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My Take: Christianity and Ayn Rand's philosophy are 2 distinct religions
Ayn Rand's book "The Fountainhead" and the Bible.
August 15th, 2012
11:29 AM ET

My Take: Christianity and Ayn Rand's philosophy are 2 distinct religions

Editor's note: Stephen Prothero, a Boston University religion scholar and author of "The American Bible: How Our Words Unite, Divide, and Define a Nation," is a regular CNN Belief Blog contributor.

By Stephen Prothero, Special to CNN

Now that one of the Republican Party’s least ideological men (Mitt Romney) has christened one of the GOP’s most ideological men (Paul Ryan) as his running mate, Ayn Rand is back in the news.

Ryan, who used to give away Rand’s novel "Atlas Shrugged" for Christmas, once described this Russian-born preacher of heroic individualism as "the reason I got into public service.” “There is no better place to find the moral case for capitalism and individualism," he told the pro-Rand Atlas Society in 2005, "than through Ayn Rand’s writings and works."

Ryan’s religious conservatism obviously distinguishes him from Rand, an atheist who despised efforts by Ronald Reagan and others to marry church and state. And recently Ryan has tried to distance himself from her.

In an April interview with the National Review, he rooted his controversial budget plan, not in Rand’s laissez-faire philosophizing, but in Catholic values. “Don’t give me Ayn Rand,” he said. “Give me Thomas Aquinas.”

Which makes me wonder just how these two influences on Ryan stack up against one another. Is it possible to love Aquinas and Rand at the same time? About as possible as loving God and mammon since Christianity and Randism are, in my view, two competing religions.

I know that Rand was an atheist, so it may seem like a stretch to call Randism a religion. But there are plenty of religions (Buddhism, for example) that have rejected God. And like Christianity, Randism has its founder, its scriptures and its miracles (since in the Gospel of Ayn Rand there isn't anything laissez-faire capitalism and its secular saints cannot do).

Randism also has its committed devotees, including former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan, Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas and conservative talk-show hosts Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh, not to mention the myriad commenters (see below) who will no doubt object to my efforts to brand her atheism a religion.

Here are five big differences I see between the  theologies of Christianity and Randism:

1. Jesus preached the virtue of selflessness; Rand wrote a book called "The Virtue of Selfishness" (1964). Altruism is evil, she argued, and egoism the only true ethics.

2. The Apostle Paul called the love of money the root of all evil. Rand wore a dollar sign brooch and saw to it that a florid dollar sign stood guard by her casket at her funeral. She also put a love letter to the almighty dollar on the lips of one of her "Atlas Shrugged" heroes, copper magnate Francisco d’Anconia (a speech Ryan has said he returns to repeatedly when pondering monetary policy). There d’Anconia calls money “the root of all good."

3. “Blessed are the poor,” Jesus says in the Gospel of Luke. And he says in the Gospel of Matthew that “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God.” In the Gospel according to Ayn Rand, however, it is the “traders” (“job creators” in modern parlance) who like Atlas carry the weight of the world on their shoulders, while the poor are denounced as “moochers” and “looters."

4. The hope of the Christian gospel is the kingdom of God, but Rand's objectivist philosophy opposes "collectivism" at every turn. “Man - every man - is an end in himself, he exists for his own sake,” the inventor John Galt proclaims in "Atlas Shrugged," “and the achievement of his own happiness is his highest moral purpose.”

5. The ultimate concern of Christianity is God. The ultimate concern of Randism is the unfettered freedom of the individual. While the Christian Trinity comprise the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Rand’s Trinity is I, me, mine.

For years, Ryan and other conservative Republicans have been trying to have their Jesus Christ and their Ayn Rand,  too. But the two clash at least as much as an Obama/Ryan ticket.

Conservative icon William F. Buckley rightly recognized this fundamental incompatibility, running a blistering review of "Atlas Shrugged"in his National Review and denouncing that novel himself in a Charlie Rose interview as "a thousand pages of ideological fabulism.”

Evangelical leader Chuck Colson was equally critical, referring to Rand’s “idolatry of self and selfishness” as “the antithesis of Christianity.”

To his credit, Ryan seems to be acknowledging the gap between Randism and Christianity by attempting in recent months to distance himself from an intellectual mentor and emphasizing instead the Catholic roots of his budget plan.

