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The Christ Nexus and Professor David Brat

The Tea Party’s marquee 2014 success story—the dramatic unseating of House majority leader Eric Cantor by an obscure downstate Virginia economics professor named David Brat—provided maximum symbolic value during its summer tour through the mediasphere. The pundits had never heard of Brat, who suddenly seemed a perfect avatar of the main impulses that convulse the Tea Party right. On the one hand, he’s a fervent Christian believer who routinely name-checks Calvinism in his academic work and who proclaimed his stunning June primary victory an act of God. On the other hand, he’s an equally ardent market fundamentalist who paid homage to the atheist novelist Ayn Rand during his campaign and who has published many essays on the intersection of capitalism and religious faith. Reporters unearthed one such piece, in the conservative religious journal Interpretation, and found it culminates in a call to arms that rests on a lazy historical analogy: “We appear to be a bit passive. Hitler came along, and he did not meet with unified resistance. I have the sinking feeling that it could all happen again, quite easily. The church should rise up.”

And there you had it: a juicy slab of red meat for the culture-war narrative. David Brat was equating liberalism with Nazism, and the free-market apostolate with the French Resistance! Cue up persecution fantasies of the coming progressive Kristallnacht! Hell, drag out the 2010 clips of Delaware’s great, half-baked, recovering Tea Party pagan, Christine O’Donnell! Crazy shit is under way!

Brat’s critique of Milton Friedman is a destabilizing blow, delivered at the heart of the conservative movement’s intellectual vanity.

Yet nearly all of the familiar associations that the Brat victory called to mind for the punditocracy were misleading at best. Yes, Brat received warm endorsements from the right’s talk-radio power elite, from Laura Ingraham to Mark Levin, but he got no financial support from any of the well-heeled national Tea Party organizations and in 2006 had been appointed to serve on a state economic council by then-governor Tim Kaine—a Democrat. Yes, he inveighed against the majority leader’s decision to cave on the debt ceiling vote, but he also excoriated Cantor’s “crony capitalist” track record and repeatedly assailed his Wall Street connections on the stump. (Cantor, indeed, wasted little time in giving lurid confirmation to this critique, resigning his leadership post early and landing a seven-figure sinecure at the Wall Street investment bank Moelis & Company.) And yes, Brat is a hardline Christianist, but he’s also gone on the record assailing the social right’s fondness for state-administered crackdowns on abortion and gay marriage. (Both issues, of course, that candidate Brat affirmed good evangelical probity on during his campaign—this was a Virginia congressional race, after all.)

One could go further and observe that the satraps of Third Way Democratic governance have long endorsed a fast-and-loose sort of market-minded spirituality that’s every bit as opportunistic as Brat’s was held to be—and one that, by comparison, loses considerable points on intellectual rigor. Just think of the bloated Renaissance weekends and sad psychic consultations that marked the Boomer spiritual odysseys of Bill and Hillary Clinton—or, for that matter, Barack Obama’s on-again, off-again communions with suburban megapastor Rick Warren. Is there any sound basis for dismissing Brat’s economic thought as mere ideological boilerplate after soberly considering the track record of the other side?

In yet another surprise, Brat’s published scholarship—easily brushed aside by Beltway know-it-alls on the grounds of its appearance in such lesser-known periodicals as the Virginia Economic Journal—is actually quite lively and interesting. Sure, there are some wonky forays into the methodology informing the regression analysis of student test scores, but Brat is an unusual economist. Unlike most contemporary practitioners, Brat approaches his discipline as a philosophical pursuit, not as an Olympian science. Most of all, he recognizes that his discipline’s stalwart claims to transcendent, multidisciplinary omnicompetence—which neoliberals in the field sum up with the ominous, aspirational appositive “the imperial science”—are founded on extremely shaky philosophical ground.

Brat does say that his broad understanding of the dismal science flows from his own Christian faith—but this allegiance isn’t any sort of intellectual deal-breaker, any more than, say, Al Gore’s divinity school stint, or Hillary Clinton’s penchant for Bible-thumping. We miss a great deal about the common presumptions about economic prosperity and divine providence that have long shaped American political life if we officiously sequester religion and economics into separate, inviolate private and public spheres.

What’s more, any time we have a chance to note the specifically religious character of modern capitalism, we’re reminded of the magical thinking that attaches to our free-market dogmas—the theology of the heroically striving entrepreneur, the folklore of undifferentiated cultural forces (as opposed to specific policy choices) as the chief determinants of prosperity and poverty, the rote demonization of government and the public sphere as morale-sapping and revenue-draining sinkholes of moral wickedness. You know.

