Paul Ryan and the atheist bogeyman

As the resident libertarian here at GetReligion, I was curious about the flurry of stories about how a progressive Christian group is fighting Ayn Rand. So even though it ran over a week ago, I’m finally getting to this Religion News Service piece on the matter.

Ayn Rand died years ago but her influence has been tremendous. She is known for her two best-selling novels and for developing a philosophical system she called Objectivism. She’s also a really bad writer. But, hey, that doesn’t stop Dan Brown from making a lot of money.

The RNS piece begins by noting that progressive advocates are trying to tie Rand to the Republican budget:

But in a petition drive, video, ads, and websites, liberal Christians counter that Rand’s dog-eat-dog philosophy is the real inspiration for the GOP budget and its author, House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis.

“You’ve got a guy who is a rising Republican star, and who wrote the budget, saying he’s read her books and Washington needs more of her values,” said Eric Sapp, executive director of the American Values Network, which produced the video. “If you’re a Christian, you’ve got to ask some serious questions about what’s going on here.”

In other words, Sapp argues, you can follow Ayn Rand or Jesus, but not both.

Now, I read Rand when I was 15 and really enjoyed it. My father pointed out to me that her fiction included some excellent ideas about the morality of individualism and the proper role of the state but that her larger philosophy had some serious problems, particularly for Christians. And, well, that’s pretty much where I stand today. Most Christians I know who also enjoy some of Rand’s ideas would tell you that they think she had some bad ideas, too.

The article eventually quotes someone pointing out this same general idea but I wonder if it was handled in a balanced enough fashion. I mean, I know atheists who absolutely adore Martin Luther King, Jr. but strongly disagree with his Christianity. I know lots of non-Confucians who quote Confucius. It was just somewhat weird to not engage that general idea that one can enjoy a particular author without agreeing with every single thing he’s ever written.

Anyway, we’re told that Rush Limbaugh, Alan Greenspan and Clarence Thomas all call themselves Rand fans. This is undoubtedly true. It’s also true that a Library of Congress survey of “most influential books” put “Atlas Shrugged” second only to the Bible. So they’re not exactly alone.

And even the anti-Rand sentiment is nothing new. Check out this hilarious Maureen Dowd piece in a 1987 New York Times about how folks in the Reagan administration read, gasp, Rand.

Rand’s anti-religious views are briefly detailed, including her particular opposition to Christianity and its teaching of self-sacrifice.

And then we got to this point of the article:

More than 6,000 people have signed a petition asking Ryan to put down Rand and pick up a Bible, according to Kristin Ford of Faithful America, a left-leaning online group.

I know from earlier research that Faithful America is heavily funded by George Soros. In 2008, for instance, I read he gave the group two $400,000 gifts (the substantiation for that is supposedly here but I don’t have time to go through the 237 pages just yet). Which is great. Soros’ generosity is legendary and he helps many hundreds of liberal political groups each year, including religious ones. And if the issue fits, he even supports programs run by libertarian outfits. But I also know that Soros is an atheist, like Ayn Rand.

And that got me wondering. Why would an organization backed so heavily by atheists be criticizing other people for following atheists? And why would these groups be doing so in the name of faith?

That’s a question I’d really like to see addressed in the reporting on this public relations campaign. It wasn’t even mentioned in this article. The same goes for the other Open Society Institute-funded groups mentioned in coverage of this anti-Ryan effort.

Anyway, the end of the article includes words from Ryan’s office along with others who throw cold water on the anti-Ayn Rand effort. The article goes through a recent letter Ryan sent the president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops about how his budget aligns with Catholic teaching:

“Those who represent the people, including myself, have a moral obligation, implicit in the church’s social teaching, to address difficult basic problems before they explode into social crisis,” Ryan wrote in the April 29 letter.

Ryan argues that his budget is informed by the Catholic principal of subsidiarity, which holds that large bureaucracies should not assume tasks best left to individuals.

The GOP congressman also quotes the late Pope John Paul II’s warning that government welfare programs can lead to inertia, overweening public agencies, and ballooning budgets.

Jay W. Richards, a Catholic and author of Money, Greed and God: Why Capitalism is the Solution and Not the Problem, calls Ryan, like many Rand admirers, a “cafeteria Randian.”

“I suspect the progressive Christians are confusing that point,” he said. “You can agree with Rand’s critique of collectivism as enervating and soul-destroying without adhering to her overarching philosophy.”

