The Republican primary race in Virginia’s 7th district was a David and Goliath story from the beginning. Perhaps that’s why David Brat—the Tea Party professor who stunned the country and took down House Majority Leader Eric Cantor on Tuesday—waved a piece of paper with a Bible verse in the air when he won: “Jesus replied, ‘What is impossible with man is possible with God!’” he announced to the crowd’s applause.
But there was another reason as well. Brat’s spiritual life has long been as central to his identity, even though it has also been difficult to pigeonhole. He currently attends a Catholic church, but he also identifies as a Calvinist, and he lists four churches as affiliations on his resume: St. Michael’s Catholic, Christ Church Episcopal, Third Presbyterian, and Shady Grove Methodist. He earned his bachelors from Hope College, a Christian liberal arts college in Holland, Mich., which is historically affiliated with the Reformed Church in America, a Protestant denomination that sprouted during the 17th century. He got a Masters of Divinity from Princeton Theological Seminary, a Presbyterian school, but while there wrote a thesis on logical positivism and its impact on economic science—not a typical choice for someone earning a ministerial degree. He then switched his focus and earned a Ph.D. in economics from American University.
Through all of that, one aspect of his faith has been constant: Brat takes the Protestant work ethic seriously. Like many of his Tea Party colleagues, Brat is an Ayn Rand enthusiast, and coauthored a paper assessing the moral foundations of her writings in 2010. Like many Protestants in the classic Calvinist tradition, he believes Christ is the transformer of culture, and that capitalism is the key to this world transformation. He outlined this view of politics and religion in a 2011 paper titled “God and Advanced Mammon—Can Theological Types Handle Usury and Capitalism?” published out of Union Presbyterian Seminary’s Interpretation: A Journal of Bible and Theology.
His core argument is that capitalism and Christianity should merge. He believes their union is so important that making disciples of capitalism is Brat’s own version of Jesus’ Great Commission. “The main point is that we need to synthesize Christianity and capitalism,” he concludes in “God and Advanced Mammon.” “Augustine synthesized Plato and Christianity. Thomas Aquinas synthesized Aristotle and Christianity. Calvin synthesized all the rest, but capitalism was still coming. There is a book in here somewhere for the next Calvin. Go. God Bless.”
This means that for Brat, the Biblical message of loving your neighbor is about making people self-sufficient. If you preach the gospel and make people good, he argues, then you make the markets good. Individuals are morally responsible to work hard and advance themselves in society, so his theory goes, and then ultimately the capitalist system should help people advance and pull themselves up by their own bootstraps. “We should love our neighbor so much that we actually believe in right and wrong, and do something about it,” he writes. “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.”
It’s a view that even takes issue with the idea of compassionate conservatism. “Let me ask you as an individual a question,” Brat’s essay continues. “Are you willing to force someone you know to pay for the benefits for one of your neighbors? Will you force them? Very few Christians I know are willing to say ‘yes’ to this question. It gets very uncomfortable.”
That message puts Brat at odds with the global leader of the church he attends, Pope Francis, who holds a view on the other end of the spectrum—the Pope’s recent messages have warned that capitalism often exploits the poor, and must be moderated. Francis has called “unfettered capitalism” a “new tyranny,” and he has equated unjust social conditions like unemployment and poor healthcare with “moral destitution.”
But for Brat, the consequences of not pursuing this radical capitalist agenda are drastic: if the church does not respond to the reality of capitalism, he writes, society could potentially face a downfall like Nazi Germany. “Capitalism is here to stay, and we need a church model that corresponds to that reality,” he writes, asking people to read Nietzsche. “Nietzsche’s diagnosis of the weak modern Christian democratic man was spot on. Jesus was a great man. Jesus said he was the Son of God. Jesus made things happen. Jesus had faith. Jesus actually made people better. Then came the Christians. What happened? What went wrong? 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.”
His moral views give way to his political and economic strategy. Instead of fighting usury as a product of capitalism, Brat argues that “the church should hire lobbyists to work on behalf of the poor who suffer under usury.” People should learn to “work hard and stay out of debt in the first place.” The recent recession, he says came about because “we wanted to force low-interest loans on the banks so that the poor could magically afford houses.” Progressives, especially in the faith community, need to wake up, he argues: “Church folk and my liberal pals are always preaching about inclusiveness and diversity. . . . However, a real test for liberal Christian types is whether they will reach out to capitalists!”
The thing that comes last in his plan? “Finally, I think Jesus told us to help our neighbor when they get in a bind,” he writes. “But that comes last in my little story here, not first.”