Culture

"To a Country Club Prison—Go!"

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Watergate felon, country-club-prisoner, and Christian ministry operator Chuck Colson lays into Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged on the event of the novel's 50th anniversary. At Town Hall, Colson says:

Rand's inversion of biblical norms had predictable results: Scott Ryan, who wrote a book on Rand's philosophy, called objectivism a "psychologically totalitarian personality cult that allowed Rand . . . to exercise personal power over [her] unwitting victims." He cites, for example, the way she manipulated "her own unemployed and dependent husband" to get him to agree for her to have "an adulterous sexual affair."

We're not talking here about personal flaws or merely human weaknesses. As Ryan puts it, these abuses are "demonstrably connected to Rand's own 'philosophical' premises"-that is, her worldview.

Rand and her followers, you see, lived in a way consistent with her worldview. But you can hardly regard a philosophy that exalts selfishness and condemns altruism as the basis for a good society.

That's why it is so important for us as Christians to understand our Christian worldview and to be able to contend for it, because it gets God right, and it gets human nature right, as well. You can find that worldview in the one book that out-ranked Atlas Shrugged.

More here.

As neither a Randian nor a Christian (I'm a recovering Catholic), I don't have a dog (or a god) in this fight, but I'm always wary of extrapolating from philosophy to personal history (even when I like neither, as in the case of Heidegger and his Nazism). As reader Innervista, who put me onto the Colson bit in the first place, notes, the commenters at Town Hall do a pretty good job of taking Colson to the cooler, so why do so here?

Less than a week ago, reason's Brian Doherty told Wall Street Journal readers what today's right should learn from Ayn Rand (Doherty's tidy little piece also explains the title of this post). Read that here. And Contributing Editor Cathy Young took a critical measure of Rand's legacy here. And we compiled evidence of Rand's persistence (the good, bad, and ugly) in pop culture in Rand-O-Rama.

And check out reason's Kerry Howley's devastating critique of Colson's InnerChange Freedom Initiative (IFI), a prison-fellowship program that is the recipient of many taxpayer dollars. As Howley, then the Burton Gray Memorial Intern, observed:

Even if state-supported Christian conversion could somehow be justified on the basis of results, the University of Pennsylvania study cited by the White House as proof of IFI's success is problematic. The study points to low recidivism rates, which IFI clearly delivers, but fails to provide a control group with similar secular benefits such as mentoring and education. IFI representatives claim that Christian values are central to the program's success, but the claim itself is based on faith.

More on that here.

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  1. Christians are by nature delusional. Ministry people are worse–they’re delusional cranks and annoying busybodies. For one to comment on Rand is like an ape opining on quantum theory.

  2. Libertarians are by nature delusional. Objectivists people are worse–they’re delusional cranks and annoying busybodies. For one to comment on Christianity is like an ape opining on quantum theory.

  3. I just went over to Townhall.com to check out the article.

    Anybody else notice that the adverts with the T-Shirt Girls over there are only from the waist up, while Reason.com has the same adverts, but showing way more (beautiful, I might add) skin?

    I guess there is something wrong with me for noticing that, eh?

  4. I’m always wary of extrapolating from philosophy to personal history

    That’s a good rule of thumb, but given the specifics of Objectivism, it doesn’t seem to apply.

    When you make the individual self the center of your political philosophy, it makes one’s individual self an appropriate field for political analysis.

    Rand herself certainly didn’t consider the pursuit of her selfish ends and the principles of her political philosophy to be distinct; why should we?

  5. Clever, affenkopf. Or should I say Cheetah?

  6. Cool! So, this gives us permission to judge Christian philosophy on the behavior of its practitioners. That makes it so much easier to dismiss. Thanks, Colson!

  7. a “psychologically totalitarian personality cult

    Hey, something broke the needle right off of my irony meter…

  8. Dogma is philosophy? Who knew?

  9. Christians are by nature delusional. Ministry people are worse–they’re delusional cranks and annoying busybodies. For one to comment on Rand is like an ape opining on quantum theory.

    I am a libertarian Christian. I don’t care if you go to hell.

  10. I am a libertarian Christian. I don’t care if you go to hell.

    I’m a libertarian atheist, Guy. I don’t care if you waste your time and energy on a myth. We could probably get along with each other. 🙂

  11. Rimfax,

    Cool! So, this gives us permission to judge Christian philosophy on the behavior of its practitioners.

