    Christians MUST make that turn.  And the ranks of capitalists who have made the turn, and who do make the turn, and who in fact orient themselves utterly toward the other (rather than speaking of "making the turn" at all), are legion.  They just don't call attention to themselves.

    Crass, public self-promotion may give capitalism a bad name, but it is not a primary argument against capitalism per se.  And neither has capitalism cornered the market on bad character.

    qb

  32. Well, purely in the interest of adding a dissenting voice: I don't really like Hart's stuff. And I think he's wrong about evil. So there!

  33. You're not interrupting at all, Joshua. And I so enjoy your Four Finger Culture and your witty posts here. You're very welcome. Unspoken Sermons did the same for me. Nothing since I became a Christian has so revolutionized the way I understand Jesus and what being a Christian really means. And until I found Richard's blog, I'd never known of anyone who knew who G Mac was, much less having read the Sermons. So it was been a delight to me to find others who had the same mind/heart/eye-opening experience. I do believe that if the Sermons became more widely read that it would help Christians become more of what they were meant to be in this world.

  34. Two words:  David Mamet.

    http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/1595230769?ie=UTF8&tag=theofficiw0c2-20&linkCode=as2&camp=1789&creative=9325&creativeASIN=1595230769

  35. Hi Matthew

    Here's to dissenting voices everywhere!  I didn't like everything about Hart by any means (I just happened to have read his book yesterday morning), but he really helped me to clarify some intertwined issues such as Leibniz's 'best possible world' vs. 'God building suffering into his plan'.  Also, I'm no theologian and have to guess which books to buy, so please feel free to make some recommendations...

    Blessings

  36. Patricia, Andrew Eaton, Joshuasphilosophy - man can I crash your coffee house table ... that was OK with you???  I'd enjoy the kind of GENUINE "fellowship" I haven't experienced ... in a long,  long time  ... maybe ever.  Do you "guys" like French Apple or Banana Cream pie???
    Gary Y.

  37. You're always welcome at the table, Gary. And bringing pie to boot! Wouldn't it be cool if there could actually be an Experimental Theology coffee spot. During the school year, my husband and I go to Starbucks or McDonalds on Friday mornings for coffee. Wish ya'll could join us! Like you, I haven't found fellowship in churchianity, and I guess I'm gunshy to try anymore. Pass the French apple please ... 

  38. Really enjoyed this discussion.  I was a Randian early in my life.  Not so much any longer.  The basic presupposition in Objectivism is that what is best for me is also best for you.  That is the core assumption in the virtue of selfishness. It assumes a win-win that supposedly exists when everyone is pursuing their own happiness through productive work. In real life that doesn't hold up. What makes money for me might do you harm (pollute the oceans, air, etc)--heck, it might even do me harm in the longer run, or my children & grandchildren.  People are too short term in their thinking for this premise to stand.  In Atlas Shrugged it is only the moochers that are pictured in this way. The capitalists are strong and wise and proud and forward thinking. In reality, though, the capitalists share the same defects as the moochers.  Me first, short term thinking.
    Christianity posits that this is a defect shared by all human beings as a result of "the fall" into ego-ville. Jesus came to reverse that.

  39. Abilene is a 15,363km round journey for me, but if there pie involved... 

  40. It seems to me that you think that Jesus' provision of salvation is separable from his instruction. Am I reading you right?

    Jeff W

  41. In my mind the differences between the teachings of Jesus and Ayn Rand are so profound that I think anyone who claims to be a follower of Christ AND Ayn Rand must be deluded in some way.....

  42. Your blog got me thinking and inspired this: http://www.cuteconservative.com/blog/2011/06/17/why-i-disagree-with-choosing-between-ayn-rand-and-jesus/

    Thanks for always being such a thoughtful communicator. As an ACU grad you make me proud to have attended there. :) 

  43. I'm late to this conversation, but I was linked here for the Anson Light post, and I thought this was a great question.

    My take is that Rand's philosophy is not a Christian philosophy.  It is not nearly as thorough as Christ's, but the antagonist to her moral code is Lenin (whose communist government stole her family's pharmacy) and communism itself, not Christ.  Can a follower of Jesus also be a follower of Lenin or Marx?  Which philosophy is more Christ-like, Lenin/Marx, or Rand?

    Don't Steal, Don't Murder, and maybe Don't Envy are the only 10 commandments that I think Rand would agree with.  In Atlas Shrugged Ragnar Danneskjöld encourages ridding the world of Robin Hood morality.  His point is that confiscating someone else's property without providing a mutually agreed upon amount of compensation is wrong no matter what you do with it. 

    It is easy to be charitable with other people’s property, but I’m starting to wonder if there is any virtue in it at all.  I realize that Don't Steal is not a theologically deep subject matter, but this is one area that I think Rand gets right.  I’m guessing this is the aspect that the GOP seems to be identifying with lately.

    When plunder becomes a way of life for a group of men living together in society, they create for themselves in the course of time a legal system that authorizes it and a moral code that glorifies it. - Frederic Bastiat 

  44. I trudged my way through Atlas Shrugged. 1300 pages of nothing for the 100 of philosophy. I wasn't impressed with her thinking at all. Now I was a neo-atheist when I read it so I really didn't have any problem with the philosophy except that it seemed rather shallow.

    Theologically I do not think one can rightly follow Rand's philosophy and be a Christian. It asks for self-interest as the highest virtue and that is counter to the life and ministry of Jesus. Paul tells us we are to think of others as greater than ourselves. Rand says think of self as better than others. Jesus says that the first will be last and the last will be first, Rand that the first will be the first and screw the last. Totally incompatible.

  45. Try Defining Love or The Nature of Love both by Thomas Jay Oord as they deal with the problem of theodicy (the existence of real evil). Oord does a good job demonstrating that God didn't build suffering into His plan. Nature of Love is a little more accessible for the average reader than Defining Love, which delves into philosophy more.

  46. Many thanks for your recommendations, Paul.  They'll both go straight onto my wish list!

Leave a Reply