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Jesus or Ayn Rand - can conservatives claim both?
Author Ayn Rand stands in New York City in this 1957 photo. Her criticism of religion outraged some, but her books remain popular.
June 29th, 2011
10:22 AM ET

Jesus or Ayn Rand - can conservatives claim both?

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:

Rand said religion was ‘evil,’ called the message of John 3:16 ‘monstrous,’ argued that the weak are beyond love and undeserving of it, that loving your neighbor was immoral and impossible…

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.”

Sapp added:

Hard to reconcile leaders of ‘God’s Own Party’ praising someone who is about as anti Christ as one can get, huh?”

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:

 I don’t think what Ayn Rand advocates in 'Atlas Shrugged' and what Jesus teaches in the Sermon on the Mount are compatible. She’s an egoist and therefore an individualist.  Jesus is advocating altruism and collectivism.

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:

There is nothing wrong in helping other people, if and when they are worthy of the help and you can afford to help them. I regard charity as a marginal issue. What I am fighting is the idea that charity is a moral duty and a primary virtue.

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.

Brooks wrote:

It is they, not the Mother Teresas of the world that we should strive to be like and teach our kids the same.

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?

- CNN Writer

Filed under: Belief • Books • Business • Christianity • Culture wars • Economy • Ethics • Politics

soundoff (1,025 Responses)
  1. Daniel

    This question has been wrestled with before this generation. Here's how one Christian pastor balances an appreciation for Ayn Rand with a critique of her essentially selfish ethics.

    http://www.desiringgod.org/resource-library/articles/the-ethics-of-ayn-rand

    June 29, 2011 at 3:11 pm |
    • Jacobi

      Yeah, people LOVE to justify their own hypocrisy. Nobody is more convinced of their dedication to Christianity than Skinheads, but it doesn't mean they're right.

      June 29, 2011 at 3:15 pm |
    • M.

      Jacobi, at least pretend that you browsed John Piper's article (admittedly a long beginning, gets better toward the end) before you launch into a skinhead comparison. I'm still feeling the backlash from your leap to conclusion.

      June 29, 2011 at 3:41 pm |
    • Daniel

      A couple of contrasting summary paragraphs, where he praises her for her reliance on reason, and rejects her own rejection of mercy:

      I agree with Ayn Rand that if man is to survive and live as man, he must live by his reason. That is he must think clearly about reality and make judgments on the basis of what he perceives to be real. “Why do you not judge for yourselves what is right?” Jesus asked (Luke 12:57; see 1 Corinthians 10:15; 11:13). It is true that whatever negates, opposes, or destroys rationality or logic is evil. Blind faith is not a virtue.

      and

      Since Ayn Rand had no place for a sovereign all-sufficient God who cannot be traded with, she did not reckon with any righteous form of mercy. All the antagonists of her books were corrupt by almost any standard and surely by a Christian one. It is indeed evil to love a person “for their vices”; it is evil “to give unearned respect” (AS, 367). But mercy in the Christian sense is not respect, nor is it a payment for someone’s vices. It is not “because of” vices, but “in spite of” vices. It is not intended to reward evil, but to reveal the bounty of God who cannot be traded with but only freely admired and enjoyed. It aims not to corrupt or compromise integrity, but to transform the values of the enemy into the values of Christ. While it may mean the sacrifice of some temporal pleasures, it is never the sacrifice of my values and so is never self-less.

      June 29, 2011 at 3:51 pm |
  2. Fred

    I don't believe in Gay marriage but love Elton John's Music and lyrics. Why can't I love the message of a book written by someone who does not have my same religious beliefs?

    June 29, 2011 at 3:10 pm |
    • Jacobi

      You should be legally barred from trying to write Metaphors. You suck at it.

      June 29, 2011 at 3:17 pm |
    • Laughing

      Your obvious hate aside,

      Would you like an elton john song that was specifically geared towards how great it is to be gay, and further gay rights and all that jazz. Your analogy doesn't hold because the IDEAS of the two stories are directly at odds with one another.

