"Whereas traditional conservatism emphasized duties, responsibilities, and social interconnectedness, at the core of the right-wing ideology that Rand spearheaded was a rejection of moral obligations to others."
—Jennifer Burns, in Goddess of the Market: Ayn Rand and the American Right
This past spring, the Financial Industry Inquiry Commission held hearings on the world's recent financial crisis. The star witness was Alan Greenspan. The Wall Street Journal columnist Peggy Noonan translated Greenspan's typically elusive testimony this way: "I didn't do anything wrong, and neither did Ayn Rand by the way, but next time you might try more regulation."
There were obviously many reasons for the Great Recession. But I believe Noonan got to the root of one particular evil.
Fortune magazine once labeled Greenspan "America's most famous libertarian, an Ayn Rand acolyte." (While Rand formally rejected libertarianism, libertarians nonetheless admire her.) But today, both libertarians and Randians are disassociating themselves from Greenspan as quickly as Wall Street. This is the Wall Street that worshiped the former Federal Reserve chairman when Worth ran a cover story describing how he was "playing God at the Fed." Fortune detailed Greenspan's "love of free markets, suspicion of do-gooders, and righteous hatred of the state apparatus," evidenced by his previous deregulation of the savings and loan industry for Charles Keating and such. Few of us Reaganomics supporters understood his role in that fiasco, so history was bound to repeat itself with the recent subprime mortgage scandal.
About the time Fortune was extolling Greenspan, I was putting the finishing touches on a book about finances for a major evangelical publisher. I included a chapter on Rand's quasi-religious philosophies, and another that encouraged Wall Street to embrace a traditional Judeo-Christian ethic. I wrote, "Ayn Rand, like Karl Marx, was one more self-proclaimed prophet who denied the existence of a loving God." I added this comment from a leading political commentator: "Libertarians have replaced Marxists as the world's leading utopia builders." I concluded that we would one day apologize to our children for what Rand had done to our souls, as well as to the political economy.
My junior editor removed the chapter on Rand. "No one has heard of Ayn Rand," she said. But my senior editor reinserted it. He said he had never understood his family until reading it. It made him realize that they had mixed Rand's strongly anti-government, unquestioningly pro-business, and individualistic worldview with biblical Christianity. Theologians call this "syncretism"—which George Barna calls America's favorite religion. It's a religion too many Christians have bent the knee to.
By the end of 2008, "Maestro" Greenspan was booed off the stage. Yet there are at least three reasons we should stay aware of Rand and her remaining disciples.
In 1998, the Modern Library and Random House each conducted surveys to determine the "top" or "best" books of the 20th century. The top book on both popular lists was Atlas Shrugged. In the wake of the recent recession, The Economist reported that sales of the 52-year-old novel had sharply increased.
Second, Rand still has influential financial disciples like junk-bond king Michael Milken, Chris Cox, head of the Securities and Exchange Commission for the Bush administration leading up to the crash, as well as cultural influencers like Playboy founder Hugh Hefner, media mogul Ted Turner, and pundits John Stossel, Rush Limbaugh, and Glenn Beck, who recently advised Christians to leave any church that speaks of social justice.
Third, after the crash, the chairman of BB&T Bank told The New York Times that he believed Rand would be the lead director of our political economy in 25 years. The article mentioned that BB&T had spent millions putting Rand's books in U.S. schools.
Though dead for nearly three decades, Rand's philosophy is still deeply embedded in large sectors of the American economy, as well as among some Christian financial advisers and religious leaders. So we are wise to discern what tune Rand is singing for future generations.
The Economist's Good Guru Guide says, "Ayn Rand—the heroine of America's libertarian right—described her philosophy as 'the concept of man as a noble being, with his own happiness as the moral purpose of his life, with productive achievement as his noblest activity, and reason as his only absolute.'"
Let's divide that into stanzas.
Reason as the Only Absolute
Like The Economist, most observers see Rand as a political and economic philosopher. I believe she was first and foremost an anti-Christian philosopher. She didn't understand the faith. But she knew that Moses was a lawgiver, that Christ told us to "render unto Caesar," and that Paul told us to pay taxes and to "honor and respect" government leaders (Rom. 13). So she had to get rid of Christianity in order to get rid of government.
Rand once declared, "I want to be known as the greatest champion of reason and the greatest enemy of religion." Randian evangelist Leonard Peikoff preached that "every argument for God and every attribute ascribed to him rests on a false metaphysical principle."
