On June 10, 2014, little-known and little-funded candidate Dave Brat pulled one of the biggest upsets in congressional history, soundly defeating sitting majority leader Eric Cantor for the Republican nomination in Virginia’s 7th district.
Brat’s victory has been hailed as a David vs. Goliath moment for Republican populism. In the afterglow of the despised Cantor’s defeat, even many progressives like John Nichols of The Nation have been largely uncritical of Brat and focused on his rhetorical opposition to “crony capitalism.”
Even independent elder statesmen Ralph Nader and Pat Buchanan, both supposed opponents of free trade and high finance, were wooed by Brat’s tough talk against bankers and missed the fact that he’s a devotee of Ayn Rand.
The political media on the whole has scrambled for an explanation. Some blame Cantor, an out-of-touch Wall Street puppet who Brat lambasted as a collaborator with the Democrats on immigration reform and the 2009 Wall Street bailout. Others credit tea party support, but can’t explain Brat’s meager donations.
A simpler explanation is the “payola” system that fuels conservative media. As Politico reports, Republican PACs and foundations like FreedomWorks are now supporting candidates clandestinely by “sponsoring” influential radio hosts like Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh in the tens of millions of dollars.
Glenn Beck began covering Dave Brat’s campaign in mid-March, calling on his listeners to help defeat Cantor. Brat enjoyed a 13 minute interview on Beck’s pay-to-play program just 2 days before the primary.
A look at Brat’s website shows that similar support was delivered by popular conservative websites and radio programs like Breitbart, Laura Ingraham, National Review, RedState, Mark Levin, World Net Daily and others. Brat turns out to be quite well known for an “unknown.”
Brat and Ben Sasse: Manchurian twins?
A nearly identical “grassroots” support operation also led to the victory of US Senate candidate Ben Sasse (R, Nebraska). Despite the same exclusive access to National Review, Glenn Beck, RedState and other foundation-funded media, – even a rally in North Platte, NE with Sarah Palin and Ted Cruz – Sasse persisted in calling himself “The Outsider” and feigned amazement at his own victory.
Unlike Brat, Sasse’s campaign broke his state’s fundraising records, mostly with bundled contributions from the Senate Conservatives Fund and other PACs. One might argue that this was necessary to overwhelm Nebraska voters with pro-Sasse advertising, whereas the Virginia race was won by a PAC-funded attack campaign on Eric Cantor.
Perhaps more interesting than their campaign strategies, however, are the eerily similar academic and professional lives of Dave Brat and Ben Sasse. While Sasse has the more varied and impressive credentials of the two, both men pursued postgraduate religious studies, both wrote dissertations on the intersection of protestant populism and political power, both enjoyed a whirlwind career in government and NGO posts only to settle down in obscure colleges. (Though for his part, Sasse told voters his toughest job was “walking beans and detasseling corn.”) Above all, both candidates subscribe to a radical Calvinist theology that provides a religious zeal to their commitment to free markets and limited government.
- B.A., Harvard University; honors thesis on Martin Luther and the history of just war theory
- M.A., St. John’s College, Annapolis; honors thesis on John Calvin and the uses of law
- M.A., M.Phil, Ph.D., Yale University; “The anti-Madalyn majority” (awarded for best American history dissertation)
- Former director, Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals
- Former and current director, Westminster Theological Seminary
- Former editor, Modern Reformation magazine and Here We Stand: A Call from Confessing Evangelicals by James M. Boice
- Two private sector jobs: McKinsie & Company (see McKinsie’s role in the Enron scandal), Boston Consulting Group
- Government jobs: Chief of Staff for Rep. Fortenberry (R, NE); Tutor/proctor for the US House Page Program (this was concurrent with the page pedophilia scandal involving Reps. Foley and Kolbe); Advisor to Dept. of Homeland Security; US Dept. of Justice (chief of staff, office of legal policy – Sasse served as a liaison btw. The CIA, FBI and DOJ during the writing of the John Yoo torture memos; principal advisor to Secretary of Health and Human Services (former Utah governor Mike Leavitt)
- Academic jobs: Associate professor and research fellow, University of Texas at Austin; President of Midland University, Fremont, NE
- B.A., Hope College, Holland, MI
- Masters of Divinity, Princeton Theological Seminary
- Ph.D in economics, American University
- Brat’s academic research has been called unimpressive and unusual by colleagues, and features papers with titles like “Science and Religion in the 19th Century: Historical Implications For the New Growth Theory,” “An Analysis of the Moral Foundations in Ayn Rand,” and “God and Advanced Mammon – Can Theological Types Handle Usury and Capitalism?”
