Christo-Capitalism or Capitalanity? David Brat’s Political Theology

Current Events

David Brat’s upset of Eric Cantor in Virginia’s District Seven congressional race last week generated waves of buzz, with no small stir churning in the Christian blogosphere. Although political upstarts, especially those that identify as conservative Christians, always tend to create a storm of media buzz, the close attention to Brat is perhaps more justified than most. As I hope will become clear in this brief profile of Brat’s scholarship and political theology, Brat’s somewhat bewildering and seemingly idiosyncratic synthesis of theology and economics illustrates the tensions endemic to the increasingly-libertarian sectors of the Christian Right.

David Brat’s upset of Eric Cantor in Virginia’s District Seven congressional race last week generated waves of buzz, with no small stir churning in the Christian blogosphere. Although political upstarts, especially those that identify as conservative Christians, always tend to create a storm of media buzz, the close attention to Brat is perhaps more justified than most. As I hope will become clear in this brief profile of Brat’s scholarship and political theology, Brat’s somewhat bewildering and seemingly idiosyncratic synthesis of theology and economics illustrates the tensions endemic to the increasingly-libertarian sectors of the Christian Right.

 

I. The Man: Calvinist Catholic?

David Brat describes himself as a product of the “rural midwest.” He received a B.A. in business administration from Hope College, a small liberal arts college associated with the Reformed Church in America, conveniently located in the Dutch Reformed stronghold of Western Michigan.

After attending Hope, Brat claims to have earned an MDiv from Princeton Theological Seminary, though an off-handed remark in one of his essays suggests an uneasy departure from seminarian life:

“I left seminary because I was not gutsy enough to give Jonah’s sermon. I ran away to economics. Seminary people are supposed to be leading the way. Tell us what to do.”[1]

‘Left’ is not typically used in the normal course of matriculation, but all accounts represent Brat as having completed his degree at Princeton Theological Seminary. Perhaps what Brat means here is that he left the seminarian life, that is, he chose not to continue on in the ministry. It is tempting to conclude that Brat refers here to the warning handed down by Jonah in Jonah 3 to the doomed-then-redeemed denizens of Nineveh; if that is the case, then we can conclude he chalks his departure from seminarian life up to his unwillingness to forecast God’s judgment against the apostate legacy of liberal theology and its adherents.

Brat has ambiguously described himself as Catholic and Calvinist; as Dr. Chad Pecknold has explained on twitter, the hazy combination of the two leads us into murky waters. It appears it would be a mistake to presume Brat a Roman Catholic, though in my opinion it would also be a mistake to presume him theologically sophisticated enough to use Catholic in another sense, say, as the inimitable Dr. James K. A. Smith does in his exchange with Dr. Pecknold.

To be frank, nobody has any idea whether or not David Brat is Catholic. While a number of news outlets, including MSNBC, have claimed Brat is a “Roman Catholic”, Brat’s own statements appear to be tailored to obscure the answer to that question. His campaign website diplomatically (which is to say: noncommittally) lists the following in summation of his personal beliefs:

“A man of deep faith, Dave attends St. Mary’s Catholic Church with his wife Laura and their two children: Jonathan, 15 and Sophia, 11.”

Curiously, St. Mary’s doesn’t show up on the list of churches Brat claims as ‘affiliations’ at the end of his CV. The following, however, do:

St. Michael’s Catholic Church

Christ Church Episcopal


Third Presbyterian Church


Shady Grove Methodist Church

How he is affiliated with each church isn’t clear. If I may air a suspicion, it would be this: Brat’s Calvinism seems always to arise in the context of a particular type of political association between Calvinism and free markets cemented in the popular imagination by Weber’s famous Protestant Work Ethic. Brat says it himself in his essay “God and Advanced Mammon: Can Theological Types Handle Usury and Capitalism?”:

Capitalism is the major organizing force in modern life, whether we like it or not. It is here to stay. If the sociologists ever grasp this basic fact, their enterprise will be much more fruitful. We set alarm clocks to follow the schedule of the market. Children leave their families to follow the job market. We often weigh our social worth by looking to market wages, salaries, and consumption patterns. We spend much more time on market activity than God activity. Thus, Calvinism.”[2]

One could substitute almost any word for ‘Calvinism’ at the conclusion of this paragraph and come out with an equally plausible argument. Which is to say: none of what Brat lists preceding his conclusion (essentially a list of positive statements) theologically inclines toward Calvinism. Yet it is not difficult to imagine how someone could come to view a natural progression between the familiar combination of social conservatism and free market capitalism and Calvinism so long as they were steeped in the American situation of all three principles in relation to one another. Consider, for example, current stir over New Calvinism (or what some would more rightly call Neo-Puritanism, a moniker that hasn’t quite amassed the same cachet yet) and the electoral base a person like Brat is attempting to reach. It doesn’t seem impossible that someone with a reasonably sensitive ear to the ground could detect an association between private-piety-plus-free-market ideology and what is often called ‘Calvinism’, and thereby decide to assign oneself the label. If this is what’s going on in Brat’s case, Calvinism should be understood here as a primarily political signal rather than a theological one. This could explain what appears to be persistence in the Roman Catholic faith (St. Mary’s is a Roman Catholic church) despite the rather serious theological challenges such a robust Calvinism would pose.

