Sunday, June 24, 2012

Early this spring, in a story certainly long forgotten by now, an interesting issue was highlighted by MSNBC’s Lawrence O’Donnell. It seems that U.S. Representative Paul Ryan (R) Wisconsin, who heretofore was unshakeable in the theory of economics on which his draconian budget plan presumably rested, suddenly was shaking. As long as lily-livered liberal politicians and economists were his detractors, Ryan remained supremely aloof and self-assured. But when Catholic priests hammered him on moral grounds about his budget and its seeming connection with novelist/philosopher Ayn Rand, all bets were off.

Ryan, House Chairman of the Budget Committee found himself in a sticky wicket after attempting to run from his adoration of Rand when questioned about it in the National Review. He dismissed the story as an “urban legend.” He went on to say: "I reject her philosophy. It’s an atheist philosophy. It reduces human interactions down to mere contracts and it is antithetical to my worldview”. Ryan’s problem is that he is on record as recently as 2005, warbling effusively about Rand’s influence on him, going so far as to say: “The reason I got involved in public service, by and large, if I had to credit one thinker, one person, it would be Ayn Rand” and “Ayn Rand, more than anybody else, did a fantastic job explaining the morality of capitalism, the morality of individualism, and that, to me, is what matters most.”

Perhaps Ryan, a Roman Catholic, wouldn’t be in a fix had he not engaged in some ham-fisted pandering by linking his brutal budget to his faith. In doing so he raised the eyebrows and ire of ninety faculty members and priests at Georgetown University last March, who were compelled to differ with him in a written statement which said in part: "Your budget appears to reflect the values of your favorite philosopher, Ayn Rand, rather than the gospel of Jesus Christ. We would be remiss in our duties to you and our students if we did not challenge your continuing misuse of Catholic teaching to defend a budget plan that decimates food programs for struggling families, radically weakens protections for the elderly and sick and gives more tax breaks to the wealthiest few."

The dustup has special relevance to the ongoing discussion surrounding politics and religion, some of which we were treated to in these pages on Saturday, June 23. In my view, the conversation is far from over. It was the exposure of the Ryan/Rand axis that inspired me to do something I have long wanted (and dreaded) to do, which was to read Rand’s magnum opus, ATLAS SHRUGGED. I was motivated in part by a longstanding reluctance to criticize works that I had not read, seen or heard for myself. But a more sinister factor may have been the greater catalyst, namely that Rep. Ryan is on record as boasting that he “requires” all interns and staffers in his office on Capitol Hill to read ATLAS SHRUGGED.  Such an admission, in my view, should be cause for everyone to read and seriously consider the implications of this novel. All 1168 pages.

Now that I've done so, I believe I am on firm ground in agreeing with the aforementioned priests and faculty who sharply criticized Ryan. It attests to the importance of perceptions regarding politics and religion that Ryan is suddenly desperate to create daylight between himself and the virulently atheist Rand. It attests to his dim-wittedness that he forgot that we live in an age of ubiquitous audio and video recorders.

Rand’s writings present a serious problem for religious Americans who want to champion her ideas as well as a belief in Jesus as motivators of their political behavior. In her novels and non-fiction prose she sought, in striking forthrightness, to overthrow millenia-long religious definitions of altruism and compassion. One can’t have it both ways. It is quite a stretch on one hand to promote the governmental indifference to the poor preached by Rand and her devotees, while professing the compassion and unconditional generosity of Jesus. If, as a Christian, one finds oneself largely in agreement with Rand, one should, as the eponymous hero of ATLAS SHRUGGED, John Galt, might suggest, “check one’s premises.”

It seems to me that if the whole idea of Christian participation in politics is to reflect the teachings and actions of Jesus through the political system, then adherence to the stinginess and misanthropy of Ayn Rand would be out of the question. Jesus gave freely to the poor without ever seeming overly concerned about abstract notions of "fostering a good work ethic" or "preventing a sense of dependency" among those in need. Conversely much of what conservatives obsess about around these issues seem to arise from a pervasively nasty opinion of their fellows. That their fellows are inherently lazy. That they are perpetually on the take. That they’d rather take handouts than work for a living.

I’m a liberal who has worked hard ever since I joined the labor force at seventeen as a bag boy at Safeway. Furthermore, most if not all of the adults that I’ve known have been hard workers, presuming there was work to be found. Rand's great flaw as a writer, and as a human being, was a fanatical unwillingness to admit that good, hardworking people sometimes fall victim to the vagaries of existence. Notions of pulling oneself up by one’s own bootstraps, and of being steadfastly independent, are valid up to a point. Jesus understood that the limit to such abstractions was the fact of actual hunger and poverty suffered by real people who were decidedly not abstract. If Rand ever knew it, she expunged it from her philosophy. If we assume that Rep. Ryan, as a follower of Christ, also knows it, how did he ever fall under the sway of Ayn Rand?