Maybe This is what b, sd Had in Mind (trigger warning for Keller aficionados)

)And for contributors to Sasse 2020.)

Rod Dreher re-posted parts of an Aaron Renn post about urban/hipster Protestantism.

First, Renn’s categories:

Ben Sasse is a conservative exemplar of what I term “neutral world” Christianity. In my framework, there are three worlds we’ve seen in my lifetime related to the status of Christianity and traditional Christian norms in society.

1 Positive World (Pre-1994). To be seen as a religious person and one who exemplifies traditional Christian norms is a social positive. Christianity is a status enhancer. In some cases failure to embrace those norms hurt you.
2 Neutral World (1994-2014). Christianity is seen as a socially neutral attribute. It no longer had dominant status in society, but to be seen as a religious person is not a knock either. It’s more like a personal affectation or hobby. Traditional norms of behavior retain residual force.
3 Negative World (2014-). In this world, being a Christian is a social negative, especially in high status positions. Christianity in many ways as seen as undermining the social good. Traditional norms are expressly repudiated.

To illustrate the differences, consider these three incidents:

1 Positive World: In 1987 the Miami Herald reported that Sen. Gary Hart had been having an affair, and cavorting with the woman in question on his yacht. He was forced to drop out of the presidential race as a result.
2 Neutral World: In 1998 the Drudge Report broke the story that Bill Clinton had been having an affair with intern Monica Lewinksy, including sex acts in the Oval Office. Bill Clinton was badly damaged by the scandal but survived it as the Democratic Party rallied around him and public decided his private behavior was not relevant to the job.
3 Negative World: In 2016 Donald Trump, a many whose entire persona (sexual antics, excess consumption, boastfulness, etc.) is antithetical to traditional Christianity, is elected president. The Access Hollywood tape, for example, had no effect on voter decisions about him.

Even for those who hate Christianity, the rise of Trump, something only possible in a post-Christian world, should give them pause to consider.

Tim Keller’s ministry is the consummate neutral world Christianity:

The neutral world church is very different in a number of ways. It has traditionally been much more apolitical (though many of its practitioners lean left). It’s also much more heavily urban and global city focused. It tries to avoid highlighting areas where Christianity is in conflict with the world. Instead of being antagonistic towards the culture, it is explicitly positive towards culture. In fact, you could sum up much of the model under the heading “cultural engagement.” They want to meet the culture on its own terms, and reach people as participants in a pluralistic public square. They want to be in the mainstream media, not just Christian media or their own platforms. Many of their ministries have been backed by big money donors. These are many of the people who denounced Trump to no effect during the election. In effect, they represent a version of Christianity taking its cues from the secular elite consensus.

Which means that some political topics are okay, some aren’t:

The average neutral world Christian leader – and that’s a lot of the high profile ones other than the remaining religious righters, ones who have a more dominant role than ever thanks to the internet – talks obsessively about two topics today: refugees (immigrants) and racism. They combine that with angry, militant anti-Trump politics. These are not just expounded as internal to the church (e.g., helping the actual refugee family on your block), but explicitly in a social reform register (changing legacy culture and government policy).

I’m not going to argue that they are wrong are those points. But it’s notable how selective these folks were in picking topics to talk about. They seem to have landed on causes where they are 100% in agreement with the elite secular consensus. . . .

I won’t speculate on their motives, but it’s very clear that neutral world leaders have a lot to lose. Unlike Jerry Falwell, who never had secular cachet and lived in the sticks, these guys enjoy artisanal cheese, microbrews, and pour over coffees in Brooklyn. They’ve had bylines in the New York Times and Washington Post. They get prime speaking gigs at the Q conference and elsewhere. A number of them have big donors to worry about. And if all of a sudden they lost the ability to engage with the culture they explicitly affirmed as valuable, it would a painful blow. For example, to accept Dreher’s Benedict Option argument they’d have to admit that the entire foundation of their current way of doing business no longer works. Not many people are interested in hearing that.

The neutral world Christians – and again that seems to be much of Evangelical leadership today – are in a tough spot when it comes to adjusting to the negative world. The move from positive to neutral world brought an increase in mainstream social status (think Tim Keller vs. Pat Robertson), but the move to a negative world will involve a loss of status. Let’s be honest, that’s not palatable to most. Hence we see a shift hard to the left and into very public synchronization with secular pieties. That’s not everybody in Evangelical leadership, but it’s a lot of them. Many of those who haven’t are older and long time political conservatives without a next generation of followers who think like them. (Political conservatism is also dying, incidentally).

