Guest post by Gary Moore, Founder, The Financial Seminary
Presumed GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney has just announced his running mate will be Congressman Paul Ryan. Of course, many religious conservatives will now attempt to sanctify Ryan's well-known economic views while many religious progressives will attempt to demonize them. They will both have theological justification.
Perhaps like America itself, Mr. Ryan is a complicated, some might say conflicted, individual. He is a Roman Catholic. But he is also one of the most visible disciples of atheistic philosopher Ayn Rand, who literally aspired to be remembered as history's greatest enemy of religion, and particularly Christianity. His association with Rand is so strong, the progressive New Yorker magazine's website announced the appointment with the headline, "Ayn Rand Joins The Ticket." The Financial Times said the election is now "a clear choice between Franklin Roosevelt and Ayn Rand." Both had reason to do so.
Mr. Ryan has said Rand was the reason he first entered public service. He has also said that if he "had to credit one thinker, one person, it would by Ayn Rand." He added, "I think Ayn Rand did the best job of anybody to build a moral case of capitalism." Ryan has long had his staff read Rand's opus Atlas Shrugged, which the Library of Congress has deemed second in influence only to the Bible. Ryan has even given copies as Christmas presents. That's more than a bit conflicted. Due to Christianity's ethic of "neighbor as self," Rand judged our faith to be incompatible with capitalism. She taught capitalism is based on "the virtue of selfishness," the title of one of her books. She therefore said she would shape capitalism into a secular, materialistic religion for our nation's post-Christian elites who were maturing during the sixties and seventies. Those elites are now running Wall Street and Washington and most of us on Main Street simply can't understand what they are thinking.
Socially and politically conservative Christians aren't always aware that Rand was actually only the last in a long line of far right-wing economic philosophers from Ludwig von Mises to Milton Friedman who rejected Christian ethics. Dr. Friedman famously argued the only social responsibility of a corporation is to make money for shareholders. Those philosophers were essentially utilitarian, willing to accept capitalism might hurt the marginal as it enriched even more. That and Rand's rejection of charity as a moral duty combined to essentially negate the traditional teaching that the needy were reflections of the divine face of Christ. Rand's teachings and life also argued for abortion rights, open marriage and the use of street drugs, which many libertarians advocate but most conservative Christians resist.
For such reasons, I have written numerous books and articles questioning Rand's philosophies during the past twenty years. They include a feature article in Christianity Today (September 2010). You can read more of my writings about Rand at www.financialseminary.org. In addition, you should know that I was a life-long member of the GOP before re-registering as an independent due to Rand's radicalizing influence on the GOP, and its Tea Party wing in particular. That's critical as she herself commanded her disciples to be "radicals for capitalism." Another irony of life in the GOP was that Jack Kemp once invited me to join the board of advisors of his think-tank Empower America. That was roughly the same time a young Mr. Ryan was a staffer there. Yet the reason Jack invited me was that I had written a book that contrasted Rand's views with the views of Christianity. I had even coined the phrase "stewardism" to differentiate her approach from my understanding of political-economy within a Judeo-Christian framework.
Still, despite her radical worldview and absolutist teachings, I expect Rand's ghost will further fog this election, as well as our faith. My previous article for Christianity Today suggested too many of the religious right have confused Rand's teachings with the teaching of Christ. Diametrically opposed though they are, Glenn Beck also promoted both approaches until recently learning they are incompatible. So progressives' focus on Ryan's devotion to both Rand and Christ may encourage many to finally look to the Bible to clarify our thinking. Too many of both progressive and conservative Christians will then quote it in the typically self-rationalizing ways that partisan politics encourages. The reason is the Bible assures us that when we "train up a child," he or she will remain faithful to what they have been taught. Yet it also assures us that redemption is possible and people can change. Those two teachings must be held in tension when considering Mr. Ryan and his financial plan for your future. As with most politicians, and the rest of us, he seems to be a person whose views are "growing." So for what it's worth, this political science graduate turned Wall Street financier who has spent the past twenty years comparing Christ and Rand believes Mr. Ryan and voters need to answer three questions before November.
The first question is, "How would you regulate Wall Street?" That's more important than ever as while Governor Romney has shown tendencies for political moderation, he's also a product of the Street. His selection of Ryan might signal to Wall Street financiers, who channel lots of time, talent and particularly money to Washington, that they have less to worry about from the current backlash towards "the 1%" than many had assumed.
