Brat — The protesting Protestant?

There's an early Philip Roth story about a bunch of Jewish kids in Hebrew school trying to figure out whether Jesus lived or not.

"The Catholics," Itzie Lieberman says, "they believe in Jesus Christ, that he's God."

Lieberman, Roth adds, "used 'the Catholics' in its broadest sense — to include the Protestants."

I confess, when I was a kid in a largely Jewish town, I was similarly confused.

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I think I have it straight, now. But I was confused again this week, reading about Dave Brat's surprising primary election win over Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.), because of what I learned about Brat's certainty that what makes America great is not just God, or even Christianity. It's Protestantism.

Reporters have mentioned Brat's embrace of both "Ayn Rand and Protestantism," but this view hasn't gotten enough attention. He's held it for a long time.

"Don't underestimate the value of Protestants," he warned now former Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke in 2005. "Give me a country in 1600 that had a Protestant-led contest for religious and political power," he said, "and I will show you a country that is rich today."

Brat has also made it clear why: the Protestant "work ethic." In the campaign he stressed the need for a religious-based approach to "ethics.” ("I believe in telling the truth.")

It is a reflex in American politics to praise God, religion and sometimes Christianity. To boast about the superiority of one Christian denomination? That's unusual in modern politics.

To be fair, there's no evidence that Brat seems bent on exterminating less productive sects. And while, to this Jewish person, there's a suspicious whiff of anti-Semitism in the way he warned Bernanke, a Jew, and gave it prominence in this year's race against Cantor, also Jewish, that might be coincidence. Brat is also a Rand enthusiast. Alisa Rosenbaum (her real name) was, like Cantor and Bernanke, a Jew.

But isn't there a double standard here? Let's say Cantor went around touting the superior work ethic of Jews? What if President Kennedy had based his famous appeal to mainstream Protestant ministers at the 1960 Houston Ministerial Association conference by arguing not that he had a right to run, but that really Catholics made America rich? How would that have gone over?

Now, Brat is an economist. He looks at data. Protestantism makes the United States rich? Maybe he's right. Maybe we should see whether Protestants are richer than other religious groups, say, when it comes to family income.

I looked up the Pew Foundation research on U.S. income by religion. Black Protestant church members are at the bottom, not surprising considering this country's long history of racism. Surely Brat's group — evangelical Protestants — does well.

As I scroll down the list of eleven, at the top are Jews, then Hindus ... Orthodox Christians ... Buddhists ... Ah! Mainline Protestants finish fifth. Not bad.

Keep going: Catholics ... Muslims ... Mormons.

Here they are: evangelical Protestants, ninth, deep in the second division.

Of course, there might be other ways to find support for Brat's idea. So I went back to find more detail about what Brat himself has argued.

Brat's attack on Bernanke came because Bernanke had written about factors influencing prosperity. Brat agreed that his list included sensible ones but missed the big reason: "the Protestant religious establishment" and Protestantism's "efficient set of property rights."

Space doesn't allow for a full discussion of this notion or of the more sophisticated argument he makes in his research, some of which I'm not equipped to dispute.

But I can see what it lacks. Among them the woefully inadequate use of comparative data, discussion of confounders, and detailed rebuttal of those who disagree.

Am I alone in finding the campaign version not just badly argued, but offensive?

By contrast, look back to another discussion of religion and politics: that JFK appearance 54 years ago. It's remarkable not just for what Kennedy said in his speech but for his full and usually thoughtful answers to the hostile, patronizing views of the Protestant ministers questioning him.

After one answer, the questioner said, "Do you say that with the permission of the Vatican?"

You can hear Kennedy keeping his voice calm. "I don't have to have approval in that sense."

At the end, Kennedy tried to sum things up. First, having barely concealed his anger about the meeting, he lied ("I am delighted to come here today"). But then he said something sensible.

"This fight for religious freedom is basic in the establishment of the American system, and therefore any candidate for the office ... should submit himself to the questions of any reasonable man."

Here are some for Brat.

Where's the nuanced discussion of alternate possibilities?

Where's the thorough look at comparative data that show Protestantism promotes "rich" countries better than others?

How do you contend with the vast amount of research on different variables, such as the influence of climate, argued by people like Jared Diamond?

And then there are other questions.

Brat, the truth-teller, links his views on religion to "ethics." I encourage people to look at Brat's campaign stump speech to see what he means by truth.

Is immigration reform really only the idea of what Brat calls "Zuckerberg and the big boys?" Hmm. Another Jew, because they want "cheap labor?”

How about this? "Number one principle Eric runs on is stability in Washington — kick the can down the road."

I'm amazed to find myself defending Cantor. But Brat isn't telling the truth. If anything, Cantor thinks we don't need to deal with many of those cans at all. He's not kicking cans down the road. He wants to discard them.

And "stability" from someone who urged a government shutdown? Even allowing for the hyperbole of politics, that's not "telling the truth," either. Not close.

Answers, Mr. Brat?

The primary's over, But Itzie Lieberman might still like to know.

Lehrman is the former White House chief speechwriter to Vice President Gore and has published four novels and the widely used Political Speechwriter's Companion. He teaches public speaking and political speechwriting at American University and writes often about politics. This is his second piece for thehill.com.

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