Originally posted at Talk to Action.
David Brat, the Tea Party Young Turk who recently shocked the GOP establishment with his primary win over Majority Leader Eric Cantor, is reportedly, a convert to Catholicism, but (one source has him affiliated with four different Virginia churches: St. Michael’s Catholic, Christ Church Episcopal, Third Presbyterian, and Shady Grove Methodist.). If he has converted to Catholicism, it appears he may be hedging his bets.
But if he has indeed become Catholic, apparently he has not yet encountered the Church's social teachings. Brat is a vociferous proponent of libertarian economics, which is not only radically out of step with Church teaching on economics, but glaringly so in the age Pope Francis.
If you haven’t already, I strongly recommend reading Chip Berlet's recent piece (“A Brat Stomps Cantor: Is "Christian Economics" an Oxymoron?”). It is a well-written primer on the rhetoric surrounding libertarian Christianity, Protestant or Catholic. It is particularly helpful in understanding David Brat.
As Chip observed:
The version of "Christian Economics" championed by sectors of the Christian Right in the United States, however, is rooted in Laissez-Faire capitalism as shaped by the Austrian School economists Ludwig von Mises and Friedrich August von Hayek; and later modified by Chicago School economic icon Milton Friedman. These ideas were the basis of President Ronald Reagan's "Trickle Down" theory which flowed down the legs of numerous elite right-wing analysts.
A more radical right libertarian version of Laissez-Faire "Christian Economics" drips down from the body of work by R.J. Rushdoony and Gary North. Ron and Rand Paul embrace much of this version of Biblical economics which is the basis for Christian Reconstructionism, a militant Protestant movement which is like Calvinism on crack.
Somewhere between these two descriptions lies David Brat’s place on the political spectrum. Brat, the aptly named David who recently slew a Goliath in Majority Leader Eric Cantor, does not appear to have much regard for government oversight of the economy. In its place, as the New York Times reported, Brat’s prescription is simple:
Instead of arguing for any specific regulation, however, Brat said that the system simply needed more virtue. “We should love our neighbor so much that we actually believe in right and wrong and do something about it,” he wrote in a 2011 essay for Interpretation: A Journal of Bible and Theology. “If we all did the right thing and had the guts to spread the word, we would not need the government to backstop every action we take.”
In other words, government oversight is replaced by personal virtue. Brat is on record as stating, “I think the main point is that we need to synthesize Christianity and capitalism.” Actually we already tried such an approach in this country but perhaps not in the manner the Tea Party Young Turk appreciated (more on that below).
But while the Congressional candidate and his wife may be attending a Catholic church, (Brat was raised as a Presbyterian), it is quite clear that his economics is soundly based on the Calvinistic, Protestant outlook – flavored with a heaping helping of Randian Objectivism. As a recent New Yorker magazine profile explains:
But Brat goes further than simply questioning economic dogma and trying to reclaim Adam Smith for the Christian intellectual tradition. In a 2004 paper, "Economic Growth and Institutions: The Rise and Fall of the Protestant Ethic?" (PDF here), Brat again returns to the link between historical Christianity and modern economic theory, claiming that countries with Protestant pasts have inherent economic advantages over countries without them.
“Give me a country in 1600 that had a Protestant led contest for religious and political power and I will show you a country that is rich today,” Brat wrote, while claiming that Protestantism "provides an efficient set of property rights and encourages a modern set of economic incentives” that often lead to "positive economic performance.”
This is hardly the stuff of Rerum Novarum, let alone Pope Francis. But with that said, Brat is just an example of the American Catholic Right’s ideal convert – politically and perhaps more importantly, economically conservative. Like Paul Ryan, he identifies his faith with Pope Francis while paradoxically embracing the morally indifferent economics of militant neo-atheist Ayn Rand. (Brat even co-authored a paper entitled, “An Analysis of the Moral Foundations in Ayn Rand”). Unsurprisingly, Brat continuously expounds upon the advantages of capitalism -- but in a way that suggests that his version of capitalism is the only one that exists and that any deviation constitutes Marxist Socialism.
What Brat and other movement conservatives fear is not Marxism but a better form of capitalism; one that requires structure and forbearance; and more importantly one that understands that money is a tool, not an end in and of itself. Indeed, such a variety of capitalism was practiced in this country with great success from 1933 until the 1980s. It is the capitalism of FDR who was so heavily influenced by economically progressive Catholic social justice teaching, notably Msgr. John A. Ryan, the tireless advocate for a living wage. It was Msgr. Ryan who detailed the shortcomings both of relying solely upon virtue and eschewing State action necessary to curb and deflect the consequences of more undisciplined forms of capitalism.
Catholic economic theory is based on Distributive Justice -- a third way that more successfully contains the arbitrary power that often results from the unchecked power that accompanies both Marxism and laissez-faire capitalism. Its sources are to be found in Catholic teachings as well as the Protestant Social Gospel movement and the Jewish concept of Tikkun olam – making the world whole). This is a truer synthesis of Christianity and capitalism; done so without heavy-handed attempts at religious conversion.
Which brings us back to Brat’s religious ambiguity -- which smacks of a cynical political ploy to cloak himself in the garb of four of the Christian groups that make up a significant portion of the Congressional district’s electorate. Only David Brat knows for sure. But if it is an experiment in attempting to marry Calvinistic individualism to Catholic notions of solidarity -- it is one that appears to be based upon prevarication.