Brat’s understanding of Calvinism seems always to rotate around the friendly alliance with capitalism he imagines to inhere in it, but rarely seems to transcend that relationship. For that reason, I presume the label is, for him, primarily a political signal. Alternatively he could be a Jansenist, though I detect little Augustine in his corpus, and a whole lot of Adam Smith.

 

II. The Scholarship

It isn’t my intention to ruthlessly lampoon Brat’s scholarship here, though if you’re interested in seeing mincemeat be made of it, the web is your oyster. Above a chorus of incisive criticism, gentler readers have still proposed a variety of problems with Brat’s work. Dr. Candida Moss has finely documented the historical and academic issues with Brat’s work; citing God as the author of the Bible, for example, is a little odd from every angle I can estimate. Other theologians have sharply noted the blind spots in Brat’s theological reasoning. Economists in Brat’s field have questioned the pattern of his publication habits, and the stature of his published works. Others still have damned his attempt at the fusion of the threads of religion an economics. While it’s easy to find space for criticism in almost any academic career and/or publication, it’s challenging in Brat’s case to find anything close to a glowing review.

Brat is not a theologian: I mean to be emphatic here because it’s perhaps unfair to excoriate him for lacking expertise in a field he doesn’t claim proficiency in. By his own admission he “ran away to economics”; economics is what his doctoral degree is in, and it would seem fairest to judge him by his economic mettle.

It’s only that such mettle is difficult to find iterations of. He does, however, spend quite a lot of time on political philosophy, that is, the nature of property and the moral foundation of distributive institutions, hearkening back to his now-infamous course on the ‘Moral Foundations of Capitalism.’ But his perspectives on property tend not to be theologically rooted, and so his Christian moral analysis reveals various tensions. At one turn Brat explains that private property is an institution of the state:

“Private property was clearly established. Ninety percent of the population was rural and this basic social contract fit the times, with notable exceptions (i.e., slavery). Basically, one fed one’s family, and if times got tough, moved to extended family or relied upon the voluntary charity of one’s church or neighbors.”[3]

Passive voice can obscure so much: in this case, we’re not entirely sure who established private property clearly. But since Brat has been discussing the promulgation of US laws it seems likely the state is the institution that clearly establishes private property; we know that was certainly the case with slavery, at any rate. This tracks very well with legal realist views of property which tend to square well with traditional Christian notions of private property, but then Brat also maintains that taxation is morally wrong:

“These positive rights bring benefits to many, but the new wrinkle is that someone else must pay for the benefits that are received. We have continually voted to force some to pay for the benefits of others. That is likely the key issue and the key line in this essay, and the one line that animates our current conversation on capitalism. A key line in ethics has been crossed.”[4]

Yet if the state is the institution that defines private property by passing and enforcing laws regarding property (and thereby ‘clearly establishes’ it), how can taxation be force against a particular party, rather than the legal definition of the taxed wealth as belonging to another agent? That is, if the state makes the rules as to what property belongs to who, then all proprietary laws are equally legitimate, meaning that taxation is no more morally wrong than trespassing laws: each of them merely define what wealth belongs where. None of this means that social insurance programs should be free of scrutiny, but it does mean Brat’s dismissal of taxation for social spending as wholesale morally wrong is predicated on a theory of property that his short aside here fails to shore up. The legal realist theory of property would never support such an extreme reading of the very principle of taxation which is, within its parameters, only another distributive choice among many.

None of this is to say there is no pre-political grounding of property rights in Brat’s theology, but only that he doesn’t adduce such a foundation. Instead, to the extent his theory of property can be excavated it appears to exist in tension, a coalescence of liberal proprietary theory now taken mostly for granted and Christian ethical premises which don’t necessarily map neatly into that vision. In that sense, the questions remaining for Brat’s approach to property and its role in flourishing is reminiscent of similar problems that haunt the Christian right in general.