      June 29, 2011 at 3:17 pm |
  3. woodrow

    This question is one I've had for the last 20 years. How can the conservative party be hoodwinked into Ayn Rand's absurd philosophies? When the banks collapsed a few years back, everyone suddenly realized, people working in their own best interest (Rand's core philosophy) will destroy with impunity then run for the hills while the economy burns.

    June 29, 2011 at 3:06 pm |
    • Bruce

      Hey woodrow, you are right, except of course that part about "everybody realized." In truth, very few people realized then, nor do they realize now, that the kind of capitalism that ruled in the bank fiasco is unsustainable.

      June 29, 2011 at 3:12 pm |
  4. Shraeve

    Vastly more people have tortured or murdered in the name of Christianity than in the name of Ayn Rand.

    June 29, 2011 at 3:06 pm |
    • rodt

      Give it a few thousand years

      June 29, 2011 at 3:08 pm |
    • Lenny

      Unrestrained capitalism hasn't been entirely devoid of exploitation and human suffering.

      June 29, 2011 at 3:10 pm |
    • Joleen

      Just because they do not use Ayn Rand's name, does not mean they are not following her ideas. The ideas didn't start with Ayn Rand and won't end with her either. Variants are survival of the fittest, get yours and get out, and other nonsustainable ideas. Anyone who has spent much time in the wilderness will realize that survival of the fittest was a shallow look at the natural world, and that cooperation is prevalent, even among lions.

      June 29, 2011 at 3:11 pm |
    • Mavent

      I see Shraeve is using the "let's be a stupid as humanly possible" theory of argument. One HELL of a lot more people have been tortured and murdered due to personal selfishness and greed (Rand's ideals) than due to Charity and Love (Christ's ideals.) In case Shraeve missed it, the whole point of this article is that a lot of people claim to follow Christ, but in fact believe the exact opposite of what Christ taught.

      June 29, 2011 at 3:13 pm |
    • PGZ

      Vastly more have been sacrificed on the altars of socialism than either of the above. It is amazing that atheists will constantly parrot the tired slogans about torture and murder in the name of Christ without the least acknowledgment that the most astonishing atrocities of the 20th century, which dwarf those of all the previous centuries combined, had absolutely nothing to do with religion. Stalin, Hitler, Pol Pot et. al. were NOT Christians; no, they claimed that their wholesale organized murder was rational and scientific.

      June 29, 2011 at 3:20 pm |
    • Henry

      PGZ

      You should explore history/economics a bit more. Communism and socialism are different. One of the first things Lenin did when he gain power was to purge the socialists. Pol Pot and Stalin were communists not socialists. Hitler was more of a dictator than either. Regardless of which economic system any of them followed self righteousness was more at the heart of the reason they lead men to kill others. While their atrocities were bad there have actually been worse ones in history, although admittedly few. The common factor in atrocities is certainly not an economic system. Capitalist states are just as willing to actively or passively kill others as are communist and socialist states.

      June 29, 2011 at 3:28 pm |
  5. SDFrankie

    The great thing about Jesus is that he said anything you'd like him to have said. If you think for a second that any Christian is going to let a little thing like the facts get in the way of doing exactly as they please then you haven't been paying attention.

    June 29, 2011 at 3:05 pm |
    • Jacobi

      Except, of course, that not one word of what you posted is true.

      June 29, 2011 at 3:19 pm |
    • Freelance

      Jacobi, I'll counter your brilliant argument by saying everything we both said is true. That settles that. Come back when you have an example.

      June 29, 2011 at 3:43 pm |
  6. Odinate

    I think 'Applied Autism' is a much more fitting label for Rand's philosophy. When I was younger I came down with a case of Atlas Shrugged Syndrome and had my bought with her novels- I think every bookish teenager does at some point. After growing up a little and reading several biographies about her, I came to pity her rather than look up to her. I think it's very likely that she was autistic; you can get a sense of it from her characters, but it seems to be the case on you've looked into her personal life. She was a highly intelligent Jewish girl traumatized by an authoritarian, antisemitic government and reacted as one would expect.