Instrumental Piety

Brat, unfortunately, is a cheerleader for religion as a blunt force that reliably produces prosperity across the conventional divides of culture and history, and for Protestant piety in particular as the taproot of all virtues. In a 2004 paper on the Protestant ethic’s legacy, Brat draws on the research of liberal Keynesian economist Brad DeLong to highlight the weakness of purely schematic, neoclassical accounts of market development. DeLong found that in most rich Western economies, “a country’s [Protestant] religious establishment has been a surprisingly good proxy for the social capability to assimilate modern technology.” DeLong doesn’t go much beyond stating the correlation between an eventful Protestant past and a later capitalist boom. But Brat exuberantly fills out the picture in line with his own strong cultural preferences. Even in prosperous non-Western economies that fall outside the traditional institutional modes of Protestant worship, a pronounced “European influence” has yielded strong patterns of market growth, and he supposes further that “the channel by which [this influence] traveled may be the institution called Protestant religious establishment.” In a rousing conclusion redolent of a good Calvinist sermon, Brat enthuses that economics is finally starting “to acknowledge perhaps the most powerful institution in Western civilization, religion” and that the data arising from this “revolution” are indeed glorious:

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. . . . Give me that country again and I predict that it is a democracy, has high human capital endowments, a Parliament that is independent, an insulated Judicial branch, a fairly independent Central Bank, high marks in political liberty and civil rights, high investment in women’s human capital, high levels of innovation and productivity, and a mature system of property rights protection.

There are, of course, a fleet of significant objections to this confidently sweeping vision of a benign and market-friendly wave of Protestant faith buoyantly lifting all boats in its path. The apartheid republic of South Africa and the feudal white supremacist economy of the antebellum American South, to take just two prominent examples, were both deeply Protestant polities, but they were hardly textbook studies in “political liberty and civil rights”; nor did they harbor an independent judicial branch or parliament remotely inclined to promote such values. The same objections all too plainly hold for the latter-day Asian tiger economies that Brat seems keen to brand as Protestant offspring, from Singapore to Indonesia and South Korea.

But it’s chiefly the “decentralized” character of this high-concept vision of Protestant economic dominion, and Brat’s bedrock belief in the capacity of the one true faith to travel equally well across all cultures and market regimes, that showcases the apostolic cast of Brat’s market worship. Brat can sense that his field is on the verge of its own dramatic conversion moment on the road to Damascus, and when it finally comes, he will be ministering to the new colonies of believers, gradually but confidently remaking the empire in their own pious image.

Love Thy Neighbor’s Tax Cut

Such is the message of “God and Advanced Mammon,” the essay that launched a thousand frenzied think pieces about its rhetorical invocation of the rise of Nazism. On the face of it, Brat’s essay is an impressionistic effort to defend the historic Protestant abolition of the old Catholic strictures on usury. But Brat’s argument about usury is largely pro forma; he contends that adjudicating financial morality is best left to the individual conscience on a case-by-case basis, as the Calvinist tradition preaches. Instead, Brat has a far more ambitious project in mind: reconfiguring the morality that informs economic behavior on a more explicitly Christian basis. Usury by itself “is a small piece of this puzzle,” he writes. The chief dilemma of a polis aiming to regulate a market order, he argues, is one of moral coercion: “Are you willing to force someone you know to pay for the benefits for one of your neighbors?” According to Brat, while most Christians who’ve examined their conscience are reluctant to assent to such a scheme, they don’t bring those qualms to the ballot box. “We as Christians think nothing of voting for policies that do precisely this,” he writes. “We vote for justice. It has become easy. We vote to force others to act as we want them to act. . . . I have not ever heard a good theological answer to these questions.”

Brat clearly wants a theological answer in the negative—one that vindicates a maximum exercise of individual liberty and a minimal quotient of government coercion—but unlike other libertarian theorists, he’s quite candid in avowing that there’s no clear moral or theological basis for his position. And his efforts to generate such a basis, while sketchy and tentative, point in some unexpected directions. Indeed, for a model for further exploration of the Christian purpose within capitalist society, Brat settles on a very unlikely figure—H. Richard Niebuhr’s portrait of Christ the Transformer of Culture.

Niebuhr—the historically minded younger brother of the neoorthodox theologian Reinhold Niebuhr—was all but a socialist, and his famous survey of American denominational movements sought to unite the fractious American religious scene behind a popular-front-style version of the radical social gospel. Likewise, Niebuhr’s evocation of Christ as a culture savior is a far cry from the evangelical right’s long-familiar rendition of Christian faith as an endlessly renewable agenda of Fox News talking points. Niebuhr’s extended discussion of Christ the Transformer of Culture, in his landmark study Christ and Culture, concludes with an appreciation of the uncompromising thought of the nineteenth-century English Christian Socialist F. D. Maurice, who insisted that humans are “not animals plus a soul,” but rather “spirits with an animal nature; . . . the bond of their union is not a commercial one.”

