Ayn Rand vs. Jesus

Ayn Rand vs. Jesus August 12, 2012

Ayn Rand Institute senior fellow Onkar Ghate did something very bold last summer. He wrote an op-ed on the Fox News website contrasting the political philosophy of Ayn Rand and the teachings of Jesus Christ, saying that what America needs is Ayn Rand, not Jesus. You would think that such a statement would have caused a scandal among Christians in America like when John Lennon said the Beatles are “bigger than Jesus” in 1966. Yet I haven’t heard of any church youth groups making Atlas Shrugged bonfires as they did with their Beatles records back in the day.

Now it shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone reading this that a Christian pastor would have a problem with Ghate’s statement. But I’m glad that Ghate came out and said it because the teachings of Christ and Ayn Rand are utterly incompatible, even though many politicians today need for their voting base to remain confused about this fact. I’ve been trying so hard to hold my tongue about politics, but I’m tired of Jesus getting pimped by people who don’t have any intention of following His teachings. Seriously, I don’t have any stake in the red side or the blue side. But I am going to go after any ideology that sullies Jesus’ name by throwing it around in support of ideas which contradict His teachings.

As Paul Krugman has observed, there really are two entirely different moral visions operating in America right now. I disagree with Krugman about where the fault-lines come down. The deepest debate is not over whether the state or private charity should provide a safety net for the poor. Within that conversation (which is still a Christian one), there is still a common underlying presumption that society should provide for its poor, and the debate is over how this can be done most effectively. The irreconcilable disagreement is between: 1) those who think that if you profit from doing business within society using material God created, then you thus owe something to God and society and 2) those who feel that people should be free to do what they like with their money provided they earned every penny of it and they stay within the law.

The latter perspective is the libertarianism of Rand and her disciples. Since Rand was as an atheist who believed that nature was the product of randomness, there was no reason for her to see all material objects as the gifts of our Creator. If you don’t believe that everything you have is a gift from God, then you have no basis for thinking you ought to share what God has given you with others; sharing is something extra you do when it benefits your self-interest by improving your public image, creating a social debt, earning fans, etc.

Christians, on the other hand, believe that “the Earth is the Lord’s and everything in it” (Ps 24:1). Thus, “private property” really isn’t private at all since it belongs to God who gives it to us as stewards to use for His purposes. Giving to others in need is not a bonus activity we engage in to get our name on a plaque after we’ve spent all the money we’re going to spend on ourselves. We are supposed to prayerfully plan out how we spend every penny of what God has given us, some on ourselves, most on people who really need what we have, and maybe a little on the church’s building campaign.

Here is how Ghate describes the incompatibility of Rand’s teachings with Christianity (note that he is arguing why people should reject Jesus and embrace Rand):

Rand’s moral teachings are fundamentally different from Jesus’ teachings.  A rational morality, Rand argued, teaches us the crucial values that make up successful and happy life. Above all else, it instructs us to uphold reason as an absolute in our lives, as our only source of knowledge and only judge of values, and to achieve self-esteem in our souls. True self-esteem is the knowledge that by your own choices you’ve created a rational mind “competent to think” and a personal character “worthy of happiness.”

In terms of virtues, Rand’s is a moral code that upholds rationality not emotionalism or faith; intellectual independence not authority or obedience; earned pride not humility or the belief in man’s inherent sinfulness.

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.

To be fair, “pursuing the values that achieve your own individual self-interest and happiness” is not the same thing as reckless hedonism. If you start snorting cocaine, it might make you happy in the short-term but it will undermine your self-interest in the long run. Rand’s philosophy basically describes an ethic of individual responsibility in which your duty is to be successful and happy within the bounds of the law. This maps very well into laissez-faire capitalism’s concept of the “invisible hand” of the marketplace by which everyone in society automatically gets taken care of through the economic exchanges that result from each individual’s pursuit of his/her own self-interest. Many Christians today follow this ethic of individual responsibility on a daily basis and have an intellectual “belief” in humanity’s sinfulness and need for Christ’s salvation superimposed on top of it.