And lo and behold, The Gospel Coalition is smack dab in Neutral World Christianity:

I was speaking with one pastor who is a national council member of the Gospel Coalition. He’s a classic neutral worlder who strongly disapproves of Trump. But he notes that the Millennials in his congregation are in effect Biblically illiterate and have a definition of God’s justice that is taken from secular leftist politics. They did not, for example, see anything at all problematic about Hillary Clinton and her views. A generation or so from now when these people are the leaders, they won’t be people keeping unpopular positions to themselves. They won’t have any unpopular positions to hide. They will be completely assimilated to the world. Only their ethics will no longer be Hillary’s, but the new fashion du jour.

Renn’s recommendation is not necessarily the Benedict Option but the Fighting-the-Good-Fight Option:

The template is Paul, who was one tough hombre. Paul was a Jewish blueblood on the fast track to high council membership who threw it all way to endure beatings, imprisonment, etc. (One of the underappreciated virtues of Paul is just how physically and mentally tough that guy was). He said he counted it all as loss for the surpassing worth of knowing Christ. He also someone who could say, “I have not shunned to declare unto you the whole counsel of God.”

Even the author of the Benedict Option, Dreher, sees merit in Paul as the model for ministry:

Paul did not focus his struggle on the world, but within the church itself. Aside from seeking converts, he doesn’t advise his followers to engage the culture, get politically active, or anything like that. Nor did he instruct his followers to run away from the world. Rather, he focused on building up the church in holiness, and exhorting believers in the new faith to overcome the world in themselves.

That seems a lot like the confessional Reformed Protestant model. It’s very personal, familial, congregational, and local, perhaps even too local for the advocates of localism.

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Choose Ye This Day

Donald Trump elicits the inner fundamentalist in all Americans. A recent expression is a drive-by blog post at Commonweal on Senator Ben Sasse:

Well, that didn’t take long. Ben Sasse, Nebraska’s energetic, open-minded, publically engaged Republican senator has been Trumpified.

Citizens expected him, as an outspoken and popular #NeverTrump-er who was relatively uncorrupted by power, to be part of the intraparty resistance to the new president’s ethos, tactics, and character traits. Surely he would have respect for the norms of the Constitution and engage his critics with reason, not mockery. This is, after all, a senator who gives encomia to the Constitution on Twitter and casually banters with his constituents and naysayers about politics and college football.

Sasse was at least critical of last week’s executive order. But this week, with the Supreme Court nomination of Neil Gorsuch, he has showed how quickly the new executive’s behavior can be imitated.

Last night and this morning, Sasse gleefully mocked both protestors and Sen. Minority Leader Schumer.

So the idea is that Sasse should have been sympathetic to protesters and not to President Trump’s nominee for SCOTUS. A sitting senator is supposed to choose unhinged American citizens — and it’s not like we haven’t seen many of such moralists the past 6 years — over the leader of the free world (for now).

And for Mr. Peppard to act as if the protesters to Neil Gorsuch’s nomination are not risible but serious is almost as risible as the recent spate of convulsions over President Trump:

just as worrisome, the fact that he publicly mocked peaceful protestors — which he did again on radio this morning — is an eerie warning that he’s been Trumpified. The new president has shown that he loves to “punch down,” something the old Sen. Sasse would not have done. But executives have a way of modeling behavior that those seeking advancement find difficult not to emulate.

Mocking in juvenile manner (pussy parade anyone?) the duly elected executive of the federal government is not worrisome? And you wonder why Trump is POTUS.

Sasse 2020

I am calling the bluff of those who throw around the label “R2K.”

Listen to the interview Scott Clark did with Senator Ben Sasse and tell me where he is wrong. Sasse has a smart understanding of the U.S. political system, the nature of civil society, and his own calling as a Christian and many other duties. Imagine that, he can speak American and Reformed.

And if Sasse doesn’t measure up because of 2k views, are the critics of 2k going to support the dominionist Ted Cruz, the Opus Dei Rick Santorum, or the liberal moderate Southern Baptist Mike Huckabee? (Are they so particular about their pastor?)

I don’t know what the Senator’s plans are or whether he can clear all the hurdles of a primary campaign. But if you want a Reformed Protestant who sounds more like Yuval Levin than Mark Levin, Sasse is your guy.

The Original Evangelicals aren’t Evangelical?!?

Just noticed this in John Fea’s odds making for the evangelical vote this November:

Some evangelicals continue to oppose Trump and have not made it clear what they will do in November. I am thinking here of Nebraska Senator Ben Sasse (if you can call a Missouri-Synod Lutheran an “evangelical”) and Southern Baptist leader Russell Moore. Perhaps some of these folks are praying that something might happen in Cleveland next week that leads the GOP to pick another candidate. Others might be praying that an independent candidate will arise at this late date. These are long shots, but let’s remember that evangelicals believe in miracles.