Maurice’s conception of human sin and corruption was dead set against the secular-capitalist world’s competing metaphysics of possessive individualism; in Maurice’s view, as Niebuhr explains, man goes astray from the scheme of redemption when he “seeks to possess within or by himself, whether in the form of physical or spiritual goods, what he can have only in the community of receiving and giving.” As Maurice himself put it, “It is the effect of our sin to make us look upon ourselves as the centres of the universe; and then to look on the perverse and miserable accidents of our condition as determining what we ourselves are.”

This is something very close to a Christianized gloss on the Marxian view of a historically conditioned human nature—but more to the point here, it is at least a universe removed from David Brat’s own vision of how the faithful should approach the economic sphere. The “real test for liberal Christian types is whether they will reach out to capitalists!” Brat exhorts. Whereas thinkers like Niebuhr and Maurice took great care to infuse the individualist Protestant outlook with an overriding sense of reciprocal economic obligation, Brat cheerily insists that “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.” Just as major figures such as Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, and John Calvin produced indispensable new theological syntheses to impel Christianity into new social worlds and historical epochs, so must today’s market-minded theologians “synthesize Christianity and capitalism.” Brat signs off with a prophecy: “There is a book in here somewhere for the next Calvin.”

Never mind that the first Calvin never wrote a book on the capitalist-Christian symbiosis—he merely presided over a rearguard benediction of the money dogmas and landgrabs that had already convulsed the early phase of the Reformation. What’s telling here is Brat’s reconfiguration of American religious thought. His glib conflation of orthodox Christian faith with the free-market kind speaks volumes about the intellectual odyssey of American religion since Niebuhr’s Christ and Culture was published in 1951. But Brat’s openly Christianist benediction of capitalism (or, if you prefer, his openly capitalist benediction of the Christian faith) performs a paradoxical public service in his home discipline of economics. By so forthrightly owning up to his own spiritual rooting interests, Brat also grants his readers the considerable hermeneutic gain of allowing us to see the central dogmas of modern economics as a very wishful sort of religious faith in their own right.

Positively Wall Street

It helps as well that Brat appears to be (at most) a very equivocal sort of neoclassical economist. His most impressively reasoned paper is a critique of a revered Milton Friedman journal article published in 1953, “The Methodology of Positive Economics.” Brat builds out his litany of the contradictory claims and assertions within Friedman’s typically deft but evasive argument into a more broad-ranging brief against positivism itself.

The positivist fallacy, by Brat’s account, is to insist that all truth claims can be confirmed only by the immediate evidence of the senses—and to consign any other kind of contention to the derisive dustbin of a mere language game. All the while, however, positivism’s own philosophical posturing can’t stand up to positivist criteria. Under the strict canons of positivism, “what would scientists do about ‘theoretical’ terms such as rationality or indifference or magnetic fields or atoms etc.[?]” Brat asks. “No one had ever seen these. Or what about the theory of ‘verifiability’ itself? . . . Using this strict rule of verifiability would force the logical positivists to claim that their own theory was metaphysical or meaningless.”

In Friedman’s case, the positivist dodge becomes particularly disingenuous. Separating out the formal statement of an economic hypothesis—e.g., that an increase in the money supply always creates inflation—from the observable facts that may confirm it is an illusory exercise, Friedman argues. Instead, all economic formulations will proceed via broader “assumptions” that may or may not be acknowledged in the formal course of research. Hence Friedman arrives at a deliberately provocative axiom, seemingly designed to confine economic inquiry within certain tightly circumscribed bounds: “Truly important and significant hypotheses will be found to have ‘assumptions’ that are wildly inaccurate descriptive representations of reality, and, in general, the more significant the theory, the more unrealistic the assumptions (in this sense).” In other words, for example, conditions of perfect competition may never obtain in any actually existing economy, but according to Friedman, the assumption of such conditions should hold regardless, since the main task of any economic inquiry is to predict certain outcomes under certain specified conditions. If the outcome materializes as surmised, the organizing assumptions of the test are irrelevant.

If any orthodoxy is overdue for a vertiginous encounter with the claims of radical contingency, it’s neoliberal economics.