But as Jesus once said, “By your fruits you shall know them” (Matthew 7:16), and I for one still see much more Rand than Jesus in Ryan’s Robin Hood budget.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Stephen Prothero.

Editor's note: An earlier version of this piece said that Jesus called the love of money the root of all evil. The statement should have been attributed to the Apostle Paul.

- CNN Belief Blog contributor

Filed under: 2012 Election • Atheism • Christianity • Economy • Paul Ryan • Politics • United States

soundoff (1,069 Responses)
  1. Steve T.

    Leave Buddhism out of this please. Imagine while Ayn Rand is alive: pick a random Buddhist monk, have the two debate, and the monk would win every time, with a loving, compassionate smile on their face. That would pretty much sum up what "Objectivism" (basically a very underdeveloped version of Buddhism's impermanence/emptiness) or self-centeredness is worth.

    August 15, 2012 at 3:39 pm |
  2. KNKLHEAD

    I kept glossing over this Ayn Rand thing, but this article is excellent. Maybe Catholisism is Ryan's religion, but Randism is the way he views the world. (Kind of like Mobster's who never miss Mass.)

    The formula fits with the wingnuts: all the unemployed or poor or underinsured are simply lazy and a drag. Randism is social darwinism.

    August 15, 2012 at 3:39 pm |
  3. Freedom64

    It's a stretch to identify Ryan as a Catholic or Christian at all. He may call himself that but his actions don't back it up. Christ was not a greedy selfish bigot while Ryan ( and Romney) clearly have mastered this type of hate for fellow man.

    August 15, 2012 at 3:38 pm |
  4. jim carlson

    "Ryan’s Robin Hood budget." ?? Not sure about this. Robin Hood took from the rich and gave to the poor. Ryan and his cronies want it the other way around.

    August 15, 2012 at 3:35 pm |
    • Guest

      @Jim – you missed it in the details. Obama said Romney's budget is like Robin Hood in reverse – its Romney Hood. He was making the exact point you are.

      August 15, 2012 at 3:42 pm |
  5. ObjectiveGuy

    OK, let's not let the Obama campaign and the ever-complicit media allow yet ANOTHER meaningless diversion from the real and important issues we face as a nation right now. It's clear that Obama will change the subject to almost anything in order to keep the focus off of his abysmal track record as president. I read where yesterday he brought up that Romney strapped a dog carrier to the roof of his car in the 1980's! He is actually mean and petty enough to bring this up? And this man is the president of the USA??? Look, I'm a fiscal conservative, and I have read Ayn Rand's books, yet I am not a "disciple" of Ayn Rand by any stretch. I've also read books about Marx, yet in no way am I a Marxist. Since when is it wrong to read books so that you can learn about various issues? Reading about them does NOT mean that you become brainwashed by or agree with them. It just means you expanded your mind to take in someone else's viewpoint, not that you have embraced their viewpoint. Now, on to more important issues–I have it from a reliable source that Obama killed his goldfish when he was 8 by overfeeding it. Let's start a national debate to determine if and how this affects his ability to govern this country!!!

    August 15, 2012 at 3:34 pm |
    • ArthurP

      So the Republican should have done a better job of vetting this person then.

      August 15, 2012 at 3:37 pm |
    • sonny chapman

      The well written article points out the contradiction of those who consider themselves Followers of the Teachings of Jesus Christ & Republican.

      August 15, 2012 at 3:49 pm |
  6. Dave

    I believe there are two seperate issues: 1. What the individual should do and 2. What the goverment should make the people do. I believe the Goverment should follow the "randism" as stated above but the individual should follow what is called "Christianity". Simply put.. If the goverment has to make a society give to the poor that is not generocity......I

    August 15, 2012 at 3:33 pm |
  7. Jun Lee

    1 – "Jesus preached the virtue of selflessness" – On the contrary, Christ appealed to our sense of personal gain in his exhortations. He says "what will it benefit a man to gain the whole world and lose his soul" – to me, that is a clear appeal to our sense of gain, which relies on our sense of self.
    2 – "Jesus called the love of money the root of all evil" – Paul said love of money is the root of all kinds of evil in 1 Tim. 9:10
    3 – "Blessed are the poor" – yes, they are blessed because this will change, not because they will stay poor.
    4 – Unclear what the point here is – collectivism is poisonous and super-man-ism is evil – two wrongs, same cause, namely unfettered idealizm. Christian kingdom is one in which Jesus reigns as king – a person, not some idea.

