For nearly a decade Democrats have sought a religious wedge issue that could separate big chunks of white evangelical voters from their Republican home. Now they've found it, and are thrusting at the Social Darwinist/Ayn Rand underbelly of American conservatism.
First, a bit of recent history: Democrats have not gained much white evangelical support on healthcare and environmentalism. In 2008 they successfully used guilt over segregation to elect the first African-American president, but that may not work again as concern over Obamanomics trumps the ghosts of generations past.
Second, some late 19th-century history: Following the 1859 publication of Charles Darwin's On the Origin of Species, conservatives who became known as Social Darwinists began equating the economic struggle among humans with the struggle for survival among animals. They typically argued that "society is constantly excreting its unhealthy, imbecile, slow, vacillating, faithless members to leave room for the deserving. A maudlin impulse to prolong the lives of the unfit stands in the way of this beneficent purging of the social organism."
(Yale professor William Graham Sumner said that "Nature" has placed the downtrodden into a "process of decline and dissolution by which she removes things which have survived their usefulness." Johns Hopkins professor Simon Newcomb argued that human evolution required the death of today's "worthless" humans. One problem: People created in God's image are not "things" and are never "worthless.")
Third, the history of George W. Bush's 1999-2000 "compassionate conservative" campaign: Dan Quayle, Lamar Alexander, and others complained that the double-C term was redundant, because conservatism by definition is compassionate. But that isn't true historically and it's not true at the present, because one departed thinker who still wields great influence on the right is Ayn Rand—and religious liberals are now rightly chastising conservatives who idolize her.
Ayn Rand (1905-1982) was a pro-free-enterprise but anti-Christian popular philosopher and novelist. Millions of Americans have read her most popular work, Atlas Shrugged (1957), even though it clocks in at 1,000-plus pages. Others have seen the movie, belatedly made from the first part of that novel, which hit the theaters this April. Former Fed chairman Alan Greenspan is one of her devotees. Rush Limbaugh is among the many who call her "brilliant."
I read Atlas Shrugged recently and respected its support for innovators who pour themselves into their businesses and its disdain for bureaucrats who think entrepreneurialism is easy and automatic. I also was amazed at the viciousness of Rand's view of Christianity, leading up to its conclusion, where the book's hero traces in the air the Sign of the Dollar, a replacement for the Sign of the Cross. I didn't mark every purple passage because I was reading the novel on a treadmill, but Rand's sneering words got my heart beating faster, and it wasn't true love.
Half a century ago two Christian conservative icons decried Atlas Shrugged. Flannery O'Connor wrote to a friend, "I hope you picked it up off the floor of the subway and threw it in the nearest garbage pail." Whittaker Chambers wrote in National Review, "Out of a lifetime of reading, I can recall no other book in which a tone of overriding arrogance was so implacably sustained. . . . It consistently mistakes raw force for strength, and the rawer the force, the more reverent the posture of the mind before it. . . . From almost any page of Atlas Shrugged, a voice can be heard, from painful necessity, commanding: 'To a gas chamber—go!'"
And this, sadly, is the book that a budget expert I admire, Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., recommends—apparently without caveat—and tells his staffers to read. Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., is also a Rand fan. This does not mean that they subscribe to her atheism: They may just be looking for a novel that shows young readers how capitalism turns individual self-interest into service to others, and in the process helps the poor far more than socialistic schemes do.
But Ryan and others, if they want support from Christians, cannot merely react to the left's criticism with a shrug: They should show what in Rand they agree with and what they spurn. The GOP's big tent should include both libertarians and Christians, but not anti-Christians.