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Jesus and Ayn Rand, Part 1: Dismemberment

We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union…”  Those words are starting to sound a bit quaint, aren’t they? They might soon be rather moot.

How about these words: “For as in one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function, so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another” (Romans 12:4-5).

Nearly 2,000 years ago St. Paul expressed theologically to the Romans what the framers of the U.S. Constitution aimed for politically. Both feel quite tenuous today.

To be clear, I do not mean that the “founding fathers” of this country were seeking to create a “Christian nation.” I do mean that both St. Paul and the pioneers of this country’s polity shared a simple insight that has proven, time and again, to be profoundly difficult to live. It’s just this: We’re all in the same boat.

Call it the “Body of Christ” or call it the “body politic.” In either case, your fate is tied to mine in countless and uncanny ways.

This is not some newfangled lefty slogan. We might remember the ancient Greeks in that regard, the fountainhead of modern democracy. (Yes, that’s an allusion to Ayn Rand; more on that later.)

Aristotle, for example, insisted that “the whole must of necessity be prior to the part.” (That’s from Aristotle’s Politics, book 1, chapter 2; read the whole thing here). Aristotle’s claim belongs to his extended argument for the necessity of a “polis” (poorly translated today as “city”) to extend the household and village into a wider circle of mutual exchange.

For Aristotle, individuals remain woefully incomplete without the “polis.” Even more, it’s actually unnatural for an individual to remain outside the communal bonds of the “polis”; humanity’s natural state is community, working always for the “happiness” (“well-being” might be a better translation) of all the others.

The distance we’ve traveled from Aristotle’s politics could not have been made clearer than by Mitt Romney’s choice for a vice-presidential running mate – Paul Ryan.

Much physical and digital ink has already been spent on Ryan’s affinity for Ayn Rand’s philosophy and how it has shaped his politics. Frankly, I think trying to make Ryan a Rand disciple isn’t very useful politically or culturally. He’s already distanced himself from Rand’s “atheism,” implying of course that he’s not in her ideological camp.

I think it’s much more helpful – culturally, politically, and religiously – to name explicitly what’s at stake in these philosophical and ideological issues, and it’s just this: Are we all in the same boat or not?

Ayn Rand believed that “boat” was a trap, the cultural version of the sinking Titanic. Find your own lifeboat and get away as quickly as you can so that you don’t get sucked under by the “common good.”

Rand promoted the self above all else, and any incursion from government or communal responsibility as an affront to the supreme autonomy of the individual. It’s not too much to say that Rand promoted “dismemberment,” the cutting of any ties that bind us to one another for the sake of enlightened selfishness. Do Mormon Romney and Catholic Ryan believe the same thing?

(For those unfamiliar with Ayn Rand’s writings and philosophy, I highly recommend a great theological blog by a colleague of mine, the Rev. Richard Helmer, who wrote about this a few years ago.)

I believe Ayn Rand was simply mistaken on a most fundamental point: Human beings do not want most of all to be individuals; they want most of all to belong somewhere, anywhere. A recent story on NPR about the anatomy of a hate group made this perfectly clear in some troubling ways.

White supremacy groups recruit individuals who feel alienated, cut adrift, not really belonging anywhere. The most persuasive factor in motivating membership in a “hate group,” in other words, is the possibility of “belonging.”

NPR interviewed those who have left hate groups, which also suggested something quite astonishing. The most hated targets of white supremacist groups are white people who are not racists. The absolute need to bond, to create community, to have a shared “identity” is so strong that those who are most reviled by white supremacists are white people who won’t join them.

This presidential election presents a clear choice between two significantly different visions for the future of this country. It also offers a profound opportunity for religious leaders and faith communities to respond to the deep need for belonging, not with hate, but with compassion, generosity, and love.

In Part 2, I’ll suggest what Christians in particular might offer to a society perched on the brink of dismemberment: a spiritual practice of “re-membering.” Stay tuned…

Comments

  1. The fascination with Ayn Rand has a more recent vintage as well, with Margaret Thatcher proclaiming that “society” does not exist – denying the body politic coincident with the rise of Thatcherism in Britain dismantling the social state in the name of freedom.