    Do Christians hold the goodness of an individual’s pursuit of selfish ends as a central plank of their philosophy?

    A Christian philosopher can point to the assholish behavior of any given Christian and say, “That’s not what our philosophy is about.”

    Objectivists cannot, unless someone has a gun held to their head, because it is that very assholish behavior that they hold out as the heart of their philosophy.

  12. I’m a libertarian atheist, Guy. I don’t care if you waste your time and energy on a myth. We could probably get along with each other. 🙂

    I need to find the Church where t-shirt chick attends.

    Waste of time and energy? I think not!

  13. “I am a libertarian Christian. I don’t care if you go to hell.”

    How do you resolve the issue of Christian principles calling for tithing and charity for people who those who have not earned their way against the Libertarian stance of not supporting those who have not earned it?

    “Check your premises. There are no contradictions.”
    – Dr. Hugh Akston

  14. not to defend rand/objectivism et al but i think mr. gillespie’s point, joe, was that plenty of people have put forth all sorts of stuff that simply didn’t come through in their personal life.

  15. I am a libertarian Christian. I don’t care if you go to hell.

    I am a libertarian Gnostic. I am in hell.

  16. joe,

    You are conflating coercive philosophy and personal philosophy. What you describe is pure relativism, at the individual level.

    Personal philosophy is not about judging others, and I recall a bit of Christianity being specifically against judging others. Objectivism is for judging your own actions.

    Also, you will find that Rand argues that arbitrary asshole behavior is punished in the marketplace of human interactions and is therefore an inherently self-defeating behavior.

  17. joe,

    While I think your overall point is right, and I agree, objectivism doesn’t necessarily promote assholic behavior, it promotes rational self interest and voluntary interactions with others. Generosity and benevolence are also valued. Rand makes that pretty explicit in some of her essays.

    Not to sound like a wierd Vulcan/Randian tool, but being an asshole isn’t all that rational. It tends to attract more negative outcomes than positive.

  18. How do you resolve the issue of Christian principles calling for tithing and charity for people who those who have not earned their way against the Libertarian stance of not supporting those who have not earned it?

    Perhaps you missed the memo. Chairity is perfectly fine in libertarianism, Libertarianism and Objectivism. The former two if it is not coerced, especially by the government, the latter if it just makes you feel good.

  19. I’m not particularly enamored of Objectivism, but it has its merits. I definitely object (sorry!) to conflating it with libertarianism, which is not the same thing.

    I’m lawful neutral.

  20. Guy,

    You make a good point. As a Christian Libertarian myself, I’m all about charity and helping others. For myself. I have no right to force others. I can try and encourage them or make my case, but I believe in free will and it would be unchristian to thwart that!

  21. Not to sound like a wierd Vulcan/Randian tool, but being an asshole isn’t all that rational. It tends to attract more negative outcomes than positive.

    One must be very wealthy to be a total asshole 24/7, or to be a Socialist.

    Seems like those hedge fund guys got rich enough to be 24/7 tools and a recent Tom Wolfe article points out a few of the negative social things that they must endure for their actions. Like teenage female hockey players coming into the stands to threaten to kick their ass if they don’t shut up for the rest of the game.

  22. “How do you resolve the issue of Christian principles calling for tithing and charity for people who those who have not earned their way against the Libertarian stance of not supporting those who have not earned it?”

    Libertarians are not opposed to giving charity. They are only opposed to coerced charity. Coerced charity is not charity, it’s theft.

  23. in fact, being an asshole is highly… illogical.

    Take the case of your automobiles…

  24. You make a good point. As a Christian Libertarian myself, I’m all about charity and helping others. For myself. I have no right to force others. I can try and encourage them or make my case, but I believe in free will and it would be unchristian to thwart that!

    I always thought it quite annoying when the Evangelicals would go around bothering people, especially ME when I was in the Church parking lot, or just in the lunch room at (public) school. For them it was some sort of “I am more Christian than you, but I will help you catch up and keep bugging you until you agree.”

    The reaction, of course, was my getting a negative “fellowship experience” and I can not imagine how many non-believers they drove away with those antics.

    The Randoids seem to share many ‘qualities’ with the Evangelicals.

  25. I need to find the Church where t-shirt chick attends.

    Waste of time and energy? I think not!

