Fall 2012, Vol. 14, No. 2

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Table of Contents   

From the Editor:
Democrats Find Their Inner None

The Saints Come Marching In

I am a Mormon?

How Mormons and Evangelicals Became Republicans

Rowan Williams Lays Down His Burden

Honey, I’m Shrinking the Church

The Struggle to Keep Hospitals Catholic

“Religious liberty” in Court

The Democrats Dump God

Ayn No Way: Paul Ryan’s Problem

Netanyahu’s Anti-Obama Campaign

Varieties of Dylan’s Religious Experience




Ayn No Way: Paul Ryan's Problem

by Daniel W. Morgan

The strange intersection of Rep. Paul Ryan, novelist-philosopher Ayn Rand, and Catholic social teaching became a big story—for the second time—during the 2012 election cycle.

The story was cognitive dissonance: How could Rand, the atheistic founder of “ethical egoism,” be embraced by a man so avowedly devout in his Catholicism? In response, a bevy of mostly conservative apologists elaborately sought to reconcile the apparently disparate ideologies.

What escaped the attention of most writers, however, was the manner in which a conservative politician held up his faith as a shield against accusations regarding his political principles. By publically renouncing Rand in favor of Catholicism on the one hand, but keeping his allegiance to most of his former teacher’s ideas on the other, Ryan used his religion to maneuver around accusations of its misapplication. The GOP vice-presidential candidate tried to have his political cake and eat it too.

This whole strange ride began in the spring of 2011, when Ryan, newly enthroned as chair of the House Budget Committee, introduced a Republican budget proposal that contemplated the reconstruction of Medicare as we know it and the shrinking of many federal programs.

“When Paul Ryan first decided to publicly share his admiration of Ayn Rand, he could not have imagined it would lead to him speed-walking to his SUV to avoid a young Catholic trying to give him a Bible and telling him to pay more attention to the Gospel of Luke,” Amy Sullivan wrote in Time on June 3, 2011, weeks after Ryan released the budget proposal. But coverage of his commitment to Ayn Rand had actually begun months before.

A January 25, 2011 Washington Post op-ed opened by calling Ryan an “Ayn Rand-quoting zealot.” On April 10 the Daily Beast labeled Ryan a “Rand nut.”

Rick Holmes, writing for the Metrowest Daily on April 16, chimed in that he was “a fan of Ayn Rand, the novelist-philosopher whose books…preach that the rich and successful should be rewarded with greater wealth and power, while the ‘moochers and looters’—Rand’s term for poor people and government—should be punished.” Three days later, Michael Stafford’s blog in Town Square Delaware dismissed Rand as “essentially the L. Ron Hubbard of American conservatism. And Objectivism is its closest approximation of a political/ideological cult.”

Rand, it turned out, energizes liberals.

Consider the May 2011 complaint from the American Values Network, a lobbying organization led by former Clinton administration activists Burns Strider and Eric Sapp. The network produced a video warning of “Ayn Rand’s strong atheism, absolute rejection of Christ’s teachings, and goal of replacing religion with her belief system, stand in total opposition to all that which America’s faith community holds most dear.” 

The video went on to complain that Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas) was “posting on Facebook praising Rand’s morality and saying hers is the ‘kind of thinking that is sorely needed right now.’ Simply put, Paul Ryan can’t have it both ways, and neither can Christians.”

Among Catholics, Rand doesn’t sell many tickets either. John Gehring’s U.S. Catholic article from July 2011 said that Rand’s “contempt for religion and lack of compassion for the poor has not stopped many conservatives—including influential Catholic members of Congress—from adopting her as something of a patron saint of radical individualism, whose ideas inspire a policy agenda deeply hostile to Catholic teaching about the common good.”

The Rand-Ryan story gave media outlets a new twist on the radical libertarianism-versus-liberal collectivism trope, and they ran with it.

Susan Brooks Thistlewaite, in an April 18, 2011, “On Faith” post for the Washington Post, described the philosophical incongruities of Ryan’s proclaimed love for both Rand and Christian social values:

“Then Jesus looked up at his disciples and said: ‘Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.’ (Luke 6:20) According to Ayn Rand, the novelist and atheist philosopher so beloved of influential American conservatives today, that’s where Jesus got off track…Ever since Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wisc.) put out his draconian budget proposal that slashes essential programs for the poor and gives big tax breaks to the rich, Ryan’s attachment to the works of Ayn Rand has been in the spotlight.”

Any account of the stories told on Paul Ryan and Ayn Rand would not be complete without first reporting where all the trouble began. From the New York Times to the Daily Beast, from the National Review to Atlantic Wire, from the Progress Report to Forbes, everyone put their finger on the fateful speech Ryan delivered at the 2005 meeting with The Atlas Society.

Besides harping on the fact that Ryan actually spoke at an event honoring the philosophical accomplishments of Rand, most media sources reported some form of the following quotation from his speech: “But the reason I got involved in public service, by and large, if I had to credit one thinker, one person, it would be Ayn Rand. And the fight we are in here, make no mistake about it, is a fight of individualism versus collectivism.”

