Aug 1, 2014

Bringing together Ayn Rand and Jesus

Ayn Rand was once asked if capitalism and Christianity didn't go together. She didn't like the idea.

"Nothing more derogatory to capitalism could ever be alleged," she said.

Rand was a self-declared enemy of religion, and of Christianity in particular. Combining atheism and capitalism in a philosophy she called Objectivism, Rand championed selfishness as the highest virtue. Altruism, for her, was evil. She found Christianity particularly offensive, as it valorizes sacrifice. Sacrifice is antithetical to the self-interest at the heart of capitalism. Rand said Christianity's central tenet was "sacrifice of the ideal to the non-ideal . . . or virtue to vice."

The thought of that was horrific to Rand.

In her most famous novel, Atlas Shrugged, Rand's heroes reject the symbol of the cross, which is the symbol of this sacrifice, and instead rally around the dollar sign.

There have nonetheless been regular attempts to recuperate Rand for a God-and-markets style American conservatism. People want to reconcile her and Christianity. In America, in particular, where many conservatives understand doctrines of free market economics and loving your neighbor as yourself to be mutually supporting, where they understand laizze-faire capitalism and for-God-so-loved-the-world Christianity to each be the necessary condition of the other, there are people who want to bring Rand's selfishness and Jesus' selflessness into harmony.

The latest example of this is the forthcoming film, Atlas Shrugged: Who is John Galt?

This is the third in a series of film adaptations of Rand's most famous book. It was originally scheduled for release on July 4, but has been pushed back for a Fall release. The first two films in this series were not commercially successful. The man behind the films, John Aglialoro, is pushing ahead with the third film anyway.

He's pushing ahead because he believes it's important.

One reason: He believes "our troubled times require an alliance between champions of reasons and free market capitalism and conservative religious practitioners, for without such an alliance both causes will be lost," according to Bill Frezza, a venture capitalist writing about the forthcoming film for Forbes.

Making the film, John Aglialoro has added a small scene to the film that was not in the book, for the purpose of depicting a sympathetic interaction between Rand's ideas and Chrisitainty.

It will be a mere nod, maybe 30 seconds. Most of the audience will miss it, along with the olive branch it represents. But Aglialoro hopes to get shooting permission from Saint Patrick’s Cathedral for a scene that will open with a wide shot from above and behind the iconic statue of Atlas in Rockefeller Center. The camera will follow Dagny into a quiet courtyard, consumed in silent mental struggle. The sound of a choir will break the night, a beautiful inspiring sound that will stop Dagny in her tracks. She turns and sees a man of the cloth who has been watching her struggle. 'Good evening, my child, can I help you?' 'Oh no, father, I was just listening to the lovely music.' 'Are you sure there is nothing I can help you with?' A long pause. 'No, father. I have to do this on my own.'

It's not much. But it will be a gentle repudiation of the militant atheism that characterizes many Objectivists. Will purists raise a ruckus? Will religious conservatives respond to the invitation, realizing that if liberty is allowed to perish leaving socialism triumphant, religious freedom will be next?
This is, truly, only a small nod. It seems unlikely that a short scene of a Randian hero turning down a priest's offer to help will work to radically realign an atheist-libertarianism with Christianity.

It also seems unlikely that people will stop trying to bring about the union.

Earlier this year, the Institute for Faith, Works and Economics, a Christian, pro-market think tank hosted a forum on ways to rectify Rand and Christianity. One scholar, David Kotter, suggested this can be done by re-casting Jesus' death as a selfish act. He died "for the joy that was set before him," which was his own glory, Kotter said. Kotter teaches finance and business at a Christian college in Indiana.

Last year, there was a book by a self-identified Randian and Christian titled The Soul of Atlas, which attempted this reconciliation. Mark David Henderson works in financial markets and was an elder in Tim Keller's New Calvinist church in New York City. He is also John Aglioro's step-son. He argues that there is significant common ground between the two worldviews, between the symbol of the cross and the symbol of the dollar sign.

"I think individual liberty is really at stake," Henderson told Christian Broadcasting Network. "The government is over reaching its rightful role. I think that Christians and Objectivists, from a different foundation, can agree with that very practical, ethical ground, or, sort of, results of that thinking."

Both Kotter and Henderson -- and perhaps indirectly Aglialoro -- have been influenced by the most prominent New Calvinist who has expressed an affinity for Ayn Rand's philosophy: John Piper.

Piper plausibly comes closer to reconciling Christianity and Randian selfishness than anyone else.

Piper developed a theology he has called Christian Hedonism. It connects the pursuit of pleasure and the pursuit of God, arguing that the former, if done properly, will always ultimately also be the later. Piper's thought was strongly influenced by the Puritan theology of Jonathan Edwards. He has also noted, though, that there is this other, less direct and less obvious connection. He was influenced by Rand.

Piper went on an "Ayn Rand craze," as he described it, in the late 1970s, when he was in his early 30s. This is about a decade before his book on Christian Hedonism was published. He read most of her writing, fiction and non-fiction, and took it very seriously.

He said,
I was blown away with powerful statements of what I believed, and angered that she shut herself up in what Jonathan Edwards called the infinite provincialism of atheism. Her brand of hedonism was so close to my Christian Hedonism and yet so far -- like a satellite that comes close to the gravitational pull of truth and then flings off into the darkness of outer space.
Piper eventually wrote a long article articulating Rand's philosophy and clarifying his disagreement's with it. He sent the article to Rand in 1979, a few years before she died.

He said the basis of the difference between Christianity and Rand's philosophy was not the question of the virtue of selfishness. In both, Piper holds, rational self-interest leads to the pursuit of personal happiness, and that to the highest good. "I cannot fault the basic validity of this approach to ethics," Piper wrote. "It is my own, as far as it goes." The difference was that Rand misunderstood the Christian concept of sacrifice. Because she didn't accept the idea of a transcendent God whose every act is to the end of God's own glory, she couldn't understand how Christ's sacrifice wasn't "altruism" as she understood it.

Piper writes,
Ayn Rand had no place for mercy, whereas Christianity has mercy at its heart. And the reason for the difference is that God was simply missing in Ayn Rand's universe. Since there was no God from whom she had received everything undeserved, and since there was no God who promised to reward every act that showed his supreme worth, she could only conceive of sacrifice as the immoral suicide of one's own values.
Piper is ultimately critical of Rand. He doesn't believe that her thought can be saved from her atheism, though he does go as far as to say he stands "in awe of her mental powers." She is a tragic figure, for him.

One could imagine the priest in the forthcoming Ayn Rand film similarly, when he turns away from the hero of selfishness who won't accept help, thinks the woman and her philosophy are tragic. The project of reconciliation seems to end here, with a nod of recognition and sympathy, but nothing more.

The project of bringing the two together fails.

Perhaps the larger reason this project fails, though, is that so many have found ways to bring capitalism and Christianity together without having to recuperate Rand for Jesus. A lot of conservative Christians, embracing the idea of free markets, would argue that Rand is not just wrong about altruism or self-sacrifice or Jesus, she's wrong about capitalism.

Marvin Olasky, one of the men behind George Bush's talk of compassionate conservatism, has made this argument. The late Chuck Colson, a religious right activist, made this argument. Joe Carter, writing for the Acton Institute, a think tank that is all about bringing together Christian values and market values, makes this argument too.

"Ultimately," Carter writes, "Rand's egoism is irreconcilable with both Christianity and capitalism."

That is to say, conservative American Christians generally find that it's Rand's valorization of heroic selfishness, rather than the compatibility of God and markets, that is truly derogatory to capitalism.