- Government/NGO jobs: Economics advisor to Virginia governor Tim Kaine; Advisor to Virginia (state) Senator Walter Stosch, chair of senate finance committee; Consultant to World Bank; Army Research Institute; U.S.A.I.D (Brat served as a coordinator of a “Structural Adjustment Conference” at American University, implying his involvement in promoting IMF/World Bank shock therapy.
- One private sector job: Consultant for Arthur Andersen & Co.
- Academic (instructor) jobs: American University; Mount Vernon College, Washington DC; Virginia Commonwealth University; Randolph-Macon College
- At Randolph-Macon, Brat chairs the economics department as well as the “BB&T Ethics Program,” an academic program founded in 2009 by the BB&T bank of Winston-Salem, NC. At the time of the ethics program’s founding, BB&T’s chairman and CEO was John Allison IV, a major contributor to the Ayn Rand Institute and currently the President and CEO of the Cato Institute, an influential libertarian think tank.
The Pope is the antichrist, and you are going to hell
The Calvinism to which Sasse and Brat subscribe is not so much a religious sect as a set of principles that can be found today within certain Presbyterian, Methodist, Lutheran and other protestant denominations.
Historically, it is associated of course with the ideas of French theologian John Calvin (1509-1564), whose ideas played a deciding role in the shape of protestantism among the French, Swiss, Dutch and the English Puritans.
Calvinism is by no means synonymous with Protestantism. Its doctrines are unfamiliar to most parishoners, and have been forcefully rejected by the Missouri Synod of the Lutheran church and other denominations – notably Wesleyans and other “Arminians” – for its controversial doctrines of “total depravity” and “double predestination,” which hold that all men are not only totally depraved and unworthy of God’s mercy for their sins, but are also predestined for either heaven or hell, with that neither works nor faith playing any role in their salvation.
This bleak view of man’s role in the universe was in fact essential to the spread of slavery, usury and other anti-Christian practices by the British and Dutch empires. Both Catholic and protestant contemporaries accused Calvin of seeking to “judaize” the church, by preferring the barbarism the Old Testament and primacy of rabbinic interpretation to the teachings of Christ.
In the American colonies, slavery became the economic engine of the south, but was eagerly enabled by New England Puritans, also the perpetrators and beneficiaries of genocide against the Pequots and other native Americans. In the Puritan view, such sins were excused by their pre-election, and were simply part of God’s plan. In 1634, Massaschusetts Bay Colony governor John Winthrop (who inspired Ronald Reagan’s “city upon a hill” meme) wrote “The natives are neare all dead of the small Poxe, so as the Lord hathe cleared our title to what we possess.”
Calvinism is based on five “pillars,” which Ben Sasse describes in Here We Stand!, a call for a “Modern Reformation” centered on Calvinist theology:
- sola Scriptura – or scriptural literalism, which makes the Old Testament equal to rather than antecedent to the Gospels;
- sola fide – or “faith alone,” which condemns any attempt to please God through good works;
- sola gratia – or “grace alone,” of which Sasse writes, “God owes [sinners] nothing but punishment for their sins, and that, if he saves them in spite of their sins, which he does in the case of those who are saved, it is only because it pleases him to do it”;
- Solus Christus – or salvation through “Christ alone,” of which Sasse writes that “no merit on the part of man…no works of ours performed either here or in purgatory can add to [Christ’s] completed saving work;
- soli Deo gloria – or “all glory to God alone,” which underscores the above points.
One can clearly see this outlook not as a faith unto itself, but as a virulent reaction to the Roman Catholic church, for which personal behavior (as Christ preached throughout the Gospels) is indeed essential to one’s salvation. The effect if not the purpose of the original reformation was to destroy the Church’s hold over property and politics in Europe. Contrary to the interpretations of “fairly orthodox Calvinist” Dave Brat, the looting and redistribution of Church property that did occur, led by Calvinist principles, did not produce widely shared prosperity, but simply transferred the imperial system of Venice to western Europe. As the Washington Post reports:
Generally, [Brat] is a free-market conservative but one who believes ethics have been lost in the process. Those ethics can be found, he believes, not in man-made laws but in Christianity — specifically, Protestantism.
“Give me a country in 1600 that had a Protestant-led contest for religious and political power and I will show you a country that is rich today,” Brat wrote in 2011. Economists, he wrote, were “slow to acknowledge perhaps the most powerful institution in Western civilization, religion.”
The victims of imperialism, slavery, the Thirty Years’ War, and the cruel treadmill capitalism of England’s industrial revolution might differ with Brat’s analysis.
