June 29th, 2011
10:22 AM ET
By John Blake, CNN
(CNN)– Can a person follow Ayn Rand and Jesus?
That’s the question posed by a provocative media campaign that claims that some prominent conservative leaders cannot serve two masters: Jesus and the controversial author of "Atlas Shrugged," Ayn Rand.
The American Values Network, a group of political activists and pastors, sparked a debate when it recently released a video challenging some conservative and Republican leaders’ professed admiration for Rand, an atheist who saw selfishness as a virtue and celebrated unfettered capitalism.
Eric Sapp, AVN’s executive director, said the Republican Party cannot portray itself as a defender of Christian values and then defend the worldview of "the patron saint of selfishness" who scorned religion and compassion.
Sapp singled out Republican leaders such as Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wisconsin, Sen. Rand Paul, R-Kentucky, and talk radio host Rush Limbaugh after all of them expressed admiration for Rand.
Ryan, architect of the GOP’s propsed budget and Medicare plan, once said that Rand’s philosophy was “sorely needed right now,” and that she did a great job of explaining “the morality of capitalism.”
Sapp sees little morality in Rand's worldview:
Sapp cited conservative leader Chuck Colson who released a video condemning Rand’s “Atlas Shrugged” as a silly novel that “peddles a starkly anti-Christian philosophy.”
Onkar Ghate, a senior fellow at the Ayn Rand Center for Individual Rights in Washington, said the philosophies of Christianity and Ayn Rand are incompatible.
Jesus taught that people should love and serve others, including their enemies. Rand taught that people's fundamental focus should be on their individual happiness, he said:
Rand died in 1982, but she remains polarizing. The great recession has triggered new interest in her novel, “Atlas Shrugged.” The book depicts a bleak future where the U.S. government has seized control of private industry and discouraged innovation.
The book may have been rooted in Rand's childhood trauma. She was born in Russia in 1905, and saw the Communist Party come to power in a violent revolution. Her family was left destitute after party officials seized her father’s business.
She immigrated to the United States where she eventually became a screenwriter. She ultimately made her mark through her novels. Critics say Rand’s characters were stilted mouthpieces for her philosophy of Objectivism, which insists that individuals should be driven by “rational self-interest.” Still, "Atlas Shrugged" is now considered one of the most influential books of the 20th century.
Rand's philosophy didn’t say much good about religion. In a 1964 Playboy interview posted on the Ayn Rand Center for Individual Rights site, she said that religious faith is “a negation of human reason” and charity wasn’t a virtue.
Rand told Playboy:
Defenders of Rand say that a person can adopt elements of Rand’s philosophy and reject whatever clashes with their faith.
Yaron Brooks, president of the Ayn Rand Center for Individual Rights, also defended Rand’s philosophy in a recent CNN.com commentary.
He said while people call Jesus or Mother Teresa heroes, they should use the same description for people like 19th century oil tycoon, John D. Rockefeller and inventor and businessman, Thomas Edison.
Their pursuit of personal profit is a virtue because it enriches society, not just individuals, Brooks said.
Elections, some say, are ultimately a contest of ideas. It’ll be interesting to see if those political leaders who admire Rand continue to talk openly about her philosophy as the 2012 presidential campaign escalates.
Or will they deflect a question I suspect they’ll hear again and again:
How can you invoke Jesus and follow Rand?
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke and Eric Marrapodi with daily contributions from CNN's worldwide newsgathering team and frequent posts from religion scholar and author Stephen Prothero.