David Brat’s victory over Rep. Eric Cantor was a shocker, leading to the lightning-fast unearthing of Brat’s writings, such as those calling for Christians to “rise up” in defense of capitalism. But Brat is part of a bigger movement in recent years of overtly religious economists, particularly of the conservative Christian variety.
The rise of the Randolph-Macon College economist, who defeated Cantor in the Republican primary for the Virginia 7th Congressional District, comes as Pope Francis forces questions about theology and ethics onto a field that has often been hostile to the spiritual. How much the two men agree on, however, remains to be seen.
While other conservative religious economists this week scrambled to find publications of Brat to understand better his beliefs, they saw his moment as potentially very positive.
Jordan J. Ballor, a research fellow at the Acton Institute, a religion and liberty think tank, said Brat is part of a growing and more visible overlap between economic and religious conservatives.
People who are religious and write and think on economics are becoming more “comfortable being explicitly religious in their identity,” Ballor said.
In the past, he said, religious conservatives were seen as those focused on social issues like abortion and sexuality, while discussions of economics were left to secular conservatives. Today, he said, debates about the morality of things like materialism and debt are becoming more common among conservative economists.
“I think you have — especially in the context of the global economic downturn — a need to look at the foundations and ask hard questions about the moral formation going on among people who are working on Wall Street,” Ballor said. And conversations among economists about ethical systems — including religious ones — “are becoming more and more prominent as people realize the models we’ve inherited are inadequate.”
Brat thinks the education should go both ways, that people who study theology should also know more about economics.
“Usury is not something to be studied. It it something to be condemned. I never saw a supply and demand curve in seminary. I should have,” he wrote in a 2011 paper entitled “God and Advanced Mammon” (a theological term for money) for the journal Interpretation: A Journal of Bible and Theology. “The church needs to regain its voice and offer up a coherent social vision of justice and rationality.”
Just before he died in 2012, evangelical icon Chuck Colson launched a program for top business schools about ethics, and other programs have popped up including a brand new school of business and ethics at the Catholic University of America (controversially led by a free-marketer).
Ballor and others said papers on theology and religion are appearing more at mainstream economic conferences where they wouldn’t have so much before. “And with Pope Francis you get a lot more coverage because of his charisma.”
It’s not clear from the few papers quickly accessible on Brat how his view on Christianity and economics would translate into one policy or another.
Generally, he is a free-market conservative but one who believes ethics have been lost in the process. Those ethics can be found, he believes, not in man-made laws but in Christianity — specifically, Protestantism.
“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 in 2011. Economists, he wrote, were “slow to acknowledge perhaps the most powerful institution in Western civilization, religion.”
Robert Nelson, a University of Maryland economist who writes about religion and economics, said Brat was a trailblazer for even talking about religion as a serious force.
“The study of religion with economics didn’t get started until the 1990s,” Nelson said. “It’s still somewhat outside the mainstream.”
Brat’s 1996 economics doctoral dissertation at American University, called “Human Capital, Religion and Economic Growth,” looked at the role of religion in three European countries in affecting the advance of science. He concluded that Protestantism helped in Britain and Germany and that Catholicism hurt in France, Nelson said.
“[Brat] argues that science is best advanced in a nation where there is a powerful ‘bottom up’ in favor of the individual such as in Protestantism and especially the Calvinist and other dissenting branches of Protestantism,” Nelson said.
This whole question of how religion and economics influence one another has been a central topic in the Catholic Church since the 1990s, when Pope John Paul II broke somewhat from a church focus on charity to write a major paper praising aspects of capitalism.
Nelson said Catholic conservatives in the following decade made some headway influencing John Paul and Pope Benedict XVI to be more open to the value of competitive markets and profit as a way to boost the economy.
Historically the Catholic Church has been extremely skeptical of capitalism, seeing it as being unconcerned with the common good, and Francis alarmed many conservatives last fall when he wrote in a key paper that “trickle-down theories” are crude, naive and unproven.
Brat hasn’t written enough on his policies (nor has Francis on capitalism) for it to be truly clear how much overlap is there. The professor is appearing at a time of fierce debate between religious liberals and religious conservatives over what a “Christian” economic system might look like and what role the government should play.
In his 2011 essay, Brat wrote that “capitalism is here to stay, and we need a church model that corresponds to that reality. . . . The church should rise up higher than Nietzsche could see and prove him wrong. We should love our neighbor so much that we actually believe in right and wrong and do something about it. 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 the 2011 paper Brat said he is “a fairly orthodox Calvinist (in theory, not practice)” but reportedly attends a Catholic church.
He didn’t make explicit how being a Calvinist would affect his voting behavior, but typically conservative Calvinists emphasize the sinful nature of man.