One of the seminal moments in the presidential campaign slipped by at the Republican debate in Las Vegas on Oct. 18. It didn’t involve the frontrunners, and it had nothing to do with Herman Cain’s “9-9-9” plan or the sexual harassment claims.
If you were watching, you’d have heard Ron Paul say, “We need to see everybody as an individual. And to me, seeing everybody as an individual means their liberties are protected as individuals, and they are treated that way, and they’re never penalized that way.”
Rick Santorum responded, “I disagree in some respects with Congressman Paul, who says the country is founded on the individual. The basic building block of a society is not an individual. It’s the family. That’s the basic unit of society.”
Ayn Rand had again loomed in the presidential campaign. It wasn’t the first time, and you can bet it won’t be the last. What this exchange demonstrated is that Rand’s views reach well beyond the advocacy of laissez-faire capitalism for which she is best known. They extend into a wide variety of other areas—and they are capable of making the right, especially the religious right, as uncomfortable as liberals.
Paul is strongly influenced by the Russian-born novelist-philosopher. Rand believed that the individual is supreme, owing no duty to anyone else, including his family. Rand’s novels The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged, which set forth her philosophy, are an eloquent repudiation of family values. Their major characters are existential figures whose families are often little more than leeches.
To Rand, the public interest counted for nothing. She wrote that “there is no such entity as ‘the public,’ since the public is merely a number of individuals.” This hyper-individualism clashes with the more general view in American life that individual needs at times must be subordinated to the greater good—the overriding needs of the family, the team, or society as a whole.
What we are seeing here, breaking out into the open, is a fundamental problem that has largely lain dormant: the far right, the Tea Party and much of the Republican Party, in their embrace of libertarian positions that are heavily influenced by Ayn Rand, are flirting with atheism. That’s a troubling issue for the right—at the very minimum a source of division—that could alienate the religious right within the Republican Party and Tea Party movement. A Heritage Foundation blogger expressed the religious right’s dismay with Paul’s position, saying that “If we focus too narrowly on people’s individual autonomy, we’re less likely to foster a sense of responsibility for one another through family, church, and community, leaving individuals more likely to turn to the state to meet their needs.”
You see, Ayn Rand and Christianity do not mix. The closer the Republican Party moves to Ron Paul and Rand-influenced libertarians, the more it will have to grapple with a rejection of religion that is more customarily considered to be a trait of the left than the right.
In my research for my forthcoming book on Ayn Rand’s influence on America, I found that differences over Rand’s atheism were acknowledged by people on both sides, Tea Party leaders and Randers alike. So far they’ve done a pretty good job of keeping things under wraps, but I’m not sure how long that can continue. It’s not just the individual-versus-family debate. Rand’s philosophy is at variance with Judeo-Christian values, from the role of charity in society (Rand felt there wasn’t any) to the responsibility of government to educate its citizens, provide for the poor, and protect the most vulnerable in society through such accepted measures as child labor laws, which Randers oppose.
The roots of Rand’s views can be found in many places, but religious teachings aren’t among them. Rand despised religion and especially Christianity. She called religion “the great poison of mankind” and “the first enemy of the ability to think.” In 1934 she said, “I want to fight religion as the root of all human lying and the only excuse for suffering.”
True, Paul rejects much of her beliefs, and his opposition to abortion and views on foreign policy have made him disliked intensely by Rand’s followers. Yet his views on the role of government in society—as outlined in his program-slashing budget proposal last month—so closely tracks Rand that he, along with the self-immolating Herman Cain, come as close in years as we’ve seen to standard-bearers of Rand’s “Objectivist” philosophy.
In their public speeches and websites, Rand followers tend to downplay Rand’s fierce atheism and rejection of traditional Judeo-Christian values. Tea Partiers I’ve talked to very often embrace all of Rand’s teachings except for her atheism, or find rationalizations to circumvent her fierce disdain for altruism and contempt for charity.
Ultimately it just won’t work. Rand herself saw that there was no compromise, no meeting point between her views and those of the Christian right, and she declined to endorse Ronald Reagan for that reason. William F. Buckley, Jr., held Rand in contempt because of her atheism and rejection of Christian values, and his National Review was a center of anti-Rand discourse throughout his life. The Paul-Santorum face-off at the debate was the closest we’ve seen in recent years of that old dispute being played out by proxies.
There is no middle ground between Paul and Santorum, just as there wasn’t between Rand and Buckley. The reason for that is fundamental: Rand’s entire worldview is predicated on a rejection of Judeo-Christian beliefs. To her, social programs like Medicare and Social Security are not just ill-advised or in need of reform, but evil. Her novels The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged present a philosophy that argues for an extreme form of individuality and laissez-faire capitalism. It would be a world with no taxation, and not much of a government.
You can water that down, of course, just as you can with any radical ideology, but such differences can’t be finessed.
Gary Weiss’s forthcoming book, AYN RAND NATION: The Hidden Struggle for America’s Soul, will be published by St. Martin’s Press on February 28, 2012.