David Brat: Catholic, Calvinist, and Libertarian, Oh My!

The stunning upset of Eric Cantor by tea party candidate David Brat, a self-avowed Calvinist Catholic libertarian, sent pundits scrambling to get a read on the economics professor’s views, chasing down his C.V., his doctoral dissertation, and his publications.

This isn’t the first time observers have wondered how politically engaged conservative Protestants can also claim to be libertarian. Tom Breen over at Hot Dogma concludes that Brat “does not understand economics, Christianity, or how to write things.”

Breen focuses on Brat’s 2011 essay for Interpretation: A Journal of Bible & Theology which explores (for theologians and pastors) how Christians can obey the bible’s prohibition on usury (charging interest on loans) and at the same time function in our capitalist world, as an example of how one might apply the lessons of the bible in a contemporary context.

In the piece, Brat advocates a position which is common in “biblical economics” where interest is prohibited on charitable loans but not all loans. His real point, though, is the method of applying the bible to contemporary questions. Breen fails to appreciate both Brat’s audience for the piece (theologians and pastors, this is not an economics paper) as well as the aspects of the Reformed tradition that are the context for Brat’s essay.

Brat calls himself a “Calvinist (in theory not practice)” by which he likely means that while he is a practicing Catholic, it is the Calvinist tradition that shapes his view of the world. This means at least two things: first, that there is no aspect of life outside the realm of religion, and second, that human beings left to their own devices are inherently sinful (what Calvinists refer to as Total Depravity).

These commitments play out in Brat’s Interpretation essay in the form of an argument that not all biblically prohibited activities must necessarily made illegal. He is relying on the Reformed notion, popular among Tea Partiers, that God delegates limited authority to specific human spheres.

Brat notes a division between the responsibilities of the state and the church. The state, in this model, is severely restrained in its authority over economic activity. The best check on the depravity of individuals who make up the civil government is the decentralization of authority into the distinct spheres; the best check on the depravity of human beings in the economy is the decentralization of the market created by competition.

Historian Michael McVicar has this called this “theocratic libertarianism”: it creates an economic zone free of government regulation, but it does not create a zone free of the regulations of religion.

This is the model in which care for the poor is the responsibility of the family and the church and any government safety net is labelled “socialism.”  It is the model in which education is the sole responsibility of families, leading to the goal of eliminating public education and any state regulation of private education and home schooling. At the very heart of this version of Calvinism is the goal of bringing all areas of life “under the Lordship of Christ.”

So yes, Catholic, Calvinist, and (sort of) libertarian. Brought to you by the voters of Virginia’s 7th Congressional District.