[Update: I've edited the last paragraph below to make my statement about pastors, ministers, and priests' more precise]
Over this past weekend, the Romney campaign announced Paul Ryan as Romney’s choice for VP going into the Republican convention. I’m not a particularly big follower of electoral politics, especially as the Democrats routinely prove themselves to be only marginally better than the Republicans on almost every issue. Nonetheless, the choice of Ryan, who is famous for his Ayn Rand-inspired economic views and fiscal policy, demands a discussion that the Right has seemingly refused to have: Ayn Rand & Jesus Christ, the Fountainhead and the Christian Scriptures, are they reconcilable?
For anyone who’s read anything by Rand and any part of the New Testament, the answer should be automatic and clear: no way. Where Rand celebrates the individual, selfishness, elitism, and an a-ethical callousness, the Jesus of the Gospels demands selflessness, compassion, a willingness to suffer to build a better world, and a rejection of all the worldly pleasures that Rand seems so jealously to guard. So why is it that, on the right in the US, an increasing number of politicians and activists seem to preach some sort of combined Gospel of Christ-Rand? How is it that people can talk religiously about Christ right before launching into worship of John Galt? The question is especially glaring since Rand was such an avowed and aggressive atheist.
To my eyes, the answer is easy: Christ is hard to follow, but easy to co-opt. The social conservative strategy that was launched in the 1970s intentionally tried to redirect public attention from economic issues to social ones: homosexuality and abortion in particular. This approach, as I have pointed out before, is great for elites hoping to foist their preferred economic policy on the nation, since abortion and gay marriage, whether supported or denied, don’t effect the bottom line of the wealthy. There’s almost no cost to powerful corporations and individuals in supporting the ‘pro-life’ and ‘defense of marriage’ movements. And the trade-off is that those groups are willing to back regressive tax policy, relaxed financial regulation, and a tearing-down of labor protections in order to secure financial resources for their single-issue social policies.
The standard line of the religious right over the past 40 years has been that homosexuality and abortion are such awful, egregious sins that Christians have to be willing to support anyone and anything that will help them combat these existential evils. Nevermind that Jesus never said a word about either, and that he did have a lot to say about wealth, power, and social justice. Nevermind that the grassroots activists involved in the pro-life and anti-gay-rights movements are being exploited and abused by the very people who talk all day long about how they are defending their interests. And nevermind that the whole campaign was clearly launched after the 1960s as the Republicans realized that without some wedge issues, they were never going to have any serious role in national politics again. The whole thing was presented as a moral crusade. Christian ethics was collapsed into a hateful, myopic black hole of prejudice, harnessed to the interests of the wealthy and powerful.
But of course, these social issues aren’t the real issues: they are bridle and bit fitted over rank-and-file Republicans and conservatives, used to rally them to vote for officials who immediately turn around and enact policies that have slowly eroded the lives of those very rank-and-file folks. And the even more perverse reality is that the shift in social issues has also greatly impacted the Democratic party: the Democrats are really only discernible from the Republicans at this point on social issues. And while I’m glad to see that they are at least willing to defend justice when it comes to women’s and homosexuals’ rights, on almost every other issue, they have become the slightly-left-of-Republicans Republicans. On military issues, on labor issues, on whistle-blowers, on financial policy–across the board, the Democrats are becoming just as beholden to elite capture as the Republicans. This has been, I think, the real victory of the social conservative thrust: even when they lose an election, they really win: if your priority has been to defend, say, the military-industrial complex or the big banks, exactly how has Obama been a problem for you? With many times as many drones flying into Waziristan, Yemen, Libya (and elsewhere?) as Bush ever launched in his whole time in the Oval Office, and with nary a powerful Wall St. insider on the other side of bars, it’s hard to see how Obama has seriously challenged the power that is grinding our democracy to dust. This isn’t to deny that the defense of women’s rights and the rights of homosexuals are somehow unimportant–I want to be really clear on this–but they aren’t enough. Democracy can’t survive vast income inequality, the erosion of habeas corpus, and the collapse of the labor movement just because gay folks can get married in New York (however just and great that may be in and of itself!) Social conservatism has rendered economic policy a done deal, and we’re all the worse for it.
So back to Paul Ryan, who last year proposed a budget that the Catholic Church denounced, and who apparently requires all his staff to read Rand’s books. Where such a radical libertarian would have been on the fringe of the fringe in the 1960s, now he’s a shoe-in for VP pick. This is what the social conservatives have brought us: a country in which a politician can propose stripping money from programs that feed and house the poor while simultaneously calling for lower taxes on rich people who already experience historically-low tax rates–and all too many pastors, ministers, and priests warmly applaud. So many Christians in this country have completely lost sight of what our Gospel actually says. They seem to agree with Margaret Thatcher that “there is no such thing as society,” but Paul made it clear that we are all members of the Body of Christ. It’s one or the other: are we in this together, building the Kingdom? Or are we all out to get ours, neighbor be damned? The answer used to be clear, however often it was ignored. But today, after 40 years of the religious right, too many of Christ’s followers have removed the Cross from the wall and replaced it with a framed picture of John Galt.