In 1941, Rand wrote to a friend that she would "give people a faith—a positive, clear, and consistent system of belief." Perhaps this is what prompted Jennifer Burns, professor of history at the University of Virginia, to use the word goddess to describe her in her aforementioned book title. Clearly Rand was a false goddess. Lutheran historian Martin Marty has observed, "Every line of the Bible is challenged, countered, and dismissed by the 1,168 pages of Atlas Shrugged." Charles Colson once noted Rand's "inversion of biblical norms," how she "exalts selfishness and condemns altruism."
In talking to a reporter once, I suggested that Rand and Milton Freidman's teaching that the "only social responsibility of a business is to make money" had played a major role in demoralizing American business. The reporter also interviewed a Randian professor of business ethics at Duke University who flatly stated, "Religion is incompatible with business." (His statement was not a little ironic. I had served on a Christian board of directors with entrepreneur J. B. Fuqua. Fuqua's personal wealth from chairing several stock exchange-listed companies enabled him to give Duke millions of dollars for the Fuqua School of Business. Yet this professor was teaching that Fuqua couldn't do what he did. I was reminded of President Reagan's remark that economists are people who wonder if what works in reality can also work in theory.)
I'm certain the Randian professor wasn't aware of the counsel of Sir John Templeton. Templeton was my mentor, a Rhodes Scholar, and the one after whom Oxford University's business school was named. He said, "My counsel to a school of business management is to teach the business person to give unlimited love, and he or she will be more successful."
Templeton served as chair of Princeton Theological Seminary's investment committee for years. And he pioneered global investing, believing that affluent North America had a moral responsibility to finance developing nations, just as Europe had financed America's canals and railroads a hundred years earlier. He refused to speculatively invest in morally deficient industries.
Rand was born in Russia as Alisa Rosenbaum. Her father lost his prosperous business to the Bolsheviks, one likely source of her lifelong hatred of government and love of wealth creation. Rand saw herself and her disciples as superior to any category of human who had ever lived. She dismissed even libertarian economists, such as Nobel laureate F. A. Hayek, if they suggested government might play even a small role in the economy during the worst of times.
Ever focused on her own achievements, Rand always made time to cultivate elites who might help her, all the while oblivious to anyone, including her family, who could or would not. She explained in a famous Playboy interview that "charity is not a moral duty," and took to wearing a dollar-sign broach on her coats. A six-foot wreath of the dollar sign was at the head of her casket—the same symbol the character John Galt made over the world in the last sentence of Atlas Shrugged. Galt was her CEO-type savior. The dollar sign was a symbol of selfishness and material productivity that was to replace the cross, a symbol of sacrifice and eternal concerns. Rand would rejoice that our companies and the affluent are sitting on unprecedented wealth while our government and nonprofits are struggling financially.
One's Own Happiness
Greenspan once testified before Congress that investment firms should be "unburdened of the perceived need" to consider investors' interests. The Randian did not succeed in turning that into policy, but too many CEOs, mortgage traders, and regulators obviously found the spirit of Rand appealing, even if investors didn't find it quite as enriching. Years ago, Southern Methodist University economics professor Ravi Batra wrote on the first page of Greenspan's Fraud, "The picture that emerges is one of an intelligent man centered on the self. More than anything else, Mr. Greenspan seems to take care of Mr. Greenspan. His life and accomplishments turn out to be a fitting monument to Ayn Rand's philosophy of rational selfishness."
Perhaps imitating Greenspan as he imitated Rand, few Washington and Wall Street players have accepted responsibility for what has recently happened in our society. After Goldman Sachs was brought before the Senate, the Financial Times noted the most surprising development, that "three executives danced around the question" of whether Wall Street "had a duty to act in the interests of clients."
Ironically, Rand's philosophy did not serve Rand herself. According to the historian Burns, Rand was "a lonely, alienated child" whose wealthy mother openly complained that she "had never wanted children." Both are likely reasons Rand "was never able to maintain a steady friendship." The goddess therefore sought to create mankind in her own image with her philosophy of radical individualism. By the time she died, Rand had alienated most of her friends and was deeply depressed.
Man as a Noble Being
Burns also notes in Goddess of the Market that Rand pathologically thought even William Hickman, a mass murderer, to be a noble being for defying social conventions. So Rand would surely have approved of Wall Street's hubristic CEOs. After all, they simply acted in imitation of Galt, doing their own thing without concern for social norms. Rand would have believed the world just fine if these "noble" CEOs were in charge and took care of us by managing our wealth.
