Sunday, July 17, 2011

Christians, Conservatives and Capitalists

I imagine readers are a bit perplexed by my unusual alliteration, though there is something of a natural association between these three words in today’s American culture. Capitalism is widely accepted and advocated by politicians on both sides of the field for the most part and from Christian politicians in particular, such as Ron Paul. It also connects neatly in the area of conservative politics, also very popular these days as a contrarian sort of position. My own home state is more diverse, from what I understand, somewhat purple as opposed to red or blue majority. I’ll admit I can find some logic behind classical conservative values, actually aligned in part with classical liberalism as it originated in the UK. Valuing individual liberty, private property, fiscal responsibility and the like are things I can agree with even as an anarchist socialist of sorts if you asked me particular socioeconomic questions.

Christianity has a natural place of respect in American history, though not to the point of putting it on a pedestal for the average person who wasn’t raised in a hyper-Christian sort of culture as a child and at least knew in part of the existence of other religious believers in this country alongside them. I myself probably wasn’t explicitly aware of other religions until at least early teens when I began to question my home faith and looked into Deism especially, though Confucianism, Daoism and Buddhism also held strong interest as they would for many Westerners. In terms of demographics, Christianity is still the largest religion in the United States and there is always the lingering group of people insisting even today that we are a Christian nation. But I’m not talking about that today, but whether you can be a Christian and a capitalist, among a few other ideas associated with the contrasting figure to Jesus Christ revered by conservatives, Ayn Rand.

Ayn Rand was a Russian immigrant who is well known for her novel “Atlas Shrugged” as well as her system of Objectivism which was founded in three books: “The Virtue of Selfishness”, “Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal” and “Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology”. Many consider Ayn Rand very extreme in her atheist, capitalist and egoist principles of life and an antithesis on ethical grounds to the founder of Christianity. She said that altruism is not a primary virtue and that one’s own concerns should be first and foremost. Compared to Jesus she is on the other end of the spectrum of ethics ranging from other-focus to self-focus. The focus on capitalism seems a bit less obvious of a disagreement between Jesus and Ayn Rand. It’s actually, from what I understand, more contentious as to whether Jesus was or was not a capitalist. If anything, Ayn Rand’s version of capitalism, laissez-faire capitalism, could be said to be more “cutthroat” and based on radical individual rights, which is how it is defended as the most rational and moral system by Rand. According to Objectivism, only the system that enables people to realize their individual desires and protects those basic individual rights is both rational and moral. This is not to say Rand is an anarchist, which would believe fundamentally that we don’t need the state to defend our rights. In fact, she agreed with basics that Christians believe about politics, at least in the secular realm. The state is believed by both parties to be necessary to protecting people’s rights, even if Christians would argue God is the ultimate arbiter of rights to humans, being the Creator. But on basic principles, Objectivism and Christianity don’t have a fundamental disagreement except to Christians in a minority who believe Jesus was an anarchist, including most prominently Leo Tolstoy, also advocate of Christian pacifist nonresistance in The Kingdom of Heaven is Within You.

The biggest difficulty that exists here is not of incorporating parts of Ayn Rand and eliminating or ignoring the parts that you don’t think are logical or in sync with Christianity. Instead, there’s what might be called a problem of priority. On the one hand, Rand advocates and defends quite strongly in her novels and nonfiction the virtues and logic of capitalism unfettered by state control, which many Republicans today speak very strongly for in opposition to such things as Obama’s healthcare plan passed in 2009 and other actions he’s taken in his presidency. I get at least 5 emails a day, many times duplicates, from conservative groups that I subscribe to for research purposes, telling me about all the bad things Obama’s doing, only a small handful of them even agreeable to me, if any. Ron Paul’s more my kind of conservative from what I gather of his positions, even if I am admittedly also on Ayn Rand’s side of things. Ron Paul is pretty conservative in the vein of my parents’ generation, but is at least more for state’s rights on the big ethical issues and less government intervention, which I’m a bit ambivalent on at times with such issues as abortion and gay marriage.

The problem of consistency in Christian ethical and politics beliefs lies starkly with Ayn Rand’s ethics, advocating egoism and focus on one’s own interests above those of others, except when you can afford to be charitable, in the vein of billionaires like Bill Gates donating to charities. This position clashes with Jesus’ call to provide for the poor even at your own expense as a moral obligation. It’s hard to defend that you are fully following Ayn Rand and Jesus, but the two masters’ Biblical reference that Jesus himself makes is probably wasted on many politicians who only draw on Rand in terms of defending socioeconomic policy changes such as they desire. In terms of ethics they have replaced Ayn Rand with Jesus as suits them. In that sense, there isn’t an explicit conflict for politicians to say they owe their involvement in politics to Ayn Rand’s writings, but they cannot say they fully follow her not only because it would put her above Jesus, but it would also create explicit dissonance in their worldview, since Rand was not only an egoist but a huge critic of religion, an outspoken atheist used as an older representative of atheism in between Friedrich Nietzsche and Richard Dawkins.  I imagine this could still pose a problem in terms of consistency, but in terms of loyalty, there is still the observation that one cannot serve two masters, for you will hate one and love the other, as said by Jesus in the Bible. Politicians don’t seem to serve Jesus in terms of secular matters, since Jesus has been argued to be an anarchist and socialist by authors, but in terms of spiritual issues, Jesus is much more strongly their leader in leading the moral crusades against abortion and gay marriage. In politics, however, it is no doubt observed that it’s very easy to serve two masters and still look as if you’re serving just one. Until next time, Namaste and aloha.

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