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Ayn Rand: Prophetess of Godless Liberty

By Michael Wagner

 

Published in the May 2012 issue of
Reformed Perspective magazine, p. 17-19.

 

Michael WagnerAmong President Barack Obama’s many achievements (sic) has been the reinvigoration of the American conservative movement. There are now a large number of Americans involved in groups loosely associated with the Tea Party movement which seeks to shrink the size of government and reduce taxes. One of the thinkers whose popularity has risen in tandem with this phenomenon is Ayn Rand (1905-1982).

 

Many Christians may be unfamiliar with Ayn Rand and wonder why anyone would want to know about her. But even though Rand died 30 years ago, her influence today is growing. Freedom-loving Americans are turning to her books as a reaction against the recent socialistic direction of the American government.

 

 

History professor Jennifer Burns explains Rand’s life and influence in a new book, Goddess of the Market: Ayn Rand and the American Right (Oxford University Press, 2009). Burns points out that Rand’s writing is currently so popular that in “2008 alone combined sales of her novels Atlas Shrugged, The Fountainhead, We the Living, and Anthem topped eight hundred thousand, an astonishing figure for books published more than fifty years ago” (p. 2).

 

Christians need to know about this woman because her influence is increasing in politically and economically conservative circles. And while she was a staunch opponent of socialism, this is not a case in which “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” – Ayn Rand was just as staunchly opposed to God.

 

From Rosenbaum to Rand

Alisa Rosenbaum was born in Russia to Jewish parents in 1905. Her father was a successful businessman who provided a good standard of living to his family through hard work. When the Communists came to power in 1917, they confiscated her father’s business (along with the businesses and properties of countless others), as part of their socialist program. Alisa saw the brutal and unfair consequences of socialism in action, and this would inform her perspective for the rest of her life.

 

She changed her name to Ayn Rand and moved to the United States in 1926. She worked occasionally as a Hollywood screen writer for a number of years but her true passion was writing novels promoting individualism. Individualism is basically a libertarian philosophy that emphasized personal responsibility, free enterprise, and living for oneself.

 

That might sound rather mundane, but ideological commitment to individualism and free enterprise was very radical for the time. During the 1930s and 1940s leftwing thinking dominated intellectual thought in the West, including the United States. Burns notes that in “educated, reform-minded circles it became conventional wisdom that the United States would simply have to move toward Communism or, at the very least, socialism” (p. 34). For many intellectuals the Great Depression proved that capitalism was a failure, and that only socialism or communism could provide for the future well-being of mankind. It’s vital to understand this intellectual climate to appreciate the significance of Ayn Rand’s writing and philosophy.

 

Promoting liberty through novels

 

Rand wrote a couple of novels in the 1930s but they did not receive much attention at that time. However, her novel The Fountainhead released in 1943 was a smashing success and was subsequently made into a movie. As Burns recounts, “In 1945 alone The Fountainhead sold 100,000 copies and finally cracked the New York best-seller lists, a milestone Rand had long anticipated. Both were notable feats for a book released two years earlier” (pp. 106-107).

 

The novel contained a very strong pro-individualism and pro-business message, and this helped Rand to get the attention of important conservatives and business leaders across the United States.

 

Her subsequent novel and magnum opus, Atlas Shrugged, was an instant best-seller and has been wildly popular since it was first published in 1957 despite the fact that it is over one thousand pages long. According to Burns, “Taken at the level of a story, Atlas Shrugged is a moral fable about the evils of government interference in the free market (p. 166).”

 

This novel portrays capitalists as creative and glamorous people, an unwelcome message to the American intelligentsia. Intellectuals and professional book reviewers dismissed the book, but it sold well anyway. “Outside of the academic and literary worlds Atlas Shrugged was greeted with an enthusiastic reception. The book made Rand a hero to many business owners, executives, and self-identified capitalists, who were thrilled to discover a novel that acknowledged, understood, and appreciated their work” (p. 168).

 

Most people are not willing to read philosophical treatises. But they will read novels, and especially novels promoting ideas they like. Burns explains: “For those who could plausibly self-identify as the ‘producers’ that Rand celebrated, the novel was a powerful justification of their livelihood. Rand’s defense of wealth and merit freed capitalists from both personal and social guilt simultaneously” (p 170).

 

This is a message that continues to resonate among certain sectors of the population. As mentioned previously, recent political events in the USA have sparked a renewed interest in Rand and her writings. “Sales of Atlas Shrugged spiked in 2008 after the U.S. Treasury bought stakes in nine large banks and again in 2009 when the Democratic administration announced its stimulus plan” (pp. 283-284). The anti-socialist message of Rand’s magnum opus may be just as relevant today as when it was first written.

