Four years ago, when it was discovered that Sarah Palin attended a Pentecostal church in Wasilla, Alaska, the question ‘What does she really believe?’ became, temporarily, crucial. Does she speak in tongues? Does she believe in evil spirits? Does she believe that American forces in Iraq are on a mission from God?

 Now, nine days before the Republican Convention, vice-presidential candidate Paul Ryan is under similar scrutiny. The questions in his case are different, but interrogators’ motivations are the same. By understanding what a politician believes about God and by taking the measure of his or her moral compass, people believe, it is possible to better understand the thing that in some circles is called “character.”

 Ryan is a Roman Catholic born and bred, a father of three who carries a rosary. His place on the ticket is meant to reassure social conservatives that the formerly pro-choice Romney is serious when he says he’s now pro-life.

But Ryan also professed a longtime adulation of author and philosopher Ayn Rand, an atheist who held the rationality of self-interest (and thus, self-interested capitalism) above all other values. Of charity, that fundamental Christian virtue, Rand said this in 1964 to Playboy magazine: “I do not consider it a major virtue, and, above all, I do not consider it a moral duty. There is nothing wrong in helping other people, if and when they are worthy of the help and you can afford to help them.”

 The difficulty of one person espousing two such contradictory value systems has been duly noted by Catholics and Rand specialists alike.

Catholicism insists on making the poor a priority, on putting the first last and the last first. But despite a speech at Georgetown in April, in which Ryan tried to connect his political priorities to his boyhood faith (“The work I do as a Catholic holding office conforms to the social doctrine as best I can make of it,” he said), Ryan’s budget proposal is entirely Randian in spirit. Its cuts to social services and its disregard of the needs of the poor, the elderly and the jobless is so complete that it prompted a stern rebuke from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, a body that, as a practicing Catholic, Ryan might feel obligated to heed. (Unless, as a follower of Rand, he has problems with authority.)  

 Inconsistency is a big problem for politicians, as Mitt Romney, still dodging the “flip-flopper label,” well knows. You can’t say one thing and do another; you can’t appear to be confused, or you’ll come across as confusing. Perhaps that’s why Ryan tried to reframe his allegiance to Rand in an interview with the National Review in April, saying, in effect, that his love for her work was a phase of callow boyhood.

“I reject her philosophy,” he said. “It’s an atheist philosophy. It reduces human interactions down to mere contracts, and it is antithetical to my worldview. If somebody is going to try to paste a person’s view on epistemology to me, then give me Thomas Aquinas. . . . Don’t give me Ayn Rand.”

 But where politics — or at least a political campaign — requires a cartoonish clarity and, in these days especially, an obeisance to an uncompromising set of priorities, the practice of religion is, in almost every case, an inconsistent mess. This has been true from the beginning, when God (or the men who wrote the Torah) warned the Israelites against worshiping idols.

The very existence of those scriptural warnings proves that the forbidden practice was there: The first Jews would chant their devotion to the One God in prayer and then go home to idol-worshiping parties with their pagan neighbors. And today, certain evangelical pastors publicly articulate their disapproval of the practice of yoga because so many in their congregations are chanting, “Namaste.” Questions about adherence to God’s rules — Which rules? How much adherence? — are foundational to thousands of years of theology.

In other words, Ryan’s love of Jesus and Rand is a political problem. It is not, necessarily, a problem for his personal practice of faith.

 I would go further: Intelligent, thoughtful and careful inconsistency is the first defense of the faithful against zealotry. Only ideologues attempt to be religiously consistent in all things. So, rather than ask Ryan to choose between Jesus and Rand, I’d like to challenge him to articulate a world view that encompasses both.

I don’t think he can do it, because the Jesus I’ve read about in the Gospels would laugh at the self-aggrandizing arrogance of Rand. But unless a candidate can explain to the public what he really believes about God and morality — and not say only what he thinks people want to hear — then he will come across not as faithful at all. He’ll look opportunistic.