Mormonism and Ayn Rand

Art Deco design of an Ayn Rand postage stampObjectivist writer Ayn Rand has been in the news recently because in 2005, Romney VP pick Paul Ryan said that Rand was “[t]he reason I got involved in public service.” Although Ryan has recently tried to distance himself from Rand, by all indications, he was a Randite as late as 2009, when he argued that “Rand did the best job of anybody to build a moral case of capitalism.” As far as I can tell, nobody knows whether or not Mitt Romney agrees with Rand’s “moral” view of capitalism, but it is worth considering whether there is any place for the ideas of Ayn Rand in the Mormon worldview. I don’t think there is.

In many ways, Ayn Rand’s views as a whole are incompatible not just with Mormonism, but with all religion, as she was an atheist who rejected all forms of religion and altruism. Her philosophy was self-centered: the only morality, in her view, was the promotion of heroic self interest. She earnestly embodied the philosophy expressed by Gordon Gekko in the movie Wall Street that “greed is good.”

Despite the presence of anti-Christian elements within Rand’s philosophy, right-leaning Christians such as Paul Ryan and many others have overlooked Rand’s anti-altruism and strident atheism to embrace the “greed is good” part of her philosophy as a moral justification for capitalism. Undoubtedly, Mitt Romney is an altruist, as evidenced by his years of unpaid service in the LDS Church. I have no reason to think that Paul Ryan is not altruistic as well. But it is possible to be an altruist in specific circumstances yet also believe that as a general principle, the rational pursuit of individual gain and self interest is a form of morality.

Although Rand’s philosophy does not seem to have made a huge impact among Mormons, there are undoubtedly at least some Mormon Randians. Interestingly, it appears, based on partially-redacted data available on the LDS church website new.familysearch.org, that some of her fans have probably proxy baptized her into the Latter-day Saint faith. I suspect that some Mormons may be drawn to Randianism because a large fraction of Mormons happen to be conservative libertarians, and Rand provided a kind of “theology” for this corner of the political spectrum.

But it seems difficult to square Rand’s philosophy with Mormon scripture. The faith’s founding scripture, the Book of Mormon, frequently condemns those who “set their hearts upon their riches.” (Hel. 13:20). The book warns, “But wo unto the rich, who are rich as to the things of the world. For because they are rich they despise the poor, and they persecute the meek, and their hearts are upon their treasures; wherefore, their treasure is their god. And behold, their treasure shall perish with them also.” (2 Nephi 9:30). The pursuit of wealth, and the class pride of the wealthy over the poor, are repeatedly cited as the reason for religious apostasy, environmental disaster, and military defeat. The book envisions an ideal, utopian state as one where “they had all things in common among them; therefore there were not rich and poor.” (4 Ne. 1:3). Nothing seems further from the anti-collectivist philosophy of Ayn Rand, who wrote, “This miracle of me is mine to own and keep, and mine to guard, and mine to use, and mine to kneel before! I do not surrender my treasures, nor do I share them. The fortune of my spirit is not to be blown into coins of brass and flung to the winds as alms for the poor of spirit.” (Anthem).

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7 thoughts on “Mormonism and Ayn Rand

  1. Well, Romney agrees with Rand-ite Ryan on all things economic. That fact, as well as the fact that 98% of Mormons intend to vote for the Romney/Ryan ticket prove you wrong.

    • I think that in his heart-of-hearts, Romney is not quite the right-wing libertarian he tries to make people believe. Underneath it all, I think he’s more like George H.W. Bush than like Ron Paul. I think he’s more of a “country club” Republican, like his father was, and like he was as governor of Massachusetts. Not many people make true, dramatic changes to their political outlook after the age of 60. But that doesn’t mean that his conservative constituency won’t hold his feet to the fire should he become elected.

      But yes, I know that a large percentage of Mormons are right-wing libertarians, but I just don’t think that most of them would have much sympathy for the ideas of Ayn Rand other than her general contempt for government and her faith in the supposed goodness of unregulated capitalism.