    I’ve had many of my theist friends claim church is akin to a meat market. Alas, the sacrifices I make for principle.

  26. “Generosity and benevolence are also valued. Rand makes that pretty explicit in some of her essays.”

    I think what Rand called “altruism” was self sacrifice out of a sense of guilt. It’s ok to look after your self interest. It’s also ok to be generous and benevolent.

  27. Take the case of your automobiles…

    WHAT!? If you loved the environment as much as I you would be burining metric organic hydrogen like me!

    Um, er, but I am not forcing you to love the earth as much as me or anything . . .

    [kicks pebble. gently]

  28. I think what Rand called “altruism” was self sacrifice out of a sense of guilt.

    why not just call it guilt instead of altruism?

    or was this just part of her “thing” as it were?

  29. Ayn Rand and I agreed on capitalism. But that was only a tiny part of her philosophy. On everything else we disagreed. Good thing we never met!

    If you believed in just a gram more government than she did, you were cast into the outer darkness. If you believed in just a gram less, you were cast into the outer darkness. She created a cult of individualism worshipping conformists, who praised rationality and liberty, yet who dared not disagree with her an any issue.

    One idea that was far too radical for Ms. Rand was freedom of belief.

  30. Wait — there was a reference to Doherty WITHOUT a link to his book, Radicals for Capitalism?!?!

  31. I’ve read a few of Rands books but I didn’t really get into any of them. Really, the only one I liked at all was Anthem. It has pretty much all her ideas in a nutshell and is much shorter and a smoother read than Atlas Shrugged.

  32. Conservatives get vicious with people when they challenge their theology. As they see it there entire political claim is based on the existence of a deity who whispers in their ears. Rand ridiculed the idea of basing a political system for this life on the mystical claims of people who died centuries before. Conservatives think old mystical claims are the only ones really worth preserving.

    Hence any tactic to attack those who question that belief is justified and engaged in with relish. Thirty years ago the Left was damn good a character smears but in recent years the Right has taken up the tactic with great enthusiasm ala Ann Coulter and other similar louts. When conservatives try to intellectually defend markets they gleefully use the arguments of nonbelieving libertarians like Hayek, Mises and Friedman.

    But when they have to come up with their own arguments they go the Coulter-O’Reilly route of the sneer and smear. It is one of the signs that as a movement they are intellectually bankrupt. Which may be the reason they prefer faith to reason and slander to evidence.

  33. I can’t figure out how a philosophy that exalts selfishness and condemns altruism is the basis for a personality cult.

    The personality cults I can think of all have some sort of subjugation at their core. Sometimes its directly to a person, sometimes its dressed up as subjugation to the Party or some kind of collective (which just happens to be headed by a strong personality), and sometimes its subjugation to an invisible Personality.

    She created a cult of individualism worshipping conformists, who praised rationality and liberty, yet who dared not disagree with her an any issue.

    Which is oddly inconsistent with her philosophy, and reflects much more on her personality than her (espoused) beliefs.

  34. I am a libertarian Christian.

    Riiiight. You bitch and moan about the power and control that governments–which we can prove exist–have over your life, but you have no problem being a slave (while “recommending,” on pain of Hellfire, that others do the same) to an existentially questionable invisible man who’s apocryphal antics makes Hitler and Stalin look like misbehaving pre-schoolers.

    And often wonder which one I find more repellent: Statists or theists.

  35. BTW, am I the only one who thought first of Philip Jose Farmer rather than Rand when I saw the title?

  36. …and if I’ve said it once, I said it a million times.

    God is the ultimate “Big Government.”

  37. It’s not “Ayn Rand” – it’s Alisa Rosenbaum.


  38. Riiiight. You bitch and moan about the power and control that governments–which we can prove exist–have over your life, but you have no problem being a slave (while “recommending,” on pain of Hellfire, that others do the same) to an existentially questionable invisible man who’s apocryphal antics makes Hitler and Stalin look like misbehaving pre-schoolers.

    And often wonder which one I find more repellent: Statists or theists.

    I don’t think anyone who reads the comments regularly has any doubt that you find theists more repellant.

    I am not an expert on first principles of Libertarianism, but for me part of the reason to espouse libertarian principles is the idea that Man and his institutions are flawed and that the concentration of power in the hands of government multiplies the negative effects of the flaws. Accepting the will of a perfect being does not carry the same risks.