Now, regulars at Old Life know that Ben Sasse, despite having grown up in the Missouri Synod, is actually a Reformed Protestant — even an elder in the United Reformed Churches I believe. That may be too much insider 2k baseball for John Fea. But there it is.

The main point pertains to John’s parenthetical remark about whether we can call Lutherans “evangelical.” For starters, the original Protestants, the followers of Martin Luther, were and still are known as evangelical. So don’t Lutherans have the copyright on being evangelical?

A related concern is if a good historian has enough sense to wonder about classifying a Lutheran as evangelical, why are the same historians so ready to put put Presbyterians in the same round hole as Pentecostals and Wesleyans? I mean, if you have the slightest hesitation about Lutherans, shouldn’t you also wonder about Protestants who didn’t like Billy Graham (for his pro-choice theology)?

More Burke, Less Locke

Ben Sasse addressed CPAC yesterday and Scott Clark has the video under the heading, “The Government Exists to Secure Natural Rights.”

I immediately wondered if this commits the federal government to granting amnesty to all the Mexicans living in America, legally or not. If everyone has rights naturally, and the U.S. government is committed to protecting those rights, how could it ever not protect the rights of anyone who winds up American soil?

Here‘s what Senator Sasse may have meant by that line:

Our founding moment is truly extraordinary. Our founders were making a claim about human dignity. Our founders were saying that everybody, everywhere—not just those who have been blessed to be born in this place—but everybody, everywhere is ordained with natural rights. Everyone everywhere is created in the image of God with natural rights, and government is just our shared project to secure those rights.

Again, everyone has rights by virtue of being human (sort of like the French Revolution’s Declaration of the Rights of Man — a universal, abstract ideal).

But another way of thinking about rights is to say they are protected by a constitutional arrangement and in order to receive such protection you need to be a member of a constitutional community. Here’s another statement from Senator Sasse:

People have been wrong about the nature of government and the nature of freedom, and we the people in America believe that our rights come to us via nature, and government is our project to secure them, so we the people give the government enumerated powers. We don’t ever wait for the government to give us an rights. We claim those by nature.

But what if the government has clearly enumerated powers and some of those mean that citizens enjoy the protection of that government. That protection is a form of liberty and rights. Citizens benefit from the government’s protection and the Constitution’s Bill of Rights. But non-citizens don’t. That seems elementary (but I’m only licensed to do history.)

What might Senator Sasse’s remarks have sounded like if he were a reader of American Conservative:

Sasse’s case for classical conservatism was actually a defense of classical liberalism. For the senator, America is an exceptional idea invented by the Founding and “ordained with natural rights”. This Lockean interpretation of the American Revolution is not how classical (or small-c) conservatives understand the Founding. Classical conservatives certainly believe in conserving the achievements of the Founding, but they also know America is not an idea. America is a culture and a nation composed of many regional and local communities. It is from these communities that a sense of self-government is developed and citizens who can underpin limited government are forged.

Sasse also described conservatism as a “set of policy preferences” directed towards the reduction of the size of government. Classical conservatism is not merely a checklist of anti-government policies, regardless of how virtuous those policies might be. It is a philosophical temperament which sees politics as the art of the possible, values prudential reform, and puts concrete institutions before abstract concepts.

When the Skinny Lady Sings "Silent Night" You Live In A Christian Nation

Even before I watched Senator Ben Sasse’s video about the murders in San Bernadino, I had a sense that what binds Americans together is not freedom (as Sasse argues) but Christianity. How’s that? Well, take a gander at the Netflix Christmas special and watch Miley Cyrus, with her tatted-up arms and long legs, atop a white piano, sing the worst of Christmas carols — Silent Night (lame lyrics, awful, repetitive and simple melody). When you have Hollywood stars singing and listening to the line, “Christ, the savior is bor-ooorn,” you have to wonder what Muslims see when they look at the United States.

To make the case for Christian America, you don’t need to argue as some do that even secularists adhere to Christian morals:

The other half of the population dismisses conventional expressions of Christianity but actually believes more fervently than any Falwell, albeit in attenuated form. They are Christian radicals that have taken the Christian idea of loving one’s neighbor, stripped it of every attendant belief, and elevated it to an absolute principle. Theirs is a faith of nonjudgmentalism, accepting every refugee, and always blaming oneself whenever one is attacked. Call this outlook “multiculturalism” if you like, but the only culture capable of producing it is a Christian one.

Nor do you have to mock those believers who oppose commercializing Christmas as if the secular observation of a church holiday has no religious significance:

In their militant efforts, evangelicals have not only politicized the debate, but they have appropriated a “tradition” and even a word. To say “Christmas” is to state one’s faith. Now, any use of the phrase, “Happy Holidays,” calls into question the state of one’s soul. I’m reminded of Tracy Fessenden’s work here, as I think what we are seeing is “the ability of a Protestantized conception of religion to control the meanings of both the religious and the secular.” What we are seeing is a Protestantized conception of religion to control the meanings of both “Christmas” and “Holiday.”