This was the sort of puckish, propagandistic performance that helped catapult Friedman to academic celebrity—but Brat correctly calls it out as nonsense. Friedman is “ingenious in philosophical argumentation,” Brat concedes, “but he is trying to defend the indefensible and I think he knows it.” After all, “if conclusions or predictions flow from wildly inaccurate assumptions, are we really doing logical analysis?” Similarly, the conceit of positivism’s predictive power—the main idea upon which Friedman’s argument turns—has extremely limited value in terms of advancing knowledge; as Brat points out, “it is not required that we understand the behavior in question, logically and positively, only that we best predict it.” Friedman’s vaunted positivism—arguably the detached pseudoscientific posture that set neoliberal economics on the path to its latter-day apotheosis as “the imperial science”—turns out on closer inspection to be a far more provisional and equivocal appeal to pragmatism, a set of truth claims that hinge chiefly on their utility and the value of their results rather than the coherence of their method. So once more, the platonic ideal of “perfect competition” isn’t a predictive axiom for Friedman so much as a handily exploitable one: “Concepts such as ‘perfect competition’ are useful, to him, in well specified problems. However, if Friedman goes with Pragmatism, then he must give up the strengths of Empiricism and much of the scientific method he has sketched out so far.”

Here Brat himself has tiptoed up to the brink of a truth no less inconvenient for his colleagues than leaky positivism proved to be for Friedman: the economics profession’s pretensions of pure and impartial scientific inquiry are founded on a handful of contradictory and wishful assertions about how the discipline operates scientifically almost in spite of itself. And once you deny the neoliberal movement comforting superstitions like perfect competition, there’s just not much descriptive or explanatory power left in the whole enterprise.

More fundamentally, Brat’s candid appraisal of Friedman’s misleading methodology lays bare a yawning contradiction within the ranks of the American right. The Reagan-era alliance of religious cultural conservatives with the GOP’s traditional pro-business establishment has always been a shotgun marriage of convenience. As Brat himself acknowledges, the small-government dictates of free-market libertarianism are hardly a natural fit for the diehard culture warrior’s ready embrace of state-enforced behavioral strictures for the bedroom, the marriage altar, and the women’s health clinic.

And Brat’s critique of Friedman’s casual pragmatism is an even deeper and more destabilizing blow, delivered at the heart of the conservative movement’s intellectual vanity—and it’s all the more devastating for its fraternal origins within the faith-based sanctum of conservative economic thought. In his own flourish of political pragmatism, Brat, of course, is keen to advertise his close affinity with Friedman’s market-libertarian shibboleths, in much the same fashion that he spoke warmly of the Tea Party’s atheist den mother Ayn Rand on the campaign stump. But it’s clearly no small thing in the neoliberal academy to proclaim that Milton Friedman “is trying to defend the indefensible.”

Here again, Brat’s candor is welcome and illuminating—as a convicted Calvinist, he can’t begin to give quarter to either positivism or pragmatism, since both movements are hothouses of secular skepticism. Never mind that Brat’s case for the exceptionalist economic value of Protestantism is itself the very essence of results-based and instrumental pragmatism—the larger point, so far as he’s concerned, is to rescue the discipline of economics from its own corrosive scientism. The true faith is simply too valuable to be left in the hands of messengers who distort its cultural mission.

The Postmodern Pulpit

Brat’s critique echoes another notorious academic assault on positivism—the postmodern turn in cultural studies that conservatives made such lurid and enthusiastic sport of during the 1990s. These cultural insurgents, too, pointedly insisted that conventional truth claims collapsed under the weight of their unstated presumptions; they too professed a profound liberationist distrust of Enlightenment reason as a subterfuge of self-interested power. And in reams of philosophical debate, they proudly worked out the consequences of an all-consuming commitment to radical contingency. This worldview was neatly summed up as a “hermeneutics of suspicion,” and in its broad outlines, it connected up with both libertarian and fundamentalist critiques of secular rationality and state-enabled social engineering. All these intellectual movements strikingly asserted, in wildly different contexts, that appeals to an impersonal, disinterested public sphere were simply not to be trusted. The postmodern left’s philosophical affinity with the post-Enlightenment right is truly the love that dare not speak its name.

Still, Brat’s assault on Friedman’s positivism is not ill founded—far from it. If any orthodoxy is overdue for a vertiginous encounter with the claims of radical contingency, it’s the serenely world-conquering dogma of neoliberal economics. It is, however, to remind us that there’s nothing inherently progressive about the hermeneutics of suspicion, which can be readily modified to advance any agenda of the moment, from any opportunistic vantage. The propositions that would make such short work of the pitiable conceit of truth and its attendant master narratives are, no less than the leaden pronouncements of positivism, prone to tripping over their own feet of clay and pitching into the abyss.

And that’s why we’re now on the verge of a great new chapter in our post-pragmatist political history: unseating a senior congressional leader and elevating in his place a crusading, academic knight of faith. David Brat may not hold fast to the methods of his academic mentors, but from his perch in the 114th Congress, he’s all but certain to find strange new ways to make their dogmas come to powerful life in the real world.