A recent ad put out by a Christian Left group exposes the ethical rift between Ayn Rand and Jesus – probably the worst kept secret ever. The point of this ad is to target Christian conservatives and Republicans who embrace Ayn Rand on some level. The ad, entitled "Christians Must Choose: Ayn Rand or Jesus", has triggered a (possibly orchestrated) flurry of related articles and initiatives apparently intended to draw ethics (and religion) into the 2012 political campaign. Below the ad there is a list of the articles – quite an extensive one, in fact, and continuing to grow.
This tells me two things. First, Ayn Rand’s ideas have reached a level of cultural penetration that the Left now believes can no longer be ignored. In other words, the collectivists are getting nervous. They find themselves in unfamiliar territory: They must defend their ethical underpinnings against a potent and growing challenge. Second, the Left apparently believes Judeo-Christian ethics, the dominant moral code of the last two thousand years and the ethical foundation of socialism, can be a political winner against the Objectivist ethics. (This is not to imply that Jesus would approve of socialism. But there is no way around the fact that socialism is the political implementation of the doctrine that “We are all our brother’s keepers”.) The strategy: Tie Ayn Rand to the GOP, disenfranchise the Christian Right, win the election.
Of course, as is typically the case among Rand’s critics, her actual ethics are ignored, and a false straw man is foisted in its place. This is obvious both in the ad and in the related articles. That straw man consists essentially of equating Rand’s egoistic moral theories with the conventional definition of selfishness, by implication. This is vital to their strategy, because, properly understood and explained, one would come to realize that most Americans – Christians included – live their personal, private lives more in tune with the Objectivist ethics than Judeo-Christian ethics. In other words, Americans are by and large rights-respecting rationally selfish individualists at heart, even though few recognize it as of particularly moral significance. This is the potent secret weapon in the Objectivist arsenal.
So, the Left will pit altruism against selfishness and count on people’s superficial understanding of the two to carry the day, and to one more electoral victory. But they are between a rock and a hard place, and they seem to know it. Otherwise, why run this ad at all? Why draw attention to Ayn Rand at all? Altruism is the dominant morality, is it not? It has always been a winning political strategy to tie expanded government to altruistic motives. And Rand’s ideas are the antipode, right? The Rand/Jesus flap can only help raise Rand’s profile, so why help her? The answer can only be: Rand is gaining too much momentum to ignore any longer. So, the Left must believe that the less risky course is to draw Ayn Rand into the political fray, and attempt to discredit her.
This is not to say that their strategy will not succeed. If they can peel away the Christian Right from the secular right via the ethical debate, they’ll win in the short term. And this is not to say that Ayn Rand has anywhere near as much influence inside the GOP - especially among the leadership - as the Left would have us believe. There is undoubtedly a large element of preemption involved. As of now, most alleged admirers of Ayn Rand peal off only her economics and her politics, while ignoring the deeper ideas supporting them, including egoism and the supremacy of reason (and the consequent rejection of faith and religion). The Left has long claimed the moral high ground, and the Right has never challenged that moral hegemony. They want to keep it that way. Pro-capitalist, pro-freedom champions burdened by the contradictions of the altruist ethics can’t win against the statists’ unity of collectivism and altruism, as the history of the last century plus has proven.
The Christian Left has a powerful weapon against the Christian Right – they are the consistent side. They understand that altruism – or, more precisely, Judeo/Christian ethics, a somewhat diluted form of it - is incompatible with capitalism: On this, they and Rand thoroughly agree. The Right that upholds both capitalism and altruism is burdened by an irreconcilable, fundamental contradiction. Capitalism is fundamentally about the pursuit of individual self-interest, and - as Rand understood - must be defended on that moral base; something that conservatives both religious and secular have historically been unwilling to do, with devastating results.
It is this contradiction that the Left hopes to exploit. And they already have some allies on the Christian Right who do fully understand the Rand-Jesus rift. Chuck Colson claims to be an opponent of big government – and proceeds to concede the moral high ground to the Left. No matter how sincere their devotion to freedom and capitalism, Christians will forever be at odds with capitalism, the system of individual rights, as long as they stand opposed to its ethical base that Rand identified. Colson’s rant dramatizes that on the deepest level, the future hinges not so much between Left and Right, but between egoism and altruism, which means between reason and faith.
Some on the Left now see this, led by President Obama. In regards to his “virtue of selfishness” campaign remark, I said, “Barack Obama knows who his real enemy is. And it’s not McCain-Palin, the GOP, or the modern conservatives.” I believed, and still do, that Obama is one of the most philosophically astute politicians on the modern American stage. He saw, sooner than most on the Left, the threat posed by the rise of the Ayn Rand Right. He was dead on, as the surge in interest in Ayn Rand since he took office attests. He also saw the political moral gold mine that the Christian Right represented; hence, what I dubbed Obama’s Christian Strategy. He seemed to recognize then what the AVN and others on the Left have just discovered – It’s either/or; either Ayn Rand or Jesus.
So Obama’s Christian Strategy seems set to shift into high gear. They will attempt to split the Right along ethical grounds, and they will have logic on their side. Despite the attention garnered on Ayn Rand during the recent surge of interest in her ideas, conservatives by and large have never been true, philosophical adherents. As Rand has said, the fundamental battle between socialism and capitalism, collectivism and individualism, freedom and tyranny, is a moral one. It is on the moral battleground that the future of America will be won or lost. The penetration of Ayn Rand into what loosely passes for the American Right has been wide but generally shallow. Much has been said about her Atlas Shrugged “predictions” of today’s economic events. Few have any idea how or why she was able to do it.
The how and why is rooted in her understanding of the role of ideas in determining the political/economic direction of a culture. It is these ideas that most of her newfound admirers on the Right can not or will not address, because those ideas are rooted in the clash between altruism and rational self-interest. The Left seems poised to exploit that failing by seeking to hoist the Right and thus by extension the GOP by its own contradictory petard. It will brand the Right’s smaller government agenda, such as it is or will be, as heartless anti-Christian Ayn Rand selfishness. Faced with the choice of upholding the free market’s moral underpinnings or melting like butter in the hot sun, they will probably melt.
Perhaps I am overstating the political significance of the Rand-Jesus campaign. But if the moral factor enters the coming electoral Left/Right clash in a significant way, it will vault the political campaign squarely onto the battlefield upon which Objectivists have always fought. And if the Right is cowed on the moral issue at this critical juncture in American history, the full weight of the fight will fall on Objectivists, the only fully consistent – i.e., philosophical – defenders of capitalism. With numbers way to small, it will be a tough battle indeed.
But, for better or for worse, a major opportunity is at hand; the chance to focus on the most important issue of the day – the moral factor. If the Rand/Jesus gambit takes hold, this could be one of the most defining political campaigns in American History; certainly the most significant in my lifetime. The AVN ad gets it right: “The choice is simple: Ayn Rand or Jesus Christ. We must choose one and forsake the other.”
Indeed. Let the debate begin.