As if scholars who study the history of religion can’t pay some heed to the millennium old conflict between Islam and the West and not notice that to outsiders the festivities that crowd the December datebook of most Americans might seem like a lot of Christian remembrance of the birth of Christ. When Muslims observe Ramadan, do scholars chalk it up to secular celebrations of a Middle-Eastern holiday? It is hard to imagine cultural Muslims producing the kind of songs that Americans have for Christmas. What might be the Islamic equivalent for Hajj that Sleigh-Ride captures for American Christians as they prepare home decorations and bake cookies?

Just hear those sleigh bells jingle-ing
Ring ting tingle-ing too
Come on, it’s lovely weather
For a sleigh ride together with you

Outside the snow is falling
And friends are calling “Yoo Hoo”
Come on, it’s lovely weather
For a sleigh ride together with you

Giddy-yap giddy-yap giddy-yap
let’s go
Let’s look at the snow
We’re riding in a wonderland of snow

Giddy-yap giddy-yap giddy-yap it’s grand
Just holding your hand
We’re gliding along with the song
Of a wintry fairy land

Our cheeks are nice and rosy
And comfy cozy are we
We’re snuggled up together like two
Birds of a feather would be

Let’s take the road before us
And sing a chorus or two
Come on, it’s lovely weather
For a sleigh ride together with you

There’s a birthday party at the home of Farmer Gray
It’ll be the perfect ending of a perfect day
We’ll be singing the songs we love to sing without a single stop
At the fireplace while we watch the chestnuts pop
Pop! Pop! Pop!

There’s a happy feeling nothing in the world can buy
When they pass around the coffee and the pumpkin pie
It’ll nearly be like a picture print by Currier and Ives
These wonderful things are the things
We remember all through our lives

Of course, it doesn’t take an infallible bishop to know that the Christmas holidays in the United States are much less about religious devotion than they are an excuse for mirth, relaxation, and consumption. (And in an all about me moment, I am an enthusiastic supporter of mirth, relaxation, and consumption once final grades are in). But right in the middle of it all are celebrities like Miley Cyrus, or Frank Sinatra, or Elvis Presley (think all those Christmas albums) whose personal lives are far removed from communicant membership in a Christian communion, singing about the savior who saves the world from sin.

In which case, when Muslims look at the United States, they may see Christianity much more than they see freedom, or godlessness, or secularism. After all, the American soldiers who keep watch in Muslim dominated societies in the Middle East do not attend services that recite the American creed of freedom of religion, speech, and assembly, but the Christian creed of Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.

None of this amounts to anything like a basis for policy for either domestic security or foreign relations. But it does point to a longer history of which Americans are both ignorant and part. For over a millennium Europeans have been either explicitly fighting Islam or implicitly forcing Muslims to conform to a global order dominated by the West. After World War II, the United States was the last pro-Western nation standing to defend the West’s hegemony in an order that Europeans had been building ever since the Portuguese and Spanish began to chase Muslims in the Mediterranean Sea and on the continent of Africa. If Americans noticed their ties to this larger history, Miley Cyrus might be less comfortable singing “Silent Night” and U.s. legislators might frame the nation’s relationship to Islam and Islamism differently than they do.

Mr. Sorkin Goes to Washington

Ben Sasse gave his first speech as a Senator last week and it echoed themes from Newsroom and West Wing about putting the country ahead of partisan politics. If Sorkin is hopeful about the presidency of journalism, Sasse is calling for the Senate as a place to engage in important debates about the health of the nation:

And if I can be brutally honest for a moment: I’m home basically every weekend, and what I hear – and what I’m sure most of you hear – is some version of this: A pox on both parties and all your houses. We don’t believe politicians are even trying to fix this mess. To the Republicans, to those who claim this new majority is leading the way: Few believe that. To the grandstanders who use this institution as a platform for outside pursuits: Few believe the country’s needs are as important to you as your ambitions. To the Democrats, who did this body harm through nuclear tactics: Few believe bare-knuckled politics are a substitute for principled governing. And does anyone doubt that many on both the right and the left now salivate for more of these radical tactics? The people despise us all.

And why is this? Because we’re not doing the job we were sent here to do. The Senate isn’t tackling the great national problems that worry those we work for.

