THE BLOG
06/18/2014 03:36 pm ET | Updated Aug 18, 2014

What Did Dave Brat Learn in Seminary?

Jay Paul via Getty Images

Although I normally don't pay too much attention to Republican primaries, I'm having trouble ignoring Dave Brat's defeat of Eric Cantor. It just so happens that I currently live in Brat's former hometown, but what gnaws at me more is that we both studied at Princeton Theological Seminary, only a few years apart. How is it, I wonder, that a person who won an election largely on an anti-immigration platform, and who holds to the "Republican Creed," could have learned the Bible, theology, and Christian history at the same place I did?

It is not that we hold no goods in common. I share, for example, his apparent conviction that government exists to protect and represent the little people -- those on "Main Street," rather than the folks on Wall Street who threw us into a soul-crushing recession. I also share his apparent suspicion of big business, government cronies, and the unholy alliance they create together -- the "power and money party" in Washington, to whom most Democrats and Republicans (with a few exceptions) seem to be enslaved.

Furthermore, I share his interest in Adam Smith, John Calvin, and the "moral foundations of capitalism." (I note, though, that the ethics program he heads up at Randolph-Macon is funded by a bank, so it seems unlikely that the ethics he teaches there would ever undermine the assumptions that help make bankers rich.) I even share his belief that markets are "productive suppliers of human needs and economic justice," which can be good and efficient means for accomplishing a great many things. They are an excellent alternative to gift-giving between strangers, for example, and when compared to theft or coercion they are far and away the better option. As long as they are well-regulated (i.e. paired with safety features to deal with inevitable failures), markets can be a very good thing.

But this is where our shared assumptions end. In fact, everything I learned at Princeton Seminary points me away from what I see as the moral laziness of libertarianism, in which I take care of me and nobody else.

The creed Brat promotes says that "all individuals are entitled to equal rights, justice, and opportunities and should assume their responsibilities as citizens in a free society"; so far, so good, but then Brat would prevent immigrants from becoming citizens, simply because they were not lucky enough to be born here. Did Dave Brat neglect to take American church history from a professor like James Moorhead, in which he might have learned that Calvinists and other Europeans drove out the first peoples of this continent and made money off the enslavement of Africans? Did he skip the Hebrew Bible courses with professors like Dennis Olson or Katharine Doob Sakenfeld, who would have told him about the centrality of community and hospitality to foreigners in ancient Hebrew teaching? Did he never take a theology class with someone like Mark Taylor, in which he could have learned about the kind of systemic racism that is perfectly designed to line the pockets of for-profit prison stakeholders by filling our prisons with African-Americans?

It sounds well and good to say that "fiscal responsibility and budgetary restraints must be exercised at all levels of government," but what about when God commanded the periodic forgiving of all debts (Leviticus 25)? It is fine that Brat quoted Luke 18:27 in his post-primary victory speech ("with God all things are possible"), but what about the part that comes right before that verse: "How hard it is for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God! Indeed, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God"? Brat was obviously not lucky enough to take a gospel class with a teacher like the late, great Donald Juel, who would have taught him that Luke's Jesus was almost obsessed with justice for the poor and disenfranchised. And because Gustavo Gutierrez only taught at PTS for a semester, I guess Brat missed out on learning about Catholic liberation theology and the biblical God's preferential option for the poor. (Perhaps he'll hear about it in the Catholic congregation he now attends.)

Christians do not have the right to enforce Christianity on American citizens. But do not Christian voters and representatives still have the responsibility to do the best possible theology, exegesis, and history, in order then to come down publicly on the side of economic and social policies that promote justice, dignity, and equality among all people? (According to some economists, Brat may not even be doing the best possible economics from an academic point of view.)

At the Princeton Seminary I attended, we were taught a biblical understanding of "justice" that went beyond the mere protection of private property. So, for example, when Amos's God says (chapter 5), "Let justice roll down like waters," we know that he wasn't talking to gay people, undocumented immigrants, students with debt, or single moms. Instead, we read the whole passage and know that he was talking to the complacent, the self-interested, the smugly religious, the rich and powerful, the corrupt exploiters of the status quo:

"because you trample on the poor and take from them levies of grain, you have built houses of hewn stone, but you shall not live in them; you have planted pleasant vineyards, but you shall not drink their wine. For I know how many are your transgressions, and how great are your sins--you who afflict the righteous, who take a bribe, and push aside the needy in the gate. ...

I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them; and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals I will not look upon. Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream."

This should be a warning to those of us who live comfortably. It's nice that Dave Brat thinks his primary win was "a miracle." But for all his God talk, he seems unwilling to do the hard work of theologizing within the context of history. Like most economists, he appears to prefer abstract models to the messy world of blood, sweat, and tears. Perhaps he needs to go back to seminary.

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