Saturday, September 1, 2012

The Social Agenda of the Tea Party

    This past week witnessed the Republican National Convention, and the official nomination of Mitt Romney as president and Paul Ryan as vice-president. The Republicans, understandably, are emphasizing the economy and Mr. Romney's financial and business expertise.
    It is worth noting that Mr. Ryan has proposed a budget that would cap spending on Medicare and Medicaid (the federal health insurance programs for the elderly and poor, respectively), but does not cut defense spending or raise taxes. A budget reflects one's values and priorities; you spend money on what you think is most important. Mr. Ryan's proposed budget presupposes a philosophy of government – one that is limited, that provides for defense but not the health and welfare of its own citizens. His proposals are sure to spark controversy and debate.
    Large numbers of American evangelicals are expected to vote for the Republican ticket in the Fall. But the Ryan budget raises some serious questions. Does the Republican Party agenda really reflect Christian values?
    What is especially reason for concern is the Republican Party's philosophical underpinnings. The more radical element within the party is known as the "Tea Party movement." The Tea Party, in turn, is vocal in its support of limited government and individual freedom. Its preferred solution to the federal debt crisis would be to cut both spending and taxes.
    Among other things Tea Party activists are critical of the idea of "social justice." Dick Armey and Matte Kibbe, leaders of the major Tea Party organization FreedomWorks, write that "Liberals don't talk about democratic socialism anymore; the prattle on about 'social justice.' They misuse the phrase. Justice means treating every individual with respect and decency and exactly the same as everyone else is treated under the laws of the land. As best as we can tell, 'social justice' translates to really wise elected officials (you know, smarter than you) redistributing your hard-earned income to their social agendas, all dutifully administered by a well intentioned bureaucrat."1
    Much of the Tea Party's philosophy can be traced back to the late Ayn Rand, whose novels The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged were and remain bestsellers. FreedomWorks, in fact, distributes copies of Atlas Shrugged. This fact alone should make Christian conservatives hesitate. Ayn Rand was an atheist, and her ethical system was one of radical egoism.
    In each of Ayn Rand's novels there is a hero who delivers a lengthy speech outlining what is Ms. Rand's philosophy of "objectivism." The speeches typically contain impassioned harangues against altruism, and then go on to argue that true morality is based on self-interest. This, in turn, is used to support a libertarian view of government and free market economics.
    In Ms. Rand's view it is the enterprising individual who, through his intelligence and hard work, earns what he has, and therefore should be allowed to keep it. In Atlas Shrugged one character goes so far as to say "To the glory of mankind, there was, for the first and only time in history, a country of money – and I have no higher, more reverent tribute to pay to America, for this means: a country of reason, justice, freedom, production, achievement," and then goes on a little while later to say "The words 'to make money' hold the essence of human morality."2

    Ms. Rand's attacks on altruism bring us to the heart of the issue. Do we have a responsibility for the well-being of others? Ms. Rand's answer is an emphatic "no." To her way of thinking she was accountable to no one but herself. She got where she was by her superior intelligence and the dint of her own hard labor. She owed no one anything. As Chuck Colson pointed out, "It is hard to imagine a world view more antithetical to Christianity."    
    "He has told you, O man, what is good;/ And what does the Lord require of you / But to do justly, to love mercy, / And to walk humbly with your God?" (Micah 6:8; NKJV).


1 Dick Armey and Matt Kibbe, Give Us Liberty: A Tea Party Manifesto (New York, 2010) p. 170
2 Ayn Rand, For the New Intellectual (New York, 1961), pp. 93-94
3 quoted by columnist Cynthia Tucker


  1. I have previously commented in disagreement with a couple of your posts. Fairness requires that I also comment to express agreement.

    I agree with much of what you say in the last three posts (including this one). It seems to me you have a better understanding of the teachings of Jesus, than do the social conservatives of the religious right.

    Thanks for those posts.

  2. Thank you for your comment.
    I guess it seems to me that if the Bible is what it claims to be, a revelation from God Himself, then we need to study it carefully and weigh its implications. And if the Bible is universal truth, then it is not just simply an affirmation of American culture -- we have to step outside of our culture and try to understand it in its original setting, which is what Protestant exegetes have always claimed to be doing.
    As I have tried to do this over the years I have probably become more conservative theologically (Calvin got it right most of the time) but more liberal politically. I began to realize that there is a fundamental contradiction between Christianity and laissez-faire capitalism. Capitalism is based on self-interest, while Christianity, of course, has a highly altruistic moral system. It is probably a credit to Ayn Rand that she understood this clearly and stated it forcefully.
    I think that there is a lesson here for secularists and atheists as well. Atheists thinkers (such as Nietzsche and Rand) who have tried to work out logically consistent philosophies have found themselves in a moral swamp.

    1. Yet the vast majority of atheists of what we call secular liberal democrats. Where atheism is highest, we find the most social programs. This is not a coincidence. When you put human well-being ahead of stricter philosophies, you find room to appreciate some people are disadvantaged and require more social assistance than others to reach equality of opportunity. Although you are welcome to claim this is a central theme of christianity, we know we do not need this religious aspect to justify in purely secular terms the social goal of fairness and reciprocity. I think this goal is often thwarted by religious concerns that elevate particular beliefs (and allegiances) over and above the welfare of our neighbours.

    2. I should mention that I am trying to move my blog to the website where Greg M. Epstein, the author of "Good without God: What a Billion Nonreligious People Do Believe," is already a blogger. He tries to make the same point you did. I'm currently reading his book and hope to write a review on it sometime in the future. In the meantime the Democratic National Convention is coming up this week, and so I will probably do a couple of more blogposts on politics and economics.

    3. Ayn Rand was an atheist, and her ethical system was one of radical egoism.

      There's no connection between her atheism and her ethical system. There can't be.

      Her ethical system may well have been one of radical egoism. I have no idea as I have never read her books. She may have indeed been a horrid woman with a nasty streak and with a genuinely ugly ethical's got nothing to do with her atheism.

      Same goes the other way, of course.
      Rand may have been a wonderously sweet and kind lady. A cheerful neighbour, true salt of the earth blah, blah, blah etc.
      Her ethical system may have been one of fuffy bunny rabbits and rainbows...but would have nothing to do with her atheism.

      Atheism is like A-Loch Ness Monsterism.
      Rejecting claims for the Loch Ness Monster has no bearing on your ethics at all. There can't be.

      Hitchens on Rand