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. Laura

    How utterly simplistic. First of all, Ayn's philosophy is just that – a philosophy, not a religion.

    2nd – It is possible to like some of her views while not believing others. I am a Christian but like some of her views on politics and ethics. Namely, that charity should be voluntary not through force by the government. Ayn believed in acting in your own self interest and even stated that there are situations in which it is in your interest to be charitable.

    Lastly, it is her view on free-market capitalism that most people admire.

    How about these Bible verses? Wouldn't Ayn agree with these? But of course, they do not reflect your sensationalist Liberalism, do they?

    Prov. 13:4 – The soul of the sluggard craves and gets nothing, while the soul of the diligent is richly supplied.

    2 Thessalonians 3:10 -For even when we were with you, we would give you this command: If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat.

    Proverbs 12:24 -The hand of the diligent will rule, while the slothful will be put to forced labor.

    Matthew 5:3 – Blessed are the poor IN SPIRIT (YOU eft those 2 words out – are you sure they meant poor in money???)

    Lastly, to those non-Christians who judge others, who appointed you as the judge of man-kind and how it is that you are so enlighted that we should listen to you?

    And to those Christians who judge, better read your Bible about what it says about judging Christians and non-Christians.

    And if you vote for someone because he likes Christianity and/or Ayn Rand, that is really pathetic. We are not electing saints, we are election people who can work with congress to help straighten out this mess.

    August 15, 2012 at 3:17 pm |
  2. Adam

    Wouldnt "Randism" just be a branch from Nietzschean Nihilism? If so, havent we already had this discussion? \

    I will add this: christianity does not tell its followers to demand that "the government" support the poor...it tells its supporters THEMSELVES to support the poor...to the detriment of their own.

    August 15, 2012 at 3:17 pm |
    • Topher

      Exactly. It should be my choice where my money is donated. Not the government's.

      August 15, 2012 at 3:18 pm |
  3. coefficient

    Objectivism (I'm not familiar with "Randism") is a philosophy, not a religion. It completely lacks the spiritual or supernatural aspects of a religion and it focuses on "rational individualism", a concept in opposition to most religious doctrine. There is no prayer, no spirits, no greater powers, no recognized clerical authority, no adopted symbols, etc. Flawed as it may be, it has its points – all of which are clearly earthly and focused on dealing with human nature and those practices that maximize monetary wealth. Its attacks on other non-religious philosophies such as secular humanism are unfortunate and, in my opinion, render it largely unusable as a system. Religions, Rand argued, were no more than organizations designed by "Witch Doctors" to separate people from their own free will in order to obtain power and money.

    August 15, 2012 at 3:16 pm |
  4. old ben


    August 15, 2012 at 3:16 pm |
    • save the world and slap some sense into a christard today!

      This further supports my interpretation of the aztec calendar (where the center shows a crowned face with tongue hanging out). A clear foretelling of the zombie apocalypse slightly eclipsed by the diamond jubilee.

      August 15, 2012 at 3:20 pm |
  5. Bob

    I quite agree with the gist of this article but it doesn't provide quite enough context. Rand was as much a reactionary as a visionary. Her love of unregulated capitalism (the kind Ryan advocates) was not based on logical economic analysis (as were the ideas of Marx, Malthus and Mill) but on her hatred of communism. She had been a member of the upper class (the haves) when the Bolsheviks came to power and was relieved of her family fortune and relegated to working for a living. Her atheism came from Nietzsche, who blamed the teachings of Jesus Christ for the economic problems in Germany in the late 1800's. His book, The Antichrist, explains that the weak are only in the way of superior men and drag them down. Christian charity is a curse. Democracy then is a system of government that allows the weak and the inferior to pass laws that restrict superior men (like Romney and Ryan, one must suppose), forcing them to live in an unnatural state. It's a mind boggling read. In any case, even a brief analysis of the ideas put forth by Ryan reflect the philosophies of Rand and Nietzsche, not those of Jesus Christ, or even of the founding fathers of our country. They were firm believers in democracy. Rand and Nietzsche were clearly not. Nietzsche's superman was the role model for Adolph Hitler, along with other twentieth century dictators.
    The message of Jesus Christ has never been poplar with the rich and super rich because he taught that sharing with and caring for those less fortunate than ourselves was what God expected of us. He said that it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. I do not believe for one minute that a person can be a follower of Rand and a follower of Christ. They are at opposite poles on how the wealth of a society should be distributed. The philosophy of Jesus Christ is that of a pacifist and one who values acts of kindness and generosity over the amassing of material wealth. He lays the burden of tending to the weak upon the strong. Rand's philosophy is the dog-eat-dog, winner-take-all philosophy of the Teutonic war lord. It is the dark side of paganism. If Ryan claims he can be both a good Christian and a follower of Rand he is either lying through his teeth or just not bright enough to understand how far apart these opposing philosophies are. Either way, he does not belong in government, at least not in a Christian nation.