So an interesting article overall with good information but it almost reads like two competing press releases — one from the anti-Ryan camp and one from the pro-Ryan camp. I might enjoy a bit more in-depth discussion on the topic of what Jesus has to say about the debt ceiling or whatever, including one where the view of religious adherents of strict separationism or a Two Kingdoms approach might also get a voice.

And for folks who enjoy this sort of discussion on Ayn Rand, check out Katherine Mangu-Ward’s look at Ayn Rand and, well, Satan over at Reason. Also, Mediabistro seems to think the progressive group fighting Paul Ryan can best be described as “conservative Christians.” Good work there, team.

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  • Dave

    The alleged Randist-Satanist connection has been churning up a bunch of giggles over at The Wild Hunt.

  • David Rupert

    6,000 people have asked Ryan to read the Bible. That’s a massive swarm of humanity!

    Nothing like reporting religious people to be simpletons…

  • http://LiberalslikeChrist.Org/ Rev. Ray Dubuque

    Mollie, you ask a very good question “And that got me wondering. Why would an organization backed so heavily by atheists be criticizing other people for following atheists? And why would these groups be doing so in the name of faith?”
    And here’s the good answer (in two parts)that your good question deserves:
    There’s a TREMENDOUS difference between “atheists”. On the one side are liberal atheists who reject “god” because of the horrible things that they are told that he has said and done by those religions who represent him, which I lay out in the bible’s own words at but who LIKE the Jesus I feature at http://LiberalslikeChrist.Org/Christlike , & related pages.
    Ayn Rand represents a totally different type of atheist a conservative who rejects not only the “worst” kind of God, but who rejects the very best of what Jesus represented, i.e. the consumate LIBERAL, generous promoter of justice and equality and opponent of excessive wealth and power.

  • ctd

    True it is not a good story, but there is a story here. Rand’s influence has been growing and that has caused concern among Christians, both “left” and “right.” First Things, for example, has had a number of posts on the issue.(Indeed, I think Faithful America is coming late in the game when it comes to expressing concern about Rand’s influence.)

    The issue is not her atheism, but her concept of the individual, which is simply incompatible with Christian teaching. The story which reporters should look into is not liberal Christian critiques about the Ryan plan, but the influence of Rand on the conservative movement and whether that eventually will clash with the movement’s social conservatives.

  • Bram

    Karl Marx and John Maynard Keynes were atheists too and both Marx’s circle and the Bloomsbury group were every bit as hostile toward religion, and especially Christianity, as Ayn Rand. So it’s at least as problematic for Christians to embrace Marx and Keynes as economic guides as it is problematic for them to embrace Ayn Rand. It would be nice if stories like this would acknowledge that fact.

  • Chris

    “She’s also a really bad writer.”
    I’d appreciate if those who have been discussing her philosophy lately would focus more on that. Her prose is just awful–and she has a tin ear for dialogue. Her characters have millimeter depth. That’s why the middle-aged drift away from her philosophy. There is no nuance. I shudder to think how the movie dialogue is going to sound if her original text is used.

  • Bram

    It’s also worth nothing that among non-Islamist regimes, the more leftist — the more Marxian and/or Keynesian — a government’s economic policy, the more repressive of religion, and especially Christianity, that government tends to be.

  • Bram

    That should read “it’s also worth *noting*” — though no doubt my observation will be worth *nothing* to certain readers here! ; )

  • Ryan K.

    Faithful America reminds me of a South Park episode in which one of the characters masquerades as a NASCAR driver to reinforce the stereotype of all involved in NASCAR as “poor and stupid.”

    Sometimes the best way to undermine something is to pretend to be part of (Faithful America) in order to make them look exactly like the caricature you want them to be (evangelical Christians). I have often said that if I was Dawkins-atheist I would drive like Lindsey Lohan with fish decals all over my car.

    To bad the media does not see or take the time to cut through these things.


    As an objectivist (little o!), I don’t receive transmissions from the hivemind telling me to attack so I don’t know if they’re going to be swarming here any second. I spend as much time bashing the writing of Atlas Shrugged as I do defending Rand in general. Of course I’ll also argue that Fountainhead is a much better written book (I’ll even dare to say well written).

    My only point of contention is to call Greenspan a Rand fan these days. His actions are so contrary to anything he ever wrote while following her that it’s become a running joke to see how far away from her ideas he can get.

  • Mollie

    Ryan K.,

    I agree that the media doesn’t take the time in covering religious groups on the left but I really don’t see any evidence that the group is pretending to be something it’s not. If you go to their web site, they are very straightforward about their biases and where they’re coming from.