    Bottom line, though, is that you shouldn't take political queues from someone with no knowledge of social mechanics or human nature, and even less education in economics. She was as idealistic and secluded as the whimsical, fluffy-brained campus philosophers she hated.

    June 29, 2011 at 3:05 pm |
    • Ann

      win

      June 30, 2011 at 2:43 am |
  7. Ben

    Ayn Rand was a warped, frustrated person. It's astounding that her books have gained so much influence and respect. We see the results of it, too.

    June 29, 2011 at 3:04 pm |
  8. Bree82

    If the majority of society put half of the effort into developing their intellect and forming their own beliefs that many put into living a life controlled by what any random man who claims they are spreading God's message, perhaps people would actually come to their own conclusions rather than simply accepting the ones presented to them as the one and only truth.
    Ayn Rand was by no means 100% correct, but that is the whole point of using your mind to decide what is applicable to you and what isn't. She provides that option, whereas the Bible and the organizations who promote it do not. If God truly did create all of us, why did he or she make us so narrow minded that we refuse to entertain ideas that call into question the validity of the book that is supposed to be used merely as a guide? Isn't the point of having rational thought partly so that we can call into question the things that we are unsure of, rather than continue to blindly accept them?

    June 29, 2011 at 3:04 pm |
  9. wial

    short answer: no.

    June 29, 2011 at 3:04 pm |
  10. nvandyk

    Since when does one have to believe in the totality of every single though every uttered by a person to have some of their ideas of merit?

    Rand argues against statism - the right of the government, through force and ultimately threat of death, to compel you to be charitable at the point of a gun, regardless of whether or not you agree with the charity, its recipients, or the manner and efficiency of the forced wealth redistribution that purports to advance it.

    There's no reason that one can't turn a very cynical eye to the government as a monopolistic, force-endowed agent forcing charity at gunpoint while still recognizing one's moral obligation to one's fellow man.

    Grow up.

    June 29, 2011 at 3:04 pm |
  11. Inside track to god's ear a cappella

    i can't do either one ~ just close the door and leave me alone

    June 29, 2011 at 3:03 pm |
  12. Peter

    Can you serve God and Mammon? I believe the question has been answered.

    June 29, 2011 at 3:02 pm |
  13. ncwriter

    What a silly story, it degrades the reputation of CNN. I know of nobody who "follows" Ann Rand, although I know quite a few people who have read her work. Personally, I see "Atlas Shrugged" as drawing contrasts and parallells between the United States and the Soviet Union and explaining why one economic system works and one does not. There is nothing religious or faith based about Ann Rand's work.

    June 29, 2011 at 3:01 pm |
    • wial

      actually she did have a cult-like organization. Michael Shermer has a good chapter on it in "Why People Believe Weird Things"

      June 29, 2011 at 3:06 pm |
    • Sam

      Have you heard of the AYN Rand Inst.itute? It is a think tank of Ayn Rand followers trying to have her political thought turned into the policy of the U.S.

      June 29, 2011 at 3:06 pm |
    • The good people, atheist and religious

      I think you are missing the point. It opens up the truth about who we are as people, how we think and how we manipulate our thinking. While I believe if there was a jesus, he is long dead, some of what was written is good stuff. Do the followers follow him? I have to say no.

      Greed seems to win our logic over and over again. If materialistic isn't our goal, then why deny those by depriving them healthcare? Why do we cut school budgets when these are the children that nee us most? Our tax dollars are our material possessions, dare no one to take them away.

      And the flip side? The religious who promote their good will through government grants, fact. They market themselves with our tax dollars. They can now use doantions for profit. Could the vatican exist without it? And the vaticans worth could feed the hungrey 10 times over. What does it do? How does it behave in light of clergy abuse, denials instead of doing what it right.

