Excerpts From David Brat

What buzz, huh? The Catholicsphere is especially interested in this hardline Calvinist who attends Mass. I’m writing a profile on him at the moment, but until that pops up I thought I’d share with you beautiful people some snippets of his theology taken from his essay “God and Advanced Mammon — Can Theological Types Handle Usury and Capitalism?”

First of all, if you’re saying to yourself, ‘Holy smokes, that’s a lot of signalling in one title, he should really make sure to define is terms’ then a) you are right and b) you will be disappointed.

The definition of usury has varied and changed drastically over time and across regions. An entire essay could be spent on these distinctions, and many of these distinctions are covered by other authors in this issue of Interpretation. Even in the biblical texts, crucial distinctions are made between those in the fold (brothers and sisters) and outsiders. In addition, usury can be simply charging interest, or it can be charging too high an interest, or it can be even broader in scope. I do not think these are the distinctions that ultimately matter at present.

The distinctions always matter, Dave! Now tell us about Calvinism.

Capitalism is the major organizing force in modern life, whether we like it or not. It is here to stay. If the sociologists ever grasp this basic fact, their enterprise will be much more fruitful. We set alarm clocks to follow the schedule of the market. Children leave their families to follow the job market. We often weigh our social worth by looking to market wages, salaries, and consumption patterns. We spend much more time on market activity than God activity. Thus, Calvinism.

I clearly missed something; Calvinism doesn’t quite seem like a Q.E.D. point there. Quickly, caricature theological critiques of usury!

Usury is bad. Usury is morally bad. Usury is the charging of interest payments for simply borrowing money. Usury is frowned upon in the Bible. Liberation theology might be required here. Usury is specifically forbidden in many biblical texts. Our modern culture of capitalism exploits the poor by conventions such as usury. Many grow rich by usury. The poor are hurt by usury. Therefore, usury is bad. We should get rid of usury. (Who is this we?)

I don’t know, Dave, but ‘we’ includes Pope Francis and Saint Augustine for sure. Silly billies, right? Anyway, Dave, why can government be totally amoral?

Where are the obvious category errors above? The most obvious is the assumption that because we are Christians, the society’s use of usury stands judged under Christian values. Curiously, the church is currently loathe to judge anyone for anything. Sin is not in vogue. But when it comes to capitalism, judgment is at hand…There is obviously a tremendous gulf between biblical statements made to faith communities and their direct application to secular law today. Seminaries go out of their way to show the complexities of exegesis, but when it comes to hot-button issues such as usury, rationality often flies out the window. Can Christians force others to follow their ethical teachings on social issues? Note that consistency is lacking on all sides of this issue.

I suspect non-Christians might also object to usury as well, but Dave is like, ‘nah.’ But Dave, this isn’t reason! This shows me you think there’s no reasoned argument against usury, and yet Finland just legislated payday loan operations out of existence, so something tells me that is not the case.

For those in a hurry, let me offer a two-paragraph summary, and then I will go into more detail for those who may enjoy the extended commentary. A famous economist named Hayek

Ughhh. Annnnyway. Tell us your theory of sin, Dave.

Usury is one small piece of this market mechanism and information puzzle. Interest rates are set by the market, by supply and demand for money. As a Christian, can I charge interest and be okay with God? Well, as a Calvinist, the answer would be found by asking God. God is the source of morality and ethics. In brief, I think that God tells us that if we intend to love and help our neighbor by such an action, then the answer is “yes”; to harm, “no.” More on this later, but if individuals lived under this simple system, the world would be pretty good.

It’s like the doctrine of double effect as reported by a very tipsy Aquinas. But fret not, we actually can’t create sinful systems or cultures, despite what you may have heard.

But, the key is that morality and judgment ultimately occur at the individual level in our tradition (i.e., the Reformation) and an analysis of the morality of any action would ultimately rely upon the facts and intentions in each individual case. The individual is responsible for knowing God’s will via revelation, reason, church, and faith. We will have an impact on our culture, but we are not the culture. Outside of the tradition, morality is not coherent.

I’m guessing that’s a “little t” tradition. What would the Church’s position on ethics look like?