    Furthermore, it’s just my personal opinion and I’m not saying other beliefs aren’t valid, but it seems to me that Christians should be libertarians. It reminds of a quote from A Clockwork Orange (rough paraphrase) – Does God want us to be good or to want to be good? Are people really that moral if the only reason they behave that way is because they fear the government. It seems to me that Christians should want government to allow people to do anything their hearts desired. Only true believers would act in a moral fashion then.
    I’m no bibilical scholar, but there are lots of New Testament indications that this makes some sense – Render unto Caesar, Be not off the world, judge not lest ye be judged yourself.

  39. but Akira, God is a voluntary government. The whole crazy pantheon is voluntary, except in a theocracy. I don’t think there’s anything contradictory to being a christian and a libertarian.

    I mean, you can be into S&M and be a libertarian with a master, right?

  40. I’m a fully recovered Objectivist, and I can say that Branden’s Judgement Day was the most shocking thing I read as a young, impressionable Randroid. Anyone who thinks that the social circle slash debating club slash brothel that sprung up around Rand during the Atlas Shrugged period was in any way reflective of Objectivism as a philosophy… is simply wrong.

    The shit that went on made it pretty clear that the least ‘Objectivist’ member of that little cult was Rand herself.

  41. Didn’t John Calvin have a ten year old beheaded for disobeying his parents? And Henry VIII beheaded a few wives, Martin Luther a raving anti-semite, and the atrocities of various popes would all put anything Ayn Rand did into a much more trivial category.

    Yes, she was a raving crackpot who demanded obedience in the name of “intellectual integrity”, but I don’t recall her actually burning anyone at the stake. She was as great as rationalizing as she was at reasoning. Her behaviour with Nathaniel Branden was typically the action of a “woman scorned”.

    Chuck Colson is great at rationalizing as well. He was a Christian when he committed the crime he was in jail for in the first place. How utterly self serving and stupid to pretend that now that he got caught, he’s FINALLY a “real” Christian. That’s what challenges MY gag reflex.

  42. I am not an expert on first principles of Libertarianism, but for me part of the reason to espouse libertarian principles is the idea that Man and his institutions are flawed and that the concentration of power in the hands of government multiplies the negative effects of the flaws. Accepting the will of a perfect being does not carry the same risks.

    Not to say that being a slave to a perfect master is libertarian. Just that there are qualitative differences between a god and the government. Randolph Carter made a much better point about voluntariness.

    Also, In the last sentence I meant “Be not of the world”

  43. Pointing out that Objectivism has a “non-coercive” (special objectivist definition) political philosophy does not immunize it against charges of promoting assholism.

    The guy who guilts his girlfriend into putting out whe she’s not in the mood is being “noncoercive” by Rand’s definition, and pursuing his self-interest…and being an asshole. This is completely in keeping with Rand’s philosopohy, and seems to describe her personal life pretty well.

  44. What Colson seems to be saying is: “Rand wants to tell everybody how to live, AND DAMMIT, THAT’S OUT JOB!!!”

  45. That should read “OUR JOB”…dadgum antihistamines kicking in…

  46. but Akira, God is a voluntary government.

    I have a hard time buying this, and it has nothing to do with being an atheist.

    If we accept the premise that big-G God exists, then refusal to accept His authority over you results in eternal damnation. To say that non-believers are free to accept the consequences of non-belief is like saying that pot smokers are free to go to prison for refusing to comply with the nation’s drug laws. Sure, it’s true enough, but it hardly seems compatible with libertarianism.

    More bluntly: God purports to govern over everyone, even those who do not consent to be governed by Him, and (assuming He is real) He will punish anyone who disobeys His rules (which are established by fiat, without any input from the governed). His judgment cannot be appealed. How is this voluntary?

  47. Yeah, but there are many competing gods out there. And not every god says he’s God. I’m just saying that there’s nothing inherently authoritarian in choosing a deity. Even Christianity, which had quite a worldly power structure for most of the past 2000 years, can’t make you think you’re going to hell. Your religious/spiritual paradigm is one of the most freely chosen.

    The “pot smokers are free to go to prison” argument doesn’t work either, unless there were multiple governments within one territory and you could pledge fealty to one that best fits your idea of right living. I mean, it’s a little ridiculous to say that because one religion says it’s the only religion that it forces everyone to join it. There are plenty of Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs, Sufis, and Yezidi tribesmen out there, and the Christian god hasn’t touched their spiritual life, as far as I’m aware.