I therefore propose a thought experiment: If the Senate isn’t going to be the most important venue for addressing our biggest national problems, where is that venue? Where should the people look for the long-term national prioritization? Or, to ask it of ourselves, would anything be lost if the Senate didn’t exist? Again, this a thought experiment, so let me be emphatically clear: I think a great deal would be lost if the federal government didn’t have a Senate – but game out with me the question of “Why?” What precisely would be lost if we had only a House of Representatives, rather than both bodies? The growth of the administrative state, the fourth branch of government, is increasingly hollowing out the Article I branch, the legislature – and many in Congress have been complicit in this hollowing out of our own powers. So would anything really be lost if we doubled-down on Woodrow Wilson’s impulses and inclinations toward administrative efficiency by removing much of the clunky-ness of legislative process?

Or, we could approach this thought exercise from the inside out: What is unique about the Senate? What can this body do particularly well? What are its essential characteristics? What was it built for? Consider its attributes:

We have 6-year terms instead of 2-year terms (and the Founders actually considered lifetime appointments to the Senate);

We have proportional representation of states, not of population counts – reflecting a federalist structure where we are supposed to be especially attuned to the distinction between agreeing that government might have a role to play in tackling certain kinds of problems – and yet guarding against a routinized assumption that only a centralized, national government can ably tackle problem X or Y;

Third, we have rules designed to strengthen the hand of individual senators, not to the end of obstruction, but rather to ensure full debate and engagement with dissenting points of view – for the Founders had less concern with governmental efficiency than with protecting minority rights and culturally unpopular views;

Fourth, we had no formal rules acknowledging political parties until as late as the 1970s; we had merely a 20th century convention of acknowledging to speak first the leaders of the two largest party blocks;

We have explicit constitutional duties related to providing the executive with advice – chiefly on the building of his or her team and on the long-term trajectory of foreign policy.

Six-year terms; representation of states, not census counts; nearly limitless debate to protect dissenters; no formal rules for political parties. What then is the answer to the question, “What is the Senate for?” Possibly the best shorthand is: “To shield lawmakers from obsession with short-term popularity to enable us to focus on the biggest long-term challenges our people face.”

Reclaiming American institutions. Deliberative bodies of legislators. Imagine that.

Is It the Offense of 2k, or Just Nebraska?

Ben Sasse won handily in the Nebraska senate election yesterday and thus keeps alive any hopes I have of spending a night in the White House (should he ever decide to run for president). Finding anyone to take notice is another matter.

The Huffington Post story is all of five sentences.

The Daily Nebraskan did not say much more, but did include the arresting detail that Sasse, who took 65% of the vote, was running in a state where Republicans accounted for only 48% of registered voters.

And Midland University, the institution over which Ben currently presides, has nothing — I mean no thing — about its chief executive’s successful bid for the U.S. Senate.

I admire the university’s silence about politics. As a Lutheran institution, such avoidance of politics may reflect their tradition’s two-kingdom outlook.

At the same time, I wonder if it’s Nebraska. After all, when Jack Nicholson finally played an elderly male who had outrun his sex drive — could anyone back in the 1970s have imagined such a role for Jack? — the makers of About Schmidt situated the character, an insurance bureaucrat no less, in Omaha.

Fly over country, indeed.

But congratulations to Senator-elect Sasse, just the same.

Who Needs Sanctification if Everyone (except the politicians) is Innocent?

In The Prospect this morning (my effort to sample British magazines) I ran across and op-ed about Detroit’s bankruptcy. Lynn Paramore invoked the notion of faultlessness to understand who’s at fault and how isn’t in Detroit’s (and Michigan’s) financial mess:

Americans, like their counterparts elsewhere, had already watched innocent people pay deary for the 2007-08 financial meltdown, while financial institutions got special protection. Was it going to happen again?

Americans (not sure about their counterparts elsewhere), including Christian ones who may know better, like to think of the American people (read ourselves) as virtuous, hard working, salt of the earth, while the big financial and political institutions hold down the duties of villainy. After all, a standard trope in American politics is that Washington corrupts politicians, just as Wall St. brings down — whom? the ambitious graduates of prestigious MBA programs? Sure.

The same sort of demonization seems to be following Ben Sasse who is by no means innocent but whose very good Yale dissertation has gotten a lot of attention from journalists who are suspicious of the Tea Party and are looking not only for chinks in Sasse’s armor but appear to be inclined to see Ben stripped naked (like Job?).