  2. JonLynnHarvey says:

    The problem with Rand is that in the name of opposing !*collectivism*!, she winds up opposing !*community*!. Community involves mutual shared aspirations (in addition to material wants), whereas collectivism is a rightly opposed hive mind which reduces men to drones. Right-wingers forget that George Orwell while passsionately opposed to Soviet Communism remained a believer in democratic socialism his whole life. Ayn Rand came out of Soviet Russia, but is just a reactive rebounder (at best).
    I just mentioned the other great literary opponent of Soviet Marxism was George Orwell.
    The other great literary advocate of libertarianism was Robert Heinlein (of whom I’m a lukewarm fan at best).
    The other great American literary figure to come out of Soviet Russia was Vladimir Nabokov.
    All three are better reading than Ayn Rand.

    • BryanJensen says:

      Well said JonLynnHarvey about nuancing the difference between “collectivism” and community.

    • Thanks for taking the time to respond! And thanks for that important insight about the difference between “collectivism” and “community.” Part of the problem, I think, is the tendency still for so many to think only in binary categories, the “either/or” problem. It’s either the Borg or the Lone Ranger. That’s why I cited Aristotle, who suggested that there actually might be something in between…

  3. thatbiatch1982 says:

    I think you are painting with a very broad brush here, but the colors are interesting.

  4. BryanJensen says:

    Excellent insight, except I would disagree about not keeping up the heat in Paul Ryan. Yes, there are greater worldview issues at stake. But yes it is not one or the other. The larger issues have “incarnated” in a specific individual who is a lightning rod now for a specific and strong thrust of the Tea Party Right.

    Yes it is missing the fullness of critique to keep the pushback just up over the irony of Rand’s atheism alone, but seriously Ryan’s dissembling is fake. He explicitly said, despite his long declarative and practiced advocacy and emulation of Objectivist solutions and worldviews, that he’s more a thinker akin to Thomas Acquinas! This despite that to actually read Acquinas one finds him remarkably an advocate of applied Christian ethics via collectivist social stability, much like G. K. Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc gave form in applied Chritian moralist philosophy in their writings on Distributism. Ryan doesn’t deserve one inch of allowance in accepting he’s distanced himself from what really matters about Rand — which you aptly get at here — and that is his intentional and not-yet-retracted policy advocacy that have not lost its Randian underpinnings at all. The rest are just words.

    Philanthropist Andrew Carnegie said it well, “As I grow older, I pay less attention to what people say. I just watch what they do.”

    • Thanks for taking the time to respond, Bryan! And I certainly wasn’t suggesting that we cut Mr. Ryan any slack. I probably wasn’t clear enough in my point. By distancing himself from Rand’s atheism, he has not thereby distanced himself from her radical individualism, egoism, and selfishness. I do think, however, that it’s not terribly helpful to keep citing Rand as the reasons why Ryan is problematic. Most Americans have no idea who Ayn Rand was or what she promoted. Your Carnegie quote at the end is exactly on target in that regard: Let’s pay attention to what Romney and Ryan both say and do and let’s make sure we critique it with a clear and different vision.

  5. JonLynnHarvey says:

    Rand also confuses selfishness with self-care the latter of which is definitely a virtue and one neglected by the more Puritanical forms of Christianity.

  6. JonLynnHarvey says:

    It’s old news that “Ronald Wilson Reagan” is an acronym for “insane Anglo-warlord” and “No girls and no ERA law”, but someone just discovered that “Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan” is an anagram for “My ultimate Ayn Rand porn”

Trackbacks

  1. […] Theology isn’t Just for Sunday Mornings In a world of deep fragmentation and, as I suggested in Part 1 of this blog series, in a society perched on the brink of social “dismemberment,” the Christian celebration of the […]

  2. […] “Liberals” generally find these contextual limits on choice perplexing if not repugnant. Modern western culture continues to laud the rugged individual, autonomous and free, even when its limits appear in bold relief. (See my recent blog series on Jesus and Ayn Rand.) […]

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