The one mistake Greenspan has acknowledged before Congress was thinking that our noble CEOs would govern themselves. In Rand's utopia, demons exist almost exclusively in government and religion. Her one-eyed perspective could not see Adam Smith's insight that people of the same trade rarely get together without conspiring against the public. So she, and Greenspan, would never have imagined the CEOs of mortgage companies marketing liar loans to selfish but naïve homebuyers, while the CEOs of investment firms and irresponsible ratings agencies packaged these junk mortgages as AAA-rated securities to dump into our pension funds. She would blame that entirely on "bureaucrats and do-gooders." Had she and Greenspan only understood what fallen humans will do for 30 pieces of silver.
Later in life, Rand claimed Aristotle as the only thinker she needed to credit. Yet Burns makes it clear that "Friedrich Nietzsche was the philosopher who quickly became her favorite" when Rand first fantasized about playing God: "Nietzsche's elitism fortified her own." Of course, Nietzsche famously proclaimed the death of God; he left it to others to develop an alternative morality. Rand volunteered for the job.
Those who spend a lot of time and money on books and videos speculating about the antichrist can devote themselves to more immediate concerns. As I have explained elsewhere repeatedly, key candidates for the job have been running the American economy the past 30 years with our unwitting assistance.
Hero of the Libertarian Right
Here is where this lifelong conservative Republican has to stop preaching and start meddling. As apologist Ravi Zacharias observed in Jesus Among Other Gods, "Wealth and enterprise have so woven themselves around the message of Jesus that popular models of Christianity appear as nothing more than self and greed at the center, with strands of Christian thought at the periphery."
For example, Pat Robertson tooted Rand's horn in The New Millennium with these words: "The aim of free people everywhere is to limit the power and scope of the government in any way they can," a sentiment that could inspire many Christian militia handbooks. Ralph Reed, darling of the Religious Right for many years, once wrote in The Wall Street Journal, "Traditionalist ends can be advanced through libertarian means."
To the contrary, I have found it more enriching to achieve traditionalist ends with the traditional means of Christian love. As a political science graduate, I understand the power of libertarian anger to motivate couch potatoes to vote. But as an investment counselor, I have probably seen more financial opportunities missed by clients due to libertarianism than any other thought system.
This is particularly true regarding the federal debt, which libertarians find abhorrent. Deceased financial commentator Larry Burkett, a one-time friend, was once heard on over a thousand evangelical radio stations. He often published newsletters with headlines describing America as "a nation under siege by its government" at about the time Newt Gingrich was attempting his revolution. Burkett's faulty theological worldview that "every reference to debt in Scripture is a warning" helped stir "the angry white man." But of course the Sermon on the Mount, whose messenger borrowed a donkey, an upper room, and a tomb during Holy Week alone, suggests that we are to lend to anyone in true need. That obviously means someone is borrowing.
And Burkett had obviously not read the 1992 book The Seven Fat Years, by Robert Bartley, the legendary, solidly conservative (and obviously biblically literate) former editor of The Wall Street Journal. Bartley called the federal debt a "great national myth" that libertarian politicians had concocted to manipulate voters. He knew that we true conservatives once considered it patriotic to let the government borrow from us when we bought war bonds. God bless his soul, but Larry was so focused on the federal debt, he never saw the massive buildup of debt in Wall Street firms that actually ignited the recent crash.
And, in the spirit of Randian elitism, Larry once wrote, "As cruel as it may sound, from the long-term perspective of the economy, it would be better to raise taxes on the poor than on the wealthy." I once publicly challenged that theology. Larry wrote me that he didn't mean what I thought he did. But he never explained what he had meant.
In 2001, this magazine published an article about socially responsible investing. Among other things, it noted that the investment firm founded by evangelical financial planner Ron Blue actually discouraged the integration of ethics toward our neighbors and investing.
Similarly, Austin Pryor, publisher of Sound Mind Investing, the most popular evangelical financial newsletter (endorsed by both Burkett and Blue), once confessed: "I receive more questions asking for suggestions on ethical investments than any other topic …. Unfortunately, I must tell them I can be of no help. Why not? Because I know of no investments that are guaranteed to meet their criteria."
Of course, Pryor might have noted that this is true of nearly all financial criteria. But he concluded by saying, "I want to encourage you to shift your thinking away from ethics when investing." Despite promoting biblical fidelity, Dave Ramsey's website says much the same today.
I've come to believe there's a connection between Barna's statement that only 10 percent of Christians integrate our beliefs with our lives, and the fact that the Social Investment Forum says only 10 percent of institutional money under management is integrated with a traditional Christian ethic. We apparently have surrendered to Rand's ethic of seeking maximum personal gain—in the hope, I suppose, that charity can repair the damage. Unfortunately, the fate of Ken Lay of Enron, a generous giver with whom I served on a Christian board, disproved that human reasoning to millions of employees and shareholders.