If “self-esteem” in “your own choices” is your basis for identity (which is the case for many “born-again” Christians), then your belief in sin and Christ’s atonement are never going to be more than intellectual propositions. People who actually experience themselves as sinful and have faced times in their lives when they would not have made it without the deliverance of God do not value “intellectual independence” over “authority” and “obedience.” When you know that no goodness has its origin in you but that all of it comes from God, there is no place for “earned pride.” Knowing my “inherent sinfulness” is the important basis for Christian ethics because it helps me realize that any good I do is itself a gift from God and not something for which I should expect compensation. I cannot take joy in the good that God accomplishes through me if I want to get paid for it. As a forgiven sinner, my gratitude compels me to help others who are suffering. Were I a self-reliant individualist, helping others would be an immoral encroachment upon their individual responsibility for themselves.

I really think that Ayn Rand vs. Jesus may be the ideological battle of the decade if not the century. I hope that Christians will have the integrity to question whether their Christian “beliefs” are a superimposed topping that covers up the functional atheism of individual responsibility. God is responsible for all the good that happens; we are responsible only for obeying God and allowing Him to use us to share His love with the world. Furthermore, this is not a responsibility we assume individually, but one which we share collectively as the body of Christ.

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  • Very well said! Thank you!

  • Tom

    Two thumbs up. I know you don’t know me but I found your blog in a round about way through facebook and have been subscribed to it for a couple months now. I appreciate your thoughts and the clarity with which you express them. I admit that I only read about one in every three or four blogs you write because you blog rather frequently but I’ve appreciated what I’ve read. Keep it up. Peace.

    • Morgan Guyton

      Thanks Tom! I’ll definitely have to check out your blog too. Yeah I’ve kind of got a bit of verbal diarrhea on this thing. Read what you have time for!

  • Speaking as an Objectivist, you did quite well elucidating this conflict. It did lead to one false conclusion, however, with this sentence:

    “Were I a self-reliant individualist, helping others would be an immoral encroachment upon their individual responsibility for themselves.”

    I suggest Ayn Rand would tell you that helping another is not immoral as long as 1) it is completely volitional for both parties; and 2) both parties do not sacrifice.

    Another way of putting is: it is only moral if both parties gain something more valuable than what they put in.

    Ayn Rand has many examples in her books of all three: 1) involuntary ‘giving’ (immoral); 2) ‘giving’ with the goal of power control, extortion, shaming or intent to corrupt (immoral); and 3) voluntary fair gainful exchange between equals even though perhaps one of the parties receives money and the other gives money.

    John Donohue
    Pasadena, CA

    • Morgan Guyton

      Thanks for sharing John. As a Christian, obviously sacrifice has a positive connotation for me, but I understand the concept completely differently than Rand seems to. John Wesley, the founder of United Methodism, talked about works of charity as being a means of grace; the experience of grace isn’t a reward in the sense of being something separate from the event of charity but rather an illumination that occurs within the process of being charitable. Whenever I am able to give to others without trying to create some kind of power hierarchy with them or prove anything about myself (which is hard to do), I gain a deeper appreciation of God’s love. It’s kind of hard to explain in words, but I have had this experience in my own life. The more I appreciate God’s love, the less I care about defending “my” rights and “my” property and the more the word “my” simply describes the part that I have to contribute to a mission that involves a community of people. In a truly Christian vision, individualism has no value for its own sake since the goal is to become one body of Christ with a group of other people, but we would definitely oppose any kind of compulsory “altruism” in which the state substitutes for God. So we would share objectivism’s opposition to communism as a short-circuiting of the organic community-building that God does through Christ, but not necessarily your championing of individualism for individualism’s sake.

  • I found this very helpful. Thanks.

  • Jean-Luc

    Interesting blog. I wonder if there might be a place for a more robust sense of agency (individual achievement and capacity) for people whose social locations subject them to a continual barrage of claims of unworthiness—I have in mind women, people of color in the usa, people in low authority social locations everywhere. I may have missed it, but I don’t see an emphasis on a lack of worthiness and pride in Jesus’ encounters with people. Presence of pride in the Centurion doesn’t preclude gratitude over the healing of the servant. I wonder if the obsession with pride is a reflection of a particular social location. Might it be that self-reliance, pride and achievement have direct positive effects on the capacity of people in certain communities to over come social barriers?

    • Morgan Guyton

      Hmm… nice challenge! I know I’m limited and probably unable to see outside of my own privileged social location, but I still think that the legitimate understanding of self-worth for both people with privilege and people without it occurs in the context of a particular niche within community rather than a falsely atomistic understanding of “individual” achievement. Does the centurion really have pride in the sense of egotism or does he simply carry out his office honorably? There is an important place for the love of excellence but it’s the most satisfying when it has to do with achieving honor and glory for God not for myself. Can’t I love the excellence of an achievement itself more purely if it is an expression of God’s goodness to me rather than something for which I slavishly need recognition and compensation?