 

III. The Task of the Church

The lion’s share of Brat’s available papers mainly concerns theology and Christian ethics, and seems to feature a common motive: making the relationship between capitalism and the Christian church smooth and necessary. From the conclusion of his essay on “God and Advanced Mammon”:

First, it seems to me as a Calvinist, that history is moving on, whether we like it or not. We live in a modern and complex world that no single person can presume to understand. It seems to me, also, that this must have been and is in the mind of God. I do not think our current existence is some fluke. Technology and global markets and business are with us for good or ill. At times, religious folk tend to recoil from this overwhelming reality. The first century was certainly much simpler. But we are no longer there. We must all confront reality as it exists and manage it as best we can. The task has been and always will be a moral task. I think God moves history and conditions so that we are always challenged in new ways. I like the world that God has made, and I like Richard Niebuhr’s depiction of the Calvinist “type” in his famous book Christ and Culture.Calvinists believe in Christ the Transformer of Culture. We are called to make it better, in history…If we are ever going to be transformers of culture, we need to get our story straight on capitalism and faith. The two can go together and they had better go together, or we will not transform anything.”[5]

Brat is dead set on the idea that the church must come to happy terms with capitalism if it intends to make any ‘change’, but then again he seems to resist the idea of the church as an agent of change, and rather proposes that individuals should be the sole agents of change. Observe:

“Fourth, weigh the benefits against the costs of action. Add up all church action on politics, news- letters, and action alerts, and we might be able to feed the poor instead. Perhaps, we can make the low- interest loan that we prefer. What is the role of the church? We are the church…Finally, I have no magic bullet when it comes to usury. It is not the major problem. We need to understand the world we live in, and then have the faith and the courage to do something about it. For starters, we could tell our folks to work hard and stay out of debt in the first place. We could also follow the micro loan experience of those in poverty around the world. The peer pressure they put on each other in the form of moral suasion results in very high repayment rates. But that would involve judgment, and I’m not sure if that is allowed in church any more. We can also begin to educate others in the community about economics, finance, and banking. Finally, I think Jesus told us to help our neighbor when they get in a bind. But that comes last in my little story here, not first.”[6]

It isn’t clear what the role of the Church is as more than the sum of her parts; Brat’s solutions, in keeping with the libertarianized form of Christianity that he represents, all revolve around the particular options available to individuals. How does Brat navigate that direction toward the neighbor, that great commandment which demands we look outside ourselves? He imagines the surest way to aid our neighbor is to synthesize Christianity and capitalism.

“The editors asked me to address my in-house brothers and sisters in Christ, in seminaries, and in the church. Some of what I say is tongue-in-cheek, but some is not. I usually try to get right to the point, illustrate tensions around the main point, and then get back to the point. I think the main point is that we need to synthesize Christianity and capitalism.”[7]

It is curious that Brat sees Christianity and capitalism as two separate sources of ethics but still insists upon the need to improve the former by grafting the latter upon it; the most charitable interpretation is that he fears for the strength of the church in the face of capitalism and supposes some path forward needs to be carved out for the church to endure in such an inhospitable climate. But Brat notably isn’t insisting capitalism must be forced to comport with Christianity; it’s Christianity that must be modified for him, which leaves us with the open question of what Christianity would look like following Brat’s preferred alterations.

What we can know about a post-Brat church is possible only through noting how he himself struggles with various components of the faith. As is clear above, usury is a challenging problem for Brat to grapple with in a capitalist-inflected Christianity, as is the corporate life of the church, which by its nature does not privilege individual interest. He declares that Christians should seek to change culture, but fails to view capitalism as either a piece of culture that can or should be changed; he argues that Christian political action is inherently wrong because it would inflict Christian values on the unwilling. Christians in Brat’s vision seem rather backed into a corner, unable to define praxis as a corporate Body of Christ to change anything (indeed, if what must be changed can even be identified!) and even less able to engage in creative politics.

Brat’s vision of an improved Christianity retains a variety of tensions, many of them common to the state of the Christian right in general. Can libertarian ideals drawing on Ayn Rand and Friedrich Hayek co-exist with traditional Christian teaching on social ethics?  Can a Calvinistic invocation of divine providence avoid simply baptizing current economic realities, whatever they may be? Can an ethic of private virtue and an opposition to creative politics generate much in the way of impact? The outlook is troubling. With figures like Pope Francis building a robust counter-narrative regarding the potential for creative politics and traditional Christianity, it is unclear how a vision like Brat’s, which is increasingly typical of the Christian right, will endure.

 

———

[1] David Brat, “God and Advanced Mammon−−Can Theological Types Handle Usury and Capitalism?” Interpretation 65 (Apr. 2011): 179.

[2] Brat, “God and Advanced Mammon,” 169.

[3] Brat, “God and Advanced Mammon,” 172.

[4] Brat, “God and Advanced Mammon,” 173.

[5] Brat, “God and Advanced Mammon,” 178.

[6] Brat, “God and Advanced Mammon,” 178.

[7] Brat, “God and Advanced Mammon,” 179.

 

 

 

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