      We are twisted thinkers, no doubt greed is the basis for most of our thought.

      June 29, 2011 at 3:12 pm |
    • AmazingSteve

      Did you actually read "Atlas Shrugged"? Because if you did, you would remember the large sections of the book which directly criticized religion. There were no veiled metaphors that could be misinterpreted, just multiple instances in the book stating that religion is at it's very core, evil and subversive.

      June 29, 2011 at 3:14 pm |
  14. Joleen

    Ayn Rand was an extremist, why would anyone follow her? The Religious Right are extremists, why would anyone follow them? Neither side has an ounce of compassion or forgiveness, and both are so egotistical that they think they have the only answer. I'm tired of all extremists, including the financial/banking/wall street extreme greed. They can all take a dunk as far as I'm concerned.

    June 29, 2011 at 3:01 pm |
  15. Joshee

    I have read most of her books and the bible, they all inspired me to think, I wonder why this is so wrong with Christians and Atheists...relax people...

    June 29, 2011 at 3:01 pm |
    • Joleen

      Reading and thinking about... does not equate to living an extremist value. I have read Ayn Rand and the Bible and I am a Christian without being a crazed gay-basher who thinks marriage and two kids is the only way. I'm not sure how they came up with their formula but I have read the Bible through many times and see more humanity and forgiveness, gentler and kinder behavior. Go figure. I do not see giving in to greed and corruption, or any form of facism (by the RR) as a possibility, and I do not see giving our country away to illegal immigrants as a requirement.

      June 29, 2011 at 3:07 pm |
  16. Truthseeker

    The answer to this question is derived from this question...Who you worship? Do you worship self, or do you worship God. Jesus posed a similar question of the socio-religio-politico-leaders of his day in Matt 6:1-6 and on another occasion where he chided them Matt 15:9 I would argue the Rand worshipped self and so do most politicians, regardless of what religious labels they put on themselves.

    June 29, 2011 at 3:00 pm |
  17. MHB

    Just goes to show how hypocritical the religious right is. They do not really support a capitalist economy. They support the political party (GOP) that ostensibly stands capitalism and stand for and promotes individual achievment whle eschewing collectivism, yet they really are collectivists – just for their own world view of a conservative fiscal policy coupled with "conservative social values." But if you really want capitalism, you have to take all that goes with it, but from an economic and social standpoint.

    June 29, 2011 at 2:59 pm |
    • acts 431

      Republicans, the Tea Party and so-called conservatives are nothing but self-centered, money-hungry opportunists who are simply using politics and voters to promote their "me-first" agenda. Holding Ayn Rand in high esteem says it all!!!

      June 29, 2011 at 3:08 pm |
    • DesiJoe

      Liberals at their 'Gotchya' best!!!
      But think about it...One cannot believe in George Soros and Paul Krugman at the same time!
      One cannot even believe in Barack Obama of '08 and Barack Obama of '11 simultaneously.
      Conservatives – not all; contrary to the liberal stereotyping, some conservatives are Jewish, Buddhist, Sikhs, Hindus and even Muslims – worship Jesus. They proscribe to SOME THOUGHTS of Ayn Rand. It's like Obama says: we can walk and chew gum at they same time. Only our gums are bought with our own money, not government handouts.

      June 29, 2011 at 3:18 pm |
    • wial

      Yup. If you read the Book of Acts, it's obvious the early Christians were more communist than almost any group before or since.

      June 29, 2011 at 3:49 pm |
  18. Dagny

    Ayn Rand wasn't entirely against charity. She was against giving to people who refused to help themselves and felt like it was society's duty to take care of them. Even being a Christian I have to agree with that.

    June 29, 2011 at 2:58 pm |
    • Mistysmom

      Many of the people who we believe refuse to help themselves have emotional issues, mental issues, substance issues, childhood issues, is it moral to forsake them, I'm agnostic, judging folks unless we've walked a miles in their shoes is selfish.