      Thanks so much for reading and challenging. I’ll keep thinking about this.

      • In concluding that Rand “didn’t believe nature was random” you leave the impression she held some variant of teleological guidance for nature. I can assure you that is entirely inaccurate.

  • Juan Diego

    Rand was right all along. And for everyone to know, she didn’t believe nature was product of God or even randomness. In fact she was once asked a question whether if she believed in Destiny or in Coincidence. And she replied that she believed in neither. She said she believed in the Law of Identity. Everything is what it is, grows to be what it is suppose to be and nothing else. So no, she didn’t believe nature was random.

    • I posted this comment in the wrong place. It is intended for Juan Diego….

      In concluding that Rand “didn’t believe nature was random” you leave the impression she held some variant of teleological guidance for nature. I can assure you that is entirely inaccurate.

  • I have struggled with trying to understand how so many of my Christian friends and relatives think that their political beliefs match up perfectly with [what they say] are their Christian beliefs. It has often made me feel as if I am in some alternate universe, especially because I haven’t been able to clearly and succinctly put words to my thoughts. Thank you for this.

    • Morgan Guyton

      Their “Christian” beliefs probably serve the purpose of justifying their political beliefs.

      • Yes, probably. I’ve always been fairly apolitical; I have always only registered as Independent because I didn’t want to pick a party. But the more I learn and grow in my faith, the more I just don’t understand where some people (who I know and love dearly) are coming from. I wonder at times, if people had to pick Jesus or their political party, which one they’d pick.

  • Nate

    Awesome article… Definitely leaves me with a lot to think about. While I completely agree with what you say for us as Christians, I often wonder if it applies to the government that rules over a mostly non-christian (and sadly so) nation. While I do think that ideally we would follow the morality that you described, I don’t know if legislating from that angle is helpful in turning hearts towards God. The advantage of libertarianism, from my perspective, is that it allows people to choose (or not choose) and leaves room for us as Christians to turn hearts to God (as we were called) instead of forcing nonchristians to follow Christian morality and quite possibly leave them hostile towards Christianity… The fact that I just got as political as I did makes me gag a little haha… I agree with your view of mostly staying out of politics, I think it often does more harm than good. But thanks again for the article!

    • Morgan Guyton

      I can respect libertarianism as long as its about figuring out how to take care of the widows and orphans using kingdom means rather than telling Uncle Sam to do it (and as long as you have the humility to recognize that some things are actually more effectively dealt with using the state). But if it’s accompanied by the secular individualist ethic of self-reliance used as a basis for rationalizing a lack of compassion towards those who are not self-reliant, then it’s of Satan.

      • Nate

        Fair enough… I think I’ve just been wary of letting the government take charge since they seem to do so well at messing everything up. But I guess that’s just humans in general so our only actual hope is grace.

        • Morgan Guyton


    • Well, I do think it’s possible to have a non-libertarian state with basic programs such as Social Security and Medicare without legislating any specific religious morality, and still allowing people to choose their beliefs…then it just becomes a matter of whether or not you believe that paying more taxes or having those gov’t programs limits your liberty. Also, as sad as things may look sometimes, this really still is a majority Christian nation 😉

      • Nate

        That is a good point. I think I just made the mistake of lumping the two things together… And while I agree that statistically we have a Christian majority, I was referring more to people who actually live their lives according to the Gospel… there’s a difference between checking the “Christian” box on a poll and actually living it out. But I don’t wanna be cynical hahah… You raise good points:)

  • Atlas shrugged, Jesus didn’t.

    • Ayn Rand leaves her rejects alone so they suffer the consequences of their own irrationalities and moral breaches; Jesus sends the to burn in hell for all eternity.

      • Morgan Guyton

        Of course some of us Christians believe that hell IS the former rather than the latter.

      • But in her philosophy, she does leave them alone, which can sometimes be akin to casting someone into Hell….

        • Well, that is the essence of collectivism right there in those two comments. I guess it is just a logical extension of the concept of original sin — that a person can have transgressed just by being born. The implication in your two comments — and correct me if I am wrong — is that human being A has a binding moral obligation to pull human being B out of B’s self-induced misery, and if A does not do it, A has cast B into Hell.

