“[A]s you have heard that antichrist is coming, so now many antichrists have come.”
–1 John 2.18
An interesting convergence of cultural trends and events has pushed Ayn Rand’s name and views back into the news, including the vice presidential candidacy of Paul Ryan, the multipart movie adaptation of her 1957 novel Atlas Shrugged, and the overweening policies of the current presidential administration.
But libertarians and conservatives — particularly those who confess Christian faith — should be wary of adopting Ayn Rand as their own lest they find themselves in the position of the man in Aesop’s story who took the snake to his bosom. Rand’s defense of capitalism comes couched in a philosophy that is fundamentally anti-religious and, even more to the point, anti-Christian.
Rand viewed faith not as the beginning of wisdom, but as “the negation of reason,” as she told Alvin Toffler in her March 1964 interview in Playboy. For Rand all appeals to faith were anathema because only reason, not revelation, leads to truth. Anticipating Christopher Hitchens, she deemed faith “extremely detrimental to human life” and denied that religion, as religion, provided any benefit.
Rand’s alternative was the philosophy she developed, Objectivism. Its political expression was capitalism, which is why many libertarians and conservatives like her. But the rest of the system is more problematic. Its metaphysics were, as she said, grounded in objective reality, which is to say blank materialism. Its epistemology was rooted in reason, leaving no room for divine revelation. And she summarized its ethics simply as self-interest. For Rand, selfishness is moral, and selflessness is immoral.
“My philosophy, Objectivism,” she wrote in the August 1962 edition of The Objectivist Newsletter, “holds that . . . [m]an — every man — is an end in himself, not the means to the ends of others. He must exist for his own sake, neither sacrificing himself to others nor sacrificing others to himself. The pursuit of his own rational self-interest and of his own happiness is the highest moral purpose of his life.”
She placed nearly the same words on the lips of John Galt in his lengthy disquisition near the end of Atlas Shrugged: “By the grace of reality and the nature of life, man — every man — is an end in himself, he exists for his own sake, and the achievement of his own happiness is his highest moral purpose.”
Such an elevation of the individual living alone for his own interest means that altruism becomes, in her scheme, the greatest of evils. This moral inversion places Objectivism in direct conflict with Christianity, which views charity as the greatest virtue. Christians don’t live for themselves but for Christ, and by extension (or rather inclusion) all others, even our enemies.
Rand’s disdain for altruism is at root a protest against the cross. Christ’s crucifixion was immoral for Rand not because people took Jesus’ life, but because he volunteered it. And worse, because he sacrificed his perfect life for our imperfect lives. As she told Playboy:
Christ, in terms of the Christian philosophy, is the human ideal. He personifies that which men should strive to emulate. Yet, according to the Christian mythology, he died on the cross not for his own sins but for the sins of the nonideal people. In other words, a man of perfect virtue was sacrificed for men who are vicious and who are expected or supposed to accept that sacrifice. If I were a Christian, nothing could make me more indignant than that: the notion of sacrificing the ideal to the non-ideal, or virtue to vice.
She went on to say that “in the name of [the cross] men are asked to sacrifice themselves for their inferiors,” something she abhorred. To love as Christ is, in other words, immoral, and what you do for “the least of these, my brothers” is a waste.
Rand explained the basic problem in a 1946 letter:
Jesus (or perhaps His interpreters) gave men a code of altruism, that is, a code which told them that in order to save one’s soul, one must love or help or live for others. This means, the subordination of one’s soul (or ego) to the wishes, desires or needs of others, which means the subordination of one’s soul to the souls of others.
Any outside claim on another amounts to immorality. Because Rand could never tolerate the idea that one should elevate others above oneself, Objectivism rules out the very possibility of Christian community, of church.
Her disdain for Christianity was not limited to philosophical speculation. It had a practical expression, as well. For instance, she drove one of her admirers, economist Murray Rothbard, out of her circle because Rothbard’s wife, JoAnn, was Christian.
There are many things to recommend capitalism, but I see no reason to turn to Ayn Rand for the recommendation. Whatever her supposed contributions, she has been a corrosive influence on the culture and expounded values that stand in stark contradiction to Christian faith and life.
For an alternative to Rand, and one self-consciously Christian, let me introduce Wilhelm Röpke.