Calvinist antipathy to the Catholic church looms large. Ben Sasse has long been a director of the Westminster Seminary of California, whose founding document is the Westminster Confession of Faith (1643), written by Scottish Puritans attempting to overtake the Church of England. In addition to the core doctrines of total depravity and double-predestination, the confession states:
“There is no other head of the Church but the Lord Jesus Christ: nor can the Pope of Rome in any sense be head thereof; but is that Antichrist, that man of sin and son of perdition, that exalteth himself in the Church against Christ, and all that is called God."
Nebraska Catholics, who make up over 25% of the state’s voters, might be dismayed to learn that their Republican candidate (who proudly touts his endorsement by catholicvote.org, a phony front for right-wing think tanks) signed a document, as required of Westminster Seminary’s faculty and trustees, declaring the Pope to be the antichrist.
Apparently Sasse’s counterpart Dave Brat, who calls himself a “Catholic Calvinist libertarian,” stands in condemnation of himself. Interestingly, Brat attended Hope College in western Michigan, a hotbed of Dutch Calvinism and also of Calvinist infiltration of the Catholic church, through centers like the Acton Institute and Catholic Information Center.
From Puritans to “Theocratic Libertarians”
In America, English Puritans not only enable the slave trade, but found Princeton, Yale and Harvard. Calvinist doctrines loom large among America’s early Anglophile elites, as typified by Princeton president Jonathan Edwards (Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God) – who was not coincidentally the grandfather of arch-traitor Aaron Burr.
The Puritan supremacy of the colonial elite was largely contained by the universalist outlook of the American revolution and the Civil War. The highly successful “American System” of Alexander Hamilton (Burr’s victim), Abraham Lincoln and others was based on equal rights, economic development and protection of labor, which eroded the attraction to Calvinism’s self-immolating doctrines.
Calvinist thought continued to be maintained by the Ivy league, especially (now unaffiliated) Princeton Theological Seminary, where Dave Brat received a Master in Divinity. Shortly after the release of “The Fundamentals,” an influential set of essays calling for a restoration of conservative protestantism, a group of Princeton theologians founded the Westminster Theological Seminary to restore Calvinist orthodoxy among divinity students. As noted, Nebraska Senate candidate Ben Sasse is a director of Westminster’s now-independent California franchise.
Among Westminster’s founders was a Dutch Calvinist named Cornelius Van Til. Van Til is somewhat obscure in his time, but was popularized by Rousas Rushdoony, founder of a Calvinist/libertarian doctrine known as “Christian Reconstructionism” and the Chalcedon Foundation of Los Angeles.
The core doctrine of Van Til and Rushdoony is the illegitimacy of the nation-state in organizing human affairs. Because the state is the product of human reason, it is an affront to God’s design (one wonders why Calvinists bother having opinions about anything, since their fate has already been sealed by God). Rushdoony uses this interpretation to promote the “Austrian school” of his mentor Ludwig von Mises to create what some have called “theocratic libertarianism.”
Rushdoony had a profound influence on the Christian Right. His followers include Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, Tim LaHaye (Left Behind), James Dobson and modern libertarians like Rushdoony’s son-in-law Gary North, an “economist” from the Mises Institute who has been a long-time collaborator with former Congressman Ron Paul.
The purpose of all this seems to have been to make the elite-funded Austrian School doctrines of total free trade, decentralized government and the destruction of New Deal social programs (doctrines which had been advanced largely by Jewish economists like von Mises) more acceptable in America’s bible belt. Ironically, Rushdoony himself was not only an early promoter of the “Christian homeschooling” practiced by Ben Sasse, but a flaming racist, anti-semite and amateur holocaust revisionist.
Rushdoony’s Chalcedon Foundation receives ample funding from billionaires like Howard Ahmanson of Omaha and Los Angeles. The eccentric Ahmanson is the billionaire heir to the Home Savings Bank fortune; a board member of the influential Claremont Institute; an active promoter of libertarian and Christian fundamentalist causes; and a former majority owner of Election Systems & Software, whose electronic ballot machines have long been implicated in Republican vote-rigging.
Ahmanson is also a former director of the shadowy Council for National Policy, a think-tank that allows leaders of the Christian Right establishment (Falwell, Dobson, LaHaye, et al) to meet in secret with heads of the Heritage Foundation and similar sources of dirty money, and “deep state” operatives like neocon godfather Irving Kristol, Donald Rumsfeld, Blackwater’s Erik Prince, and Iran-Contra operator Oliver North.
The CNP, drawing on deep funding from sources ranging from the Rockefeller and Mellon-Scaife families to Sun Myung Moon, also bleeds heavily into the libertarian/”patriot” world, through members like Phyllis Schlafly, Larry Pratt of Gun Owners for America, fundamentalist “truther” Stan Monteith and Mormon “survivalist” Joel Skousen. Libertarian radio host Alex Jones did his best to cover up this issue, when confronted by former political advisor Charlotte Iserbyt.
