Shrugging off the needs of others

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Rand’s Atlas Shrugged chooses mammon over God

By Roger Fast

Is Ayn Rand's book as influential in a country that gives so much authority to the Bible as it appears? It seems the answer is yes. 

I first read Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand because a 1991 survey showed it among the most influential books in America; it was second only to the Bible. The premise of Atlas Shrugged is that capitalist entrepreneurs are carrying the burden of America’s economy on their shoulders, just like the mythical Atlas carried the earth on his shoulders. Tiring of government regulations and taxes, those entrepreneurs “shrug” off their burden, so to speak. They go on strike, forming their own secret utopian community. In so doing, they let the nation’s economic engines grind to a halt.

John Galt, Rand’s hero in the novel, hijacks the radio airwaves during the strike, and for an hour he harangues the nation (and the reader), speaking against government’s obstruction of the free market. It is a diatribe against taxation of the wealthy in order to provide for the poor. Galt is against any kind of self-sacrifice no matter how small, including the forced sacrifice represented by taxes.

The big problem as he sees it is that Christian values has poisoned the American economy. Galt ridicules those whose hero (Jesus) accepted the metaphorical label of “sacrificial lamb.” He blasts Jesus’ teaching that the poor should be helped because of their need. Pure capitalism requires that everyone act in self-interest. Equal value in return should be demanded for every service or commodity provided, with money, and gold in particular, as the standard of value. Through Galt and the other characters, Rand makes it clear that there is no place for altruism either in the national economy or in one’s personal life. There is no place for Jesus’ command to “love your neighbor as yourself.”

As I read this long novel, I felt the usual tug to identify with the hero. But I kept thinking about Jesus’ saying that you can’t serve both God and mammon. Rand agrees with that, but she chooses mammon. I wondered if her book could really be that influential in a country that gives so much authority to the Bible. But a close look at some of our nation’s leaders confirms Rand’s influence.

Probably the most notable current example is Congressman Paul Ryan, chairman of the House Budget Committee and now vice presidential candidate. He has based his whole political philosophy around Atlas Shrugged. In 2003 interview, Ryan praised Rand and added, “I give out Atlas Shrugged as Christmas presents, and I make all my interns read it.” After he defended his 2012 budget proposals in a Catholic university speech in April, church leaders criticized his budget as reflecting the values of Ayn Rand rather than the gospel of Jesus Christ.

We live in a world of competing values, and we have to make compromises. None of us can raise a family following completely the advice Jesus gave to the rich young ruler. On the other side, even a dedicated Randian wouldn’t make her child pay for room and board. At the national level, budgets have to balance many competing goals. It is my strong preference that my leaders make these tough decisions less under the influence of Rand and her demand that we love self and money and more under the influence of Jesus and his demand that we love God and neighbor.

Roger Fast, a member of College Community Church in Clovis, Calif., is a retired surgeon and was a missionary to Zaire from 1980 to 1984. He and Joan, his wife of 44 years, have four children and two grandchildren.

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