Does the church have an answer to this broader social question? Will it write up a Church Statement on Justice and Rationality to go along with the Anti-Usury Statement? This is very much needed. Why no statement? You are precisely the audience that can answer this question. As long as the church is silent on this issue, it will have no impact on our broader culture. The church needs to regain its voice and offer up a coherent social vision of justice and rationality. Soon. The Bible and then Calvin is a good start. Rule of Law is in the middle. Capitalism will be in the final chapters.

Actually, we do have statements. Lots of them. We make them all the time. Scholars devote their careers to studying such statements. I am not clear on the arrangement offered in the last clauses. These are not ethical premises that go together, Dave, so I’m not sure how I’ll comport with the ethics stemming from multiple different systems. Now, a quick dip into history.

Private property was clearly established. Ninety percent of the population was rural and this basic social contract fit the times, with notable exceptions (i.e., slavery). Basically, one fed one’s family, and if times got tough, moved to extended family or relied upon the voluntary charity of one’s church or neighbors. Life was tough, but it was relatively better than any other place in the world.

Good, so Brat is a legal realist. We are making some progress.

The Left and Right both have fringe groups and, most recently, the Libertarian Party has been picking up steam and gaining adherents, many in the tea party movement. They note that as we have voted for higher and higher taxes, the initial vision of liberal America has been lost. Liberty is lost. Now, in addition to negative rights, we have voted for a host of “positive rights.” We now have rights to health care, welfare programs, retirement benefits, thirteen years of education, and unemployment benefits. And there is not an item you can think of that is not regulated by the Federal Government.

Life is substantially better, but we have all these taxes now, making our freedom actionable. Darn taxes. I guess they’re not alright under Brat’s theory of sin, though it’s much easier to imagine how retirement programs and health care are predicated upon a love for neighbor than levying interest on loans. But rock on, Dave, rock on.

We vote for justice. It has become easy. We vote to force others to act as we want them to act. Can we do this as Christians? What is the warrant for such action? How do we ground that type of decision? I have not ever heard a good theological answer to these questions. I know about Locke’s tacit consent and majority rule and all of that, but if you are not willing to force someone at the micro level, those distinctions fall away.

So what is the Rule of Law in your little handbook to Christian social action? The answer you want is ‘government as a remedial community’, and you can find it in City of God and fifty bajillion studies of Augustine. Or we can degenerate into anarchy, because the same resistance to force that Brat adduces contra taxes also works against laws preventing, say, rape and assault.

The government holds a monopoly on violence. Any law that we vote for is ultimately backed by the full force of our government and military. Do we trust institutions of the government to ensure justice? Is that what history teaches us about the State? Or do we live in particularly lucky and fortunate times where the State can be trusted to do minimal justice? The State’s budget is currently about $3 trillion a year. Do you trust that power to the political Right? Do you trust it to the Left? If you answered “no” to either question, you may have a major problem in the future. See Plato on the regime that follows democracy.

Ah, just a generalized objection to democracy, queer for someone who was voted into power. Bizarro to simultaneously insist governments aren’t just and that we shouldn’t try to make them so. I guess this is the good ol’ fashioned refusal to engage in creative politics that third grade readings of Augustine produce. Blargh. Tell me more about why Christianity doesn’t belong in public reasoning, Dave.

So now, I hope you are feeling even a bit more ill at ease. The logic above is inescapable for a Christian. If we Christians vote for what we consider to be good policies, we are ultimately voting to ensure that our will is carried out by the most powerful force on earth, aside from God. The U.S. government has a monopoly on violence, and that force underlies the law of the land. Do we have the right to coerce our fellow citizens to act in ways that follow our Christian ethical beliefs?

I mean we could bring our ethical concerns to public discourse and engage them in public reason, or we could, I guess, just not. Moral man, immoral society. Somebody’s been doing shots of Niebuhr without the requisite shots of Rawls. Moreover, if the state should be immune from Christian ethics because they shouldn’t be inflicted on society as a whole, what’s to stop it from using force? If we’re operating on a Christian ethical standard, force is wrong because of some premise Brat identifies as impugning force within Christian thought. But if the state shouldn’t be responsive to Christian thought because of pluralism, what’s to stop it from using force? Surely it can’t be prohibited by the proscriptions of Christianity if it’s not obligated by the requirements of it! And if Brat wants to articulate a whole new ethical system for states only, what is it, and what is its warrant?  Anyway, surprise us.

