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Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Ayn Rand, Father Sirico and First Things

The controversy over the nature of the late Ayn Rand’s ideas and their alleged influence on Republican ideas continues to illuminate ideological divisions within Christianity. The latest contribution to this fascinating debate throughout the blogosphere comes from Rev. Robert Sirico, a Catholic priest and the president of the Acton Institute. In a post at the influential Patheos website Sirico, who has in the past attempted to fill in the blanks of Tea Party ideology with his unique understanding of Roman Catholic and Reformed Protestant social teachings, offers a novel Christian defense of Ayn Rand’s “whole approach”. Sirico concedes an enormous amount to her critics—acknowledging, for instance, that “she was the antithesis of Mother Teresa” and that “people who reverence Western Civilization must reject” her. But Sirico offers an extraordinarily generous interpretation of what he calls the “hermeneutical key” to her ideas. He posits the notion that Rand was influenced in ways she never recognized by Russian Orthodox culture. He believes that “there is in Rand an undeniable and passionate quest, a hunger for truth, for the ideal, for morality, for a just ordering of the world.” He encourages readers to consider John Galt, the main character in Rand’s magnum opus novel Atlas Shrugged, “the One upon whom the world and its creative capacity depend”.

 I am not a scholar of either Ayn Rand or Russian Orthodoxy so I will leave it to others like David Bentley Hart to judge Rev. Sirico’s interpretations. What I feel compelled to comment on is the broader political context of Sirico’s defense of Rand. He prefaces his entire commentary by implying that the harsh criticism of Rand is primarily coming from what he terms “a politically left operative group” and at the conclusion of his lengthy post he says: “It is especially off-putting to see the left employ images of her to tar and feather political opponents in a dishonest way very much reminiscent of the McCarthyism they so frequently denounce. They do not argue with Mr. Ryan—for their own ulterior motives, they merely associate him with an admittedly flawed and mean woman, and think they have done society a service.”

Yet surely Sirico is aware that the most damning (literally) judgment of Rand is coming from First Things, hardly a hotbed of leftist ideology. It is at the First Things blog “On The Square”, not in the leftist blogosphere, that Joe Carter is outlining the clear links between Rand and the author Anton Lavey, author of The Satanic Bible. It is Carter, not Jim Wallis or Nancy Pelosi, who is accusing conservatives of “sustaining a climate in which not a few gullible souls believe she [Rand] is worth taking seriously…perhaps instead of recommending Atlas Shrugged, we should simply hand out copies of The Satanic Bible. If they’re going to align with a satanic cult, they might as well join the one that has the better holidays.”

I carry no brief for the American Values Network (AVN), the liberal Christian group that is pounding Paul Ryan and other Republicans for past praise of Rand. As some liberals have suggested, the AVN might be going too far in their criticisms of Ryan. But unless First Things has secretly joined a vast left-wing conspiracy, for Sirico to baldly state that the locus of criticism against Rand in religious circles is on the Left is far more dishonest than anything the AVN is writing or saying. If Sirico is interested in defending the virtues of Ayn Rand, rather than protecting the support base of the Tea Party movement, he should address himself to the extraordinary critique of Rand that is being set forth at First Things.

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