Dave Brat, Barack Obama, and Christian Compassion

On January 11th, Representative Dave Brat (R-Va) appeared on Sandy Rios's American Family Radio Network program "Sandy Rios in the Morning" to talk about the Obama administration's immigration policy.

Brat expressed exasperation with Obama's use of scripture--specifically Obama's November, 2015 exhortation to conservatives not to be "scared of [Syrian] widows and orphans." Brat accused Obama of using the Bible and the "Christian tradition" to "bonk Republicans over the head with compassion" and "mock his enemies."

But more significant than the partisan riposte was Brat's reflection on compassion, aimed at fellow Christian conservatives. He challenged Christian conservatives to remember that "our side . . . own[s] the entire tradition" of compassion and that "we need to regain the moral argument where we're so strong." It might be possible to interpret Brat as saying that Christians own compassion, but in context I agree with People for the American Way's Brian Tashman that the "side" to which Brat refers is the one occupied by conservative Christians. This would suggest that the compassion championed by more liberal Christians is either mistaken or not properly Christian at all.

Who is David Brat? Before he defeated Eric Cantor in the race to represent Virginia's 7th Congressional District in the House of Representatives in 2014, Brat was a Randolph-Macon College economics professor. In addition to a Ph.D. in economics, Brat also holds a Master of Divinity degree from Princeton Theological Seminary. Thus, Brat represents the complexity of the Tea Party as a movement of fiscal and Christian conservatives, many of whom admire novelist and "philosopher" Ayn Rand.

As Bloomburg Business pointed out in 2014, Brat is an "acolyte" of Rand's, and one sign of his devotion to her work is his former position, touted on his academic webpage, as Director of the BB&T Moral Foundations of Capitalism Program. Moral Foundations of Capitalism is a program that leverages BB&T's financial gifts and conditionality to integrate the books and teachings of Ayn Rand into university programs and curricula.

What is the connection between Brat's insistence that conservative Christians "own" the tradition of Christian compassion and his admiration for the philosophy of Ayn Rand? Rand and Objectivism, the school of thought she founded to affirm the virtue of selfishness, have never been identified with compassion. But in Tough Love: Sexuality, Compassion, and the Christian Right, I show that the theme of compassion does, in fact, run throughout Rand's major works. In addition, Rand and Christian conservatives have more in common than we might think: the form of compassion championed by Ayn Rand survives today in the Christian conservative movement.

As a moralist, Ayn Rand was preoccupied with establishing criteria to guide the dispensing of compassion to those who deserved it. In much of her writing--including in her magnum opus, Atlas Shrugged--she disdained what she understood as the incontinent bleeding heart compassion of political and theological liberals.

Ayn Rand's ideology of laissez-faire capitalism is popular among Christian conservatives. Rand's compassion requires privatizing social welfare, morally vetting those in need, and punishing those who violate "natural" morality. This may be what Representative Brat meant when he pointed out to Sandy Rios that liberal academics have nothing to contribute to conversations about compassion because they have "rejected natural law."

Perhaps the most disquieting aspect of Rand's and Christian conservative compassion is that it exculpates the morally righteous from responsibility for stigma, discrimination, and other forms of harm toward the morally "undeserving." This is not the lesson Representative Brat set out to teach, but it is a lesson that politically and theologically liberal Americans should recall when we engage Christian conservatives in public dialogues about compassion.