Be Careful Whom You Follow

A common thread in John Bunyan’s 17th-century Christian classic, The Pilgrim’s Progress, involves his hero’s wisdom (or lack thereof) in choosing companions as he travels on his long road through life, heading for the Celestial City (heaven). At one point, Christian (the hero) meets an atheist who challenges the very destination itself. Because he sees no visible signs of the Celestial City, he is convinced it does not exist.

Christian also encounters a pious-looking fellow in a white robe who appears every inch the man of religious spirit and who claims to share the same destination. Eventually, it becomes painfully clear that he is leading Christian away from, not toward, the Kingdom of God.

Today the political worldviews of two extremely popular philosophers, Russian-American novelist Ayn Rand (1905–1982) and Harvard Professor Michael Sandel, could be Bunyan’s antagonists.

I know Christians who are great fans of Ayn Rand, the philosopher-author of the novels Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead. Rand fiercely supported individual liberty and capitalism and opposed big government. As a result, we can see how she might appeal to conservative Christians.

However, Rand was an equally fierce atheist who rejected all things spiritual and believed the state needed to be protected from the church. Her philosophy of “objectivism,” which she spelled out clearly in 1962, is displayed on the Ayn Rand Institute website.

She contended that only “objective” (physically and empirically verifiable) reality exists; there is no spiritual dimension to life, and only human reason can guide us to truth. She also maintained that the highest virtue is self-interest and that sacrificing for others makes no moral sense.

It doesn’t take a master of theology degree to see that Rand’s philosophy couldn’t be further from the moral and spiritual agenda of Jesus Christ. He called us to deny ourselves; seek the good of others; and follow, as a first-order principle, the transcendent truth revealed to us in God’s Word. In fact, we are not to rely on the speculations of human reason. Ayn Rand’s philosophy may look enticing, but it is biblically bankrupt.

Harvard Professor Michael Sandel is another wildly popular political and moral philosopher these days. He has gained a kind of cult following among students and intellectuals around the globe. Sandel has rejected the moral and political utilitarianism of his fellow ethics thinkers, and he has that in his favor. He has also insisted that a dialogue about spiritual values needs to be added to our political and social debate.

All of these things sound good until we realize what Sandel believes. He told the NewStatesman.com that the failure of liberals to tout their own brand of religion has “contributed to a moral vacuum that has been filled by narrow, intolerant moralisms. It has allowed the Christian right to have more appeal than it might otherwise have had precisely because the field was cleared.” Sandel’s philosophy of “remoralisation” invites liberals to take over the moral debate and to do it, not in secular terms alone, but with religious concepts as well.

Ironically, Sandel is a political philosopher who prides himself on advancing critical thinking. Yet he has categorically rejected, without critical analysis, the moral and faith-based legitimacy of the “Christian right” whose pronouncements he labels “intolerant moralisms.” Consequently, Sandel has basically declared the entire field of Bible-based Christianity to be so unreasonable that it does not need further inquiry. Thus he seems to be saying that only a liberal, secularized version of “spirituality” and religious values is worthy of consideration in public debate.

The popularity of these two misguided philosophers underscores the conservative Christian need for a worldview that is consistent with absolute truth and that can effect change in our culture. We need a coherent political philosophy that is true to the Bible, unapologetically Christian, clear enough to explain to the average person, and yet sophisticated enough to handle the complexities of the 21st century.

Such a philosophy could bridge any gap between organizational conservatives and evangelical activists. It would have to take an approach to moral and political questions that acknowledges the reality that we are citizens of two kingdoms, an earthly one and a heavenly one. Finding balance between the things of God and the things of “Caesar” and between our duties to our neighbor versus the rights we can claim for ourselves is a principle of New Testament teaching.

Rand and Sandel don’t have the answers. But we can have no doubt God’s Word, diligently studied and rightly applied, does.

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