Sunday, September 9, 2012

How Would Jesus Vote? Collectivist or Objectivist?

Our phone hasn’t stopped ringing for months and it likely will continue for the next 8 weeks.  If you live in a swing state, you are no doubt experiencing the same thing to say nothing of the incessant attack ads on TV.  I was already burned out before the conventions started.  Did you watch any of the speeches?   I can say (and I am hardly alone on this) that the only one that stood out for me was that of former Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice. 

It stood out not because it was articulate and instructive (although it was).  But rather because it spoke to the collective will of Americans to embrace public policy.  That word – collective – has attained a certain tinge these days.  The battle between Democrats and Republicans has, in some circles, been portrayed as collectivism vs. objectivism.  In that context, collectivism is portrayed as central government creating policies intended to structure social and economic outcomes.  At its extreme, collectivism is best represented by the Soviet system.

Objectivism gave expression to an ethic that relies upon self sufficiency.  It gained notice in the 1920’s and 30’s because of the government’s shift in the direction of collectivism.  Its champion, Ayn Rand, believed that men have a moral right to pursue happiness in the real world.  The real world, being objective, was separate from one’s consciousness.  In Atlas Shrugged, she said, “My philosophy, in essence, is the concept of man as a heroic being, with his own happiness as the moral purpose of his life, with productive achievement as his noblest activity, and reason as his only absolute.”

So, how would Jesus vote if he had a choice between these two philosophies?

The early English settlements in North America – most notably Jamestown – were unsuccessful because they had only a commercial purpose.  And, the pioneers who settled them were not pursuing their own purpose but rather that of the English crown.  But, the Mayflower settlement, led by John Winthrop, established a religious community with the goal of starting fresh, separate from the corrupt churches of Europe.  It was this higher purpose that drove them to succeed.  But their success was not enabled by government.  It was enabled by a Christian ethic of hard work and sacrifice for the benefit of the community.  This form of collectivism was grounded in a common religious belief and the need to survive in the new world. 

So, was the Mayflower settlement objectivist or collectivist?  I submit that it was both.  Its very survival depended upon both a sense of responsibility for oneself and family as well as a responsibility toward the community.  There was “productive achievement” to use Rand’s words as well as a collective purpose intended to structure social outcomes.   This ethic – a Protestant ethic – prevailed in this country until the 1950’s. 

Condoleeza Rice
Most of the Republicans who spoke in Tampa advocated objectivism in its purest form.  They referred often to the striving of successful people who started with nothing.  It was left to Dr. Rice to address our Christian instincts (although she limited her remarks to foreign policy):  I know too that it has not always been easy -- though it has been rewarding -- to speak up for those who would otherwise be without a voice -- the religious dissident in China; the democracy advocate in Venezuela; the political prisoner in Iran. It has been hard to muster the resources to support fledgling democracies -- or to help the world's most desperate -- the AIDs orphan in Uganda, the refugee fleeing Zimbabwe, the young woman who has been trafficked into the sex trade in Southeast Asia; the world's poorest in Haiti. Yet this assistance -- together with the compassionate works of private charities -- people of conscience and people of faith -- has shown the soul of our country.”

It is hard not to identify with her remarks.  She speaks of American hegemony in human terms.  We can relate to the needs of those less fortunate, suppressed by dictators and lacking the freedom or the resources to do anything about it.  Our concern and our tax dollars speak to our Christian instincts.

Would Jesus vote for that?

Throughout the New Testament, Jesus and his apostles promote the value of hard work but always specify that the ends are for the glory of God not the idolatry of money.  The Apostle Paul said, “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as work for the Lord, not for men.”  Jesus promoted the value of hard work and focused on the ends to which men worked.  Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit.  Rather, in humility value others above yourselves.” Phil 2:3.  This stands in stark contrast to Objectivist philosophy.  Indeed in Mark 10:17-25 he said, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”  That’s hard to hear for those of us who think of ourselves as Christians and strive for greater wealth. 

In the reality of 21st Century America, there is evidence of capitalism working for the collective good.  In Charlotte, NC (where the Democrats held their convention), Siemens AG, a German electronics manufacturer, has built a factory and created over 800 new jobs rather than go to a low wage country like India or China.  Their decision to build in NC was the result of state and local governments investing in infrastructure and the schools meeting some specific education requirements.  So, is this an example of collectivism or objectivism?

It clearly stands in contrast to the policies of both parties.  The Republicans would seek to limit the role of government and Democrats would simply shower money on industries they favor, like the clean energy industry. 