    August 15, 2012 at 3:16 pm |
    • Seriously?

      This is not a Christian nation.

      August 15, 2012 at 3:22 pm |
  6. BinaryTruth

    God hates Republicans.

    August 15, 2012 at 3:15 pm |
  7. Ni

    Christianity says to give to the poor.
    I post fundraisers on FB to encourage my friends to give to the poor.
    Christianity teaches forgiveness.
    I wrote in an email to a friend saying that she should forgive her ex.
    I am not a christian, so I did not get these teachings from your bible, therefore, by your very own standards, I am the head of my own religion.

    As you very well know, christians trying, in every way possible, to brand atheism a religion is nothing but a tired argument showing nothing but an inability to distinguish belief from non belief. Making atheism a religion allows you to add stereotypical brandings to it. This is wrong. Rands atheism and her fiscal conservatism were two completely different things.
    Stating that you will have people that disagree with your comparison does not make it any more right, it just shows your refusal to accept you are using a bogus concept. And here I defended you as a pretty rational christian...

    August 15, 2012 at 3:15 pm |
  8. birch please

    ie most republicans are stupid, racist, schizophrenic sheep. Many democrats are useless freeloaders, but at least they have their heads on straight and are not pawns of the corporatocracy.

    August 15, 2012 at 3:14 pm |
  9. JC

    I find it interesting CNN took the time to consider a VP candidate's praise for the writer of some overrated novels versus his Catholic beliefs. Did CNN,with or without,Mr Prothero publish the same considerations about President Obama's Christian beliefs versus his patronage of Rev J. Wright's church, his education in a madrasah or his mentorship under Frank Marshall Davis? I hope so and if not there is still time to do so.

    August 15, 2012 at 3:13 pm |
  10. old ben

    [youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hsspXHADa4c&version=3&hl=en_US&rel=0%5D

    August 15, 2012 at 3:11 pm |
  11. Paul

    Without the poor there can be no rich, no matter how much the rich despise them.

    August 15, 2012 at 3:10 pm |
  12. DC

    This is an opinion piece? Its a joke. If the author read the book he didn't understand it.

    The author compares a living breathing individual with a mythical being (God) and then somehow surmises that the mythical being must be central to life.

    The speech about money that you refer to, actually gives reasons why money is the root of everything good. Money is the medium through which people trade goods and services. Money allowed people to save to aspire towards bigger things rather than resorting to robbery or theft.

    What is wrong about believing in individual heroism? Isn't that what we celebrate in life everyday? Weren't Charles Sullenberger, Steve Jobs et al individuals?

    Capitalism is what has made this forum possible for you to rant and rail against it. Try doing this in China and you will learn soon enough.

    August 15, 2012 at 3:10 pm |
    • DC

      As for all the brouhaha against 'selfishness', Randian selfishness is defined as primarily the will to exercise one's own right on one's mind, body and material possessions – however one chooses to use them.
      It DOES NOT mean looting people to fill your pockets.
      It DOES NOT mean forcing someone to trade with you.
      Its the opposite of selfishness as we commonly use in life.

      Similarly her abhorrence to the word altruism. Most evils are perpetrated in the name of unselfish altruistic ends.

      August 15, 2012 at 3:14 pm |
    • birch please

      The point of the article is not to say that worshiping money is bad in general, just if your a christian it is against your religion.

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

      birch: what do you or the author mean by "praying money" ? Is working to earn a living considered praying money – ergo verboten in Christianity? What are you talking about?

      August 15, 2012 at 3:17 pm |
    • birch please

      I said "worshiping" money. Working just to "earn a living" and not to pursuing your own selfish interests (ie money and power) are two separate things.

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

      The irony of blasting a piece as being "opinionated" only to turn around and assert your opinion/belief as a truth. LOL

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

      upset much?

      August 15, 2012 at 4:09 pm |
  13. open400

    Ayn Rand was for the separation of the government from the economy. Ayn Rand felt that the social injustices were eventually hashed out in the free market, but the lessons of history point otherwise – slavery,child labor and human working conditions were not ended by the free market – they were ended by a civil war,unions,strikes and legislation.