  2. I don’t know, I think the church’s focus on free agency and the Gospel of the pre-existence (e.g. Satan’s plan versus God’s plan) could bring the two views together. Many of Ayn Rand’s antagonists want what is best for everyone, but through force and for their own glory (much like Satan’s plan). There are definitely some parallel’s there. I’m actually surprised that more focus on this doctrine has not surfaced since the selection of Paul Ryan.

    If Mormon’s were to practice the law of consecration, I don’t see it being a hippy commune, but one filled with people exercising their own faith. Communism and socialism both have elements of force that are evil. Hippy communes are collectivism without Faith. Mormons are not collectivists, we are individualists with Faith. Force is never an option. I think it would be hard to live the law of consecration, but it is my faith that would make it possible. And, yes if it were my own will, then it would work for me. If it were force, I would want nothing to do with it…

    I may not agree with Ayn Rand on guarding your own riches to your self, but I agree on the principal that you should be free to guard riches to yourself if you so choose. I’ll let someone else judge you when this life is over. I won’t judge…

    So I agree with you that you can be altruistic, but not in the Ayn Rand antagonist sense (seeking force for other’s benefit and doing it for your own glory), and still believe in the principle of freedom as a form of morality. I don’t see a lot to be confused about here when you talk Romney and Ryan.

    • I am surprised, too, that there has not been more focus on Ayn Rand. I think that the United Order is communistic, but not with a capital “C”. Technically, I think it is more like anarchism–basically, it is a voluntary communism or social libertarianism. I would not go so far as to say that Mormons are not collectivists. Maybe not today, but they were in the 19th century Utah territory under Brigham Young. There were a lot of different LDS cooperatives, including ZCMI, Brigham City Mercantile and Manufacturing Association, and various local United Orders. Because these were voluntary, extra-governmental organizations, you could best describe them as anarchism. This would also be the best way to describe the voluntary communisms portrayed in the Book of Mormon and the Book of Moses. Either way, Ayn Rand would not have approved of such group-ownership economic models.

  3. I’m Mormon and have read alot of Rand’s works, especially her non-fiction. I don’t believe she advocated wealth accumulation like some finance guru, nor selfishness in the sense we use that word today. Her philosophy was more to do with the relationship between the individual and the state – or the collective. Her position – and mine for that matter – is that the individual is born free and with the right to retain all of the fruit of his own labor. Whether that is a moral thing to do under a particular set of circumstances is something for that individual to decide for himself, but is not something the state should decide for him and force him to do. There’s no evidence to indicate that Rand was a particularly selfish person during her lifetime. If the individual wants to give some money away or help someone in need, that individual’s choice is a “selfish” choice in the sense he made the ultimate decision to do it. The individual is more important than the collective because he has a self, the collective does not. Rand fled communism following the marxist revolution in Russia. She experienced first hand what so-called state “altruism” accomplished and the blood that was shed (millions slaughtered) to achieve it. I think her atheism was incidental to her philosophy but not a necessary part of it. But, I can see how “churches” and organzied religions throughout the ages have also sought to stifle individuality and enslave people, and given her background I can’t blame her for being an atheist. Doesn’t make her stupid or any less worthy of coming up with sound truths. The LDS church teaches much the same thing really, that welfare should be based on “voluntary” donations, and not compelled. You will never get the best out of a society by compelling people to be “good.” That would be a society of slaves, which is what the USSR was, what Maoist China was, what ancient Rome was, what almost every empire has been throughout the ages (ending almost always in mass blood letting) until the American revolution – which explains Rand’s love for our system here and her dismay at seeing what started happening in the 1930’s and beyond with the progressive movement. Granted, people don’t always donate (are selfish in the traditional sense) and hence people suffer when there is no charity, but enslaving mankind is not the solution and only ends up in more suffering.

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