It was thus Ryan who convicted himself of putting Randian values above Catholic social teaching in his public life.

But despite the liberal energy, by the end of 2011 the Ryan/Rand problem had faded into the background of coverage of the Ryan’s “Path to Prosperity” budget plan. It was briefly revived in April when the New York Times’ liberal lion Paul Krugman wrote a column calling Ryan “deadly serious about cutting taxes on the rich and slashing aid to the poor, very much in line with Rand’s worship of the successful and contempt for ‘moochers.’”

The conservative response from Brian Bolduc, writing in the National Review, nicely mirrored Ryan’s own response strategy—denial: “Ryan isn’t a Randian.” 

 What brought the problem roaring back was Mitt Romney’s choice of Ryan as his running mate just before the Republican convention. Once again reporters began asking Ryan about his self-professed love of Ayn Rand.

And while some conservative writers stepped up to defend him against the mockery, they continued to refrain from defending Randianism per se. As the headline on Lauren Fox’s August 1 piece in U.S. News and World Reports put it, “Paul Ryan is far from an Ayn Rand Prodigy.”  

To be sure there were others, like New York Daily News blogger S.E. Cupp, who insisted on the Ryan-Rand connection. “Ryan certainly is a Rand devotee,” posted Cupp on August 16. “He’s said as much. But so are most conservatives.” Richard Salsman in the August Forbes titled his article, “Mitt Romney, Paul Ryan, and Ayn Rand: Now That’s the Ticket.”

Conservative Catholics, who have more obstacles between themselves and open Randianism, had a tougher time responding to this story. In August, Benjamin Wiker wrote in the National Catholic Register, “It isn’t enough for Ryan to say that, on the one hand, he rejects her objectivism, but on the other, that he affirms her moral case for capitalism—because her moral case for capitalism is rooted in her objectivism.”

Ryan himself had little use for pesky points like Wiker’s. “I reject [Rand’s] philosophy,” he told National Review’s Robert Costa in an April 26 interview. “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. Don’t give me Ayn Rand.”

But the great scholastic theologian proved to be almost as big a problem for Ryan as Rand had been: The broken-field running was all too easy to spot.

In April, Rick Unger of Forbes concluded that Ryan “can’t seem to make up his mind when it comes to his philosophical underpinnings.” Likewise, in August, the hostile Daily Kos blog: “Even if we take Paul Ryan on his word, believing the absurd supposition that he now rejects the moral philosophy that shaped his past and drove his policy, there’s a huge problem in approving his request to be linked to St. Thomas Aquinas.”

“Now that he is the presumptive GOP Vice Presidential candidate,” Salon noted on August 19, “Ryan has discovered the need to counter the public perceptions that he is an uncaring disciple of the gospel of selfishness.

So Ryan supporters turned to the congressman’s friends in the Catholic hierarchy, and received some support. Writing in the August 31 New Republic, Amy Sullivan recalled that Cardinal Timothy Dolan had given Ryan some cover during the initial budget debates, commending Catholic social teaching to the congressman but allowing that he had a right to exercise “prudential judgment” in the scrum of political life.

Other conservative Catholics bashed the Ryan bashers. In an August 16 St. Louis Post-Dispatch op-ed, Colleen Carroll Campbell quoted with relish the defense of his budget that Ryan had offered at Georgetown University four months earlier: “I do not believe that the preferential option for the poor means a preferential option for big government.”

Catholic liberals who questioned Ryan’s allegiance to the church’s social doctrine often dissented far more fundamentally from true Catholic doctrine on “the moral issues that the church labels non-negotiable, including defense of the right to life and traditional marriage,” Campbell wrote.

A few Catholic leaders, more distant from the fray, agreed that there were perplexities caused by Ryan’s stance. Bishop Steven Blaire of Stockton, California, told Joe Garogoli of the San Francisco Chronicle on August 23 that the Ryan budget did indeed fail a “basic moral test.” Its “moral failing is that it did not adequately provide for the care of the poor and the vulnerable.” Blaire said, adding that he was “critiquing the budget Ryan shepherded and not Ryan personally.”

As the talking heads slugged it out in August, Amy Sullivan suggested in Time that the Ryan contretemps would prove to be a challenge for the GOP on Election Day. “The bottom line is this: the Romney-Ryan campaign must acknowledge the Catholic concerns about the budget as a major obstacle to winning the election Nov. 7,” Sullivan wrote. “It will make or break the GOP ticket’s appeal to Catholics in a state like Pennsylvania.”

Indeed, most of the most Catholic states—all of New England, New York, Pennsylvania, California, Ohio, Michigan, Illinois, Wisconsin, Michigan, and Minnesota—voted against the Romney-Ryan ticket.

By then, the Ryan-Rand controversy had petered out. The story peaked in mid-August, when almost every major news source discussed what appeared to be an important internal contradiction in Ryan’s toolbox of values.

What made the story different from the 2011 version was the internal Catholic dynamic. In 2012, Catholic liberals egged their bishops to rule Ryan’s social doctrine out of bounds, and by and large the bishops were unwilling to do it. But, by a bare majority, Catholic voters did the job.


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