As a Christian, I believe we have a moral responsibility to act in a socially responsible manner toward the poor and fellow taxpayers who are now on the hook for Wall Street's greed. So I was startled to discover that one outspoken evangelical money manager who claims to "invest as Jesus would"—by which he means focusing on sexual issues—was invested in AIG and Goldman Sachs. Evidently, homosexuality and promiscuity have replaced greed as the root of all evil.
Our financial gurus continue to sing in Rand's temple, using quasi-biblical principles to obtain wealth but disposing of God's principles if the investment doesn't lead to "productive achievement." I've long believed that leaders of the Religious Right and our more popular financial advisers, who have attempted to harmonize their philosophies with economic libertarianism the past three decades, have been naïve. Libertarians usually despise Christian social values, advocating the legalization of abortion, illicit drugs, and pornography while worshiping wealth. The biblical discouragement of unholy alliances should have named that tune as syncretism. But the angry white man of 1994 sings on at today's tea parties. And his anger is still primarily over economic issues.
Time to Look Up
How might more of us be found joyfully working in God's harvest rather than angrily wasting time, talent, and treasure drowning tea?
The Financial Times recently published an article titled, "A social vision for the world after socialism." It concluded, "Active empathy is not socialism, but it is social. It does not assume that a statist economy will replace capitalism, but it does point to stewardship replacing ownership." Stewardship is about far more than raising enough money to keep our institutional lights on. Economics without the sense of other, without social responsibility, is what I call "casino capitalism." We insert coins into the machine with no thought other than the payout to ourselves and the house's take. But what I've long called "stewardism" looks inside the machine through loving lenses.
Socially responsible investing has long looked inside our mutual, pension, and endowment funds to ensure our treasures are where our mouths are and where our hearts should be. Community development banking looks inside our banks to see if our deposits are funding affordable housing or speculation, job creation or consumer spending. And micro-enterprise lending, fair trade, and social entrepreneurship look inside developing nations to see if our loans, purchases, and investments are honoring God by enriching our neighbors, particularly the poor.
The paradox is that by looking deeper, we might be as likely to enrich ourselves, as academic studies and anecdotal evidence suggest.
The yearning for a more ethical, prudent approach has been marked by recent books such as God Is Back, by the senior editors of The Economist, and The Fourth Great Awakening and the Future of Egalitarianism, by Nobel laureate Robert William Fogel. Two of these authors are agnostics, but they still see America returning to the Promised Land. Bailouts and layoffs have taught even the most individualistic business leaders that Rand and her disciples were wrong to think any of us can ever be financially independent.
The Economist recently put it this way: "Business is a remarkable exercise in cooperation. For all the talk of competition 'red in tooth and claw,' companies in fact depend on persuading large numbers of people—workers and bosses, shareholders and suppliers—to work together to a common end. This involves getting lots of strangers to trust each other. It also increasingly involves stretching trust across borders … the word company is derived from the Latin words cum and pane, meaning 'breaking bread together.' "
Let us do so on our knees. Not with the pride of the Pharisees, by claiming that we invest as Jesus would, but with the humility to remember that Moses may invest ethically, but it's still Jesus who saves.
Gary Moore has worked on Wall Street for three decades, and is the founder of The Financial Seminary.
Copyright © 2010 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
Go to ChristianBibleStudies.com for "God and the Money Goddess," a Bible study based on this article.
Other articles related to money & business, include:
Protecting Our Little Platoons | There's reason to be concerned for the future of voluntary organizations. By Charles Colson (June 10, 2009)
More Giving, Less Taxing | President Obama's tax plan will hurt the very people he's trying to help. (May 14, 2009)
The Economy of Anger | Looking for a real miracle. (February 19, 2009)
Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.
Subscribe to Christianity Today and get access to this article plus 65+ years of archives.
- Home delivery of CT magazine
- Complete access to articles on ChristianityToday.com
- Over 120 years of magazine archives plus full access to all of CT’s online archives
- Learn more
More from this Issue
Read These Next
- TrendingRussell Moore: I Already Miss Tim Keller’s Wise VoiceThe late pastor theologian gave strong counsel to me and so many others in ministry.
- From the MagazineHow One Family’s Faith Survived Three Generations in the PulpitWith a front-row seat to their parents’ failures and burnout, a long line of pastor’s kids still went into ministry. Why?
- RelatedAmerican IdolsTim Keller explains why money, sex, and power so easily capture our affections.
- Editor's PickI Find Comfort in the Divine WarriorA surprising psalm changed my view on God’s presence during seasons of trial.