      June 29, 2011 at 3:08 pm |
    • AmazingSteve

      However, she was also ADAMANTLY against religion, as she saw it as illogical and a potent way for the weak to control the strong. Objectivism is rooted in Ayn Rand's version of rationality, and religious thought is very much at odds with that.

      June 29, 2011 at 3:08 pm |
    • Mavent

      Then you're not really a Christian. You're just calling yourself that because you think it gives you a broader range of people to hate. Christ said "Judge not". Christ said "Sell all that you have, and give to the poor." You know what he NEVER said? "Base your morality on your political affiliations." He also never said "Give to the poor, unless you think they deserve to be poor."

      June 29, 2011 at 3:09 pm |
    • acts 431

      Based on your comment, you are NOT a Christian! Read the Bible!

      June 29, 2011 at 3:11 pm |
    • Dean Richards

      It's nice that you have found something palatable amongst her diatribes. Now explain the Biblical angle on "The Virtues of Selfishness." I'm sure one can cherry-pick all kinds of Christian ideas from any philosophy. Does that make them all Christian?

      June 29, 2011 at 3:15 pm |
  19. Shamrock6

    I wonder if Jesus ever stopped his apostles and said...Check this out...and then ripped a huge fart.

    June 29, 2011 at 2:58 pm |
    • John Galt

      Keep wondering those things that challenge your mind.

      June 29, 2011 at 3:04 pm |
    • acts 431

      No, but He probably would have stopped His apostles and said...See that guy over there. He's a huge fart!!!

      June 29, 2011 at 3:14 pm |
    • Laughing

      Read Lamb: The gospel according to Biff. Spectacular read.

      June 29, 2011 at 3:19 pm |
  20. Sock-Ra-Tease

    Who do YOU include in YOUR moral universe? That is the issue!
    Too many of the rich have internalized Rand's class conscious, passionately acquisitive, me first worldview. They pursue their goals without regard for the welfare of those who will suffer if they get their way. They would instinctively exclude from their moral universe the vast majority of the human race, past, present and future.

    These materialistic elitist find their worldview reflected in the message of the Republican Party that wants to limit welfare to the rich and to large corporations, while confining the non-rich to a life of Darwinian capitalism, even as they deprive them of rights as workers.

    It’s going to be sink or swim for the non-rich if the Republican Party gets its way because they intend to end social welfare and reduce government to a strong military, to protect the American Empire, and a strong police force to protect property, esp. the property of the rich in their gated communities. Much of this wealth overbalance that has recently accrued to the rich is the result of the deliberate government policy of shifting wealth upward through the unethical and prejudicial use of tax laws.

    There exists no moral principle that justifies taking from those who have too little, in order to give it to those who already have super-abundance and the rich know it. In Rand they are looking for philosophical support and political cover for the careless evil they intend to perpetrate on the vast majority of the American People. Shame on them!

    June 29, 2011 at 2:58 pm |
    • One of the $250K "millinoaires???

      "There exists no moral principle that justifies taking from those who have too little, in order to give it to those who already have super-abundance and the rich know it. In Rand they are looking for philosophical support and political cover for the careless evil they intend to perpetrate on the vast majority of the American People. Shame on them!"

      I would argue that there is no moral principle that say I should have to be taxed more (of my hard earned and well saved/spent dollars) to support idiots who think they can spend spend spend and let good ole' uncle sam and the other hard working tax payers bail them out! I don't want to share my money with you when you dress your kids better than mine, you eat fancier than I do and you drive a nicer car!! (I've seen it all in the ER where I worked).

      June 29, 2011 at 3:08 pm |
    • Tim

      Life used to be "sink or swim" We rewarded people for working and achieving. Now people are rewarded for simply existing and doing nothing to improve their lives short of crapping out child after child and refusing to get a job.

      June 29, 2011 at 3:15 pm |
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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 with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.