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David Brat’s Half-Cocked Theological-Economic Fusionism

Michael Tanner recently [1]—but before the shocker primary in suburban Richmond—lamented that the tea party’s influence was waning because it had strayed from its core mission:

Sparked by outrage over the Wall Street bailouts, the original Tea Party was motivated by an opposition to Big Government. The motto of the Tea Party Patriots, one of the largest and most influential groups, was “fiscal responsibility, limited government, and free markets.” The Tea Party’s core issues were the skyrocketing national debt and opposition to Obamacare.

Social issues were not part of the platform. In fact, Jenny Beth Martin, leader of the Tea Party Patriots told the New York Times, “When people ask about [social issues], we say, ‘Go get involved in other organizations that already deal with social issues very well.’ We have to be diligent and stay on message.”

Tanner is one of an unfortunate many who took the tea party at face value. As I’ve been arguing [2] for [3] years [4], economic issues, for tea partiers, are inseparable from social ones. It’s the (largely) Protestant version [5] of the seamless garment: capitalism is part of God’s blueprint for human society, just like traditional marriage and heteronormativity. Ironically echoing the atheist Ayn Rand, this worldview values capitalism not merely as an instrumental good, a man’s-estate-reliever [6], but as a moral imperative.

Research by David E. Campbell and Robert Putnam [7] and long-form reporting [8] by Jill Lepore have lent empirical weight to my intuition that the tea party is a religious movement by proxy. Ed Kilgore put it bluntly [9]: “scratch a ‘fiscal conservative’ and you’ll find a culture-warrior of one sort or another right under the surface.”

Along comes David Brat, professor of economics and slayer of the dragon Rep. Eric Cantor, to bring the argument into sharp relief. The parsing of Brat’s academic writings and theological-economic beliefs has become a cottage industry [10]. The Washington Post called [11] Brat’s primary election an indication of a “rise in the crossroads of religion and economics.”

At first blush, Brat seems to draw from the tradition of thinkers like Wilhelm Roepke, who believed that [12], to properly function, markets depend on bourgeois virtues. As Brat once put it [13]: “If markets are bad … that means people are bad.” There’s an interesting wrinkle to Brat’s fusionism, however. Where proponents of what can only loosely be called “Christian economics,” such as R.C. Sproul, Jr. [14], tease out capitalist principles from the Bible, Brat teases out a biblical influence on secular economic writing. As Kevin Roose writes [15]:

In one unpublished paper from 2005, “Adam Smith’s God: The End of Economics,” (Word doc here [16]), which I accessed through a Google Scholar search, Brat makes the case that even though Adam Smith (the father of modern economics and author of The Wealth of Nations) is thought of as one of the great figures of the Enlightenment, his “invisible hand” theory should properly be seen in the context of Christian moral philosophy.

“In fact, [Smith’s] system really retains most of the fundamental features of the Judeo-Christian system,” Brat writes. “On paper he places Stoic reason above Christian revelation. But on the other hand, he chooses the Christian God over the Stoic God. And in the end, his choice of virtues and ends take a decidedly Christian turn.”

In a sense, Brat’s brand of Protestant-ethic revivalism completes a circle: now, not only can Christians find Adam Smith in the Bible [17], they can find the Bible in Adam Smith too!

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#1 Comment By Fulton On June 18, 2014 @ 7:12 am

“they can find the Bible in Adam Smith too!”

And?

I haven’t read any of Brat’s work, but the idea that Christianity (or at least the organised forms of it) has had a cultural influence on the values of people who aren’t Christian is scarcely way out there.

[18]

Prof Dawkins, who has frequently spoken out against creationism and religious fundamentalism, replied: “I’m not one of those who wants to stop Christian traditions.

“This is historically a Christian country. I’m a cultural Christian in the same way many of my friends call themselves cultural Jews or cultural Muslims.”

Is Dawkins a Tea Partier now?

