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June 11, 2014 4:45 PM New Frontiers in Christian Objectivism

By Ed Kilgore

Naturally today the whole hep political world is interested in learning about David Brat, the Randolph-Macon College economics department chairman who knocked off Eric Cantor yesterday. The most illuminating thing I’ve come across so far was actually written way back in January by National Review’s Betsy Woodruff. Interestingly enough, the whole premise of the piece was that Brat was pursuing (and confidently anticipating) some high-life movement conservative financial support for his challenge to Cantor—which he never got.

But then here’s some info on Brat’s ideological moorings:

Brat’s background should make him especially appealing to conservative organizations. He chairs the department of economics and business at Randolph-Macon College and heads its BB&T Moral Foundations of Capitalism program. The funding for the program came from John Allison, the former CEO of BB&T (a financial-services company) who now heads the Cato Institute. The two share an affinity for Ayn Rand: Allison is a major supporter of the Ayn Rand Institute, and Brat co-authored a paper titled “An Analysis of the Moral Foundations in Ayn Rand.” Brat says that while he isn’t a Randian, he has been influenced by Atlas Shrugged and appreciates Rand’s case for human freedom and free markets.
His academic background isn’t all economics, though. Brat got a business degree from Hope College in Holland, Mich., then went to Princeton seminary. Before deciding to focus on economics, he wanted to be a professor of systematic theology and cites John Calvin, Karl Barth, and Reinhold Niebuhr as influences.

So the dude is part of the Ayn Rand industry, but “isn’t a Randian,” and in fact has a theology degree from a major mainline Protestant seminary.

If the I-love-Ayn-Rand-but-I’m-Not-a-Randian-I’m-a-Christian line sounds familiar, it’s also Paul Ryan’s self-positioning, though Ryan approaches this paradox from the perspective of claiming to be a righteous Roman Catholic of the Thomist tradition. I don’t know enough about Brat to understand how he tries to reconcile neo-orthodox Calvinism with Objectivism, but I do know how much Ayn Rand herself hate-hate-hated this sort of syncretism. As I noted in a post about Ryan:

One of Rand’s favorite epithets was aimed at people who picked and chose from philosophical systems like hers: “second-handers,” people with no originality or capacity for deep thinking, or, for that matter, ethics. I honestly don’t know how anyone could read her and tout her as a major influence or encourage impressionable young minds to consume her works without understanding how frequently and passionately she argued that her words were not for the religious believer or for anyone who professes to care about the poor, as Ryan claims piously to care.

You get the impression, though, that there are a remarkable number of these “second-handers” roaming around the conservative movement, promoting the “virtue of selfishness” in the name of Jesus. And as I observed in a review of two recent books about Rand for Democracy a while back, she must be a very “unhappy ghost at the tea party.”

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.

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