The latest (after Sarah Posner) to unclothe Sasse is Heather Digby Parton, a name that sounds less than innocent of those hardworking Americans just minding their business. At Salon she takes aim at Ben’s dissertation and by virtue of his associations with the Tea Party turns Sasse into David Barton:

. . . it’s a fascinating treatise on the origins of the modern religious right in America. Unlike most historians, he believes that the conservative movement grew up in the 1960s not out of rebellion against the civil rights stances of the Democratic Party but rather the “secularization” of the culture in the wake of the Supreme Court rulings banning school prayer and Bible reading. He even goes so far as to claim that rather than a cynical decision to stoke the flames of Southern racism with the Southern strategy, it was Richard Nixon’s deep understanding of the Christian culture that led him to persuade evangelicals and conservative Catholics to join the GOP and usher in the era of conservatism in the last decades of the 20th century. It’s a novel understanding of that history, to say the least. Most historians cite Nixon’s pursuit of blue-collar Catholics as part of the strategy to peel off working-class votes with racial resentment. But Sasse’s dissertation is evidently persuasive in at least some respects.

But regardless of his level of accomplishment as a scholar, Ben Sasse clearly sees the world through the lens of a conservative Christian crusader. According to his website, he is a proponent of the most radical interpretation of religious freedom that’s in circulation today on the far right:

Ben Sasse believes that our right to the free exercise of religion is co-equal to our right to life. This is not a negotiable issue. Government cannot force citizens to violate their religious beliefs under any circumstances. He will fight for the right of all Americans to act in accordance with their conscience.

One wonders if he believes the child molestation at Warren Jeffs’ polygamous compound or Shariah Law honor killings are also non-negotiable religious beliefs that the government cannot force those people to violate under any circumstances. In any case, he is certainly a proponent of the Christian right manifesto, the Manhattan Declaration, which aims to change the strategy of the religious right from a purely moral argument to a legal doctrine that exempts religious adherents from following the law of the land.

So what do we have here? A writer for a progressive publication that refuses to trust the faculty at Yale University for awarding Sasse a degree? Somehow Sasse hoodwinked the history department at Yale into believing his concocted account of the Religious Right’s origins. For what it’s worth, I’ve read the dissertation and know that Sasse did not portray Nixon as having a “deep understanding” of Christians. Nixon did understand that Billy Graham was popular and respected and courted the evangelist. That’s not particularly deep, but given the media’s treatment of Graham and American revivalism, Nixon may have been as profound as his journalist watchdogs. And for double what it’s worth, if Ms. Parton is going to invoke a right to life as perhaps more sacred than religious freedom, has she told that to her pro-choice friends?

But the inconsistencies don’t matter when politics turn not only figures into cardboard cutouts but Yale dissertations into campaign literature. Thankfully, some historians can look past the politics to see that Sasse made a real contribution in his dissertation and that it has no direct bearing on electoral politics (which tends to be the money pit of American life). Charlie McCrary, a graduate student at Florida State University who should be careful about running for public office, should get the last word:

One of Sasse’s most enduring contributions is his demonstration of how the idea of “secularism-as-religion” made its way into popular (or what he calls “grassroots”) consciousness. Billy Graham and other religious leaders in the 1950s propagated the clash between Christian (or “tri-faith”) America and godless communists. What Sasse’s work helps to illustrate is how this model was re-purposed in the 19060s by non-elite middle class Americans to create the “religious right” and “secular left.” The Cold War abroad; the culture wars at home. “For though we may often forget this reality,” Sasse and/or his subjects remind us, “God is real, and there are ultimately only two places for us to stand–with him or against him” (189). Whereas all of America had been “with him,” a number of Americans were beginning to perceive an “enemy within.” Thus, the Supreme Court’s decisions tin the school-prayer cases Engel v. Vitale (1962) and Abington v. Schempp (1963), “kicking God out of schools,” only confirmed what people like New York Congressman Frank Becker already had seen coming: looming secularization.

To make this argument work, Sasse first narrates the complicated and contingent process by which the Engel and Schempp verdicts were reached. His second and third chapters provide the best and most thorough treatment of these cases that I’ve read. They’re not only worth reading but worth assigning, especially in upper-level courses on American religion, law, and politics. In these chapters it is particularly clear that Sasse does not argue that secularizers constituted a coherent, self-conscious movement. Instead, what was going on was a shift in the very understandings of the meanings of the words like “sectarian,” “nonsectarian,” and “religion” itself. In other words, this was the Supreme Court trying to stretch the Establishment Clause to apply to a type of pluralism–not to mention a style of argumentation–it wasn’t written to handle. It’s a complicated historical moment that Sasse, like many recent historians, zeroes in on, recognizing its seminal importance in the story of American religion and law.

Nuanced discussions like this, though, had little purchase with grassroots Americans. After all, you’re either with God or against God. Sasse cites polls showing 65-85 percent of the country opposing the Schempp decision, if not fully understanding it. The Supreme court, these folks concluded, must be against God. But why? Someone somewhere, an “enemy within,” was secularizing America. At least one person was willing to be that enemy, to adopt–and thus perpetuate–the either/or culture-war worldview; in so doing, in the following years and decades Madalyn Murray O’Hair “solidified her place as the human face of secularization” (315). Some commentators, as well as some Supreme Court justices themselves, especially Tom Clark, tried to amend this stark rendering. “Clark failed to grasp, however, that most citizens were not listening to his or other elites’ narrow explanations of what these cases meant,” Sasse writes. “They were mesmerized instead by Madalyn’s–and her preacher-opponents’–broader explanations of what the cases implied about the future of American life (331).