 

Objectivism

 

In her books Rand developed her own philosophy which she called “Objectivism.” Among the tenets of this philosophy is the view that the purpose of life is to pursue one’s own happiness or rational self-interest. Selfishness is thus regarded as a good thing, and free market capitalism is defended as the only economic system in which people can properly pursue their happiness and self-interest. Objectivism also emphasizes reason as the source of knowledge and it rejects God; in other words, it is an atheistic philosophy.

 

Rand opposed Christianity, in part because Christianity emphasizes concern for others over oneself. She even wrote “that Christianity ‘is the best kindergarten of communism possible.’ Christianity taught believers to put others before self, an ethical mandate that matched the collectivist emphasis on the group over the individual” (p. 43).

 

While in her earlier years Rand was considered to be a type of conservative, with her more developed philosophy it became clear that she was actually a libertarian since her anti-Christian stance put her at odds with American conservatism. As Burns notes, “conservatives wanted the free market set within an explicitly Christian society. Only religion could balance the ‘materialism’ of free enterprise, with the Christian emphasis on charity, humility, and equality blunting the harsher edges of laissez-faire” (p. 175).

 

Rand’s emphasis on self-interest and selfishness was fundamentally opposed to major components of conservative philosophy. “Whereas traditional conservatism emphasized duties, responsibilities, and social interconnectedness, at the core of the right-wing ideology that Rand spearheaded was a rejection of moral obligation to others” (p. 209).

 

Objectivism provides no basis for supporting traditional sexual morality. It’s not surprising, then, that Rand was favorable to the first big venture in American pornography, Playboy magazine, and its founder Hugh Hefner. “Hugh Hefner had long been a fan of Rand, and his magazine ran a long and probing piece by the future futurist Alvin Toffler, who treated Rand with care and respect. She even visited a Playboy Club, which she pronounced ‘a wonderful place and a brilliant undertaking’” (p. 196).

 

Similarly, Rand took a strong public stand in favor of abortion. Burns states that Rand was “fiercely against any legal restrictions on abortion” (p. 263). Rand’s view was that “restrictions on abortion were immoral because they elevated a potential life over an actual life. It was essential that women be able to choose when, and whether, to become mothers” (p. 263).

 

Rand’s personal life

 

Ayn Rand married Frank O'Connor in 1929 and remained with him until he died in 1979. However, beginning in the late 1950s she had a serious extra-marital affair with her favorite student, Nathaniel Branden. Branden was also married and his wife was a Rand devotee. Strangely, Rand and Branden were able to convince their respective spouses that this adulterous affair was "rational" and that they should therefore accept it. Rand's marriage survived but Branden's didn't. When their affair became public in the late 1960s, it had a serious negative effect on Rand's public reputation.

 

In 1968 Rand found out that Branden had started having an affair with yet another woman in the 1960s. At that point she berated him and then never spoke to him again. Branden had been a significant partner with Rand in promoting Objectivism, so the break between them was a major setback to the Objectivist movement.

 

Nevertheless, Rand continued to promote her views through writing, public speaking, and occasional television appearances until she died in March, 1982.

 

Conclusion

 

What, then, can be concluded about Ayn Rand?

 

It is important to point out that in a period during which anti-freedom ideas (especially socialism and sometimes even communism) flourished in the intellectual community, Ayn Rand stood strongly for individual freedom. She provided a rallying point for businessmen and entrepreneurs who were under cultural attack for allegedly being greedy and selfish, when in reality it was their work that provided the economic sustenance for their societies. Rand deserves credit for supporting individual liberty and the business community in an intellectual climate of pro-socialist, anti-freedom sentiment. She was courageous.

 

But she was also fundamentally wrong. Instead of defending hard-working, industrious and entrepreneurial businessmen as making good use of the talents given to them by God, Rand agreed with her opponents that these capitalists were selfish. And then she argued that selfishness was a good thing. Turning selfishness from vice into virtue was a logical result of her particular, outspoken atheism. Rand not only denied there was a God, she put the individual in His place. She thought every individual should, essentially, worship themselves. And in that sort of religion, being selfish is simply paying attention to what your god wants you to do. And, of course, in that sort of religion it only makes sense to favor abortion (what do we care about someone else’s life?), as Rand did.

 

While we will agree with “Randians” on some political and economic issues, clearly Christians cannot support Ayn Rand and her philosophy. In fact, given her opposition to Christianity, it’s likely she wouldn't want to be supported by Christians.