#2 Comment By James On June 18, 2014 @ 8:39 am

I’m not much of a fan of Brat or of “Austrian” economics, but I’m not exactly sure why Galupo appears to be in hysterics over Brat’s paper. The claim that Smith’s economics and moral philosophy were “Christian” in some significant way and that placing him in traditional narratives of the Enlightenment misses important features of his thought may or may not be true, but it hardly strikes me as some obviously ridiculous suggestion. Then again, Galupo seems to throw a fit whenever he becomes aware of the existence of anyone who isn’t a center-left milquetoast, so I suppose I’m not all that surprised that he is apparently unable to do anything other than thoughtlessly sneer at those nasty, knuckle-dragging conservatives who are too stupid to keep up with the latest fashion.

#3 Comment By Stephen P On June 18, 2014 @ 9:08 am

This is a pointless article. It hardly says anything about Brat, merely linking to a bunch of articles about him and written by him. Is the author supposing that it is totally obvious to the reader that Brat’s interpretation of Adam Smith is wrong? I’ve read only some Adam Smith, and I have no idea whether Brat’s interpretation is correct.

#4 Comment By Benjamin P. Glaser On June 18, 2014 @ 9:24 am

It may be important to distinguish R.C. Sproul, Sr. (the well known author and Ligonier Ministries founder) and R.C. Sproul, Jr., who wrote the book on economics that you cited in this article.

[Thank you; fixed. -Ed.]

#5 Comment By Uncle Billy On June 18, 2014 @ 9:33 am

This looks something like the “Prosperity Gospel” which is the Protestant Ethic on steroids. While there is some merit in pride in hard work, etc., there is also a rather disturbing idea that God loves rich people more than poor people.

If you actually take the trouble to read the Gospels, especially Matthew 25, you will not see all this exaultation of the wealthy. I suspect that what we have here is basically people trying to find some sort of theological cover for greed.

#6 Comment By Peter On June 18, 2014 @ 10:19 am

That last sentence isn’t as outrageous as you seem to think it is, considering Smith worked in a context in which scientific inquiry (including into economics and morality, Smith’s areas of interest) and religion were often seen as mutually reinforcing rather than in conflict. Brat’s unpublished paper goes against the grain of twentieth-century economics as a field, but it isn’t a crazy way to approach Smith’s work. There is a large universe of scholars working with Smith’s theology.

By the way, an unpublished paper is what we’re going to go with? If anything is half-cocked, it’s this post.

#7 Comment By D. J. Peterson On June 18, 2014 @ 10:28 am

The article reveals the anti-Christian outlook that is embedded in Neoliberalism. The successful revival of free market economics was launched by L. Mises and his protege F. A. Hayek, both lifelong atheists and de-facto opponents of the Judeo-Christian moral order. In his writings, Hayek argues that modern Capitalism originated at the point that the Biblical virtues of ‘charity and altruism’ were dethroned, to be replaced by overt selfishness (self-interest). This distorted viewpoint is a primary reason Pope Francis and all the Catholic social encyclicals are so critical of ‘money worship’ and unrestrained globalism.

#8 Comment By Johann On June 18, 2014 @ 10:30 am

Its indisputable that the historically, the protestants generally taught the virtues of a strong work ethic. And most importantly, the protestants preached the value of and pushed education. Its the protestants that started translating the bible into local languages and teaching the general populations how to read. But all of that is history now. Protestants today are no more or less likely to have a strong work ethic or education than any other segment of the society.

#9 Comment By Rod Dreher On June 18, 2014 @ 11:01 am

I can’t stop watching this hotheaded Presbyterian pastor Schwertley. “That’s why we have big government: wicked people!” Oh, okay. This guy is a riot.

#10 Comment By Jason Jewell On June 18, 2014 @ 12:01 pm

Is it really so implausible that Scottish Enlightenment figures might display influences of Protestant thinking in their writings? Scotland was completely drenched in Protestant thought for centuries, to the point where parents could get into legal trouble for not catechizing their children sufficiently. I fail to see how Brat’s arguing that the Bible influenced Smith makes his position “half-cocked” or makes him a culture warrior.

