For some time now, a sort of economic and political rhetoric has grown up around the country. This rhetoric belongs exclusively neither to the Republican nor to the Democratic Party, and, indeed, has liberal, conservative and libertarian supporters. Its variants are many. The premises of this view might be summarized as follows:
- Individuals have priority over community, and the only right that ultimately counts for anything is the right of the individual not to be constrained by the needs or interests of others.
- Altruism is suspect because the only thing we can vouch for with anything approaching certainty is the purity of self-interest and the will to survive.
- The single great power we can trust is the power of the economic free market to reward industry and provide the greatest good.
- The middle way, moderation, negotiation and compromise are evils because morality has no shades of gray.
In recent years, we have all likely heard various applications of this rhetoric (and perhaps seen it on the silver screen, in the 2011 film “Atlas Shrugged,” based on the novel by atheist and ideologue Ayn Rand). We have heard representatives of different political parties articulate this world view. Both liberals and conservatives are among those who have exalted the “individual” to the point that the “individual” of whom they speak bears little to no real relationship to actual persons in a community. Some politicians have run for office arguing that if persons do not have the means to afford health insurance, society should, essentially, let them die. Others, building on the premise that welfare in certain circumstances unintentionally undermines personal responsibility and industry, argue that all social altruism and all programs to help the poor are confidence tricks.
Such unyielding positions correlate with the rise of contemporary politicians who refuse to work together with other elected representatives for the common good -- that is, if working together means listening, negotiating and compromising.
As Carl T. Bogus observes in his new book, “Buckley: William F. Buckley Jr. and the Rise of American Conservatism,” Whittaker Chambers and William F. Buckley Jr. were both vocal critics of this kind of individualism. While both were vigorously argumentative and conservative, they viewed the rampant individualism, self-centered rejection of altruism, absolute faith in the power of the marketplace, and arrogance as a fundamental danger to society as a whole. They were particularly concerned about the undermining of altruism, and believed empathy for others expresses a spirit of generosity and a commitment to mutuality which serves as the basis for the social capital that binds us together as a society. M. Stanton Evans, a colleague of Chambers and Buckley, weighed in on the explicitly anti-Christian message of Ayn Rand’s individualism, appealing to Christian faith as a belief system “predicated on something more than mere survival.”
These conservative criticisms could be seconded by critics from the ideological middle or left, of course. Barbara Jordan, Stephen L. Carter and Gary Wills all come to mind.
But perhaps the most trenchant criticism of this philosophy came from an old friend of a vaguely libertarian stripe. He and I were talking about altruism -- specifically about whether it is right or socially constructive to give to a panhandler, or whether one might be simply enabling that person to remain dependent. He shook his head and said that whatever arguments there are against helping someone in need, nevertheless he had to do it.
“Why,” I asked.
“Jesus told me to,” he said.
This is where I ended up, too.
The interchange reminded me of something Garrison Keillor said about the Lutheran minister in Lake Wobegon. When the pastor was doing carpentry in his garage and hit his thumb with a hammer, he was, said Keillor, somewhat limited by his vocation with regard to his vocabulary.
So it also happens whenever we as Christians are confronted with the needs of others -- needs that call us beyond our self-interests, needs that place on us burdens that bind us to one another and obstruct our allegiance to various political premises that might otherwise appeal to us. Our vocation as Christians qualifies our responses. If we don’t like that fact, well, I guess that’s something we will just have to take up with the author of the Sermon on the Mount.
Michael Jinkins is president and professor of theology at Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary.
Editor’s note: A version of this post appeared originally on Michael Jinkins' blog, Thinking Out Loud.