Devil’s Advocate: Building the Religious Counterculture

Conservative lawmakers and business leaders continue to exalt {title}Atlas Shrugged{/title} as a kind of right-wing Bible. Why does this book excite so many? Might progressives have something to learn from its call to uncage our creative desire? Credit: Cassandra Conlin.

Today’s fiscal conservatives have a gold mine in the twentieth-century philosopher Ayn Rand, who used her writings to legitimate the steely pursuit of self-interest and to dignify radical individualism. Many of the Republicans in Congress have read her novels, particularly Atlas Shrugged, and many admit to being deeply influenced. It’s hard to overestimate the importance of this book in American politics. Rand’s collective writings form a common language for conservatives—the canon of a kind of secular Bible, providing the sanction for the dog-eat-dog economic and social structures that the actual Bible inconveniently fails to provide. Rand is unapologetic in her ardor for “full, pure, uncontrolled, unregulated laissez-faire capitalism” and her rejection of laws promoting the collective good, including social safety nets, affirmative action, and environmental regulations.

Rand’s philosophy, “objectivism,” at first glance seems harmless enough: it is simply the belief that there is an external, objective reality and that only our senses and our reason allow us to perceive it accurately. By this logic one’s own existence is axiomatic and is the foundation for everything we know and do. From a spiritual progressive point of view, the problem comes when she extrapolates: she excludes from her notion of “objective reality” anything ineffable, mystical, emotional, or spiritual. These are simply unreal to her—they do not exist “out there” in the world; they are wishful concoctions of our own minds. As a result, they cannot possibly generate values, obligations, or meaning. To Rand, the only thing that generates values is real, concrete existence itself, particularly one’s own personal existence. The only imperative she recognizes is that of making rational choices to further that existence, the realest thing in the world.

To those of us who do believe in a world bursting with dimensions unfathomable by the rational mind, Rand’s philosophy is myopic and reductionist. And to those of us who experience the reality of love and Spirit propelling our obligations to one another and to the earth, her glorification of greed is morally repugnant. In liberal religious communities, most of us spend our time trying to temper greed, to contain it, to objectify it so that we can say, “this is not who we really are at core.” Jesus decried greed and wealth as obstacles to the spiritual life. The Buddha identified desire (of which greed is the outsized cousin) as the root of all suffering. The Hebrew exhortation of v’ahavta l’reacha kamocha (love your neighbor as yourself) is foundational in Jewish prayer life and ethical life.

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