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Christians, Libertarians, and Ayn Rand

Christians, Libertarians, and Ayn Rand

By Heather Wilhelm - October 9, 2014

Five years ago, I wrote a column that earned more hate mail than all of my other columns combined. It wasn’t about an emotionally charged issue like abortion, euthanasia, or gay marriage. Nor did it advocate something dreadful like malls putting up Christmas decorations before Halloween, call for Oprah quotes on Starbucks cups, or applaud the practice of regularly reclining one’s seat in the economy-class “knee-cruncher” section of an airplane. It also, I might add, did not mention the band Nickelback.

What it did discuss was Ayn Rand. More specifically, it brought up her questionable impact on the libertarian-leaning, limited-government, free-market message. I wrote in the Wall Street Journal that Rand’s strident, elitist, often misanthropic tendencies—in one infamous Playboy interview, for instance, she scorned people who prioritize friends and family in their lives as “immoral” and “emotional parasites”—completely overshadow the most important benefits of capitalism and free markets.

These economic systems, after all, have lifted millions out of poverty, enabled societies to better help the needy and disadvantaged, and given countless individuals the freedom to shape their own lives.

Free markets, in short, help all people, not just people that resemble Ayn Rand characters, which mostly tend to be mysterious, moody, misunderstood geniuses with chiseled jaws, the loins of a hungry panther, and hilariously dramatic monologues directed at their romantic interests describing exactly who will destroy whom with their love.

Regardless, Ayn Rand, plucky from beyond the grave, just won’t go away—most recently, she’s surfaced in multiple film installments of “Atlas Shrugged,” in an upcoming off-Broadway play based on her book “Anthem,” and in multiple television talk shows—and her fans are, shall we say, intense.

The left, of course, loves this fact. Take someone like Paul Ryan, a politician who made the unfortunate decision to publicize his admiration for Rand’s novels and reportedly distributed them to his staff. Since then, he has routinely swatted off questions about his greedy, supposed objectivist philosophy, suffered endless speculation regarding his sinister political motives, and endured a rather notorious attack ad featuring him pushing an innocent, pink-clad, wheelchair-bound granny off a cliff.

This is all ridiculous, but it also reveals an unfortunate truth: Ayn Rand’s novels stand as an unwitting caricature, offering buckets of ammunition to eager opponents of limited government. However, and perhaps more interestingly, her work also sheds light on a long-present tension on the political right: the somewhat uncomfortable distance in America between many libertarians—and the broader philosophy of limited government in general—and certain Christians.

Much has been said about the right’s long-running conservative/libertarian divide, along with various “fusionist” solutions to bridge it. But as Hunter Baker recently observed at The Federalist, there’s a more specific gap at hand, helpfully (if unintentionally) illustrated by Ayn Rand.

“The critical tension between Rand and Christian theology,” Baker writes, “is on human worth. Christians affirm the inherent and very high values of individuals because of their creation in the image of God. Rand values human beings primarily for their achievements. A person who does not offer value (specifically, economic value) gets dubbed a ‘moocher’ and a ‘looter.’”

There are religious libertarians out there, of course, and not all libertarians are devout Randians. I’ve traveled enough in free market circles, however, to know that the indomitable Ayn remains a non-benched player on that particular field of ideas. (Team Rand’s cheerleaders—unlike those of, say, Team Hayek or Team Mises—are also the most likely to send you mean, anonymous, lipstick-written notes in the locker room.) I can also tell you that devout Christians, who for some reason get all worked up about concerns like “morality,” “human dignity,” and “the meaning of life,” frustrate more than a few libertarians who want the government out of a host of issues, right away, right now, no questions asked.

This is troubling, because hard-core Christians and hard-core libertarians have more in common than they might think. As recent political events have made quite clear, the philosophy of “live and let live” is under direct and relentless attack by a growing, nosy government. Home schooling, marriage, adoption, sex education, and religious freedom—all issues that many Christians passionately care about—are increasingly micromanaged by an ever-growing, sometimes-hostile state.

One strategy, notoriously employed by Moral Majority-type Christians in the past, is simple: Accept the hairy, smelly, snorting government behemoth, grab it by its horns, and try to steer it your way. Some might even take it a step further: Hey, once it’s going your way, why not make it stronger? After all, what could possibly go wrong? (Hint: Probably the next election.)

There’s a simpler, more elegant strategy. It involves weakening and shrinking the behemoth, forcing it out of certain issues altogether. It’s something that both libertarians and Christians, one would hope, could get behind.

There won’t be perfect agreement, and there are bound to be hiccups along the way. Ironically, however, what pushes these two groups together—the fact that a big, bureaucratized, powerful government will inevitably smother freedom, crush creativity, and bulldoze people’s rights—also might be one of the few things that Ayn Rand got right. 

Heather Wilhelm is a writer based in Austin,Texas. Her work can be found at  http://www.heatherwilhelm.com/ and her Twitter handle is @heatherwilhelm.

Heather Wilhelm

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