    It appears that the author view Christianity as a thought system (evidenced by this article). If you engage Christ, or let him engage you, you might see that Christ is simply pointing out 1) our need of him and 2) the fulfillment thereof through accepting his invitation. Just as in Deuteronomy, he says "[choose life by choosing me]".

    Finally, being a fan of Ayn Rand's works, I don't see why this article had to exist other than to make an attack on Paul Ryan. You can love Jesus and read, too.

    August 15, 2012 at 3:33 pm |
  8. John

    Chinese proverb say "Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime." Today that proverb reads "Give a man a fish and he'll be dependent on you for the rest of his life because he will stop working."

    August 15, 2012 at 3:32 pm |
    • sonny chapman

      Jesus said ,"Feed Them".Luke 9,13. Choose, Confucius or Jesus.

      August 15, 2012 at 3:58 pm |
    • save the world and slap some sense into a christard today!

      omg – proof that they did have fortune cookies in the middle east during jesus' time; and, of course paul just copied a copy.

      August 15, 2012 at 4:15 pm |
  9. J. Davis, Knoxville, TN

    Ryan's view of Catholism is totally wrong. Real Catholicism is about helping the poor, striving for social justice, and treating everyone as a human being. His type of Catholicism scares me. Give me Joe Biden anyday! Does Ryan have a heart?

    I don't think Mitt has a heard either–he just cares about increasing his and other rich people's wealth. We don't want this team running America. VOTE OBAMA/BIDEN
    Yellow Dog Democrat in (Republican) Tennessee

    August 15, 2012 at 3:31 pm |
    • ArthurP

      Wealth is not evil, it is not wrong, is a gift from God to be enjoyed. (Ecclesiastes 5:19)

      August 15, 2012 at 3:34 pm |
    • John

      You do realize that the Obama's are milllionaires, right? They are part of the so-called 1%. Why do democrats insist that Republicans are the rich when Democrats are rich as well? Look at those giving money to the president. You never hear about Billy Bob from Arkansas giving a party for the president to raise money because what we little people donate doesn't matter to them. They don't care! They want the Hollywood elite like Sarah Jessica Parker, and George Clooney, and the people who say they own "green" businesses to donate millions of dollars and attend their several thousand dollars-a-plate dinners. I haven't heard of Mitt attending a dinner before, only the President. I am Republican, military, and poor.

      August 15, 2012 at 3:43 pm |
    • FYI

      John, You haven't "heard" much, have you?

      Here is just a sample:

      "Romney is holding an exclusive dinner June 27 at the Georgetown home of George and Suzy Pence, which will cost $50,000 a person, according to an invitation obtained by The Washington Post.

      Meanwhile, two of Romney’s potential vice presidential running mates, Sen. Rob Portman (Ohio) and Rep. Paul Ryan (Wis.), will be the special guests at a June 25 reception at a downtown Washington rooftop geared toward young professionals. Tickets begin at $100, with co-hosts asked to give or raise $5,000.

      Romney’s wife, Ann, will headline a dinner fundraiser near Baltimore-Washington International Airport hosted by former Maryland governor Bob Ehrlich and his wife, Kendel. Tickets begin at $1,000, with dinner costing $15,000 per person.

      The three events are expected to raise more than $2 million jointly for the Romney campaign and the Republican National Committee, according to a Romney fundraiser." http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/election-2012/post/romney-plans-trio-of-dc-fundraisers-including-50k-per-person-dinner-in-georgetown/2012/06/07/gJQA8RoXLV_blog.html

      August 15, 2012 at 3:50 pm |
  10. Diane

    I am enjoying the Rand Revival that Ryan's appointment has engendered... if for no other reason than I've always been fascinated by how seriously people take their Objectivism. It was a NOVEL – full of extreme hyperbole for the sake of telling its story. Sure – it makes great points about capitalism. It also has great points about blind religious adherence. But it's also inherently flawed for its extremism – I don't think anyone who recognizes that human beings live, work, and evolved in a social setting can truly swallow the premise that "altruism is immoral" and selfishness is the best way to build what you want. It just doesn't work in a species where our survival is directly linked to our ability to function as a collective – which isn't to say we can't all go live in a 10×12 shack in the woods and scribble manifestos with pencils made from burned charcoal, but for those who would be a Howard Roark or a Hank Reardon in the real world, it's vital to also have people who are willing to empty the garbage and type their notes and do whatever "non-cutting edge" work that would severely cramp their innovation time if they had to do it for themselves. I don't think those people are drains on society – much less immoral slackers – any more than I think just because someone has $$ they are intrinsically valuable. It's worth remembering that, for all Atlas Shrugged's pointed deification of the money-makers in this world, James Taggert was a rich dude in that book, too. There is a difference between being well-paid and producing value, and my experience is that the folks who are Die Hard Randians are usually a well-paid Jim Taggert who use the theory to justify not capitalism but treating other people with disrespect.