This figuration didn’t happen overnight, but it didn’t take very long either. Initially, Sasse argues, evangelicals were mixed in their reception to the decision and to countering legislation like the Becker Amendment (which declared that “Nothing in this [U.S.] Constitution shall be deemed to prohibit” Bible reading, prayers, or references to God in public institutions). However, amidst rhetoric of a state in open rebellion against God, many evangelicals, including Christianity Today, came to oppose the Supreme court’s decisions and support the Becker Amendment. Billy Graham, for example, “had regularly pointed to the Supreme Court’s prayer decisions on the stump as Exhibit Number One in support of his allegations of a belligerent secularist movement, a conspiratorial ‘anti-God colossus of materialism at home and of Communism abroad” (247). Using language resonant with David Sehat’s work, Sasse argues, “Religious Americans understood atheists not only as intellectual threats seducing individuals, but as threats to the moral order” (285).

The linking of “secular” with “left,” and the depiction of that combination as dangerous, became further solidified in the 1970s. It was then, too, that the party politicians started to use this dichotomization to their advantage. (This is an important component of the dissertation, since Sassee wants to demonstrate the bottom-up character of anti-secularization; thus, politicians pick up on the rhetoric only later, rather than manufacturing it themselves.) Sasse shows how Republicans like Nixon and McGovern used campus demonstrations and anti-Vietnam-War protests to stoke the fears of “Main Street,” “a middle America horrified at creeping permissiveness and the possibility of widespread social disorder” (345). Spiro Agnew, bombastic and sometimes off-putting though he was, struck a certain chord with middle Americans, many of whom were evangelicals. After the rhetoric surrounding the Engel and Schempp decisions, Time’s 1966 Death-of-God cover, the publicity of Madalyn Murray O’Hair, and now the student protest movements, Billy Graham noted in 1968 that many in his flock were beginning to move right politically (355). In short, the “silent majority” was taking shape.

Here, Sasse’s interpretation is different from, for example, Matthew Lassitner’s 2007 book The Silent Majority, though not directly contradictory. As Posner notes, Sasse certainly gives short shrift to the racial, pro-segregationist movements that helped to form the religious right, as Lassiter and others, such as Randall Balmer, have shown. Perhaps this is because Sasse has a nostalgically rosy picture of his subjects. Or, perhaps he was less aware of these factors, much clearer after a decade of historical work than they were in 2004. Or perhaps his focus was elsewhere, and he saw these topics as less relevant to his specific argument about anti-secular rhetoric. In any case, Sasse’s work only adds to these explanations of the effectiveness of the rhetoric of a silent (and “moral”) majority. He is in agreement with Lassiter, Balmer, and others, in his overall point: “if one wants to identify the single most momentous marker in the transformation of formerly Democratic white religious Americans into reliable Republican voters in presidential contests, that moment is not 1980 or 1984, but 1972” (410). This pre-history of the religious right and Moral Majority, focusing on Nixon’s supporters and the culture of 1970s evangelicalism, looking for historical explanations beyond myopic focus on the “Reagan revolution,” compliments other recent and upcoming work from Darren Dochuk, Leslie Durroughs Smith, Mike McVicar, and many others.

So, what does the Weekly Standard or Posner see in this work? If Sasse’s dissertation is a polemic against anyone, it’s against academic historians who too frequently have either ignored the religion of middle America or assumed it to be unworthy of study. When making these points, though, Sasse is not clear about exactly who does this. He complains about the blind spots of “academic historians” who ignore religion and assume its “retreat” after the Scopes Trial. His citations, though, are mostly of U.S. history surveys. For example, he argues, “After the 1960s, survey text religion must be rushed quickly off the stage” (417). In this section he echoes some arguments from Jon Butler, his dissertation’s co-advisor, in his article “Jack-in-the-Box Faith,” which was published the same year as Sasse’s dissertation. In the final pages, Sasse rails against “historians as a whole,” who are unconvinced of religion’s ability to be a real motivating factor in people’s lives, anything more than a “veneer” for other interests.