A local (S. Florida) entrepreneur and radio personality, Neal Asbury, has written a book called Conscientious Equity in which he outlines trade policy that would alleviate much of the world’s suffering. Neal is very much an objectivist.  Yet, he understands that, as a business owner and community leader, he has a responsibility to his employees.  Over the last few years, Neal’s Company (The Legacy Companies) has made several acquisitions.  In each case, he has invested in upgrading factories and improving products.  And, in each case, he has added American jobs.  It is likely that Neal could make a few more dollars if he outsourced to Asia where he lived and worked for 20 years.  However, Neal believes he has a responsibility to his country and his stakeholders. 

I have no idea how Jesus would vote and I would not presume to instruct anyone on his behalf.  But, I know true LEADERSHIP when I see it.  Whether it’s a successful capitalist who feels he has a responsibility to his country and his employees or government leaders who achieve real results for their communities, the marriage of objectivism and collectivism works in the 21st Century just as it did for the Mayflower settlement.

So, how would Jesus vote?

ACKNOWLEDGEMENT:  I would like to thank my brother, Chris, for his help on this piece.  Chris has a Master’s degree from MIT and is an elder in his suburban Atlanta church.  He reads his Bible daily.  A scientist who is also religious.  Imagine that!


  1. John,

    Two comments, one light and one heavy.

    Light first. “The battle between Democrats and Republicans has, in some circles, been portrayed as collectivism vs. objectivism.” Please let me know what “circle” has elevated the discussion to that level of intellectualism – it would be refreshing to tune in. I too have had enough.

    Now heavy. Your thought process and argument development lead me to conclude that you believe objectivism excludes charity and the “benefit of the community.” I strongly disagree. I believe the correct discussion is does collectivism or objectivism deliver the greatest charity and benefit to the community. Are the residents of our poorest ghettos best served by “…a Christian ethic of hard work and sacrifice…” or by the government’s redistribution of wealth (I’m using the words objectively, not emotionally or politically)? Then add in the concept of charity. Using these concepts for collectivism or objectivism, the Mayflower settlement was not a “…marriage of objectivism and collectivism…”, and your conclusion that “…the marriage of objectivism and collectivism works in the 21st Century…” is not the only path to attain the proper level of “benefit of the community.” I believe that your definitions/assumptions regarding collectivism and objectivism are too narrow.

    One political anecdote, in addition to 70+% of personal income taxes being paid by conservatives, almost 80% of charitable giving is by conservatives. The “benefit of the community” is alive and well within objectivism.


  2. Bill

    Two responses, one light and one heavy.

    Light first. I read the NY Times, the WSJ and the Washington Post. I also get newsletters from John Mauldin, Stratfor and PIMCO to say nothing of the other stuff I read all the time. I don’t remember where I found the “circle”. If I was forced to point a finger, I might say it was David Brooks or quotes from Paul Ryan where I got the notion.

    Now Heavy. In limiting myself to 1000 words or less, the greatest challenge is never the development of the initial concept for the blog. It’s in the re-write. I sometimes find myself on the defensive because I haven’t developed a full exposition of my thinking in a short piece. In one of my re-writes for this piece, I deleted a paragraph where I made mention of Bill Gates, a wealthy successful capitalist who has given away most of his fortune. However, I think I was pretty clear that, in the real world, it’s a marriage of collectivism and objectivism that has proven to work best:

    “Whether it's a successful capitalist who feels he has a responsibility to his country and his employees or government leaders who achieve real results for their communities, the marriage of objectivism and collectivism works in the 21st Century just as it did for the Mayflower settlement.”

    Indeed, that was my point.

    The ideal that Jesus set for mankind has never been achieved in my experience. There may have been monks in a monastery somewhere who achieved something close to it. But, there is no doubt about what is written in the new testament. Jesus did not suggest one should not work to be wealthy. He simply had a different idea than most people about what they should do with their money.


  3. "Thoughtful. Jesus was interested in souls, soul by soul. However, souls were healed simultaneously by individual commitment to God; and through community in God's grace with others."

  4. I know I'll get berated for my irreverent cynicism, but I would like to ask, rather than poring over the details of what Jesus may or may not have thought about such-and-such an issue, whether it wouldn't be far more pertinent (and time-efficient) to simply study the subtleties of these political issues in and of themselves as they arise, and then decide based on the merits of the arguments, rather than on an appeal to authority (and merely "plausible" authority at that, since we can only conjecture about Jesus plausible opinions on x, y and z if he didn't actually speak about x, y and z)?
    Posted by Ewan Neeve

  5. Far be it from me to berate anybody for being cynical. My goal in writing the piece was to be a bit provocative. A discussion about collectivism vs. objectivism is a bit too dry even for me.

