David Brat and I were college and seminary students at virtually the same Christian schools. That’s where the similarity ends. He believes in a free market focused on making money. I’m convinced a free market without the federal government’s serving as referee, and functions like a stacked deck. It’s gamed in favor of the rich. Limited regulation levels the playing field for all investors to cash in.
I believe the expansion of federal power enhances the free market for all; Brat is adamant that big government diminishes economic liberty, especially for wealthy investors.
He achieved an out-of-nowhere primary victory over Virginia’s Rep. Eric Cantor—the No. 2-ranked Republican in the House. Brat attended Hope College, a Christian liberal arts school in Holland, Michigan. Two decades before, I was matriculated at Calvin College, in Grand Rapids Mich. — Hope’s rival. After college, Brat and I were graduated from Princeton Theological Seminary.
University of Chicago’s Martin Marty, interpreter of historical trends, called Hope’s and Calvin’s graduates “Protestantism’s intellectual Jews.” They honor rituals that shape distinctive religious lifestyles, excel at education, build strong Christian families and interpret reality through a Christian world-and-life lens.
Brat and I learned to view life as a wheel with its hub, spokes and rim. The hub is Christ. The spokes represent sectors such as education, religion, family and politics. By applying faith to life, Christians roll forward like a rotating rim. Christ’s teachings function like a wheel’s hub, which transforms all of life, including educational, political and economic sectors.
Brat doesn’t trust Big Business, banks too big to fail or Wall Street’s greed. He campaigned, portraying Cantor as a crony of businesses, banks and Wall Street. “I’m not against business,” Brat asserts. “I’m against big business in bed with big government.”
He admires the economic teachings of German sociologist Max Weber. In his 1905 book “The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism,” Weber argued that the Yankee ethic of hard work to get ahead was shaped by a Christian core belief. Christ inspires citizens to use their talents to financially succeed. Much of Brat’s academic writing traces how American society has lost this virtue of rolling up our sleeves that Christianity espouses.
Why do our economic views sharply differ, since Brat’s and my education is similar? I advocate economic freedom that thrives when those who prosper practice an equitably shared abundance. In contrast, Brat equates economic freedom with unregulated capitalism. Free enterprise produces wealth. Brat believes free-market capitalism is the basis for personal freedom.
Two Roman Catholics detect deficiencies in how Brat relates his faith to economics. At the 20th century’s turn, Gilbert Chesterton strived to protect private property from government confiscation. But he also advocated its wider distribution from a privileged few to hard-working masses.
Pope Francis questions the free-enterprise ethic, which Brat espouses. This spring he tweeted, “Inequality is the root cause of social evil,” causing some conservatives to wince. It’s a paraphrase of what the pope declared in his apostolic exhortation “The Joy of the Gospel”: “Inequality is the root of social ills.”
The pope comments about how economic freedom must be linked to equality of opportunity. “Casual indifference” to the poor “empties our lives and our words of all meaning,” he emphasizes. “Business is … a noble vocation, provided that those engaged in it see themselves challenged by a greater meaning in life; this will enable them truly to serve the common good by striving to increase the goods of this world and to make them more accessible to all.” Business isn’t a vehicle to increase dollars for the 1 percent; it’s a funnel through which dignity is shared by many when wealth is distributed.
The pope doesn’t ignore those shunted aside in a throwaway society. He poses the same query raised by Robert Fulghum in his book “What on Earth Have I Done.” “The question is not, ‘Is what you have sufficient?’ but “Are you sufficient for what you have?” Such sufficiency shows when those who have much press for free market equality.
The Wall Street Journal, usually an ardent advocate of market activity unhampered by government control, begrudgingly admitted their blind spot about equality. In a commentary “Free People, Free Markets,” on the 125th anniversary of the paper, the editors made a startling admission. “Another lesson is how the political pendulum swings between freedom and equality, those competing poles of Western political thought. These columns emphasize liberty, but on occasion those who prize equality can provide a necessary corrective. The best example is the Civil Rights Movement, which used federal power to break the government-enforced tyranny of Jim Crow” (Wall Street Journal, July 8).
The late Professor Donald Juel taught a class at Princeton Theological Seminary on the Gospel of Luke. David Brat probably took it in the late 1980s when, as scholar-in-residence, I audited it. Early in his ministry, Jesus repeated Isaiah’s marching orders: “The spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he had anointed me to preach good news to the poor ... ” (Luke 4:18).
Brat and I differ over how free market capitalism relates to care for the poor. Republican President Herbert Hoover was wrong when he insisted the way to protect “fundamental American liberties” meant giving unfettered economic opportunity to enterprising individuals. Equality and liberty are two sides of the same reality. When joined, the many prosper, instead of an elite few.
The Rev. Dr. Jack R. Van Ens is a Presbyterian minister who heads the nonprofit, tax exempt Creative Growth Ministries (www.thelivinghistory.com), which enhances Christian worship through dynamic storytelling and dramatic presentations aimed to make God’s history come alive.
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