By JAMES K. FITZPATRICK
I don’t like admitting this in public; I like to think of myself as someone who keeps himself informed on the political issues of the day. But I never heard of David Brat before he defeated Eric Cantor in Virginia’s Seventh Congressional District Republican primary on June 10. I thought Cantor was a shoo-in, so I never spent time reading about the campaign in Virginia.
To make up for my oversight, I have been racing to find out as much about Brat as I can. One thing I discovered I found especially intriguing. Brat, an economics professor at Randolph-Macon College in Virginia, identifies himself as a “Calvinist Catholic libertarian.” We owe it to ourselves to examine what he means by that, since it could turn out that he will be a significant political player in the months to come. The man is attractive, articulate, and at ease in front of the camera. And not afraid to put his faith front and center. After his stunning victory on June 10, he waved a piece of paper with a Bible verse to the crowd. It read: “Jesus replied, ‘What is impossible with man is possible with God’.”
It’s doubtful that Brat is Catholic in the way readers of this column are likely to be Catholic. He states that he “attends” a Catholic church, St. Michael’s, but also lists other churches as “affiliations” — Christ Church Episcopal, Third Presbyterian, and Shady Grove Methodist. He earned his bachelor’s degree 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 earned a master of divinity from Princeton Theological Seminary, a Presbyterian school. Perhaps Brat will clear up what these “affiliations” signify in the coming weeks.
Until then, I suggest we not get overwrought about what he means when he calls himself a “Catholic Calvinist libertarian,” even though many have been reacting with alarm.
Consider some of the comments made in reference to an article by Julie Ingersoll on the website Religion Dispatches the day after Brat’s primary victory:
“How can someone be a Catholic Calvinist? Is Brat just an imbecile?” “Aren’t ‘Catholic’ and ‘Calvinist’ mutually exclusive descriptions?” “If a Catholic can be Calvinist, then a Catholic can be pro-choice.” “Economic libertarianism has been denounced by Pope Francis. It violates the long tradition of Catholic social teaching and the gospels themselves.”
Maybe these folks are well-intentioned. Or maybe they are Democratic activists looking to score political points. I can’t read minds. But I think they are jumping the gun. I don’t know Brat. I hold no brief for him, but I am convinced that his description of himself as a Catholic Calvinist libertarian is one that most Catholics who identify themselves as “conservatives” or “on the right politically” would feel comfortable with. I include myself in that category. I submit that Brat’s point is that he is not a doctrinaire Calvinist or economic libertarian. That is why the word “Catholic” is part of his self-designation. He is saying that he is attracted to certain positions that are taken by Calvinists and libertarians that do not clash with Catholic teaching. There are such things.
We should keep in mind that the 18th-century French Jansenists became heretical when they went too far in stressing those elements of Catholic teaching that focused on original sin and man’s fallen nature. Many Jansenists were accused of secretly harboring Calvinist convictions.
But what must not be forgotten is that the Church does teach that humanity is scarred by the stain of original sin. It is a teaching that many trace back to the writings of St. Augustine. It was the reason why the Church instructed that mankind needed the sacraments and the authority of a teaching Church. The Enlightenment philosophes argued against this belief, stressing instead the “natural goodness of man.”
If someone asked me if there are elements of Calvinism that I feel comfortable with, I would say, “Yes, those parts that agree with St. Augustine.” For example, I would argue that children need discipline from their parents and teachers, that a vigorous police and military are needed to keep in check those who would do us harm, that porn should be censored to prevent it from corrupting the country’s attitudes toward sex and marriage, that our border guards should be vigilant to prevent those who would sneak across our borders and do damage to our economy and culture. My hunch is that this what Brat means by his “Calvinist” reference.
As for the libertarian label? In recent decades, except for a few eccentrics, we seldom hear a libertarian or free-market capitalist who subscribes to what the Church has condemned as “economic individualism.” Brat included. When was the last time you heard anyone who should be taken seriously arguing that we should let the poor die of starvation and lack of medical care for the good of society as a whole? Social Darwinists are few and far between these days.
Modern advocates of economic libertarianism accept that we need a safety net for those who cannot take care of themselves. What they do not accept is that socialism or some other form of a command economy is a better method for alleviating poverty than a growing and prosperous economy and the jobs it will create. The masses of the Third World looking for ways to sneak into the United States are fleeing from command economies that claim to be devoted to the needs of the poor.
It does not go against the Church’s social teachings to take note of that fact, and to argue that it would be a mistake for the United States to emulate those failed economies.
The social encyclicals condemn a dog-eat-dog Social Darwinist view of the economy; that is what they mean by “economic individualism.” They do not condemn those who argue that it will be better for the poor and society as a whole if we put in place economic policies that promote economic growth. I am convinced that that is what David Brat means when he calls himself a libertarian. Absent some evidence to the contrary, it is a cheap shot to maintain otherwise.