    August 15, 2012 at 3:10 pm |
  14. Raymondo

    Two objections: 1) "Poor" does not equal "moocher" in "Randism". 2) Every protagonist in Rand's novels is ethical. They are more ethical than every Christian I personally know. What this author does, just as every author who portrays her in a negative light does, is talk about selfish pursuits. A major component of that, though, is that one does not impede on the rights of others. That part never gets mentioned. If you volunteer in a soup kitchen because you get satisfaction out of it, that is a selfish pursuit.

    August 15, 2012 at 3:10 pm |
    • clubschadenfreude

      define "ethical".

      August 15, 2012 at 3:11 pm |
    • Raymondo

      pertaining to or dealing with morals or the principles of morality; pertaining to right and wrong in conduct.

      August 15, 2012 at 3:14 pm |
  15. old ben

    [youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hsspXHADa4c?rel=0&w=560&h=315%5D

    August 15, 2012 at 3:10 pm |
  16. Pat Johnson

    Some people are missing the point. We do have an obligation as caring people and citizens to care for some of those who cannot take care of themselves. Some of these people have served this country and fought in wars so we can maintain our freedom and continue our lifestyle. Also many people who are needy have at some point worked and paid taxes and contributed to our great nation. I cannot see where since Bush gave the tax breaks to the top earners that our economy has gotten any better. The citizens who have been given the big breaks have not created more jobs nor have they given raises and better benefits to their workers. They have kept the money for the top executives and continue to use the little people. When will they realize this upside down pyramid does not work. All you have to do is look at the economy when Clinton was president. I may have paid a little more taxes, but my standard of living was much better. We need to get back to having an economically healthy middle class and everything else will work it self out. Also, stay out of wars and spend the money on the citizens who pay taxes. Congress needs term limits as they have been a bunch of do nothing reps sucking the life out of this country. No president can govern with this obstructive climite. We need to get back to working together for the betterment of this great nation,.

    August 15, 2012 at 3:08 pm |
  17. Mattand


    "Jesus' basic philosophy was no work, no food among his group."

    Citation needed.

    August 15, 2012 at 3:04 pm |
    • clubschadenfreude

      yep, where does it say that at all that JC required work for food? JC said to give up *all* wealth you have (so the apostles abandoned being "job creators") and follow him depending on God for everything. It was only Paul who realized that no god was coming back any time soon that decided it was okay for Christians to work.
      and about those 1000s fed by JC. Funny how no one noticed a Roman legion's worth of people gathering just outside of an occupied city.

      August 15, 2012 at 3:10 pm |
  18. Scholar

    Would either Rand or Ryan endorse the practices of Goldman-Sachs that sold securities and lied about them to unsuspecting investors because they had also bought an AAA rating for those securities?

    Capitalism in Rand's time centered on the inherent worth of companies and their stock. Today, the stock markets have become nothing more than the largest legalized gambling houses. The market in derivatives is driven by the computer trading manufactured fears and the machinations of the speculators in the market.

    One trades in a company's stock or in a derivative that bets against the rise of that company's stock. Laissez-faire capitalism is now meaningless. Capital is moving in circles without adding to the GNP.

    We could use a really good conflict in the Middle East to totally disrupt the flow of oil to quell speculation by government fiat.

    August 15, 2012 at 3:03 pm |
  19. Bert

    This article seems over generalized. You can agree with some of Ayn Rand’s ideas while disagreeing with her religious ideas. I suspect the author is liberal. Most of the 12 apostles. were "job creators" they owned a fishing businesses. Paul was self employed as a tent maker. Jesus' basic philosophy was no work, no food among his group. He did feed 1000s but did he do it using the government? No!

    August 15, 2012 at 3:01 pm |
    • Dan

      I almost fell out of may chair laughing at the idea that most of the 12 apostles were 'job creators'. Thanks for the chuckle.

      August 15, 2012 at 3:06 pm |
    • Nick

      Perfect – of course now the media will demonize you because they don't like free speech that doesn't agree with their pre-conceived ideas.

      August 15, 2012 at 3:16 pm |
    • Mark

      Please tell me this comment was tongue-in-cheek...

      August 15, 2012 at 3:16 pm |
  20. cuttingedge

    Standing ovation is my comment , great article, game changer....

    August 15, 2012 at 3:00 pm |
    • I'm not a GOPer, nor do I play one on TV

      Yes, I thought Mr. Prothero wrote a compelling and thought-provoking piece today. Kudo's Mr. Prothero.

      August 15, 2012 at 3:05 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.