The Corner

Ayn Rand and Whittaker Chambers, Cont’d

Jason Lee Steorts’s interesting response to my comments elucidates the rationale for the modern separation of politics and religion, as well as the need to defend liberal democracy from the ravages of ideology. But his response seems to ignore the distinctions between revelation and ideology and reason and hyper-rationalism that are at the heart of Chambers’s witness.

No discussion of the theological-political project is complete without the Spanish Inquisition, I suppose. Yes, the Catholic Church erred in getting involved in state judicial proceedings whereby dissidents to the regime were marked for punishment and some for execution. However, as the late Fr. Richard Neuhaus noted, “Over the three centuries of its full operation fewer people were killed than were killed on a slow afternoon at Auschwitz or in the Gulag Archipelago, not to mention the millions starved or slaughtered by the Great Helmsman in China.” This might have something to do with technology, but it might also reveal the fundamental distinction between revelation and ideology as Chambers articulated it in Witness and “Big Sister Is Watching You.” Steorts says that ideology elevated to revelation “is hostile to the conditions of human flourishing,” which suggests that both are equally problematic — which is to mischaracterize each.

The totalitarianism that Chambers described is not some “secular religion” similar in its essence to authentic religion. The ideologue’s moral motivations are “inverted,” according to Michael Polanyi, “imminent in brute force because a naturalistic view of man forced them into this manifestation. Once they are immanent, moral motives no longer speak in their own voice and are no longer accessible to moral arguments.” If Polanyi is right — and the record of the twentieth century suggests he is — then we should be skeptical of any thinker whose view of reality looks like flattened humanism.

To say that Rand’s ideas are fundamentally sound if “properly adhered to,” as Steorts puts it, ignores human complexity. Classical and Christianity philosophy are in agreement that man should resist the temptation to set his sights on godhood; so much for Randian self-sovereignty! In recognizing this ancient consensus and its deep communion with the human person, we are not citing mere “historical/psychological inevitability” arguments. We are in touch with Prometheus and with man himself. Self-sovereignty may be the most unpleasant affair of them all. The question is where does Rand’s atheist fanaticism and deep commitment to self-sovereignty leave her ideas, in light of the continued unraveling of the secular-modernist project? Worrying too much about Rand at this point may be to ignore the larger religious dimensions of human life that are again asserting themselves.

— Richard M. Reinsch is the author of the recently published intellectual biography Whittaker Chambers: The Spirit of a Counterrevolutionary.

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