Last night, economics professor David Brat surprised everyone in defeating House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R., Va.) in a primary challenge for Virginia’s 7th congressional district. Predictably, the media is now a-buzz about Brat, rapidly catching up on his beliefs, his plans, and so on.
Time will tell as for whether Brat is successful as a politician, and whether he is, in fact, a strong conservative alternative to his predecessor. But one item that sticks out in Brat’s academic CV is his unique interest in the intersection of economics and theology.
Currently an economics professor at Randolph-Macon College in Ashland, Va., Brat holds a B.A. in Business Administration from Hope College in Michigan, a Master’s degree in Divinity from Princeton Theological Seminary, and a Ph.D in economics from American University. I’m sure there are plenty of places to explore his thoughts on these matters, but one place of particular interest is an essay he wrote titled, “God and Advanced Mammon: Can Theological Types Handle Usury and Capitalism?”
Although the essay aims specifically at the issue of usury, in his analysis of the topic, we begin to see the deeper theology and philosophy that steers Brat’s political and economic thought.
Given the length of the essay, the following excerpts are offered simply as a taste of where he’s coming from. Emphasis is added wherever text is bolded.
Regardless of how and whether Brat actually succeeds in governing, his profound interest in the intersection of economics and theology is a feature we should hope to see more of in the political arena.
Brat on capitalism:
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…Capitalist markets and their expansion in China and India have provided more for the common good, more “social welfare,” than any other policy in the past ten years. In fact, you can add up all of the welfare gains from public policy in the United States and abroad, and they will not approach the level of human gains just described. Incomes in China and India have risen from $500 a year per person to over $5,000 a year per person over the past twenty years or so. This is due to market capitalism. Over two billion people now have food to eat and some minimal goods to go along.
On the (non)study of economics in seminary:
Here are the typical lines a seminary student might hear from their thought leaders: “Usury is bad. Usury is morally bad. Usury is the charging of interest payments for simply borrowing money. Usury is frowned upon in the Bible. Liberation theology might be required here…. Usury should be regulated. The government should make laws that forbid outrageous interest charges. I’m calling my congressman to do this. The church should take a stand on this exploitation. The church should write some statements on usury. The church should hire lobbyists to work on behalf of the poor who suffer under usury.”
Sound familiar? This is a caricature, but I think there is something to it. In summary, usury is not something to be studied. It is something to be condemned. I never saw a supply and demand curve in seminary. I should have.
On the church’s silence on economics and ethics (re: the question of usury):
The individual is responsible for knowing God’s will via revelation, reason, church, and faith. We will have an impact on our culture, but we are not the culture….As long as the church is silent on this issue, it will have no impact on our broader culture. The church needs to regain its voice and offer up a coherent social vision of justice and rationality. Soon. The Bible and then Calvin is a good start. Rule of Law is in the middle. Capitalism will be in the final chapters.
On the role of government (re: unjust usury):
Is it wrong for me to want the State to correct this injustice? No, not at all. The State can be a force for good. The Rule of Law is absolutely essential to a good life. God has instituted government and leaders throughout history and throughout the Biblical narrative. However, the state is growing precisely as the church is fading as a force for good, and this does not seem to be a good trend. God asked the people of Israel: Are you sure you want a king? That is a good question to ask at this time.
On usury itself:
The Bible is clear that usury should not be practiced in small religious communities where loans involving the deep familial bond of brothers and sisters occur, especially poor brothers and sisters. It is less clear on usury in general, but it is safe to say that a tension exists. I am trying to illuminate some of those tensions. The tensions become all the more acute as we move into the modern period of market capitalism… What is “unjustly charging someone” and what is it to exploit? These are the key questions for our day.
On “good markets” and the necessity of the gospel:
Preach the gospel and change hearts and souls. If we make all of the people good, markets will be good. Markets are made up of people. Supply and Demand are curves, but they are also people. Nothing else. 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.
On the role of seminary:
Preach the hard stuff. Do not wimp out on lectionary choices. Preach what God says. I left seminary because I was not gutsy enough to give Jonah’s sermon. I ran away to economics. Seminary people are supposed to be leading the way. Tell us what to do.
On the role of the church in social transformation:
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.