Mark Tooley’s article, “Choosing Ayn Rand or Jesus,” posted on this site yesterday, makes depressing reading, but given the miserable intellectual state of religious leftism, is not particularly surprising.
Ayn Rand’s work can, indeed, be regarded as a Christian heresy, like Marxism. Like nearly all Judeo-Christian heresies, these take one aspect of Judeo-Christianity, or one of the values held by good people in general, necessary in itself and in its place, and try to inflate it into a complete new system.
Looking at Ayn Rand, Judeo-Christian thought has always accepted the idea of individualism, as it has accepted the idea of the worth of every individual soul. It was this that led Christianity, alone among the major religions, to abolish slavery in a political-religious campaign lasting thousands of years.
Christianity held that every individual, possessing an immortal soul, was of vast importance and value. Hence, when that fierce disciplinarian the Duke of Wellington found a common soldier in front of him at a church-parade, he reassured the cowering and terrified private with the words: “We are all equal here, my man.”
This importance given to each individual is something Ayn Rand , even according to her own doctrines, need not have quarreled with. But Christianity was also the first religion to go in for altruism on a large scale – one of its first activities, after it was made legal by the Roman Emperor Constantine, was to see that each diocese had a public hospital. Before this some hospitals had existed but they had been scattered, spasmodic, one-off affairs. Christianity also instituted the care of orphans, who previously had frequently been left to perish, and set up whole orders devoted to caring for the poor and sick. The Western Science of which Ayn Rand was proud (she suggested the first men on the moon should have declared: “What hath Man wrought!” was a product of Christianity.
The amazing genius of Christianity meant it could be all things to all people, and could accommodate quite different states of mind without losing its central premises: pacifists as well as crusaders could be Christian, scientists as well as mystics, philosophers as well as yokels. It founded the first real modern universities.
There had been nothing like this among Mankind’s religions on Earth before. Thus, to state there is some kind of choice between Ayn Rand and Christianity, while in a sense true, is really very little more than a silly and childish statement of the obvious. It is equally true, though the leftist churches won’t be saying this, that there is a choice between Christianity and the heresy of Marxism.
Ayn Rand did have a few worthwhile things to say. A paraphrase of the most sensible part of her message might be that the creators of wealth and prosperity are, provided of course that they are honest, doing something necessary and honorable; she also warned, quite eloquently and accurately against Marxism, as the inflation of altruism under an idealistic cloak leading at length to the Gulag. At schools and colleges where no alternative to leftist writers are offered on reading lists, bootleg copies of her work may act as “ice-breakers” of the leftist monopoly, leading the enquiring student on to better things.
Mark Tooley quotes a leftist religious network: “GOP leaders and conservative pundits have brought upon themselves a crisis of values,” the network explains. “Many who for years have been the loudest voices invoking the language of faith and moral values are now praising the atheist philosopher Ayn Rand whose teachings stand in direct contradiction to the Bible.” The political agenda behind this seems obvious. Substitute a name like “Sojourners” or “The World Council of Churches” for “GOP leaders and conservative pundits” and “Karl Marx” for “Ayn Rand,” and the point becomes not only obvious but true.
Of course, Ayn Rand was a crank. It is neither desirable nor possible to swallow the whole of her message, even assuming it was consistent. She was, like Marx, one of the “great simplifiers” that Edmund Burke warned against, and her work has more in common with that of Marx than the disciples of either should feel comfortable about. The best of what she had to say was said more elegantly and intelligently by Adam Smith in the 18th century, by von Hayek in “The Road to Serfdom,” or any number of other writers in the classic economic tradition.
The point is that it is possible to take the best of what she had to say and discard the rest, without the moral bullying and hectoring of the Christian Left or anyone else. The same point could be made about far greater philosophers.