#11 Comment By balconesfault On June 18, 2014 @ 12:02 pm

More and more when I hear about the Tea Party, I’m thinking of the March Hare and the Mad Hatter and the sleeping Dormouse that Alice stumbles upon in Wonderland …

Alice felt dreadfully puzzled. The Hatter’s remark seemed to have no sort of meaning in it, and yet it was certainly English. `I don’t quite understand you,’ she said, as politely as she could.

#12 Comment By Labropotes On June 18, 2014 @ 12:56 pm

From Theory of Moral Sentiments:

“The ancient stoics were of opinion, that as the world was governed by the all-ruling providence of a wise, powerful, and good God, every single event ought to be regarded, as making a necessary part of the plan of the universe, and as tending to promote the general order and happiness of the whole: that the vices and follies of mankind, therefore, made as necessary a part of this plan as their wisdom or their virtue; and by that eternal art which educes good from ill, were made to tend equally to the prosperity and perfection of the great system of nature. No speculation of this kind, however, how deeply soever it might be rooted in the mind, could diminish our natural abhorrence for vice, whose immediate effects are so destructive, and whose remote ones are too distant to be traced by the imagination.”

#13 Comment By M_Young On June 18, 2014 @ 1:55 pm

So, I click on the youtube clip, expecting the man himself, and instead I get an early 1990s, transferred from VHS, clip of two pastors talking. Pastors who, as far as I can tell, have zero connection to Brat (and that relation is transitive)

Really, has Brat’s success on running on an anti-mass immigration, anti-illegal immigration, culturally conservative program so deranged you folks that you resort to ‘linking’ that would make the SPLC blush?

Brat’s publication record is quite respectable for a teacher at a small, liberal arts college. He appears to have focused on the local, namely the economic conditions in Virginia and the Southeast US. He gives occasional talks to rotarians and bankers and the like, no doubt pointing out the effect of good ethic on economic well being.

As a commentor above said, this is hardly radical stuff — this very publication has pointed out that Smith’s economics was rooted in his view of morality. The question is, whether that morality was Christian, or specifically, Protestant. Brat’s obviously rough paper (‘this paper has been fun’) makes the case that it the Xian and Protestant milieu in which he lived did influence Smith. Frankly, it would be surprising if it didn’t.

Now, if you want to argue against Brat’s version of the Weberian thesis, fine. After all, some of the richest regions in Europe (Bavaria, Baden-Württemberg, Lombardy) are Catholic. But let’s not pretend that Brat is somehow ‘out there’ in his thought.

#14 Comment By redfish On June 18, 2014 @ 2:17 pm

Research by David E. Campbell and Robert Putnam and long-form reporting by Jill Lepore have lent empirical weight to my intuition that the tea party is a religious movement by proxy. Ed Kilgore put it bluntly: “scratch a ‘fiscal conservative’ and you’ll find a culture-warrior of one sort or another right under the surface.”

I’d say the Tea Party is largely culturally conservative. In some cases, this means socially conservative, in others libertarian leaning. But the mass of Tea Party voters would in the end fine with a Jewish person, and, the end, an atheist, as long as they’re culturally conservative, too, and aren’t militant against religion.

Of course, if you raked the Internet for comments by supporters, you’d find some intolerance, but just like you’d find anti-religious and anti-Semitic bigotry from Occupy supporters, whereas the Occupy movement is supposed to have no views on social issues either; they’ve positioned themselves as concerned mainly with economic and fiscal issues, too. Despite that, its obvious that Occupy is very socially progressive.

The fact is you just won’t be able to separate cultural and social beliefs from politics, no matter how much people bury and repress them. It really isn’t about “religion,” though, its less sectarian than that. Repressing discussion of social issues sure doesn’t help, though, because it helps close dialogue and foment paranoid attitudes.

#15 Comment By Michael N Moore On June 18, 2014 @ 3:15 pm

I think that the Catholic-born Brat is onto something with his neo-Calvinism. A Catholic can notice the actual underlying values of our country because they are not raised in that cultural water and thus do not take it for granted. Those founding values were formulated by John Calvin in opposition to Roman Catholicism and created the groundwork for individualism and capital investment.

