An odd collaboration between Ayn Rand disciples and Christian rightists, based on a mutual attraction for aggressive free enterprise, is on the upswing. The relationship seems to signal further cohesion and ideological extremism on the Tea Party right.
Ayn Rand’s followers and Christian rightists often find themselves on the same side of issues these days. The Tea Party, with its stress on robust capitalism and righteous liberty, has been a rallying point for both groups. Still, the philosophical disharmony between Christianity and objectivism (Ayn Rand’s philosophy) has commonly presented problems for anyone seeking to straddle the two worldviews. Just ask Rep. Paul Ryan.
Ryan, a conservative Catholic, made no bones about his love for Rand’s signature novel, Atlas Shrugged, when he began his political career. The novel’s portrayal of heroic entrepreneurs fighting an evil government fits perfectly with Ryan’s ideal of conservatism. But a few years ago, the congressman began to feel pushback from traditional Christians who weren’t so keen on Rand’s theological views. How, they asked, could Ryan condone an atheist who dismissed religionists as ignorant and deluded? The upshot: Ryan began parsing his words in a hurry.
Judging from recent trends, however, the icy divide over the God issue shows clear signs of melt. Gradual movement toward accommodation is coming not just from Christians wishing to co-opt Rand’s capitalistic ethic, but from Randians seeking to expand their fan base.
Atlas Shrugged Redux
A hint of compromise from the Randian side was evident this fall with the rollout of Atlas Shrugged, Part III, the final film segment of the novel. Whatever the film’s cinematic defects – it has generally been panned by critics – the filmmakers have signaled an interest in reaching beyond the usual circle of devotees, realizing apparently that traditional Christians, a key conservative demographic, are good targets for Rand’s pro-capitalist message. John Aglialoro, the movie’s main producer and a trustee of the pro-Randian Atlas Society, seemed to have their sensitivities in mind in an interview with Forbes. “Most people have a respect for spirituality, maybe even a yearning,” he said. “There must be room in objectivism for charity and benevolence.”
To be sure, the film, which shows captains of industry abandoning a society they dislike to its doom, doesn’t exactly exude “charity and benevolence.” But by emphasizing the human element of the novel and carefully omitting its attacks on religion, the movie clearly tries to broaden its appeal. John Galt, heroic rebel against government tyranny, is portrayed as a typical red-blooded American rather than the philosophical atheist of the novel. The filmmakers, moreover, reinforce his cred with the faithful by enlisting Sean Hannity and Glenn Beck, both reliable Christians, to serve as fictional newscasters for his radio speech to the nation.
The film is not simply an anomaly. It is one example of many attempts on the right to bridge, or at least make more compatible, the two worldviews. The trend is evident not only in the world of pop culture, but in religion, public advocacy and politics.
A Quest for Common Ground
Two Christian intellectuals have advanced the issue in public forums. Mark Henderson, author of The Soul of Atlas: Ayn Rand, Christianity, and the Quest for Common Ground (2013), approaches the problem in personal terms. He narrates how his two fathers (one biological, the other step) alternatively promoted Christian and Randian value systems as he was growing up. While the contrast initially resulted in confusion for Henderson, it eventually produced in him a parallel attraction for both viewpoints. Without ever reconciling them, he tries to show how a person might graft them together into an operable worldview.
David Kotter, an associate professor at Colorado Christian University, takes a more academic look at the issue, having authored papers comparing the outlooks of John Galt and Jesus Christ. One is aptly titled “Check Your Premises: Ayn Rand Through a Biblical Lens.” Although aware of the discrepancies between them, Kotter finds much about the redemption theme common to both. Both sources are clearly in the business of saving humankind. In concluding, he writes: “The ideal man that Ayn Rand both created and desired bears an uncanny resemblance to Jesus Christ.” The blasphemy of the comparison does not seem to bother Kotter, a conservative Christian. Indeed, it strikes a similar chord among many of his peers. In fact, he and Henderson recently contributed to a panel featuring the topic sponsored by a Christian think tank, the Institute for Faith, Work, and Economics (TIFWE).
Vehicles of Collaboration
TIFWE, founded in 2011, is a striking example of a Christian research organization promoting unfettered free enterprise. Self-described as a “biblical advocacy think tank” aimed at fostering “biblical economic principles,” it advances the view that a pure kind of capitalism is consistent with God’s will, an approach that is actually well entrenched on the Christian right. The work ethic, we are told, enables humans to glorify God’s creation. What is noteworthy here is that TIFWE has close ties to not-so-Christian libertarian entities. According to SourceWatch, the think tank is affiliated with two Koch-controlled trusts and has a senior vice president at Koch Industries as a trustee. The Koch brothers, needless to say, are well-known promoters of free-market orthodoxy and fans of Rand’s economic philosophy.
Collaboration between Christian rightists and laissez-faire capitalists extends to the political realm as well. The Tea Party has been a particularly useful vehicle for bringing the two groups together, as shown by the role of Americans for Prosperity (AFP), a group controlled by the Koch brothers and headed by evangelical conservative Tim Phillips. While AFP hews closely to a free-market economic message, it knows how to appeal to a Christian audience. A recent example was the organization’s “Defending the American Dream Summit” in Dallas this September, which seemed “half sales pitch, half religious revival” to reporter Christopher Hooks of the Texas Observer.
A Rising Star
Perhaps the most unexpected boost to the Randian-Christian courtship occurred this year in the Republican congressional primaries. A Christian academic with an affinity for Rand defeated one of the GOP’s major leaders in Congress. We refer, of course, to David Brat, the upstart winner over Eric Cantor (and over his token Democratic opponent in November) in Virginia’s 7th congressional district.
Brat, an economist with a degree in theology, embodies a new type of politician who believes the two disciplines are intertwined. For him, religion is the handmaiden of economics. Brat considers Protestantism, which traditionally viewed economic pursuits as a valid “calling” in God’s eyes, a key factor behind the capitalist ethic (a theme introduced by sociologist Max Weber). In today’s world, he supports a rejuvenated form of free enterprise backed by religious faith. “We need to synthesize Christianity and capitalism,” he states in a recent paper.
The aim of the synthesis, it should be emphasized, is not to soften the edges of capitalism, but to make it more robust. Brat is clearly an advocate of a hard-nose Christianity that does away with safety nets and sissy regulations. Charity by this view is commonly reduced to a lecture about self-help.
With his strong views, Brat can be expected to strengthen the ranks of the inflexible in the next Congress. He will help to fill the brainpower void on the Republicans’ right flank and likely aid in fashioning an intellectual basis for radical Tea Party ideas, using Christian and economic justifications.
These developments should not be taken lightly. Anything that unifies extreme groups and fires their ideology should raise alarms. One should keep in mind, however, that the Christian-Randian faction might have some difficulty papering over its legacy of contradictions. In the heat of politics, such contradictions have a way of surfacing when least expected. Critics and parodists should be on the lookout.