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David Brat, Religion and Redskins: How the Fringe Continues to Dominate the Conversation

As Americans Google ‘David Brat’ to find out how this unknown college professor came to unseat one of the most prominent (on the right) and loathed (on the left) members of the House, Majority Leader Eric Cantor, an intense battle of cultural ownership continues to simmer at a national scale. 

I’ve read over a dozen analyses of yesterday’s primary election and it does seem that the ‘perfect storm’ hypothesis is most fitting: Cantor’s flip-flopping on immigration reform; his disappearance in local politics while lusting for national power; the questioning of his conservative street cred; his perceived role in bailing out bankers. Brat chipped away, piece by piece, and defeated him handily with nearly no financing, befitting of his namesake when toppling the Goliath of Virginia politics. 

Everyone loves an underdog, and we can’t make too much of the ‘celebratory aspect’ comment while evading his position on Syria on MSNBC. The headline was bigger than the actual conversation, par for the course on click-hungry websites. That said, his politics is troubling, especially concerning religion and immigration, two things not always clear-cut in evangelical land. As with most primaries, only hardcore voters showed up, and they wore the Tea Party badge proudly.

Brat called his victory a ‘miracle from God,’ because, as we are all aware, God’s had it out for Cantor for some time. No mind. That’s not an uncommon sentiment from someone who was outspent 40-1 and still pulled off a win. But Brat’s fundamentalism goes much deeper. The professor is certain that national economics and Christianity are synonymous, and that faith in the latter leads to prosperity in the former. 

Somehow, in Brat’s mind, Adam Smith’s theory that individuals maximizing gains with no benevolent intentions still benefit society is somehow a metaphor for Christian morality. To the invisible hand that Smith invoked Brat added ‘of God.’ More precisely, a Protestant one.

Because Smith lived in a Protestant state, and because what he wrote has been defined in the eyes of Brat as revealing a divine hand—the faithful have a habit of filling in blanks that never existed—the most influential economic theorist in history has been transformed into a God-fearing man. And the man that believes this might soon have a vote in Congress.

Is a hardcore believer with an agenda in politics surprising? Hardly. But the timing of this upset is too important to miss.

The National Congress of American Indians might have been upset when its two-minute ad did not run during the Super Bowl, although the press they received online did drive many viewers to find it online. The organization was vindicated this week when a one-minute version was aired during the NBA Finals. The group’s message is simple: change the name of the Washington Redskins. It’s racist, whether or not you want to acknowledge that fact.

This particular sore spot in American history has been derided by some sports fans, including team owner Dan Snyder, who has refused to back down to any external pressures, including Senator Harry Reid. The Redskins itself tried to initiate what became a failed hashtag bomb on Reid, as many critics used the opportunity to tell Snyder and crew what they really felt about the issue. 

This is where genetics and history clash with short-term memory. The utopic ideology of manifest destiny is predominantly held by citizens whose own ancestors had a role in the little-discussed genocide on American soil. Most scoff at the idea that the Protestant myth men like Brat hold dear is a falsified account of one of the bloodiest episodes in our short time as a union. The more distant an event, the easier it is to write off. Regardless, ‘we’ were promised this land by anyone, divine or human.

Now Brat is one election away from perpetuating his fantasy of Christian economics, one in which our (read: white) right to economic prosperity is equal to our faith in a particular form of deity. The man spends his time writing about Ayn Rand’s morals; the idea that he’s ever picked up a Howard Zinn book is probably ludicrous.

Friends sometimes tell me that these are just fringe candidates, pay them no attention. Considering how long immigration reform has been stalled, I cannot agree. The fringe might be small, but it’s loud and has the ears of policy makers. Polls show that most Republicans do support reform—that is, affording foreigners similar rights to the ones our forebears stole and invented for themselves. Yet momentum on this issue is hard to spot.

Is yesterday’s election indicative of a larger trend of fringe candidates gaining power? Probably not. But it will put more fear in the heart of those whose names are on upcoming ballots, which translates into more kicking of the proverbial can. And while they punt the issue, more families are being torn apart by deportations.

Brat might not ever be accused of being a witch, but if Virginia voters hope to avoid the delusional musings of a far right religious theorist, this district better turn blue in a hurry. Perhaps that’s one facet of history that needs to be repeated: keeping the crazier of the crazy out of Washington.


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