In April 2012, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops sent a series of letters to Congress criticizing the federal budget plan authored by a fellow Catholic, U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan, chairman of the House Budget Committee. That budget sought to reduce the federal deficit primarily through cuts to many safety net programs that serve the poor and vulnerable seniors. The bishops said the budget proposal failed to meet "moral criteria."
That same month, 90 Catholic leaders from Georgetown University joined the bishops, writing to Rep. Ryan prior to his scheduled appearance at the school. Jesuit Father Thomas J. Reese, one of the organizers of the letter, said, "I am afraid that Chairman Ryan's budget reflects the values of his favorite philosopher Ayn Rand rather than the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Survival of the fittest may be okay for Social Darwinists but not for followers of the gospel of compassion and love."
Paul Ryan said in 2003 that he gave Rand's book Atlas Shrugged as Christmas presents and tried to make all of his interns read it. Speaking to the Atlas Society in 2005, Ryan said that Ayn Rand was "the reason I got in involved in public service, by and large." Stung by his church leaders' criticisms, Ryan distanced himself from the author in 2012 saying, "I, like millions of young people in America, read Rand's novels when I was young. I enjoyed them." Adding, "I reject her philosophy. It's an atheist philosophy."
While Ryan and other Washington leaders obviously reject portions of Ayn Rand's philosophy -- she was atheist, pro-abortion and anti-war -- for the most part her ideas now seem completely predominant among the controlling powers in the executive and legislative branches. The newly passed tax bill shines with generosity to high earners, powerful corporations and inheritors of large estates. The wealthy and powerful consolidate their power while the majority are to be content with mere trickle-down.
Ayn Rand called her philosophy "the morality of rational self-interest." She lauded egoism, or The Virtue of Selfishness as she titled one book. The individual should "exist for his own sake, neither sacrificing himself to others nor sacrificing others to himself." Today's winner-takes-all party politics shares much in common with Rand's kind of individualism.
Rand rejected altruism or any moral obligation to live for the sake of others. She called philosopher Immanuel Kant a "monster." Kant is famous for his moral imperative: "Act only in accordance with that maxim through which you can at the same time will that it become a universal law," a restating of the Golden Rule, "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you." (Matthew 7:12) Among today's political elites we see an appetite for the absolute pursuit of power and wealth with little regard for the common good.
It is time to remember the 2012 words of Catholic leaders and to reclaim for our national vision the ethical principles of Jesus.
Jesus lived an altruistic life. He fed the hungry, healed the sick and befriended those whom the elites shunned as unclean, alien, lost, failed, foreign or poor. He taught his followers to do the same. He said the nations will be judged by how they treat "the least of these." (Matthew 25) His act of loving self-sacrifice is the symbol of the faith and ethic that motivate me and millions of others who embrace his example. Jesus is the opposite of the Ayn Rand hero.
Joining the tradition of the Hebrew prophets, Jesus placed extra responsibilities upon the wealthy and powerful. The Bible eschews greed and inspires generosity, particularly toward the little, the lost and the least. Jesus and the prophets tell us that we are responsible for our neighbor. The 99 secure sheep can take care of themselves. The Good Shepherd acts decisively on behalf of the endangered one, even if it is the sheep's fault. Daily bread, forgiveness of debt, love of neighbor and care of the stranger--this is the ethic of compassion and love that Jesus inspires.
The Good Shepherd seems ignored by our political elite. It is not a good time to be poor or vulnerable in America. It is not a good time to be the alien among us. Now is the day of the wealthy and powerful. Arrogance is rewarded. Self-interest and winning is everything. Wealth and power are being concentrated in fewer and fewer hands. Public education and public good is under attack. Our news is dominated by characters who could have come right from the pages of Ayn Rand.
Washington seems to have lost the American vision of the common good.
Commentary on 01/09/2018
Print Headline: Jesus or Ayn Rand?