The reason is The Economist magazine has called Rand "the heroine of America's libertarian right." Libertarians differ from conservatives in that conservatives aspire for government that is limited by our traditional ethic of "neighbor as self" and traditional virtues such as prudence, patience and charity. Most libertarians however demand a new age of revolution and reducing government until it can be drowned in their bathtubs, to use the imagery of anti-taxer Grover Norquist. He has had GOP congressmen sign pledges of no new taxes regardless of how many wars we must finance, how many retired boomers need health care, and how much money the SEC needs to regulate a Wall Street that too often believes greed is good.
Yet The Economist also explained that Rand's worldview found economic expression in Washington in what many now call Reaganomics, a time of significant deregulation, particularly of Wall Street. Alan Greenspan, former chairman of the Federal Reserve Board, was one of Rand's very closest disciples. Not only was he highly instrumental in deregulating Wall Street's sub-prime mortgage brokers last decade, he was equally instrumental in deregulating the savings and loan industry a couple decades ago. Many economists believe both resulted in short-term economic booms, particularly in the job creating building sector, but longer-term busts. Greenspan himself testified before Congress that "the flaw," as it's now called by many, in his worldview was in believing the only regulation businesspeople need is economic self-interest. That refers to Rand's teaching that "the productive" are so naturally good, they are humanity's saviors. Not exactly John Calvin's "total depravity" of the unredeemed human heart.
The second question for Mr. Ryan is, "What is the proper role of government toward the needy?" Rand's most famous statement on that subject might be found in The Virtue of Selfishness. It says we can help our neighbors in emergency situations like shipwrecks, as long as we are not endangering ourselves, but that does not mean we have any responsibilities for anyone when back on shore. Rand practiced charity toward no one. Obviously, that strikes at the heart of the economic teachings of Moses, who we should remember was both government and prophet in the theocracy of his time. As the intellectual leader of the GOP's effort to roll back governmental care for the poor, Mr. Ryan has often been criticized by Catholic leaders who teach God's "preferential option for the poor." Ninety faculty members of Georgetown University have written a letter to Mr. Ryan complaining his budget proposal was more reflective of Rand than Christ. Another church leader tried to offer the congressman a Bible in which the teachings of Moses and Jesus concerning the poor had been highlighted. The congressman declined the gift.
The third question for Christian voters is therefore, "What, if anything, do those biblical teachings mean for our capitalist culture?" Moses clearly made it Law to round the corners of the fields, leave the second harvest in the vineyards, bring the full tithes to the storehouse for the needy, and so on. Of course, many conservative Christians believe that Law died with Christ. Yet Christ himself said that Law would endure forever. After forty years of contemplation, I believe this apparent contradiction is at the very heart of the tension between the idealism of religion and the pragmatism of politics. The Moses who led God's children out of Egypt clearly understood political freedom to be necessary to the abundant life. Yet it's been estimated by even evangelical theologians that Moses mandated 25% of a person's annual gain be shared with society. That's about the level of total taxes in America today. Yet Moses did not have to build interstate highways, explore space, maintain an army the size of America's, and so on.
In essence, Christ freed his disciples from the Law by teaching us to live in a state of grace. So Saint Paul said we are to give as our loving hearts dictate. Yet neither Christ nor Saint Paul intended to do away with the law, or even taxes to Caesar (Romans 13). Neither aspired to free non-believers to live in a state of selfishness. They understood the "liberty" often advocated by modern libertarians unaccompanied by traditional morality can quickly become the near anarchy we've witnessed in both Washington and on Wall Street lately, as well as result in the concentration of wealth that threatens our land.
As Saint Paul explained the paradox, we can only live in freedom from the external constraints of government when we live as slaves to Christ's love for Virtue and neighbor as self. It's possible the still young congressman has matured in his faith until he has nuanced that paradox of Christianity. He has recently renounced the atheism of Rand and her atheistic teachings. Yet it should be noted that he did so only after progressives made a political issue of his conflicted dedication to both Rand and Christ.
Still, we should keep all the political propaganda, and particularly its misuse of religion, in perspective. Perhaps our rich young ruler of a nation also wants to keep its wealth and religion in separate compartments, even if it still causes us to go away sad. Perhaps it is indeed true that a competent atheist is better than an incompetent Christian, as nice as a competent Christian would be. But my studies and experiences with politics have never suggested America's salvation will be assured by a politician. With very rare exceptions like Moses, David and perhaps Lincoln, politicians usually just reflect the moral condition of the electorate, not shape it. It usually takes a far higher power than politics to shape loving hearts and holistic minds.
Gary Moore is the founder of The Financial Seminary and has written six books on the morality of political economy. His latest is Look Up America! Financial Insights for Tea Partiers Looking Right, Occupiers Looking Left, and All Americans Looking at a Lower Standard of Living for Their Children.
As always, your thoughts, questions comments and rebuttals are welcome in the comments below.