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Andrew WalkerAugust 13, 2012
With Paul Ryan announced as Mitt Romney’s running mate for Vice-President on Saturday, many are speculating about the role that Ryan’s Catholic faith will play out in the election. Ryan’s Catholicism could well be the necessary linchpin in consolidating the GOP’s social conservative segment, a constituency that has offered tepid endorsement of Governor Romney up to this point. Ryan possesses potent social conservative credentials with his strong pro-life record and his defense of traditional marriage. What could give social conservatives concern, however, is Ryan’s sanguine comments and lifelong fascination with the atheist philosopher Ayn Rand. Rand was a proponent of “Objectivism,” a philosophy accused of lacking compassion, being insensitive and condemnatory of the poor.
Ayn Rand, who died in 1982, was a philosopher whose views were popularized in novels such as Atlas Shrugged. A proponent of Objectivism, she insisted on “egoism” and self-interest as guides in governing society. She eschewed charity and emphasized an extreme form of individualism and capitalism, believing in a form of social Darwinism in which the weakest participants in society were to be naturally eradicated.
Ryan, a noted budget wonk, has publicly praised Rand on numerous occasions. In remarks he made before a meeting of the Atlas Society in 2005, a group dedicated to her philosophy, Ryan said, “I grew up reading Ayn Rand and it taught me quite a bit about who I am and what my value systems are, and what my beliefs are. It's inspired me so much that it's required reading in my office for all my interns and my staff.”
“The reason I got involved in public service, by and large, if I had to credit one thinker, one person, it would be Ayn Rand," said Ryan.
At the same meeting he said, "Almost every fight we are involved in here on Capitol Hill … is a fight that usually comes down to one conflict - individualism versus collectivism."
In 2009, Ryan released two Facebook videos in which he praised Rand. In it, he based his interpretation of the current economic climate with concepts Rand formulated:
“What's unique about what's happening today in government, in the world, in America, is it's as if we're living in an Ayn Rand novel right now,” said Ryan. “I think Ayn Rand did the best job of anybody to build the moral case for capitalism. And that morality of capitalism is under assault. And we are going to replace it with a crony capitalism, collectivist, government-run system which is creeping its way into government,” said Ryan, “and so if Ayn Rand were here today, I think she would do a great job in showing us just how wrong what government is doing is. Not the quantitative analysis, not the numbers, but the morality of what is wrong with what government is doing today.”
Ryan, who chairs the powerful House Budget Committee, attends St. John Vianney Catholic Church in Janesville, Wisconsin and is the architect of the controversial “Path to Prosperity” budget. After the budget’s release, the cuts to Medicare and other entitlement programs prompted Catholic officials to criticize Ryan’s budget as not in keeping with Catholic faith, intimating that Ryan’s devotion to Ayn Rand motivated the cuts in programs for the poor.
And pounce they did.
Father Thomas J. Reese, a priest at Georgetown University was heavily critical of Ryan in an interview with the Huffington Post. “I am afraid that Chairman Ryan’s budget reflects the values of his favorite philosopher Ayn Rand rather than the gospel of Jesus Christ,” Reese said. “Survival of the fittest may be okay for Social Darwinists but not for followers of the gospel of compassion and love.” President Obama has joined the chorus of critics, also calling Ryan’s budget “thinly veiled social Darwinism.”
Ninety faculty members at the predominantly Catholic Georgetown University went on to accuse Ryan’s budget of violating Catholic social teaching.
Ryan has disagreed with the assessment of these characterizations, telling National Review “Liberals have accused me of not being a good Catholic,” Ryan said. “It’s important to try and elevate the tone of this dialogue to a more civil tone — discussing how we exercise prudential judgment as lay people in the Catholic Church in public life. I’m delighted to have the conversation.”
The letter sent by Georgetown faculty to Ryan quoted the U.S. Conference of Bishops saying “a just framework for future budgets cannot rely on disproportionate cuts in essential services to poor persons.” The bishops later remarked that the “the House-passed budget resolution fails to meet these moral criteria.”
The letter went on to say: “[Y]our budget appears to reflect the values of your favorite philosopher, Ayn Rand, rather than the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Her call to selfishness and her antagonism toward religion are antithetical to the Gospel values of compassion and love.” The letter also rebuked Ryan for defending his budget by appealing to Catholic social teaching.
Drawing on the Catholic principle of subsidiarity, which encourages poverty relief to stay local and dependent upon civil society and less so on government intervention, Ryan believes in relieving poverty, but in ways that don’t merely address the symptom, but the actual problem itself.
According to political commentator Robert Costa, “He [Ryan] is a strong believer in the power of civil society, not the federal government, to solve problems. Community leaders and churches, he says, can often do more for the poor than a federal bureaucrat who scribbles their names on a check, sustaining dependency.”
Ryan would later go on to deliver a speech at Georgetown amidst the controversy where he said that, “Simply put, I do not believe that the preferential option for the poor means a preferential option for big government.” He also remarked:
“Look at the results of the government-centered approach to the war on poverty. One in six Americans are in poverty today– the highest rate in a generation. In this war on poverty, poverty is winning. We need a better approach.