    August 15, 2012 at 3:31 pm |
  11. mypitts2

    Yes, this part: " “idolatry of self and selfishness." Completely incompatible with Christian teachings, but quite compatible with modern-day conservatism.

    August 15, 2012 at 3:30 pm |
  12. DC

    When you claim that Rand's philosophy is akin to religion, try to think of any one religion that exhorts you to stand solely with reason, and NOT on any dogmatic belief. To go with reason is to follow a blueprint for thinking and deciding – not following some preset rules simply because they have been laid down.
    If you can understand this, you might begin to appreciate her philosophy. If not, don't worry – keep on sipping the kool-aid handed out to you by lefties or your co-religionists.

    August 15, 2012 at 3:30 pm |
    • Diane

      The reason it's equated with a religion is because Ayn Rand was famous for mandating the kool aid drinking, too. She did have a lot of incredible insight – and certainly the appeal to reason is one of them – but she wasn't particularly receptive to dialogue about her philosophies.

      August 15, 2012 at 3:35 pm |
    • DC

      Diane: Even if she was such a philosophical tyrant as you describe, that banished thinking and reason, she is no more. Has been dead for a while. What is there to stop people from objectively thinking for themselves now?
      And even when she was alive, what personal power over people did she possess?
      Can we not discuss the ideas without denigrating the person?

      August 15, 2012 at 3:38 pm |
  13. Moron

    Ayn Rand was brilliant.

    Too bad Liberals have to destroy peoples lives that do not agree with them.

    Nazism at it's finest.

    August 15, 2012 at 3:29 pm |
    • KNKLHEAD

      KNKLHEAD to MORON: 🙂 Nazism is conservatism, the opposite of Liberalism/Progressivism.

      August 15, 2012 at 3:42 pm |
    • Freedom64

      I accept you find her brillant. I happen to find her ideas simplistic and narcissistic. But the issue is our views but how someone that self proclaims to be Christian reconciles that with her very unChristian views. The simplest most rationale answer is that Ryan isn't a Christian to begin with and is free to accept views deeply counter to the teaching of Christ.

      August 15, 2012 at 4:53 pm |
  14. Doc Magnus

    Conservatives have never been shy about their cognitive dissonance – end government payouts (except for banks, agribusiness, and oil).

    August 15, 2012 at 3:28 pm |
    • Paul

      Yet this administration gives millions away to businesses (so called loans that are SUPPOSED to be repaid) that go under almost immediately. Why doesn't this adminstration stand up to these businesses that got government money (read TAX PAYER MONEY) and sue them for the money owed, plus interest? Because this government is weak and doesn't care. They got elected on money donated to them by these companies on the promise they would get "loans" and if they go under, who cares. It's not the businesses money. No, let's repay the investors and screw the tax payer.

      August 15, 2012 at 3:47 pm |
  15. RichS

    A study of theology will not reveal Ayn Rand. While she may be an atheist, and her views may seem to be at odds with Christianity, she expresses viewpoints that are quite proverbial. "Go to the ant thou sluggard, consider his ways and be wise" is just one example of agreement. The Bible says that the poor are with us always, but takes issue of the people who will not work and expect to be fed.

    August 15, 2012 at 3:27 pm |
    • Doc Magnus

      the Bible's not too crazy about the rich either.

