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Paul Ryan and the atheist bogeyman

As the resident libertarian here at GetReligion, I was curious about the flurry of stories about how a progressive Christian group is fighting Ayn Rand. So even though it ran over a week ago, I'm finally getting to this Religion News Service piece on the matter. Ayn Rand died years ago but her influence has been tremendous. She is known for her two best-selling novels and for developing a philosophical system she called Objectivism. She's also a really bad writer. But, hey, that doesn't stop Dan Brown from making a lot of money.

The RNS piece begins by noting that progressive advocates are trying to tie Rand to the Republican budget:

But in a petition drive, video, ads, and websites, liberal Christians counter that Rand's dog-eat-dog philosophy is the real inspiration for the GOP budget and its author, House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis.

"You've got a guy who is a rising Republican star, and who wrote the budget, saying he's read her books and Washington needs more of her values," said Eric Sapp, executive director of the American Values Network, which produced the video. "If you're a Christian, you've got to ask some serious questions about what's going on here."

In other words, Sapp argues, you can follow Ayn Rand or Jesus, but not both.

Now, I read Rand when I was 15 and really enjoyed it. My father pointed out to me that her fiction included some excellent ideas about the morality of individualism and the proper role of the state but that her larger philosophy had some serious problems, particularly for Christians. And, well, that's pretty much where I stand today. Most Christians I know who also enjoy some of Rand's ideas would tell you that they think she had some bad ideas, too.

The article eventually quotes someone pointing out this same general idea but I wonder if it was handled in a balanced enough fashion. I mean, I know atheists who absolutely adore Martin Luther King, Jr. but strongly disagree with his Christianity. I know lots of non-Confucians who quote Confucius. It was just somewhat weird to not engage that general idea that one can enjoy a particular author without agreeing with every single thing he's ever written.

Anyway, we're told that Rush Limbaugh, Alan Greenspan and Clarence Thomas all call themselves Rand fans. This is undoubtedly true. It's also true that a Library of Congress survey of "most influential books" put "Atlas Shrugged" second only to the Bible. So they're not exactly alone.

And even the anti-Rand sentiment is nothing new. Check out this hilarious Maureen Dowd piece in a 1987 New York Times about how folks in the Reagan administration read, gasp, Rand.

Rand's anti-religious views are briefly detailed, including her particular opposition to Christianity and its teaching of self-sacrifice.

And then we got to this point of the article:

More than 6,000 people have signed a petition asking Ryan to put down Rand and pick up a Bible, according to Kristin Ford of Faithful America, a left-leaning online group.

I know from earlier research that Faithful America is heavily funded by George Soros. In 2008, for instance, I read he gave the group two $400,000 gifts (the substantiation for that is supposedly here but I don't have time to go through the 237 pages just yet). Which is great. Soros' generosity is legendary and he helps many hundreds of liberal political groups each year, including religious ones. And if the issue fits, he even supports programs run by libertarian outfits. But I also know that Soros is an atheist, like Ayn Rand.

And that got me wondering. Why would an organization backed so heavily by atheists be criticizing other people for following atheists? And why would these groups be doing so in the name of faith?

That's a question I'd really like to see addressed in the reporting on this public relations campaign. It wasn't even mentioned in this article. The same goes for the other Open Society Institute-funded groups mentioned in coverage of this anti-Ryan effort.

Anyway, the end of the article includes words from Ryan's office along with others who throw cold water on the anti-Ayn Rand effort. The article goes through a recent letter Ryan sent the president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops about how his budget aligns with Catholic teaching:

"Those who represent the people, including myself, have a moral obligation, implicit in the church's social teaching, to address difficult basic problems before they explode into social crisis," Ryan wrote in the April 29 letter.

Ryan argues that his budget is informed by the Catholic principal of subsidiarity, which holds that large bureaucracies should not assume tasks best left to individuals.

The GOP congressman also quotes the late Pope John Paul II's warning that government welfare programs can lead to inertia, overweening public agencies, and ballooning budgets.

Jay W. Richards, a Catholic and author of Money, Greed and God: Why Capitalism is the Solution and Not the Problem, calls Ryan, like many Rand admirers, a "cafeteria Randian."

"I suspect the progressive Christians are confusing that point," he said. "You can agree with Rand's critique of collectivism as enervating and soul-destroying without adhering to her overarching philosophy."

So an interesting article overall with good information but it almost reads like two competing press releases -- one from the anti-Ryan camp and one from the pro-Ryan camp. I might enjoy a bit more in-depth discussion on the topic of what Jesus has to say about the debt ceiling or whatever, including one where the view of religious adherents of strict separationism or a Two Kingdoms approach might also get a voice.

And for folks who enjoy this sort of discussion on Ayn Rand, check out Katherine Mangu-Ward's look at Ayn Rand and, well, Satan over at Reason. Also, Mediabistro seems to think the progressive group fighting Paul Ryan can best be described as "conservative Christians." Good work there, team.

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