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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…