Religion & Liberty Online

David Brat’s Religious Virtues

davebratIn a piece today for the NYT Magazine, economics reporter Binyamin Appelbaum examines David Brat’s fusion of faith and free-market economics. Appelbaum finds that mixture problematic, to say the least, but it’s hard to sort out whether it is the religious faith or the free-market sympathies that Appelbaum finds more troubling.

In the opening paragraph, Appelbaum asserts that before Brat’s rise to prominence “there was plenty of skepticism about whether he merited the label of academic economist.” Who these skeptics are, who knew so much about Brat “even before” his “out-of-nowhere” victory, we are simply left to ponder. It seems some of his colleagues at Randolph-Macon College now harbor such skepticism. (Brat is running against a Randolph-Macon sociologist, Jack Trammell. Brat once wrote that “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.”)

Brat’s academic record is a wortwhile question to take up, and one that there has been a great deal of interest in following his primary victory. I, like many others, wanted to find out more, and went in search of Brat’s publications (with the help of one of our interns). I’ve had a chance to look at a few, and even turned up the paper on Ayn Rand that had gained such notice. The Rand paper turned out to be a co-authored piece with a student, and something which barely qualified as a poorly-edited introduction to a conference presentation. It is certainly not a smoking gun for tracking down Randian sympathies.

The problem with Appelbaum’s piece isn’t that he is asking questions about Brat’s academic record. These questions should be asked. The problem is the tone of Appelbaum’s inquisition and his presumption against the coherence of Brat’s position. The sarcasm oozes from Appelbaum’s prose: Brat “is certainly not in danger of winning a Nobel Prize.” Likewise Brat has written “discursive papers devoid of math,” “cited Wikipedia as a source,” and “never been published in a significant journal.”

And yet, Appelbaum grudgingly must admit, Brat’s “big idea–that Protestantism is good for the economy–has a surprisingly distinguished history.” Appelbaum will go on to cite some of the relevant voices, including Max Weber, Friedrich Hayek, and J. Bradford DeLong, but not before he manages to caricature Brat’s views as amounting to the “idea that markets are perfect places inhabited by imperfect beings.” Brat asserts nothing of the sort, in fact. What Brat actually says in the relevant article is that “If markets are bad, which they are, that means people are bad, which they are. Want good markets? Change the people. If there are not nervous twitches in the pews when we preach, then we are not doing our jobs.” Far from being “perfect places,” Brat acknowledges that markets are bad and his preferred method for the church to address this problem is through gospel proclamation.

The piece in question is Brat’s contribution to a theme issue of Interpretation, a theological journal, on the topic of usury. To call this piece “discursive” is, in fact, charitable. It really is conversational, and obviously contextualized for Brat’s presumed audience of theologians and seminarians. He never quite gets around to addressing the topic of usury directly, but rather uses the piece as an occasion to expound some of his ongoing peeves about the relationship between theology and economics. Understood in this way, the piece still has some interest and value, even if it doesn’t stand up to the harsh scrutiny typical of “significant” journals. There are few enough people with advanced training in both theology and economics that the editors presumably thought Brat had something unique to contribute. Opinions on the value of this contribution differ, but that is no excuse for mischaracterization of Brat’s position.

Appelbaum goes on to argue that Brat’s fusion of faith and free-markets represents “a fundamental evolution of the Republican Party,” citing the examples of Phil Gramm and Dick Armey as free-marketeers who shunned such social conservative-economic libertarian fusionism. The problem is that this kind of fusionism is not a recent development at all, and the ongoing relationship between social conservatives and economic libertarians remains a lively topic of debate. Citing Gramm and Armey hardly establishes a baseline, and even less does it support Appelbaum’s assertion of the secularism of free-market economists, who supposedly “are explicit that companies are held accountable by customers, competitors and shareholders: They don’t need the government’s help, and they don’t need God’s either.”

Brat’s emphasis on the necessity of virtue for a functioning economy, much less a flourishing society, is stark, but he is hardly alone in making that case. Michael Novak made it convincingly in 1982. Deirdre McCloskey has an ongoing and significant research project into the relationship between virtue and free economies. And a recent article by Luigino Bruni and Robert Sugden in the Journal of Economic Perspectives makes a strong case for “Reclaiming Virtue Ethics for Economics.” Brat may not be the most accomplished, nuanced, or sophisticated academic advocate of this basic thesis, but he may be the only one currently running for office.

Appelbaum has some more work to do researching the background of free-market economists, who vary widely in methodology as well as religious creed, and the connection between religion and economics. A good place to start would be the piece on Brat by the religion reporter for the Washington Post, Michelle Boorstein, which examines the “crossroads of religion and economics.” GetReligion’s Terry Mattingly noted Boorstein’s piece approvingly, stating that “the key is the lack of errors and the range of people quoted. There are logical voices, intelligent voices, appropriate voices. Godbeat veteran Michelle Boorstein took this topic seriously, rather than treating it as a political football.” Boorstein did interview me for her piece and I can vouch for her seriousness and curiosity.

Appelbaum’s purpose was rather different, and even if his piece is “analysis” or “commentary” as opposed to more straightforward reportage, there’s some deeper thinking that he needs to do about the intersection of religion and economics. Another good place to start is the recent installment of Econ Journal Watch (co-sponsored by the Acton Institute) on the topic, “Does Economics Need an Infusion of Religious or Quasi-Religious Formulations?” As the Hope College economist Robin Klay put it in her opening piece, “Where Do Economists of Faith Hang Out?,” there is a great diversity among religiously affiliated economists, a diversity that is reflected in the lineup of contributors to the EJW issue. Speaking particularly of the members of the Association of Christian Economists, Klay writes, “The majority represent mainstream economic thought and tend to support market systems. A few are heterodox, for example those who take the view that Christian economists should base their research on assumptions about humans that cohere with ‘Biblical teaching’ and the idea that all domains of human experience and thought should reflect the sovereignty of God.” Appelbaum might also want to browse through past issues of our own Journal of Markets & Morality.

Regardless of one’s political convictions and opinions about David Brat’s politics or his academics, it is hard for me to see how a person of faith could cite Appelbaum’s piece approvingly when it concludes with the claim that “Brat may be a politician for his time, but it is hard to have faith that religion holds the answer to our economic problems.”

The secular faith expressed in this sentiment should be odious to religious adherents of all stripes and political persuasions.

Jordan J. Ballor

Jordan J. Ballor (Dr. theol., University of Zurich; Ph.D., Calvin Theological Seminary) is director of research at the Center for Religion, Culture & Democracy, an initiative of the First Liberty Institute. He has previously held research positions at the Acton Institute and Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, and has authored multiple books, including a forthcoming introduction to the public theology of Abraham Kuyper. Working with Lexham Press, he served as a general editor for the 12 volume Abraham Kuyper Collected Works in Public Theology series, and his research can be found in publications including Journal of Markets & Morality, Journal of Religion, Scottish Journal of Theology, Reformation & Renaissance Review, Journal of the History of Economic Thought, Faith & Economics, and Calvin Theological Journal. He is also associate director of the Junius Institute for Digital Reformation Research at Calvin Theological Seminary and the Henry Institute for the Study of Christianity & Politics at Calvin University.