One might suspect Ben Sasse and Dave Brat to be found somewhere within this spider web of weaponized Calvinism, Wall Street money and “grassroots” libertarian politics.
Sasse and Brat: “austerity priests”
The central fact of life in America is a global economic depression. Despite constant claims of a slow recovery, there has been no recovery in real employment, production of capital goods, state budgets or any other measures that produce jobs and improve living standards. This is self-evident, since there has been no change in policy. Free trade and austerity march on. Detroit is under emergency management, tens of thousands face water shut-offs, and former factory sites look like the wreckage of a nuclear war.
As predicted by historian Webster Tarpley, the Republican party is paying for its part in creating these conditions by a richly-deserved electoral death, the Democratic party is slowly splitting into pro-Wall Street and populist factions (the latter putatively led by Elizabeth Warren), and the Wall Street and corporate elite are struggling for an excuse to continue free trade, austerity and the privileges of oligarchy.
The doctrines to which Ben Sasse and Dave Brat subscribe are not original to them. We can look back to figures like Rousas Rushdoony who served the “businessman’s crusade” against the New Deal, or even all the way back to the Puritan conquest of Europe.
What makes Sasse and Brat significant is that for the first time in modern history, genuine Puritan theologians are contending for high political office in America. Billy Graham and Tim LaHay never threatened to run for president. For all his religiosity, George W. Bush did not write dissertations on the glories of revolutionary Calvinism.
The true purpose of “theocratic libertarianism” is not to merge church and state. It’s to justify the destruction of the state using the warped doctrines of the church. Many on the left will miss the distinction because of their ingrained hostility to religion. Sasse and Brat seem to have been groomed from an early age to play the role of “austerity priests,” ministering over the destruction of Social Security, Medicare, public schools, the post office and other threads of our social fabric with an air of religiosity.
Defeat the Republicans with a New Deal
Ben Sasse or even Dave Brat could very well contend for the presidency as early as 2016 in identical fashion to Barack Obama’s rise from a well-connected “unknown” to the US Senate to the presidency in the span of two years. This rapid rise to power is in fact essential to maintaining the mirage of populism while keeping the candidate free of scandal and voting history. Ultimately, the soft underbelly of this strategy that Sasse and Brat are “old wine in new bottles.” While they look independent, their program is nothing more or less than free trade, budget austerity and the looting of public property.
As Franklin D. Roosevelt proved, the antidote to Ben Sasse and Dave Brat is a focused program of concrete economic demands. It is time to put divisive and obscurantist issues like global warming, gay marriage and campaign finance reform on the back-burner, and unify behind an economic recovery program that will appeal to the vast majority of the American people.
That program is best represented by the United Front Against Austerity, drawn in part from existing demands among populist democrats like Medicare for All, stronger Social Security and a Wall Street Sales Tax. But a laundry list of “benefits” is not enough!
The American system of political economy, represented by the New Deal, recognizes the primacy of physical production. We can not redistribute wealth that has not been created! Even with a more progressive tax policy or social programs, as long as our steel is made in India, our consumer goods in China and our infrastructure lies in ruins, our standard of living will decline.
Crucially, those on the “left” must not fall for utopian traps like the “basic minimum income.” In Europe, this is known as “decrescita” or “atrophy,” and is used to excuse de-industrialization. Wealth is produced by work, and the notion of an impending “automated economy” run by robots and 3d printers is pure science fiction.
The recovery program must emphasize the following:
- Public control of credit and money. We must nationalize the Federal Reserve System, and use it as a national bank to finance infrastructure, industry, agriculture and other wealth-producing activities.
- Protectionism. The “information economy” is a political choice. We must restore our industries at higher wages and a higher level of environmental and technological efficiency, and we must create an economic environment for profitable, family-scale farms. This can only be accomplished through a protective tariff and a Parity price.
- Public alternatives to Wall Street usury. We must assert our public right to finance healthcare (Medicare for All), education, retirement (stronger Social Security) and even housing, which can be accomplished at low cost through a national bank.
This program is anything but the “nanny state.” Our benefits and living standards must be earned through wealth-producing labor – but we can’t begin to produce wealth in an open system that denies the value of our labor. The role of government is to represent the interests of the public. We don’t need government to provide our daily bread, but we do need robust protections against the insatiable hunger of Wall Street and its corporate cartels.
Will the “silent majority” become a resurgent “moral majority,” or a mass strike against Wall Street in favor of a New Deal economy? Contrary to the theological opinions of Ben Sasse and Dave Brat, your own free will is the deciding factor.