To me, this approach should be based on the twin virtues of solidarity and subsidiarity–virtues that, when taken together, revitalize civil society instead of displacing it.”
“[O]ur budget builds on the historic welfare reforms of the 1990s– reforms proven to work. We aim to empower state and local governments, communities, and individuals– those closest to the problem. And we aim to promote opportunity and upward mobility by strengthening job training programs, to help those who have fallen on hard times.”
My mentor, Jack Kemp, used to say, “You can’t help America’s poor by making America poor.”
“One approach gives more power to unelected bureaucrats, takes more from hard-working taxpayers to fuel the expansion of government, and commits our nation to a future of debt and decline. This approach is proving unworkable –in Congress, in our courts, and in our communities.
This path fails to do justice to either subsidiarity or solidarity. It dissolves the common good of society, and dishonors the dignity of the human person.
Our budget offers a better path, consistent with the timeless principles of our nation’s founding and, frankly, consistent with how I understand my Catholic faith. We put our trust in people, not in government. Our budget incorporates subsidiarity by returning power to individuals, to families, and to communities.
We draw inspiration from the Founders’ belief that all people are born with a God-given right to human flourishing.
Protecting this equal right of all persons is required for solidarity– trusting citizens, not nameless government officials, to determine what is in their best interests, and to make the right choices about the future of our country.”
Earlier, in 2011, Ryan had responded to Archbishop Timothy Dolan by letter, responding claims that an earlier budget proposal went against Catholic teaching, but had in mind Catholic teaching as the budget was developed.
The statements on Ayn Rand have not been calculated missteps by Ryan, but have prompted Ryan to put some distance between Ayn Rand and his own faith.
In an interview with National Review, Ryan was offered an opportunity to clarify his position on Ayn Rand. “You know you’ve arrived in politics when you have an urban legend about you, and this one is mind,” Ryan said, referencing the claim that his political philosophy is entirely dependent on Rand.
He insists that his political views are shaped more so by his Catholic faith.
“I, like millions of young people in America, read Rand’s novels when I was young. I enjoyed them,” Ryan said.
“They [Rand’s novels] spurred an interest in economics, in the Chicago School and Milton Friedman, but it’s a big stretch to suggest that a person is therefore an Objectivist.”
“I reject her philosophy,” Ryan told National Review. “It’s an atheist philosophy. It reduces human interactions down to mere contracts and it is antithetical to my worldview. If somebody is going to try to paste a person’s view on epistemology to me, then give me Thomas Aquinas.”
Marvin Olasky of the evangelical World Magazine, on Saturday, swiftly anticipated a barrage of attacks to be levied against Ryan because of his past support of Rand, most vociferously from the faith community:
“Watch: The religious left will immediately attack Mitt Romney’s choice for vice president and give as one evidence of Paul Ryan’s awfulness the recommendation he made to his staffers that they read anti-Christian novelist/philosopher Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged.”
Olasky noted his initial concern with Ryan’s statements, wondering “whether Ryan recommended the novel because of its broader philosophy or because it shows young readers how capitalism turns individual self-interest into service to others, and in the process helps the poor far more than socialistic schemes do.”
“The latter was fine, but I wanted Ryan to be clear about what he agreed with and what he spurned,” Olasky said.
It seems without question that Romney embraces certain aspects of Rand’s philosophy, while rejecting others by his own statements.
Olasky believes Ryan should be clear on where he agrees and disagrees with Rand. Such clarity could quiet his religious critics while also intensifying evangelical support for his vice presidency. “Ryan and others, if they want support from Christians,” said Olasky, “cannot merely react to the left's criticism with a shrug: They should show what in Rand they agree with and what they spurn. The GOP's big tent should include both libertarians and Christians, but not anti-Christians.”
Thomas Kidd, a noted scholar in the field of American religious history at Baylor University and commentator weighed in on the issue, raising the specter that Christian politicians ought to be forthcoming about how their own views have been shaped by particular philosophers.
“It is reasonable to expect Christians in the public sphere to understand that if they recommend explicitly anti-Christian writers, such as Ayn Rand, they should also explain the point at which they cannot accept that writer's views,” said Kidd.
“Conversely, Christians should never descend into a fundamentalist mindset that says we can gain nothing from non-Christian, or even anti-Christian writers and artists. Because of common grace,” said Kidd, “we can find many sources of wisdom and inspiration outside the Christian fold -- the most obvious example is the literary inheritance of Greek and Roman antiquity, which for millennia was a cornerstone of Christian education.”
Kidd encouraged taking individuals like Ayn Rand in stride, recognizing there will be points of agreement and disagreement, much like what Paul Ryan has implied, if not outrighly acknowledging.
“[W]hile many have appreciated Ayn Rand's vivid descriptions of the corrupting effects of bureaucracy and socialism, and the merits of capitalism, Christians must realize there are places, intellectually and spiritually, where we cannot go with her,” said Kidd.
Asked whether he thought Ryan had put enough distance between his own thought and Rand’s, Kidd replied, “I am satisfied with his statement [stating his rejection of her philosophy]. I am not sure what more he could say.”
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