Charles Geist in “Beggar Thy Neighbor” points out, to my surprise, that Martin Luther (1483-1546) was as opposed to usury (money lending with interest) as the Catholic Church. It was John Calvin (1509-1564) that legitimized this function and actually gave birth to our modern era in which money lending became capital investment. In 1830 the Catholic Church also recognized this distinction.

#16 Comment By William Dalton On June 18, 2014 @ 3:45 pm

More to the point than trying to the find the Bible in the works of Adam Smith is the fact that the Bible is to be found in the work of those who adopted America’s Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States. A large majority of the signers learned their economics at the feet of one of their number, the Rev. John Witherspoon, who taught at the College of New Jersey, forerunner of both today’s Princeton University and Princeton Theological Seminary, in which Prof. Brat received his training.

So, whatever confluence of theology and economics may be found in the platform of Congressman-in-waiting Brat and other Tea Partiers is the same to be found in that of the nation’s founders.

Don’t confuse belief in free market economics, which was held by the founders as a consequence that men should be free to exercise their consciences in all matters in any way not contrary to the law of God, with belief in capitalism, as such, even less so today’s brand of “crony capitalism”, which exhibits numerous elements of corruption antithetical to the teachings of Christian and other conservatives.

And don’t forget that another central plank of the Tea Party, as originally organized to generate the first “Moneybomb” of the Ron Paul Presidential campaign in December 2007, is opposition to American involvement in foreign wars and military intrigues. Here is the central example of how Christian social ethics and Christian economic ethics coalesce in opposition to oppression and corruption.

#17 Comment By William Dalton On June 18, 2014 @ 3:46 pm

More to the point than trying to the find the Bible in the works of Adam Smith is the fact that the Bible is to be found in the work of those who adopted America’s Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States. A large majority of the signers learned their economics at the feet of one of their number, the Rev. John Witherspoon, who taught at the College of New Jersey, forerunner of both today’s Princeton University and Princeton Theological Seminary, in which Prof. Brat received his training.

[19]

So, whatever confluence of theology and economics may be found in the platform of Congressman-in-waiting Brat and other Tea Partiers is the same to be found in that of the nation’s founders.

Don’t confuse belief in free market economics, which was held by the founders as a consequence that men should be free to exercise their consciences in all matters in any way not contrary to the law of God, with belief in capitalism, as such, even less so today’s brand of “crony capitalism”, which exhibits numerous elements of corruption antithetical to the teachings of Christian and other conservatives.

And don’t forget that another central plank of the Tea Party, as originally organized to generate the first “Moneybomb” of the Ron Paul Presidential campaign in December 2007, is opposition to American involvement in foreign wars and military intrigues. Here is the central example of how Christian social ethics and Christian economic ethics coalesce in opposition to oppression and corruption.

#18 Comment By Francis On June 18, 2014 @ 4:35 pm

When are these people going to wake up and accept that modern “free markets” are inherently corrupt when unregulated?

When are they going to also accept that all the horrors ascribed to the Federal Reserve come not from the concept itself, nor regulations controlling it, but from the lack of regulation and oversight?

#19 Comment By William Burns On June 18, 2014 @ 4:37 pm

Not favorably impressed by anyone who talks about a “Judeo-Christian system” as if the Trinity and the Incarnation were minor matters to be ignored.

#20 Comment By EliteCommInc. On June 18, 2014 @ 6:22 pm

This reads too much like snippets to suit an argument off the cuff.

A person who has a christian ethic and also espouses capitalism as the best means by which to fuel individual liberty.

And I am not sure why anyone would have complaint that those engaged in enterprise should do so ethically or play by the rules. That sentiment jives with Chairman Greenspan’s view — that paramount in the capitalist system is good faith honest dealings. I am not sure there’s any problem that christians should be expected to act accordingly, after all Christ made that quite clear.

