Ben Sasse, Donald Trump, and the Beginning and End of the Religious Right: (Mostly) A Repost

Charles McCrary

Last week at the Republican National Convention Donald Trump officially became the Republicans’ nominee for president. There is much to say about what Trump—and, probably more importantly, Trumpism—means, what effects his candidacy has had, and so on. We have a number of theoretical tools and historical examples from which to draw some conclusions. In recent months there have been lots of bad pieces about Trump and some good ones. (I’ve especially appreciated the analyses from Kerry Mitchell, Elijah Siegler, and Finbarr Curtis.) Trump’s place in American religious history is unclear to me, other than as a reaffirmation that white nationalism must remain a key part of our narratives.

A number of commentators noticed the RNC’s lack of social conservatism and talk of the “family values” of the Religious Right, including reproductive issues. Maybe the culture wars—or, as Peter Thiel put it during his RNC speech, the distracting “fake culture wars”—are over. Maybe the Religious Right has lost so much power, by ceding it so totally to one party, that their influence is basically nil. I admit that this conclusion does seem plausible. But we’ve heard premature pronouncements of the Religious Right’s death before. Many times. Now, here I could say something about how “the evangelicals” don’t exist, or we could parse “social conservatism.” Instead I’ll just say that it’s probably true that most people don’t care what James Dobson has to say anymore, but it’s also very unlikely that social conservatism is dead, even as it probably cannot be the primary calling card of a successful national politician. Recently, “religious liberty” has become, in popular discourse and in legislation, social conservatives’ chosen method of opposing cultural and legal changes regarding sex and gender. It is noteworthy, I think, that the most effective opposition to civil rights advances for minority groups (LGBT people) is to reframe the matter as an impingement upon the rights of a different “minority” group (evangelicals or social conservatives.) At any rate, though, these issues probably aren’t going away any time soon, and to whatever extent the “Religious Right” survives, it likely will be as a self-consciously oppositional, reactionary force.

Which leads me to today’s repost. Jesus wasn’t the only important Republican missing from the RNC last week. Republican Senator Ben Sasse, a key leader in the #NeverTrump movement, opted to skip the convention and instead “take his kids to watch some dumpster fires.” I wrote about Sasse on this blog a couple years ago, before he had won his Senate seat and before anyone thought Donald Trump would be the Republican nominee. I’ve reposted that piece here. I think it worth revisiting because Sasse locates the origins of the Religious Right in a self-consciously oppositional politics, a movement that defined itself against its opponents. When I wrote the piece, I was thinking about the Tea Party and the obstructionist strategies of the Republicans in Congress, who seemed to lack a coherent ideology or program other than opposition to President Obama. But now, two years later, we might have other things in mind. Throughout the RNC, speaker after speaker told us very little about Donald Trump and very much about his opponent and her faults. In his speech Trump advanced almost no policy ideas or plans for the future, but he did say a lot about what he opposes, what we should fear, and the dangers from which only he can save us.

OK, without further undercooked ado, here is the piece. I’ve left it unedited, save for a few typo corrections.

Ben Sasse is a Tea-Party-supported college president, former Bush administration employee, and, as the winner of the recent primary, now the Nebraskan Republican candidate for U.S. Senate. He is also one of us. In 2004 Sasse defended his prize-winning Yale history dissertation, written under advisors Harry Stout and Jon Butler. Sarah Posner at Religion Dispatches wrote a piece last week on the dissertation. Other than Posner, though, it appears that very few people have read it. Posner argues that it isn’t the flattering profiles from the National Review and Weekly Standard that get to the real Sasse; it’s the dissertation. The Weekly Standard might not dispute that, as they call the work “a sophisticated and brilliant dissection of how a lot of the standard liberal narratives about American political realignment in the last 50 years are woefully incomplete at best and self-serving fictions to attack religious conservatives at worst.” Posner, writing from the other side of the political spectrum, accuses Sasse of harboring “nostalgia for grassroots impulses” that “lead[s] him to pinpoint the religious right’s rise before Reagan.” If you’re wondering skeptically how Jon Butler signed off on a dissertation born of nostalgia for an era Christian populism, you’re not alone. I read the dissertation closely this weekend. What follows is a short summary of the work, how it contributes to our historiography, and why more people should read it.

But first, a quick word about how we read it. Everyone’s positions make it onto the page somehow. Sometimes historians are very upfront about this; sometimes we have to read between the lines a bit. But few careful academic works of history—and I’d say that a prize-winning Yale dissertation qualifies—are so shot through with “authorial bias” or “agenda” that they render the whole document useless. Certainly our own views inform our analysis. Some might say they “skew” or “taint” the analysis, but those models assume there was something straight or pure to begin with. These things are worth noting at, say, a seminar table when discussing methodology. Beyond that, though, I think we’re better off focusing on content and usefulness of our fellow historians’ work. I’ll leave the point here: we could put quite a few recent influential books and dissertations next to Sasse’s, and it would be far from obvious which was written by a future Tea Party politician.

When read as a historiographical contribution, Sasse’s dissertation is very much worth reading. At 451 pages, it is in need of an editor’s merciless red pen, and there are aspects of it that are frustratingly out-of-date, even as it’s only a decade old. This is actually a compliment. Sasse was ahead of the curve in a few areas, especially in his focus on law and secularism, and so there are a number of secondary works he would be able to engage, were he writing today. Nevertheless, the dissertation, while unwieldy, is packed with primary-source research, covers a remarkable amount of territory, and makes an interesting, innovative, and compelling argument. Posner summarizes the bulk of the work, especially its latter half, so here I will emphasize some aspects that she spends less time on.

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 a clash between Christian (or “tri-faith”) America and godless communists. What Sasse’s work helps to illustrate is how this model was repurposed in the 1960s by non-elite middle 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 in 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 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 meaning of 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 on 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 decisions 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 sump 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 Sasse 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 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 Lassiter 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 simply 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 a myopic focus on the “Reagan revolution,” complements 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 periods Sasse is describing. He could interrogate the categories better, or lay out clearer definitions, but the decision 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 hear often 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 America (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 or even spearheaded by O’Hair—even though almost no one involved in these groups would see it this way. This is a persuasive argument, and it helps 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 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.

If there is something to learn from this dissertation about Ben Sasse the candidate for Senate, it’s not that he’s nostalgic for a grassroots Christian past. It’s that there is nothing new about a group that creates its identity more from opposition than proposition—a “party of ‘no’”—having a clearer vision of its opponents than its leaders. Nor is there anything new about that group claiming the mantles of authenticity, morality, and majority. In fact, this strategy has been tried before, and it has been extremely effective. And Ben Sasse knows it.


Peter Fredrick at: July 24, 2016 at 3:28 PM said...

Oppositional thinking has long been an important facet of Christian consciousness. The traditional Catholic mass begins with the words, "Do me justice, O God, and fight my fight against an unholy people, rescue me from the wicked and deceitful man."

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