Paul Ryan: I Reject Ayn Rand, She’s an Atheist!

Rep. Paul Ryan has decided that he doesn’t like Ayn Rand after all, because she’s an icky atheist. He told National Review’s Robert Costa, in advance of his speech today at Georgetown University:

“I, like millions of young people in America, read Rand’s novels when I was young. I enjoyed them,” Ryan says. “They spurred an interest in economics, in the Chicago School and Milton Friedman,” a subject he eventually studied as an undergraduate at Miami University in Ohio. “But it’s a big stretch to suggest that a person is therefore an Objectivist.”

“I reject her philosophy,” Ryan says firmly. “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,” who believed that man needs divine help in the pursuit of knowledge. “Don’t give me Ayn Rand,” he says.

Ryan enjoys bantering about dusty novels, but it’s not really his bailiwick. Philosophy, he tells me, is critical, but politics is about more than armchair musing. “This gets to the Jack Kemp in me, for the lack of a better phrase,” he says — crafting public policy from broad ideas. “How do you produce prosperity and upward mobility?” he asks. “How do you attack the root causes of poverty instead of simply treating its symptoms? And how do you avoid a crisis that is going to hurt the vulnerable the most — a debt crisis — from ever happening?”

First, about that “dusty novel” Atlas Shrugged: here’s Ryan in a 2009 video he posted on his own Facebook page, in which he claims that contemporary America is “like we’re living in an Ayn Rand novel” and that “Ayn Rand, more than anybody else, did a fantastic job explaining the morality of capitalism, the morality of individualism, and that, to me, is what matters most.”

Ryan has been under fire for these comments because, charge groups like the American Values Network, Rand was an atheist who rejected Christianity and organized religion. (I’ve previously written about how rejecting Rand because she was an atheist is criticizing her for the wrong reasons.)

This week, in advance of today’s Georgetown speech, Ryan received a letter from 90 professors, led by Georgetown’s Thomas Reese, S.J., telling him “your 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.” 

In response, a Ryan spokesperson said:

Chairman Ryan remains grateful for Georgetown’s invitation to advance a thoughtful dialogue this week on his efforts to avert a looming debt crisis that would hurt the poor the first and the worst. Ryan looks forward to affirming our shared commitment to a preferential option for the poor, which of course does not mean a preferential option for bigger government.

In rejecting Rand, Ryan must have woken up to the reality that piggybacking on an atheist wouldn’t help his Catholic “social justice” defenses of his budget. Don’t be fooled, though, by his giving Rand the boot. There are plenty of other conservative ideologues willing to defend Ryan’s budget as being in line with what the Ethics and Public Policy Center’s George Weigel calls, in a column for the Archdiocese of Denver, “Catholicism’s anti-statist social justice principle, subsidiarity.” 

As Dan Maguire explains, subsidiarity “means that nothing should be done by a higher authority that can be done by active participation at lower levels. Right-wingers like Paul Ryan grab that one word, ‘subsidiarity,’ and claim it supports their maniacal hatred of government. It doesn’t.”

Ryan’s theological defenders are having none of that commie nonsense. Weigel argues that subsidiarity is about anti-”statism,” i.e., programs like food stamps, sure, but also like Obamacare, which Weigel charges “flatly contradicts subsidiarity and its principled rejection of vast concentrations of state power—the dangers of which are amply demonstrated by the coercive HHS ‘contraceptive mandate.’” (Hmm, I do recall the Bishops pushing for health care reform, albeit minus imaginary abortion funding.) The days of the “Catholic left,” says Weigel, are over because “four decades of intellectual and political work, coupled with extensive care for women in crisis pregnancies, have made the pro-life cause the cultural marker of serious Catholicism in America.” (emphasis in original).

See that? If you’re pro-choice, you can’t be a “real” Catholic. Therefore, Weigel concludes, Rep. Rosa DeLauro’s (D-CT) request to Cardinal Dolan that the Bishops take a position on the budget should be rejected, because she’s not a “real” Catholic. (Not that members of Congress should be running to the Bishops for their imprimatur on legislation, but both sides have done it over Ryan’s budget.) 

Ryan has been making the rounds of late, and again today at Georgetown, arguing that leaving future generations with government debt would be the truly immoral thing to do. He told the Eternal Word Television Network recently, “If we keep growing government in debt, we will crowd out the civil society — those charities, those churches, those institutions in our local communities that do the most to actually have a human touch to help people in need.” (Institutions with a human touch like the Catholic school in Indiana that fired a teacher, a “grave, immoral sinner,” who pursued in vitro fertilization?) 

Weigel is channeling not Rand but Ronald Reagan: “what the Church asks of a just society is the empowerment of the poor: breaking the cycle of welfare dependency and unleashing the creativity the Church believes God builds into every human soul.” 

And Pete Wehner, in Commentary: “the confusion is that ‘preferential treatment for the poor’ is synonymous with a massive, centralized state. Au contraire. A positive role for government means a limited role for government.” 

Paul Ryan and his pals are wrong to try to justify his budget on religious grounds, and his Catholic critics are perfectly justified in protesting attempts to do so. But the Congressional fight over the budget isn’t, or rather shouldn’t be, a theological one. The budget shouldn’t be subject to any religious test, whether it’s Ryan’s or anyone else’s. But I’m afraid we’ve already gone too far down this road, and the debate is shaping up to be one about what “true” Catholic doctrine is. And I can see what the conservatives are aiming for. They think they’ve already won the “real” Catholic litmus test over abortion, and they’d like to impose another one: to be a “real” Catholic, not only do you have to be anti-choice, but you have to be “anti-statist,” too. 

Sarah Posner, author of God’s Profits: Faith, Fraud, and the Republican Crusade for Values Voters, covers politics and religion. Her work has appeared in The Washington Post, The Guardian, The Atlantic, The American ProspectThe NationSalon, and other publications. Follow her on TwitterRSS feed Email