And perhaps, I need to read more, but christian charity is alive and well. It is interesting to note the fall of the economy was missing the partnership between government and faith based organizations whose work is 360 as opposed to merely feeding and handing out checks.

I am not sure that there is enough here to make the judgments being posited.

#21 Comment By Rebecca Trotter On June 18, 2014 @ 9:18 pm

I apologize if this is a repeat, I am having technical difficulties and I’m pretty sure I just spent an hour writing an overly complicated response that got lost when my crappy internet cut out.

Anyways, I think people are missing the real problem, which is hard for those who are very secular to really see or understand. And that is the theological problems inherent in the religious impulse to preserve existing systems. All we have to do is look around to see that the new heaven and new earth haven’t dropped out of the sky yet to know that whatever we are protecting isn’t perfect. And anything that is not perfect is not from God.

When Bart or any other dominionist sympathizing Christian attempts to claim that something created by man is an accurate representation of God’s will, they are turning their backs on the very foundations of Christianity. If Adam Smith and capitalism are expressions of God’s will, then so is the suffering all around us. It absolves us from any responsibility for helping those in need in anything other than a spiritual way. Much like Satan attempted to help Jesus out with his hunger, thirst and drive by quoting scripture at him.

There’s a theological name for this sort of slight of hand – creating the appearance that something made by man is due the allegiance owed to God. Idolatry. And if you take your bible seriously, like caring about what it says beyond the 50 or so verses you can use to win arguments, you know that if there’s one thing that sets God off, it’s powerful people engaged in idol worshipping. What Brat and his ilk are doing isn’t just questionable. It’s blasphemy of sort that God has vowed to annihilate from the face of the earth. Which makes following it and promoting it a very dangerous, foolish thing to do. That’s the real story here, from the Christian perspective.

#22 Comment By CharleyCarp On June 19, 2014 @ 11:06 am

I’m no theologian, but it seems to me that a central tenet of Christianity (or at least many branches of it) is that people are bad.

#23 Comment By the unworthy craftsman On June 19, 2014 @ 11:55 am

The story of how the great-grandchildren of the Populists ended up espousing “Austrian Economics” is one of the most fascinating in American politics. I still can’t quite get my head around it, but I think I see the general outlines.

#24 Comment By ck On June 19, 2014 @ 12:53 pm

“When Bart or any other dominionist sympathizing Christian attempts to claim that something created by man is an accurate representation of God’s will, they are turning their backs on the very foundations of Christianity. If Adam Smith and capitalism are expressions of God’s will, then so is the suffering all around us. ”

Tell that to St. Thomas Aquinas. On the Aquinas view, or even the view of a number of natural law thinkers, God wills the good but not the evil. Evils, including human suffering, are not willed by God since evils are the lacking of the good. God permitted (see e.g. the Original Sin) and permits evil to come about, but they are not by His agency, but our own.

Capitalism and other forms of political and economic concepts can be expressions of the good, particularly when they support the common good. Such concepts that support the common good are decent approximations of the natural law willed by God. When such arrangements are corrupted and become destructive of the common good and they are not in conformance with the natural law.

#25 Comment By ck On June 19, 2014 @ 1:06 pm

“Nature, and Nature’s Laws, lay hid in Night.
God said, Let Newton be! and All was Light.”
–Alexander Pope

The author of this blog post fails to consider and understand that the Enlightenment was a largely Christian-Protestant endeavor. To ignore the theological thinking of Newton, Smith, and Locke is to fail to understand them.

#26 Comment By William Dalton On June 19, 2014 @ 1:42 pm

Rebecca Trotter:

Dominion Theology, according to Wikipedia, “is the idea that Christians should work toward either a nation governed by Christians or one governed by a conservative Christian understanding of biblical law.” Or, one might say it’s the idea that, since God is the ruler of the universe and has set forth certain rules as to how we are to treat it and one another, it is incumbent upon governors, legislators and other worldly rulers to recognize that fact and execute the duties of their offices accordingly.