      August 15, 2012 at 8:09 pm |
  16. jd

    I wonder what Ayn Rand would say to all of us from her eternal resting place?
    But I know there are 2 reasons why she cannot say anything at all.
    1- There is no spiritual afterlife and nothing is put there
    2- Something is out there – and controls what can and cannot be done.
    We will all have to wait and see – for my money I don't want to be near her

    August 15, 2012 at 3:26 pm |
    • Paul Rand

      the place to be is right next to Jesus ... 🙂

      of course ayn won't agree... no matter what she's a tough ole buggar 🙂

      August 15, 2012 at 3:38 pm |
  17. vince

    Good article but i think there is a factual error - when you say "But there are plenty of religions (Buddhism, for example) that have rejected God." - I don't think thats really a fair statement. I don't think most Buddhists would say they reject the Abrahamic God, but rather gods may exist but ultimately it's the individuals journey toward enlightment, recognizing the causes of suffering, and following the eightfold path that is of paramount importance. I think there is even a story where the Buddha was asked about beleiving in gods, and the Buddha responded in his typical question fashion something to the effect of "does it help you move toward enlightenment?" Implying that if it does, it's a good thing. That's not really a 'rejection" in the classic sense.

    August 15, 2012 at 3:24 pm |
    • Lester

      Very good observation.

      August 15, 2012 at 3:30 pm |
    • Randy

      I wouldn't call Buddhism a religion, more of a philosophy. Yes it does have some of the basic ideas that Christianity does but Christianity believes in God and Jesus (as does Islam both of which came from Abrahamic Judaism.) But Buddhaism deals more with becoming enlightened and trying to reach eternal peace through oneself, through body, mind, and soul, whereas Christianity is Jesus dying for man's sins, per God's promise, allowing man to have direct access to God without going through the temple priests.

      August 15, 2012 at 3:55 pm |
    • Freedom64

      Interesting information about Hinduism. Of course Mormons are not monotheist either. The worship a Christian god but believe in many gods and that humans may become gods as well.

      August 15, 2012 at 4:58 pm |
  18. Lester

    Contemporary American conservatism is much more Randism (what she called Objectivism) than Christian.

    August 15, 2012 at 3:20 pm |
    • Paul Rand

      Ayn wouldn't agree wit you

      August 15, 2012 at 3:35 pm |
  19. amaya73

    Reblogged this on TheBrabbleRabble.

    August 15, 2012 at 3:19 pm |
  20. tom evans

    Maybe "Randism" and "Christianity" seem incompatible. Guess what, science and Christianity are incompatible yet there are a lot of Christians that have come up with some very creative and contrived rational that allows them to reconcile their religion with science. It wouldn't take near the amount of creativity to reconcile Randism with Christianity.

    August 15, 2012 at 3:18 pm |
    • Topher

      That's a pretty bold statement to say science and Christianity are incompatible when in fact, science confirms the Bible.

      August 15, 2012 at 3:25 pm |
    • Smithsonian

      The stories found in the Book of Genesis, Chapter 1-12, such as the flood story, the record is quite different: the time period under consideration is much more ancient. The factual bases of the stories are hidden from our view archaeologically. The stories remain a part of folk traditions and were included in the Bible to illustrate and explain theological ideas such as: Where did humans come from? If humans were created by God (who is perfect and good), how did evil among them come to be? If we are all related as children of God, why do we speak different languages? It must be remembered that the Bible is primarily a book of religion, a guide to faith. it was not a book of history, poetry, economics, or science. It contains all sorts of literary genre, which are used to teach about the relationship between God and mankind. Even biblical history is edited history: events were chosen to illustrate the central theme of the Bible. The Biblical writers did not pretend they were giving a complete history; instead they constantly refer us to other sources for full historical details, sources such as "The Annals of the Kings of Judah" (or Israel).

      It is therefore not possible to try to "prove" the Bible by means of checking its historical or scientific accuracy. The only "proof" to which it can be subjected is this: Does it correctly portray the God-human relationship? In the best analysis, the Bible is a religious book, not an historical document.

      August 15, 2012 at 3:27 pm |
    • blahblahblah

      Nothing I can tell you in a CNN message board will change your mind. I hope you look into this further and are unbiased in your approach. I think you'd change your mind.

      August 15, 2012 at 3:33 pm |
    • Ryan

      I agree Topher. Scientists in Israel have confirmed an earthquake in Jerusalem in the same time period (I believe 3 CE and 6 CE) that the Crucifiction occured.

      August 15, 2012 at 3:58 pm |
    • So?

      "I agree Topher. Scientists in Israel have confirmed an earthquake in Jerusalem in the same time period (I believe 3 CE and 6 CE) that the Crucifiction occured."

      So just because a book might have a few historical points in it you think the whole thing is true. Many fictional writers you real historical facts in their books but it's still fiction.

      August 15, 2012 at 5:23 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.