  • Bill

    Fear not, Mollie; you are not alone. There are many libertarian Christians. Doug Bandow (Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute) is both a Christian and a libertarian. His writings explore the tensions and connections between them. An example:

  • Harold

    I think RNS’s clumsy headline has led Mollie and others down a path that the story (and AVN) never argued. AVN’s arguments about Rand aren’t about here being athiest, but about Rand (and her followers) as espousing social and market arguments that are hostile to people and the common good. When AVN says they aren’t Christian, it’s not a comment on athiesm but a comment about Christian social justice theory.

    So the fact that Soros–the conservative moevement’s new bogeyman, apparently–funds an effort targeting the Randians has nothing to do with opposition to athiesm and everything to do with the policies the Randians espouse based on Rand’s writings.

  • Karen

    Most problematic for Christians was Rand’s fawning over the serial murder who chopped up a 12 year old girl and left her body parts all over town. Rand loved the idea that he was strong enough to disregard what society deemed valuable (life, community, care for the weak, not murdering defenseless children,)and she philosophically modeled John Galt and Howard Roark after him. This is worse than atheism, it is aggrandizing sociopaths.

    I hardly believe that you can call Faithful America atheist or “heavily backed by athiests” (pl), even if Soros gives it money. Soros gives money because it is a liberal group, not because he agrees with its theology. And there is no evidence that he had anything to do with the religious criticism of Rand.

  • Dan Crawford

    An impressive number of Catholic University faculty members raised a number of very serious questions about how Ryan, Boehner and the other social darwinists (Randians?) in the GOP could reconcile their enhancing the wealth of the rich while destroying programs for the working poor and chronically unemployed with a century or more of Roman Catholic social teaching. I haven’t seen much discussion of that either. A Catholic conservative, Mr. Bill Buckley, was no great fan of any of Rand’s ideas. It would be interesting to learn why Rand’s Catholic fans embrace them in spite of Buckley’s criticisms.

  • Ryan K.


    My apologies, and you are right about your correction of my comment. I checked out their website and think they are pretty straightforward.

    In which case, the media seems to be the culprit in its unwillingness to distinguish the group in some form or fashion.

  • Bram

    If its problematic for some conservatives — of whom I’m not one — to admire Ayn Rand, who “fawned over” a serial killer, then it’s also problematic for left-liberals to admire figures like Nietzsche and Marx, who didn’t merely “fawn over” serial killers, but provided the rationales for serial killers on a massive scale: Hitler, Stalin, Mao, and the list goes on.

  • Bram

    And I mean problematic both for secular and for religious left-liberals and conservatives …

  • Michael R. Brown

    One part of the foolishness of the recent debates about Rand is the idea that agreeing with Rand’s prediction and diagnoses in “Atlas Shrugged” – the accuracy of which has been demonstrated in the last few years to a nicety – somehow magically commits one to agreement with her total philosophy. Would this argument be extended to an atheist leftist who recommends Tolstoy or Victor Hugo?

    The other part is a specific misrepresentation of Christianity. Christianity is not a pro-Statism religion; indeed, given who killed their Savior, it tends to the anti-State. (This is something the left has not yet dealt with.) Nowhere in the Bible does it say that wealth should be expropriated and redistributed by the dubious means of government structures; it speaks of personal and *voluntary* charity. One might add, looking at the horrific debt and unfunded liabilities situation that the U.S. is in right now, that the Bible and Jesus were wise in staying away from government panaceas.

    This entire kabuki charade is in bad faith. The Bible does not advocate any Progressive notions of “economic justice.” The progressives who have suddenly discovered religion and its necessary role in politics – after thirty decades and more of stridently and rightly insisting it must be kept out of politics – are not sincere. After this temporary rhetorical bubble is over, they will resume their previous, also ad-hoc, declarations.

    As for the “sociopath” accusation, this is what comes of copying attack website garbage. The whole thing rests upon one author – Michael Prescott’s – highly selective excerpting and chopping up of a private [i.e., thinking out loud without clarifications ] journal written when Rand was barely out of her teens, fresh from the blood bath of 1920s Soviet Russia – and still made it very clear that her read on the personalities of the observers showed that they were not appalled by Hickman’s crime – she said there had been far worse, without the same spectacle of glee – but by his flamboyant and mocking defiance of society. She – who was writing about a *legally innocent man* at the time of the trial – even called him a repulsive and purposeless criminal. Enough with the disinformation and – yes – Satanizing of Ayn Rand.