I don’t know whether David Brat is an adherent or not. But it has nothing to do with “preserving existing systems” or “idolatry”. Idolatry is what people do when they refuse to worship and serve God, and decide to worship and serve something else, a ruler, an idea, a nation, a religious body, making a god of that thing. There are people who make an idol of their idea of capitalism. There are people who make an idol of their idea of equality, others of their idea of justice. There are people who make an idol of the United States, as though the laws of the nation are more important than the laws of God. Is there evidence here that David Brat does any of these things?

Noble ideals, such as capitalism, equality, justice, patriotism, are part of the world, which, as God gave it to us, was perfect, but now is corrupted by sin. Our call is to preserve that which is good in God’s world and remove that which is evil, and that includes discerning between what is good and what is evil in each of those noble ideals. The Dominiionists, at least, remind us that the only way we can hope to apply ourselves to that task of discernment is by constant study of and reference to the Bible.

#27 Comment By Clint On June 19, 2014 @ 2:53 pm

Brat’s experience teaching economics and ethics should serve him well in the 2014 General Election.

#28 Comment By thanks On June 19, 2014 @ 5:39 pm

“More and more when I hear about the Tea Party, I’m thinking of the March Hare and the Mad Hatter and the sleeping Dormouse that Alice stumbles upon in Wonderland “

Yeah. The crazy people are the ones who think we ought to live within our means, police our borders, and respect the Constitution. Nutcases, the lot.

#29 Comment By Sean Scallon On June 19, 2014 @ 6:49 pm

Tom Fleming once joked that one of the problems of conservatives have is that they can’t figure out who to give credit to their victories to, Jesus Christ or Adam Smith.

Tea Partiers are sort like teen girls, always infatuated with the latest boy band to rise up the pop charts. Before they were Tea Parties they Christian Conservatives before that became passe. Before then, they may well have been “Minutemen”. Same demographic, same beliefs, different fad.

What you see is a candidate trying to fit an method of government through various ideologies and belief systems which are so diametrically different that it makes no sense. But it won’t stop him and other political alchemists from trying. Ayn Rand might puke at such an attempt but then again she never had to run for public office. The whole point of the “conservative movement” was to paper over these differences, usually by the means of an external enemy(Communism, the New Left, secular humanism, unions, Clinton, Obama, Jihadism) which fightened and angered all those with such difference into a forced unity. Unfortunatley, even usch fearful enemies are losing their power to keep such horrendous contradictions from cracking the unity.

If Brat is smart he’ll quit talking about Randianism and Christianity are compatable and start talking about national security state and the war. He’ll find it much easier to talk about reducing the size of government and stopping crony capitalism by attacking the very government and businesses which take advantage of the all-powerful state which will allow him to continue his populist message while gaining broader support for it.

#30 Comment By Curle On June 22, 2014 @ 11:55 am

“Research by David E. Campbell and Robert Putnam and long-form reporting by Jill Lepore have lent empirical weight to my intuition that the tea party is a religious movement by proxy.” ————————————-

All political coalitions are religious movements by proxy. The biggest con of the twentieth plus centuries has been the effort to distinguish theory and philosophy from religion, a pointless exercise given that all consequential theoretical or philosophical movements become ‘revelation’ driven exercises. People bind to the coalition from which they build an identity and project perfection upon the beliefs of the coalition (and thus themselves by extension). The neo-reactionaries refer to the various elite institutions from academia to the media who prop up moronic revelation-based beliefs about group equalties as ‘the Cathedral’ ( [20]) and they are correct to do so. Holding to beliefs that there are no distributable varieties between groups of people or sexes is one that has been, and only can be, derived from a feeling that holding such a belief is necessarily a social good whether it is true or not. Thus the various diversity enforcement regimes with their attendant hyper-serious morons which has become the bane of western pseudo-democracies.

But, again, all political coalitions are effectively religions. And all political battles revert, inevitably, to some form of religion or the other. So, better to stop the facade of blaming one side for being religious and first remove the religious mote from one’s own eye.