Christian Ethicists and Economists

These are interesting times for American politics.  Republicans in the House voted earlier today for their new majority leader in the wake of Eric Cantor’s stunning defeat by his Republican primary opponent David Brat, an economics professor at Randolph-Macon College in Ashland, VA.  The coverage on Brat’s victory is ubiquitous, and in one New York Times piece written last week by Trip Gabriel and Richard Pérez-Peńa (“Campus Colleagues, Basketball Teammates, and Now, Political Rivals,” June 12, 2014), there is a little discussion on Brat’s work on the intersections of Christianity, ethics, and economics. (In addition to being an academic economist, he has a Masters in Divinity degree from Princeton Theological Seminary.)  The following passage is how the Times article describes Brat’s research; and toward the end of the passage there is an interesting quote about Brat’s work from an economist at the University of Michigan and the Brookings Institution.

Mr. Brat’s academic work has drawn particular interest because he is

seen as the odds-on favorite in a heavily Republican district. Religious

ethics rarely enter into mainstream economic theory, but they are topics

that Mr. Brat, who describes himself in his writing as a Calvinist, has

turned to repeatedly. In a 2011 article, “God and Advanced Mammon —

Can Theological Types Handle Usury and Capitalism?” published in a

journal of religion, Mr. Brat questioned whether Christianity could be

reconciled with government programs.

“Are you willing to force someone you know to pay for the benefits for

one of your neighbors?” he asked. “Very few Christians I know are willing

to say ‘yes’ to this question.”

In the same essay, he argued: “If we make all of the people good,

markets will be good. If markets are bad, which they are, that means

people are bad, which they are. Want good markets? Change the people.”

Several economists said in interviews that Mr. Brat often appeared not

to be writing as an economist. “I did find him pretty confusing,” said

Justin Wolfers, a professor of economics and public policy at the

University of Michigan, and a fellow at the Brookings Institution. “This

dude just really wants us all to go to church, and that appears to be his

economic policy conclusion.” (italics added.)

I am not interested in commenting on Brat’s work itself, since I can’t even pretend to know anything about it, apart from what I have read from various media sources.  But what caught my attention are two items in the Times article (see italicized parts of the passage above).

For starters, the Times article got one thing absolutely right: Christian ethical reflections on economics, whether it comes from conservative academic Christian ethicists or liberal ones, rarely receive attention in mainstream economic research.  However, this reality should not be taken to mean that Christian ethicists (from Protestant ethicists to Catholic social ethicists) have not been engaging contemporary economics in serious, studied ways.  In other words, the academic area of Brat’s research (i.e., Christian ethical reflections on the economy) is not a “fringe” area of study but a significant part of the very real and academic discipline of religious ethics and Christian social ethics.

Yet, the quote from Wolfers at the University Michigan encapsulates, albeit inarticulately, one of the problems of Christian ethical forays into economics.  Wolfers says he finds Brat pretty confusing, and Brat’s work may be indeed confusing—though, again, I can’t really make a competent judgment on his work.  But Wolfers’s comment on Brat’s research raises an interesting, challenging, and perhaps urgent question for all Christian ethicists who engage questions in economics.  To what extent is Christian ethical reflections on economics “confusing” to economists?  That is, to what extent is Christian ethical reflections on economics an engagement of actual economic theorizing and methodologies, or are Christian ethicists engaging economics in a manner that does not display respect and, importantly, competence for the way economists actually do their work?  A Christian ethicist might disagree with what an economist might say, but is the disagreement made on a level that actually engages economic theorizing and methods or is the disagreement made in such a way that requires the economist to learn, in a manner of speaking, a different language?

There are plenty of criticisms leveled at those, like me, who think that Christian ethicists should be better economists before critically and constructively engaging issues in economics.  After all, as the criticism often goes, why should Christian ethicists shoulder the burden of learning the language of economics in order to talk to economists rather than the other way around?  I understand the criticism, and there are good reasons for it.  But I am not certain how far the criticism should be taken when the fact of the matter is that the work of Christian ethicists, especially those who want to inform and shape economic discourse in the public square and academy, is hardly, if ever, on the radar screen of mainstream economists.  Secularism and a lack of religiosity (or disrespect for religion) may help explain why some or many economists are not interested in what Christian ethicists have to say about economics.  But maybe it is also true, perhaps to a greater degree, that if and when economists attempt to listen to what Christian ethicists have to say, economists just find their God-talk on economics downright confusing?  (Confusing as in esoteric, or talking about economics in ways that do not resonant with the language and research of the discipline and profession of economics.)  If we want to be part of the conversation, then we may need to be better economists.  Otherwise, we mind as well accept that we are simply talking to ourselves to no greater effect.

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