Just Deserts: Ayn Rand and the Christian Right

Journal of Religion and Popular Culture, Summer 2008 | Go to article overview

Just Deserts: Ayn Rand and the Christian Right


Cynthia Burack, Department of Women's Studies

Ohio State University

Abstract

Churches and conservative religious organizations now conduct well-coordinated and effective compassionate pedagogies for their followers on contested social issues such as sexuality. In this essay, I examine the ways in which conservative compassion is put to work in Christian Right morality politics. I use the work of novelist Ayn Rand to analyze a variety of features of these campaigns, but especially the fixing and defending of boundaries between those who deserve compassion and those who do not. I argue that Rand provides a fruitful analytic for understanding how Christian conservative leaders conceptualize and execute their politics and pedagogy of compassion

Complicating Compassion

[1] Compassion is a significant form of political rhetoric and pedagogy on both the American left and right, however--or whether--it is operationalized in policy. On the political right, the conservative Christian movement is not generally associated with "compassionate conservatism," a rubric that was first articulated with regard to conservative economic policies. [1] Certainly, the sexuality politics of the Christian right are more often identified as repressive and punitive than as evincing compassionate concern. However, the U.S. Christian right now conducts well-coordinated and effective compassionate pedagogies in the contested moral/cultural terrain of same-sex sexuality. Compassionate sexuality campaigns appear to conflict with other approaches to non-normative sexuality that are more harsh in tone and punitive toward their objects. Indeed, to many observers they may signal a completely new direction in conservative Christian politics and rhetoric. I argue that the application of compassion to same-sex sexuality is a significant development, though neither as new nor as far from more traditional condemnations of non-traditional sexuality as its proponents might claim.

[2] In this essay, taking compassion as an object of analysis "seeks ... to explain the dynamics of its optimism and exclusions." [2] I examine conservative compassion as it is put to work in Christian right compassion campaigns on same-sex sexuality, and I use the work of novelist (and putative philosopher) Ayn Rand to analyze the most salient feature of these campaigns: the fixing and defending of boundaries between those who deserve compassion and those who do not. Rand is renowned as a best-selling author, a popular philosopher, and a guru who created her own system of thought and her own cult of personality. There is a dearth of scholarship on Rand because she is not regarded as worthy of serious consideration by most academics. In spite of this rebuff to her claim to philosophy, by any estimation Rand has enjoyed a huge following and has influenced American political ideology. [3] What is striking is how many of her ideas anticipate the politics of the contemporary Christian right.

[3] Why turn to Rand to elucidate the role of compassion in the antigay politics of the Christian right? After all, like Nietzsche, Rand is an unrelenting critic of Christian morality, including an ideal of unconditional Christian love or charity. But this distinction between Rand and Christian ethics supposes a homogenous conception of Christianity that cannot be reconciled with the contemporary landscape of theological politics. In the U.S. today, Christian doctrines and denominations are distributed across the economic and political landscape, identified with a wide range of policies and ideologies from left progressivism to right conservatism. More important, these versions of Christianity are not only products of differing interpretations of scripture, as important as these diverse modes of exegesis are. The doctrines of sects, denominations, and other kinds of Christian groups are profoundly influenced by a variety of factors, including demographic shifts, social changes, perceptions of threat, and popular culture. …

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