I first read Ayn at the behest of my aunt, who I am now realize was a conservative, as a new teenager, and became so engrossed in The Fountainhead that I quickly purchased Atlas Shrugged and devoured that book in weeks. Objectivism, rational egoism, individualism and freedom flowed from every page, and although I was too young to be reading the risqué parts of these books the explosion of passion for all facets of life left me wanting to know more about her philosophy. Lane (2019) says she was the early progenitor of the libertarian movement and wrote novels and essays from the mid-1930s until her death in early 1982.
Born Alisa Rosenbaum to Jewish parents, her father was agnostic while her mother was not religiously active, in St. Petersburg Russia early in the twentieth century and opposed the October Revolution when the Bolsheviks came to power (Lane, 2019). Stassen (2012, p.29) connects this early memory of the confiscation of her father’s business as an impressionable 12-year old to some of the grounds for her ideology and especially her revulsion to collectivism.
Her ideology is felt even today and Burke (2011) credits the 2012 Republican budget, with its deep cuts to federal programs, to the atheist philosopher and novelist. Stassen cites these “severe cuts to Medicare health insurance and human needs” (p. 28). Burke cites the executive director of the American Values Network, Eric Sapp, as he summarizes “you can follow Ayn Rand or Jesus, but not both” (p. 14). So, you might be wondering what a Seminary student is doing getting mixed up with the likes of Rand and even acknowledging what a beneficial influence she was in my early formation.
Gary Moore in his September 2010 article for Christianity Today argued that Christians should be wary of the disciples of Rand and went so far as to blame the Great Recession of 2008 on the former chairman of the Federal Reserve (1987-2006) and a Rand acolyte, Alan Greenspan (p. 37). Stassen echoes Moore who believes Greenspan was hired to manage the economy while he believed banks and corporations did not need government enforcing laws (p. 28). Moore minced few words when he said of Rand, “like Karl Marx, was one more self-proclaimed prophet who denied the existence of a loving God” and quoted a leading political commentator who said, “Libertarians have replaced Marxists as the world’s leading Utopia builders.” Moore added a chapter on Rand in his book on finances which helped his senior editor understand his “Christian family” who had reportedly mixed Rands strong anti-government and unquestioning pro-business individualistic worldview with Biblical Christianity. Moore cites The Economist which uses Rands own words to describe her philosophy as, “’the concept of man as a noble being, with his own happiness as the moral purpose of his life, with productive achievement as his noblest activity, and reason as his only absolute.’”
‘Reason’ as the only absolute
Moore believes that Rand was first and foremost an anti-Christian philosopher even though The Economist credits her as being a political and economic philosopher (p. 38). As a product of an irreligious agnostic father I doubt she knew the commands Jesus gave to “render unto Caesar” and the Apostle Paul’s admonishment to pay taxes and honor and respect, even pray for government leaders (Rom. 13). Moore rightly reasons that before she could upend government she had to get rid of Jesus (p. 38). Lutheran historian Martin Marty is cited by Moore as suggesting that in every page of Atlas Shrugged “every line of the Bible is challenged, countered and dismissed”. Furthermore, Charles Colson noted as saying of Rand that her exaltation of selfishness and condemnation of altruism is an inversion of the biblical norms (p. 38). Stassen believes Rand was an evangelistic atheist who opposed faith-based contributions to ethics calling belief in God “mystic irrationalism” (p. 29).
Productive achievement as his noblest
Moore like Stassen attributes her memory of her father’s unjust treatment by the Bolsheviks with her hatred of government and love of wealth creation (p. 38). Rand had disdain even for libertarian economist F.A. Hayek who reportedly “suggested government might play even a small role in the economy in the worst times” (p. 38). She was results-oriented and aligned around only her own achievement and wore a dollar sign broach on her coats and was buried with a six-foot wreath of a dollar sign. She exchanged the symbol of the cross with the symbol of selfishness.
Stassen rightly counters Rand’s obsession with individual productivity and achievement by reminding us that Jesus taught the love of others and even our enemies (p. 29). Jesus would argue that love of God and love of others are man’s noblest activity and we ought to love others as we love ourselves (p. 31).
Own Happiness as a moral purpose
Moore believes that partly due to her own mothers’ rejection of her and her sisters, she never developed any lasting close friendships, and combined with her philosophy of radical individualism she died a lonely depressing death. Stassen similarly cites this failed role model, her mother, in a rage and breaking the leg of Alisa’s favorite doll on one occasion and ripping up a prized photo in another (p. 30). A parent cannot help but feel compassion for young Alisa who went on to change her name to Ayn and who claimed her own happiness as her moral purpose but ironically wasn’t able to establish that reality due to her selfishness.
Stassen, while empathizing with Rand’s anger and resentment at the communists (p. 29), warns that reactionary ethics are dangerous (p. 30). Blinded by the hate of anyone who has a different view on things we are led into an “idolatrous absolutizing of the extreme opposite pole” (p. 30). Rand misidentified the root of all evil as compassion because she hated collectivism with such vehemence and believed compassion was its cause (p. 32).
