Ayn Rand and the Christian

Howard RoarkRecently the thought and writings of 20th century philosopher Ayn Rand have seen something of a revival. Politicians claim to have derived inspiration from her thought and to be guided by her principles of “Logical Positivism.”

Like many, I first encountered Rand in my college years and read The Fountainhead voraciously. I did not know at the time that Rand was more philosopher than novelist, and moved on to her larger work, Atlas Shrugged. There is a stark contrast between these two, and I will admit never finishing the 1,000+ pages of Atlas. I don’t remember exactly why, but I’m sure my college-aged self had many other things it thought were more important, and Atlas is nothing if not tedious.

But I learned from a friend that Ayn Rand had written philosophical essays, too, and went to the University library to read some of them (pre-internet, no Kindle yet). As a Christian, I was appalled by what I found.

In Fountainhead, the brave hero, Howard Roark, presents his worldview as a society made up of “creators” and “parasites.” The creators, people like himself, are individuals who think in new ways and refuse to compromise. These are the men and women that move society forward, that achieve greatness. The parasites are those who ride the coat tails of the great ones, stealing credit for their ideas, stifling their initiative, blocking their innovations, hating their independence. Current Roarkism I now hear is that society is made of the “makers” and the “takers.” Government is the enemy of the “makers,” who need to be freed from pesky regulations and especially from taxation in order to exercise their individualism.

I am left wondering, then, if there is any room for a Christian response to Randism and Roarkism, which is seemingly embraced by many national leaders (from both parties) who also claim to support Christian values. Let me offer three things to ponder in this area:

  1. Ayn Rand was an avowed and unapologetic atheist. There is no getting around this. She considered people of faith to be fools. If you don’t believe me, watch her interview on the Phil Donahue show here. She was hostile to the church and to the Christian faith. To me, her philosophy has much more affinity to that of Friedrich Nietzsche (or perhaps Voltaire) than Jesus Christ, the Apostle Paul, or to St. Augustine. The philosophers have identified Jesus’ core teachings as based on “altruism,” the idea of self-sacrifice and love for others. Altruism is the great enemy of Rand.
  2. Rand’s great existential dichotomy between individualism (Roark) and collectivism (Ellsworth Toohey in Fountainhead) grew out of the 20th century battle between communism and democracy. Rand was a powerful anti-communist voice until the day she died, but these battles don’t resonate as strongly today. China is the rival of the USA not so much because it is ruled by a communist party as because it is competing fiercely in the market economy arena that is supposed to be the foundation of democracy. Not every anti-communist is automatically a friend of Christianity.
  3. I am left to wonder if Rand’s embrace of selfishness has found its voice again in the narcissistic and self-centered culture we now have. I have long thought that selfishness is the logical outcome of atheism, for to believe there is no Ultimate Judge leaves us to our worst impulses with no external restraint. With Rand, it almost seems that atheism is the logical outcome of selfishness, but the result is the same. I find it interesting that Rand’s fellow-atheist, Christopher Hitchens, lampooned her in this area, saying:

I don’t think there is any need to have essays advocating selfishness among human beings. I don’t know what your impression has been, but some things require no further reinforcement.

So I don’t quite know what to think in this area. I realize that it is possible to choose some things from Rand’s philosophy and reject others, but I wonder if we have Christians who are doing this as much with the essentials of the Christian faith when they marry the two.

A recent article pointed out that Evangelicals are now unpredictable and seem to no longer be making political decisions based on what should be expected from conservative Christians. The article concluded that there is no real contradiction here, because many who claim to be Evangelicals are not strong in their biblical faith commitments. This was summarized by saying that for such self-identified Evangelicals,  “their faith is now more political than theological.”

Mark Krause
Nebraska Christian College