  48. Son of a! — depends on which flavor of Christianity you believe in. The Mormon version of it has almost everyone going to heaven, albeit drastically varying degrees of glory, with only a hardcore few going to the Hot Place. The Mormon relationship between a person and God is not that between a slave and their ruler, but rather that between an unruly child and a loving parent who desperately wants to be reunited with them, but won’t compel them to return no matter how much sorrow the child’s misplaced use of freedom brings. As I understand it, at least some other flavors of Christianity hold similar views on that loving relationship.

  49. Current Catholic theology – which universal and unchanging, right up until they change it – states that Hell is not pain and anguish, just alienation from God. Your punishment isn’t tongues of flame and lakes of magma and little guys poking you with a pitchfork. It’s that God is going to choose not to hang out with you.

    Which is pretty tough to describe as “coercive,” in the libertarian sense.

  50. Thanks for the responses. I genuinely appreciate them.

    Randolph Carter:
    I get what you’re saying, but my point is not that any religion is compulsory in the here-and-now. I’m just saying that the proposition, “The Christian God exists,” must be either true or false; and if true, I can’t opt-out of the “obey Him or go to Hell” dichotomy.

    I mean, yeah: while I’m still alive, religion doesn’t affect me (except when I try to buy liquor on a Sunday night). It’s the part afterward that I was driving at.

    prolefeed and joe:
    I’ve heard these, or some flavor of them, before. I meant to state up-front that I was only thinking of the fire-and-brimstone sort of Christianity. Mea culpa.

  51. Son of a!,
    I think it’s a false choice – “The Christian God exists” doesn’t need a yes or no answer, there could be a “maybe” answer as well. People can toss out all sorts of absurd false dichotomies, and it doesn’t mean that you’re bound by the choices they present. This happens all the time with statements like “if you don’t believe in affirmative action, you’re a racist” etc. It’s only heaven/hell or racist/not racist if you accept the parameters of the question.

  52. why not just call it guilt instead of altruism?

    Because guilt may inspire altruism, but it’s not the same thing as altruism.

    But you are hitting on the most problematic aspect of Objectivism (and I mean the philosophy, as distinct from the philosopher). Defining “altruism” in practice is no easy thing. We could do a whole book on that.

    or was this just part of her “thing” as it were?

    Rand was what I call a mathematical philosopher. That was her “thing”. She could deal with anything so long as it was amenable to mathematical precision.

    What she couldn’t deal with so very well, were the fuzzy edges. She defined concepts rigorously, I think, to try and banish all fuzz from the universe.

    I always thought her concept of altruism was an attempt to banish fuzz. But in truth it only worked in some contexts….

  53. Good thing we never met!

    Ha ha ha! No one here ever met Ayn Rand, and yet they all seem to know her pretty well. They comment on her personal life like they were there, when in fact they rely on hearsay and slander from her avowed enemies to justify personal (as opposed to philosophical) attacks. Hardly objective criticism, is it? But it’s typical.

  54. Current Catholic theology – which universal and unchanging, right up until they change it – states that Hell is not pain and anguish, just alienation from God.

    It’s “just alienation from God”, in the same way that being ejected into space is “just not being surrounded by air”. Alienation from God entails alienation from all good things of which he is the source. Also, keep in mind that alienation is only the defining characteristic.

    Disclaimer: I’m just correcting joe’s view of Catholic theology here; I know most people here don’t give a flying fuck what Catholics believe.

  55. As an Objectivist living among Christians, that proves this is hell, and I must have been very bad in prior life 🙂

  56. Akira,

    wow. To invest such emotion in something you evidently know so little about. You need to either learn a little more, or care a little less.

  57. Charles Colson’s book Kingdoms in Conflict started me on the road to libertarianism. In it he says it is better to vote for a good atheist politician than a bad Christian one.

    This simple little idea started the change.

  58. i’m so glad chuck colson is defending altruism. i mean, when we broke into the watergate hotel, we did it for the good of everyone!

  59. How are Christians able to ignore the fact that their religion is based on a human blood sacrifice? Especially Catholics who believe the host is the ACTUAL body and blood of Christ. Isn’t that cannibalism? How are they any different from the Aztecs or other blood cults? People are really weird.

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