Sasse’s use of terms like “middle America,” “grassroots,” and “Main Street” do sound like politically and perhaps racially charged rhetorical devices in 2014 (because they are), but the terms were in use in the period Sasse is describing. He could interrogate the categories better, or lay out clearer definitions, but the decisions to use his subjects’ terminology as his own is methodologically defensible. Furthermore, Sasse does frequently appear sympathetic to his conservative evangelical subjects (or maybe, to use a phrase I often hear but don’t really understand, he’s just “taking them seriously”), and the final section’s indictment of twenty-first-century academic “elites” resonates with his picture of 1960s elites’ departures from middle America’s sensibilities. Sasse does believe that the 1960s and 1970s were in fact times of secularization, at least among the Supreme Court, academics, and the New York Times, though certainly not among middle America, but he also recognizes, and demonstrates persuasively, how the label “secularization” worked to link together a variety of ideas, movements, and people that otherwise would not fit in the same category. Indeed, Sasse argues, “other segments of the population,” that is, not white evangelical middle America, “represented visibly by the ACLU, the Northeastern legal establishment, and most Jewish groups” did in fact try to secularize Aemrica (448).

To what extent this is true, and what it means, is up for debate and discussion. But the main point Sasse makes is not this one; it’s that many Americans believed all these secularizers to be in league with one another, part of a coherent secular agenda, a program represented of even spearheaded by O’Hair–even though almost no one involved in these groups would see it that way. This is a persuasive argument, and it helps to answer a central question: How is it that conservative white evangelicals have come to see their worldview, their politics and practices, as coherent? A primary way has been in defining a common enemy. And thus, what it meant to be “religious” in 1964 or in 1972 or 1980 (or 2014?) was not much of a positive assertion but rather an act of negative definition. “Religious” means not secular or anti-secular: “anti-Madalyn.” Sasse argues this explicitly, saying “it is more accurate to conceive of much of grassroots white America as being repelled by a secular left, than as attracted by the particular policy visions of the religious right” (450). In this way, the construction of the “secular left” enabled the construction of a religious right.

My One Chance at an Overnight in the White House

Ben Sasse wins the Republican primary for U.S. Senate in Nebraska — handily!

Sasse blunted a mini-surge from wealthy bank executive Sid Dinsdale, who appeared to emerge as a threat during the final week of the campaign amid a nasty advertising battle pitting Sasse and his allies against former state treasurer Shane Osborn, the candidate most closely aligned with the GOP establishment.

With most precincts reporting, Sasse led Dinsdale 48 percent to 23 percent, with Osborn running third with 22 percent of the vote. Sasse will be a heavy favorite in the general election considering Nebraska’s strong conservative tilt.

And yet, you’d have never known Sasse was even a candidate from NPR’s fly-over coverage yesterday:

LIASSON: Today there’s a primary in Nebraska, where Sarah Palin, Ted Cruz and groups like FreedomWorks are backing one candidate. Mitch McConnell is backing another. But while that intramural fight is bitter, the stakes are low. In the very red State of Nebraska, the Senate seat will probably stay in Republican hands no matter who wins the primary.

There and elsewhere in GOP primaries, the differences are more about style than substance. Terry Schilling is with the American Principles in Action, a Tea Party ally.

TERRY SCHILLING: In 2010 and 2012, you saw this typical battle between the establishment and the Tea Party. What we’re seeing today is not necessarily a battle between the establishment and Tea Party, but both the conservative establishment and the Tea Party are embracing populist issues.

LIASSON: So instead of a Todd Aiken saying dumb things about rape, Schilling says you have Republican candidates across the board embracing bans on late term abortions.

SCHILLING: I would argue that right now what’s changed is that we all want a purer party, right? We want a party that stays in line with our principles. But we also want a party that connects with a broad base of voters. The conservative movement and the Tea Party movement and the Republican Party are getting more practical.

LIASSON: Democrats argue even if the Republican establishment is winning primaries they’re still nominating candidates that are too conservative to win. That proposition will be tested in November. But no matter what happens then, Matt Kibbe is on safe ground when he describes what the Republican ranks in Congress will look like in January.

KIBBE: I will boldly predict that there will be more members of what I would call the liberty caucus in the Senate and the House.

LIASSON: Ever since the Tea Party emerged on the scene five years ago, it’s managed to move the Republican Party slowly but steadily to the right, even if its candidates don’t win at the ballot box.

Of course, Sasse is not yet in the Senate — he will need to win in November. And where he might go from the Senate is unclear. A run for the president would seem a stretch, even though Sasse is young and even though we have precedents (arguably not the best) for electing Senators as chief executive. Nebraska is not exactly a state rich with electoral college votes. Maybe he will eventually run for governor of Nebraska, acquire executive experience, and consolidate Nebraska, Kansas, Colorado, Missouri, and Iowa into one mega-state (imagine the lottery winnings). But since I had no idea Ben had this in him back when he was passing the baton of Modern Reformation to me, I have learned not to underestimate him.