  • Jon in the Nati

    An impressive number of Catholic University faculty members raised a number of very serious questions about how Ryan, Boehner and the other social darwinists (Randians?) in the GOP could reconcile their enhancing the wealth of the rich while destroying programs for the working poor and chronically unemployed with a century or more of Roman Catholic social teaching. I haven’t seen much discussion of that either.

    Take a look at this GR post then. The matter you speak to is hashed out pretty well in the comments.

  • Michael R. Brown

    Rand was not, in any sense, a social Darwinist. She had no interest in such collectivism (and dubious science). Her interest was in everyone becoming maximally free and strong and in dealing with one another on peaceful, rational terms.

  • Mollie


    Keep discussion on media coverage of the topic as opposed to the underlying issues.

  • Michael James Hill

    Okay, Mollie. Several writers at First Things — hardly a leftist publication — have made the point that one simply cannot follow Christ and Rand. And Rand herself would agree. Mr. Ryan’s endorsement of Rand involves him in a serious contradiction of the Catholic Faith. The media coverage will focus on the controversy and not understand the serious contradiction of the Faith. Christians should, however, recognize that John Galt’s final gesture in Atlas Shrugged is blasphemy. Her philosophy is every bit anti-Christian as Marxist-Leninism.

  • Michael R. Brown

    Michael -

    The problem, vis a vis the media argument, is that Paul Ryan never has been quoted as saying “I follow and endorse Ayn Rand’s philosophy of Objectivism completely.” Nor anything equivalent. Yet the debate has been loudly framed as if he had.

    The curiosity of the media strategy – whether agreed upon or not – is that this primary issue is being brushed over as dispensable. It isn’t. It gets to the heart of whether the media strategy is disingenuous or not.

    Quite simply, it’s manipulative of the loud voices to insist that agreeing with Rand’s politics or economics – or even some of her ethics, which overlap with St Thomas Aquinas – commits oneself to agreeing with everything she ever wrote or her total system. It’s a fairly basic red herring on the media’s part.

  • John M

    +1 to Mr. Richards for the term “cafeteria Randian.”


  • Will

    Quite simply, it’s manipulative of the loud voices to insist that agreeing with Rand’s politics or economics – or even some of her ethics, which overlap with St Thomas Aquinas – commits oneself to agreeing with everything she ever wrote or her total system. It’s a fairly basic red herring on the media’s part.

    Exactly. Remember that Rand denounced libertarians as “concept-stealers” because they have the effrontery to adopt anti-statist positions without espousing her metaphysics, which she regarded as the only legitimate reason for doing so.

  • Mollie

    Just deleted a half-dozen comments for having nothing to do with media coverage. Please stay focused on media coverage.

  • Tom of Tamworth

    Please present a sample of this “really bad” writing. I have read quite widely and have found Rand’s style to be rather bold, masculine, and highly nuanced. Her mastery of the language is not to be rivaled even by most native speakers.

  • Chris

    “Her mastery of the language is not to be rivaled even by most native speakers.”
    That’s the trouble with her dialogue. It’s not the spoken word, and it is not designed to reflect individual character. If you deleted the petty details from any speech from one hero or heroine, the speeches are interchangeable. They’re all the same character (? Ayn Rand). Her philosophy is strongly presented–but the villains and heroes are pure one dimensional melodrama. Didactic–not novelistic. Just a quote from Flannery O’Connor:

    “The fiction of Ayn Rand is as low as you can get re fiction. I hope you picked it up off the floor of the subway and threw it in the nearest garbage pail. She makes Mickey Spillane look like Dostoevsky.”

    (Flannery O’Connor, 31 May 1960 Letter to Maryat Lee, The Habit of Being, (New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1979), 398.)

  • Ray Ingles

    Mollie, as others have noted, atheists aren’t united by much beyond their lack of belief in god(s). There’s no atheist pope or dogma, and atheists can disagree about politics as much as anyone else. I mean, Mormons, Catholics, and Protestants are all nominally Christian, but it doesn’t mean they all have the same politics.

  • Mollie

    Ray, I know. Many libertarians and socialists are atheists and they obviously disagree on politics. But to advance an argument that someone’s views should be off the table because they’re an atheist — that’s an interesting claim to make when advanced in part with the help of an atheist.
    It’s at least worth exploring in media coverage.

  • Harris

    A small comment about the politics. The chess game being played here is about the social conservative case, and abortion in particular — this I think accounts for the First Things fury. If the progressive case stands, that Rand and Gospel are formally opposed this would suggest that there is some unseen third idea that unites them — another ideology or perhaps, sociology. In either case, the moral claim of Right to Life, anchored in transcendence, becomes compromised.