  • amolibri

    John: a question I have is: How did Rand square her acceptance of Social Security & Medicare? (or was that an exception?)

    • Ayn Rand of course paid a substantial sum to the government in taxes; she was a highly successful author. She was not an anarchist or anti-citizenship activist, so like any other citizen, she made her payments.

      Near the end of her life a circumstance arose where a financial advisor insisted that she take in the SS and Medicare allotments due. She did so. The fact is, Rand and all other citizens are compelled regardless of volition to pay into this socialized medicine system, and there is no hypocrisy in her recovering some of that wealth. Her consistency, on the other hand, was to never relent from her objection to the compulsory system in favor of freedom.

      I would posit an equivalency to a church believing in egalitarianism and biblical teachings saying, “well we have this odd exemption from paying property taxes (to Caesar), but instead I am going to write a check to the government every month anyway.

  • John, my implication (WordPress is not letting me reply right below your post) is that *sometimes* there is a binding moral obligation to pull a human being out of its misery, even if self-induced. I don’t know that this necessarily translates to collectivism, as it doesn’t have to involve the gov’t, it can just be the obligation to compassion in one’s personal life. If I recall correctly, Ayn Rand believed she had no such obligation to others, even in her personal life, and I find that to be a very cold philosophy indeed.

    • Erasing your “sometimes” for a moment: If the moral obligation is a categorical imperative, I consider it an atrocity. You would be positing a moral imperative to forgive, help, have compassion for and elevate everyone from lazy slackers down to the most depraved killers and crushers of innocence.

      So, what is this “sometimes?” Don’t you have to judge to determine? If so, how?

      • You think that the suggestion that there are situations in which you have to help or have compassion for people is more of an atrocity than thinking that you don’t ever have to help people if you don’t feel like it? Whoa, I think I might be living in an upside down world.
        As far as judging, I try to follow my conscience and my spiritual beliefs, and see how they’re prompting me to treat others in a given situation. Admittedly, my judgment is imperfect, but it’s all I have. I agree with you that there are times, such as with the “depraved killers”, where being too forgiving is the opposite of helpful. However, Ayn Rand’s philosophy seems to separate itself from any human instinct to compassion, hence my conscience tells me to stay away from her as well.

        • the “atrocity” to which I referred is: if it is an imperative, that one is immoral or sinful if one withholds compassion and helping from anyone, including monsters. Now, dismissing that as beyond the pale, I asked how one judges where the line is drawn in order to avoid immorality.

          I will simply say that Ayn Rand’s philosophy does not separate itself from compassion; it does, however, separate itself from those who would engage the coercion of government to carry out the “caring for or direct helping.” Her evaluation of compassion, however, is the opposite of instinct; it is by conscious value judgement of the object of the intended compassion.

          • Morgan Guyton

            I think I make the opposite assumption from Rand. I would say that our natural response to other’s suffering is compassion but we get hurt by our naïveté so we insulate ourselves from a direct encounter with the other by filling our head with categories and explanations that objectify others. The reason none of us would stop and help a bleeding man on the side of the road like the Good Samaritan did is because we “know” upon looking at him that he’s either a drunk or a drug dealer or a sociopath who will hurt us if we approach him.

            Regarding compulsive morality, there is a way in which Jesus and Rand are on the same page if you see an analogy between the communist state and the Pharisees of 1st century Judaism. The Pharisees turned the Torah’s ancient teachings about how to live a rich life of connectedness with God into a set of rules with clunky punishments and rewards. Jesus liberated “the law” from legalism if that makes any sense. Living with compassion even and especially to those who don’t “deserve” it ends up paradoxically being the highest form of self-interest. At least that’s the way I would describe Christianity if I were trying to make it compatible with objectivism.

  • John, I agree with you that it’s not a moral imperative that you always have to help everyone, including monsters. I do think, however, that there are times when it is immoral or sinful to withhold compassion. Granted, our judgment in regard to that will be subjective. But I don’t see how there’s much difference between my saying “conscience” and a “conscious value judgment”. When I talk about conscience, I’m not just talking about emotions–if I followed my most shallow feelings, I would probably never help anyone.

    With that said, I disagree with the “Ayn Rand’s philosophy does not separate itself from compassion” part. If I recall correctly, Ayn considered compassion to be weakness and self-interest to be the greatest strength, which is why she had contempt for Christianity. Did I get that wrong? Perhaps I have the wrong impression of what she believed?