Must Christian Voters Choose Between Ayn Rand and Jesus?

An ad produced by the American Values Network cites the aggressive atheism of the author to discredit Republican politicians who've praised her

Is Objectivism, the philosophy of Ayn Rand, compatible with Christianity? The short answer is, "Of course it isn't." As the novelist herself put it, characterizing Jesus Christ during an interview with Playboy magazine, "It is in the name of that symbol that men are asked to sacrifice themselves for their inferiors." Sent to Rick Warren's church or Hillsdale College, the typical Rand protagonist would scandalize the faithful and depart feeling not a bit guilty. So I understand why liberals find it aggravating when the GOP successfully invokes both Ms. Rand and Jesus of Nazareth, as significant a nemesis as she had, when appealing to conservative voters.  

Watching the attack ad above, however, I couldn't help but remember the good Christians I've known who loved the author after reading her most popular book, Atlas Shrugged. One of them is a firefighter in a conservative area of California. A devout family man who attends church each Sunday, he's exceptionally kind, willing to risk his life to save strangers, charitable, and earnest in the conviction that we're all sinners whose salvation depends on God's grace.

One evening, as he and I hung out, the firefighter and I got to talking about politics, Atlas Shrugged, and religion. He was a George W. Bush supporter, attracted by the faith based initiatives, the tax cuts, and the "good versus evil" attitude toward vanquishing America's enemies. He feared government so big and unaccountable that it might capriciously lord power over the citizenry, so he identified with characters like Dagny Taggart, Francisco d'Anconia, and Hank Rearden. In his estimation, they were articulating why government had no right to trespass on individual liberty he regarded as God given, and doing their utmost to work hard, play fair, and oppose autocrats. He also identified with their realization that guilt can be wielded unfairly as a weapon. 

"Do you think this book is compatible with Christianity?" he asked me, as if deeply conflicted by the question. He very much hoped so. Much of its plot coincided with his moral intuitions... the idea of objective right and wrong, the importance of doing what you regard to be right without compromise, even its mockery of original sin as a moral abomination. But its atheistic passages are explicit. Unnerved by cognitive dissonance, he explained that the Bible also struck him as profoundly true, and that his own life was testament to Christianity's transformative power. He felt particularly conflicted about Eddie Willers, a character whose moral goodness is beyond question, but who is abandoned by his friends because he lacks their intelligence and intellectual courage. "Why not treat him more like Jesus would have?" he said. "I don't see how that would harm the important parts of Ayn Rand's message." Mind you, he couldn't defend that position.

It's just what he felt to be true.

Like the firefighter, I find that some aspects of Atlas Shrugged resonate with my moral intuitions, even as other passages seem to me deeply wrongheaded. I am also a great fan of Jesus Christ. I don't know that he's the son of God, despite 14 years of Catholic education that presented his godly status as fact, but I know of no philosopher who better informs the way humans ought to live, and anyone who followed all his teachings would be praiseworthy in my book.

Accordingly, I find no contradiction in Atlas Shrugged and the Bible both sitting on my shelf. Though they contradict one another, I take neither as infallible and I've gleaned moral truth from both. I am sure that makes orthodox Christians and Objectivists alike very uncomfortable. But it also highlights something that those two groups have in common: a conviction that certain texts and belief systems must either be embraced wholeheartedly or rejected - that any position in between is heretical or incoherent.

The ad is effective insofar as some religious voters will find any praise of Rand to be problematic. She's made statements every bit as offensive to their ears as anything Jeremiah Wright said. Moreover, there are prominent conservatives who treat Ayn Rand too much like Gospel, and who embrace specific aspects of her philosophy that are deeply at odds with Christianity. Should those politicians lose the support of folks who demand different, that's perfectly fair.

But calling Ayn Rand "brilliant," as Rush Limbaugh is quoted doing, or labeling yourself "a fan" of her work, like Rand Paul, doesn't mean that you embrace every tenet of her philosophy, never mind her every statement about Jesus Christ or the Christian religion. Yes, Rand herself would insist that a true fan of her work must necessarily accept the totality of her belief system. But there is no reason for intellectually mature people to treat that assertion as truth. If Rand is going to be used to discredit Republicans, it ought to be because they've embraced a particular wrongheaded or incoherent position. Many have! But we'd be foolhardy to discredit political figures merely because, like my friend the firefighter, they find genuine value in flawed or incompatible philosophies.

Presented by

Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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