Earlier this week, CNN reported that American Atheists, an advocacy group for atheists and atheism, would have a booth at the 2014 Conservative Political Action Conference. The idea behind the booth was to build bridges between historically faith-motivated conservatives and their politically aligned but religiously different atheist counterparts. David Silverman, the president of American Atheists, called the booth “one of many steps” his organization would take in its “outreach effort” targeted at political conservatives.
But the Atheists’ attempt to extend an olive branch was evidently ill-received by the organizers of the CPAC, who have now disallowed the group from sponsoring its planned informational booth. Apparently most conservatives weren’t amused by Silverman’s comments to CNN concerning the Christian right: ““I am not worried about making the Christian right angry. The Christian right should be angry that we are going in to enlighten conservatives. The Christian right should be threatened by us.”
So much for American Atheists’ short-lived liberation effort, which seems to have been aimed as much at bringing to light already-existing atheist sentiments on the right as in inculcating them into current believers. But if the American Atheists’ goal is to make public quiet inklings of atheism in seemingly faith-saturated conservative circles, an incendiary conversion attempt based out of a booth at CPAC is likely the worst tack to take. After all, a much more successful war against religion on the right has been waged by none other than perpetual philosophical train wreck and failed film critic Ayn Rand.
Rand is perhaps the only virulently anti-Christian writer that Republicans nonetheless routinely feel comfortable heaping praise upon. In a charming 1964 interview with Playboy, Rand described the crucifixion of Jesus in terms of “mythology,” and submitted that she would feel “indignant” over such a “sacrifice of virtue to vice.” That Christians are called to care for the most vulnerable of God’s people was, to Rand, manifest proof that the religion has nothing constructive to add to human life: After all, in her philosophy, "superiors" have no moral obligations to those weaker or more vulnerable than they. According to Rand, the Christian moral imperative to serve the needy is a “monstrous idea.”
In a surprising jolt of coherence, Rand held precisely the position such a disdain for Christian humility would suggest: that the strong are the rightful lords over the weak, and that those with the capabilities to secure wealth and resources should be more or less unimpeded from doing so, the rest of humankind be damned. It’s likely this philosophical tenet that wins her so many fans on the right, among them Paul Ryan, Clarence Thomas, Gary Johnson and Rand Paul.
Speaking of Rand in 2005, Paul Ryan noted “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.” Ryan went on to claim that Rand was the very reason he went into politics in the first place, and that it’s important for the future of America to return to Rand’s vision. Though he’s since repudiated – to some confusing degree – his former commitment to Rand, Ryan’s policies have undergone no significant changes between the before and after.
Paul’s love of Rand seems to be only one drop in a current of adoration for the woman’s writing; Clarence Thomas reportedly holds yearly screenings of the film version of her book "The Fountainhead" for all new law clerks, while Gary Johnson evidently gave a copy of her book "Atlas Shrugged" to his fiancée with the romantic addendum “If you want to understand me, read this.” Praise for Rand in minor mentions and allusions is even more widespread, so much so that very few murmurs of distress are raised when conservative politicians wax sentimental about her work.
This dearth of criticism is rather startling, especially for a set so manifestly averse to atheism – at least, when called by such a name. (“Objectivism,” the title of Rand’s philosophy, perhaps smuggles into decent discourse what American Atheists were at least honest enough to make explicit.) In March 2008, President Obama’s then-pastor Jeremiah Wright was raked over the coals in conservative media for willing that God should damn America, but at least that sentiment acknowledges that there is a God whose authority exists over and above that of the state. If statements that agree with the Christian right’s fundamental beliefs about existence receive that kind of criticism, what accounts for the tacit conservative acceptance of Rand’s extreme anti-Christian tendencies?
One explanation comes from David Silverman himself, who submits that “Just as there are many closeted atheists in the church pews, I am extremely confident that there are many closeted atheists in the ranks of conservatives.” It could well be the case that Rand’s extraordinary anti-Christian philosophy slips by mostly unremarked upon because there really is no significant objection to it.
But it’s more likely the case that conservatives, in wanting to maintain a political system that routinely disadvantages the vulnerable, simply ignore in Rand what rhetoric they don’t like while championing that which they do. The trouble with this is that Rand’s entire notion of morality is predicated upon the idea that a sacrifice such as Christ’s would be morally wrong, which means all ethics that flow out of her work will contain in them that seed of conflict with the central message of Christianity. Whether conservatives like it or not, to advance a Randian political ethic is to further an ethic that fundamentally denies the goodness of the sacrifice of Christ, and thereby can never be brought to union with any serious Christian ethics.
In 1971, Rand wrote, “I am not primarily an advocate of capitalism, but of egoism; I am not primarily an advocate of egoism, but of reason. If one recognizes the supremacy of reason and applies it consistently, all the rest follows.” That the supremacy of reason directly necessitates egoism for Rand suggests she had one thing right: that, as Jesus said, “no one can serve two masters.”
If Randian reasoning is regarded as supreme, then the only authority worthy of service is oneself. But Christian ethics fundamentally and entirely reject such a notion, and much of scripture warns against the temptation to fall into the service of masters other than God. For the many elite conservatives who love Rand, the mission of Silverman and American Atheists may not, therefore, be necessary after all: that there’s any agreement whatsoever with Rand’s ethics suggests any relationship with Christianity is purely one of convenience, not commitment.