The Rule of Law is absolutely essential to a good life. God has instituted government and leaders throughout history and throughout the Biblical narrative. However, the state is growing precisely as the church is fading as a force for good, and this does not seem to be a good trend. God asked the people of Israel: Are you sure you want a king? That is a good question to ask at this time.

Well that was an unexpected 180. How are we defining ‘good life’? Asking for a friend. Quickly, abandon this line of logic and beg the question on some stuff.

Modern liberals are very conflicted at this point. They do not want the Religious Right pushing its morality on others, and so they claim “separation of church and state.” However, when economic justice is involved, or when entitlements like health care are at stake, modern liberals seem to have no problem pushing their morality on others. Both camps appear to be willing to use the State’s power to get their way. Is this Christian? Christians fall into both camps, and so our story has no clear solution, or does it? Can we dig our way out of this distorted liberal mess? Is there a clean, logical line for Christians to pursue that does not require us to coerce fellow citizens to action by threat of government power?

General complaint against party politics taken, yes, we all know parties are inconsistent in their reported ideology. But the last line is the real question: can we have government without force? No. Though Brat is confused about where force is involved. Looks like having a totally amoral government would suit him better, though heaven knows what that would look like. Are we still talking about usury?

While proof-texting is risky business, I would summarize as follows. The Bible is clear that usury should not be practiced in small religious communities where loans involving the deep familial bond of brothers and sisters occur, especially poor brothers and sisters. It is less clear on usury in general, but it is safe to say that a tension exists. I am trying to illuminate some of those tensions. The tensions become all the more acute as we move into the modern period of market capitalism.

I’m so glad we don’t use this form of exegesis to suss out the moral intent of the entire Bible, or rules would apply basically within but not between families. What about morality in economics, is that possible ?

The Economic Position on Usury or Interest Rate Charges. For the economist, there is no unjust charge. There is no exploitation. Why? Because economists do not do ethics, by definition. We do social science. The good news here is that if you ever hear an economist giving ethical advice, you should not give that advice much attention. Economists are here to describe the world as it is, not as it should be. In economics, there can be no price too high, because if a product sells at a high price, then clearly it was not too high. It sold. The same goes for interest rates. Equilibrium is the price that will occur if prices are allowed to adjust. If a price is too high, it will adjust downward to equilibrium, automatically.

So capitalism, is it a problem, is there anything abut it we cannot as a society brook? Nah, Brat basically thinks society doesn’t exist, just tiny pockets of morality.

Second, church folk and my liberal pals are always preaching about inclusiveness and diversity. Great. I think Jesus reached out to all people and this certainly makes sense. However, a real test for liberal Christian types is whether they will reach out to capitalists! Now, there is a test for the faith. Did Jesus reach out to folks and say, “Come on in here, brother, but boy, are you wrong about everything you believe?” Or did he just say, “Come on in, and follow me?” If we are ever going to be transformers of culture, we need to get our story straight on capitalism and faith. The two can go together and they had better go together, or we will not transform anything.

Move over, Pope Francis, the Church just needs to kneel before capitalism and make sure she can accommodate her new master, or else, uh, well I’m not really sure what else. What else, David? What happens when the church bends over for the dollar?

Seventh, capitalism is here to stay, and we need a church model that corresponds to that reality. 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. The church should rise up higher than Nietzsche could see and prove him wrong. We should love our neighbor so much that we actually believe in right and wrong, and do something about it. 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.

Pretty sure some massive structure with enduring qualities would be necessary to enact universal healthcare even if doctors worked for free. Conflicting needs, finite resources, all that. But hey: the message here is clear. The church might have some legitimate complaints against capitalism, but they’re ultimately just against individuals, because there is no group morality, only tiny pockets of personal virtue which are even then hard to come by. The church should, uh, I mean support those, I guess? As it loses the battle against systemic oppression and exploitation. Or is there exploitation? What right have Christians to enforce their morality or levy moral judgements against economists, who see no exploitation? It is not clear to me!

But here’s a chaser from Augustine, a mind Brat would doubtlessly consider inferior to his own:

“And what about lending money at interest, which the very laws and judges require to be paid back? Who is more cruel: the one who steals from or cheats a rich man or the one who destroys a poor man by usury? What is acquired this way is certainly ill-gotten gain, and I would wish restitution to be made of it, but it is not possible to sue for it in court. . .”

What Augustine is saying here is that laws don’t necessarily add up to justice, and that’s a problem.