Stassen notes that Rand does not recognize mutual love and community but is polarized between the extremes of individual self-interest or the total surrender to what others need and thus altruism is shunned while the opposite selfishness is esteemed (p. 32).
Man, as a noble being
Greenspan acknowledged before congress that he thought the CEOs would regulate themselves. Stassen cites Greenspan’s confession, “Those of us who have looked to the self-interest of lending institutions to protect shareholders’ equity, myself included, are in a state of shocked disbelief” (p. 29). In Rand’s utopia demons are confined to government and religion whereas her self-made noble CEO heroes have moral fortitude (Moore, 2010, p. 39).
Rand, according to Stassen, developed an atheistic, individualistic natural law to support her argument that the chief moral purpose is selfishness (Stassen, 2012, p. 32). In her understanding, the survival of the individual, unlike animals surviving by instinct, is dependent upon the reason (Stassen, 2012, p. 33). This blindness to the interests of others allowed her to rationalize an extra-marital affair with a disciple, Nathan Brand. She did not want to be seen to be duplicitous in sneaking around so she squared it with her disciple’s wife and her own husband (Stassen, 2012, p. 34). All went according to her plan until Nathan had another affair with a third woman and that was a bridge too far, Rand canceled their relationships and systematically cut off every other vestige of sanity in her other relationships, she died of cancer, completely alone (Stassen, 2012, p. 34).
Ayn Rand led me to Jesus
You might be wondering how I could possibly have found any good in Ayn Rand’s writings? Edward S. Little II, an Episcopalian bishop of the Diocese of Northern Indiana summarized what I have held swimming around in my mind for two decades. He says it best,
Ayn Rand taught me that there is such a thing as objective reality. Three Aristotelian axioms—Non-Contradiction, Either-Or, and A is A—mark the three sections of Atlas Shrugged. “Contradictions do not exist,” Francisco tells Dagny. “Whenever you think that you are facing a contradiction, check your premises. You will find that one of them is wrong.” In other words, a thing is true (or false) regardless of what we think about it. This flies in the face of modernism (which tends to dismiss out of hand the supernatural and the miraculous, with no evidence beyond skepticism) and postmodernism (which doesn’t so much reject the supernatural as completely relativize it). When a postmodernist says, “All truth is relative; you have your truth and I have mine,” Rand, and I, might answer: Your very statement contains an inherent inner contradiction. You claim as objective truth an assertion that would, in effect, negate itself.
All of this, in the end, led me to the non-sentimental and objective claims of the gospel. The gospel is no mere preference. It is true, or it isn’t. Jesus is who he says he is, or he is (again, Lewis) a madman or a fraud. Christian doctrine—Creation, Fall, Incarnation, Redemption, Consummation, and our ultimate and beatific vision of the Trinity-is true, or false. It can’t be both. Rand’s view of objective reality is admittedly limited. She relies on the senses and goes no further. She dismisses faith as mysticism and its practitioners as witch doctors. But she is right in this: If something is true, it is so because it aligns with reality. Our desires neither confirm nor deny its validity. Our only choice is to say “Yes” to truth, or not. As a Christian, that “Yes” is to Truth incarnate, Jesus Christ.
1. Burke, Daniel. “The Anti-Gospel of Ayn Rand.” The Christian Century 128, no. 13 (June 28, 2011): 14–15. http://search.ebscohost.com.lbc.idm.oclc.org/login.aspx?direct=true&db=rfh&AN=ATLA0001844139&site=eds-live&scope=site.
2. Lane, T. (2019). Ayn Rand. Salem Press Biographical Encyclopedia. Retrieved from http://search.ebscohost.com.lbc.idm.oclc.org/login.aspx?direct=true&db=ers&AN=88825876&site=eds-live&scope=site
3. Little II, Edward S. “Ayn Rand Led Me to Christ.” Christianity Today 55, no. 6 (June 2011): 50–53. http://search.ebscohost.com.lbc.idm.oclc.org/login.aspx?direct=true&db=rlh&AN=61901263&site=eds-live&scope=site.
4. Moore, Gary. “Ayn Rand, Goddess of the Great Recession : Why Christians Should Be Wary of the Late Pop Philosopher and Her Disciples.” Christianity Today Sep 2010, September 1, 2010. http://search.ebscohost.com.lbc.idm.oclc.org/login.aspx?direct=true&db=33h&AN=33h-351A255D-30D0D4BD&site=eds-live&scope=site
5. Stassen, Glen Harold. “The Common Good versus the Virtue of Selfishness.” Baptistic Theologies 4, no. 2 (Aut 2012): 28–39. http://search.ebscohost.com.lbc.idm.oclc.org/login.aspx?direct=true&db=rfh&AN=ATLA0001930464&site=eds-live&scope=site.