    However, the real point I am trying to make is that successful communities blend the collective will with a framework for capitalist success. One without the other does not often succeed.

  6. The problem as I see it is that Jesus does not have a vote or place at the table with the current administration. If he did, then there would be a different agenda. I agree, deciding how Jesus would vote is way above my paygrade, I am pretty sure that he would not vote for what is going in our country right now.
    Posted by Ken Mayeaux

  7. Objectivism is much more than you've portrayed it to be. It's as much about making decisions based on concrete reality as it is about being pro capitalism. It's not really about "self sufficiency" at all, but more about trading with others freely for each contributors beneficence. It's about maximizing your rational long-term self interest. That said, did Jesus ever advocate stealing from one group to give to another? I don't think Jesus would vote for either major party candidate.

  8. I'd say Objectivist. The readings that start with the Sermon on the Mount and arrive at Collectivist conclusions seem to be playing fast and loose with context, audience, and purpose, in my opinion.
    In no imaginable way should any leader argue that mooching from future generations to support contemporary largesse is somehow moral.
    Posted by Christopher Smith

  9. @BR. Thanks for your comment. Very well said.

  10. Judging him by how the gospel authors Matthew and Luke described him, Jesus wouldn't vote nor write petitions or take up arms. Jesus would move to the woods, start his own commune and ask his fellow man to join him in non-violent resistance as Gandhi did. It seems that like Gandhi, Jesus was a rebel who fought for justice against a corrupt political and religious system by resisting obedience to their rules and holding on to their own principles instead. So to conclude, my position is that Jesus was a rebel using non-violent resistence who could rightfull be called the Gandhi of his era and region.

    Matthew 21:12 : " And Jesus went into the temple of God, and cast out all them that sold and bought in the temple, and overthrew the tables of the moneychangers, and the seats of them that sold doves "

    Matthew 10:34–39 : " Do not think that I came to bring peace on earth. I did not come to bring peace but a sword. For I have come to ‘set a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law’; and ‘a man’s enemies will be those of his own household.’He who loves father or mother more than Me is not worthy of Me. And he who loves son or daughter more than Me is not worthy of Me. And he who does not take his cross and follow after Me is not worthy of Me. He who finds his life will lose it, and he who loses his life for My sake will find it. "

    Luke 12:49–53 : " I am come to send fire on Earth; and what will I, if it be already kindled? But I have a baptism to be baptized with; and how am I straitened till it be accomplished! Suppose ye that I am come to give peace on earth? I tell you, Nay; but rather division: For from henceforth there shall be five in one house divided, three against two, and two against three. The father shall be divided against the son, and the son against the father; the mother against the daughter, and the daughter against the mother; the mother in law against her daughter in law, and the daughter in law against her mother in law. "

    Now, consider the words of Mahatma Gandhi :

    " I cannot teach you violence, as I do not myself believe in it. I can only teach you not to bow your heads before any one even at the cost of your life. "

    " What difference does it make to the dead, the orphans and the homeless, whether the mad destruction is wrought under the name of totalitarianism or the holy name of liberty or democracy? "

    " An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind. "

    " When I despair, I remember that all through history the ways of truth and love have always won. There have been tyrants, and murderers, and for a time they can seem invincible, but in the end they always fall. Think of it--always. "

    " Hate the sin, love the sinner. "

    " A 'No' uttered from the deepest conviction is better than a 'Yes' merely uttered to please, or worse, to avoid trouble. "

    " It is better to be violent, if there is violence in our hearts, than to put on the cloak of nonviolence to cover impotence. "

    " A coward is incapable of exhibiting love; it is the prerogative of the brave. "

    " I am prepared to die, but there is no cause for which I am prepared to kill. "

    " Those who say religion has nothing to do with politics do not know what religion is. "

    " I believe that a man is the strongest soldier for daring to die unarmed. "

    " Let us all be brave enough to die the death of a martyr, but let no one lust for martyrdom. "

    " Non-cooperation with evil is as much a duty as is cooperation with good. "

    " First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win. "

    See also and .
    Posted by John Slegers

  11. Without the fundamental "Right to Life", no others rights can exist. Jesus would vote for the candidate that support this most basic of rights.
    Posted by David Koch