Ben Sasse, The Tea Party, Grassroots Americans, Secularization, and Historiography of American Religions

Today's guest post comes from Charlie McCrary. Charlie is a doctoral student at FSU and frequent contributor to RiAH and Bulletin for the Study of Religion. This post is a bit longer than what we typically post, but if you make the jump you'll find that it's worth it to read all the way to the end. In addition to leaving comments here, readers can find Charlie on Twitter.

by Charlie McCrary

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 on his dissertation last week. 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 of 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 on 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 the "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 the 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 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.

[I hesitate to make this final point, lest I distract from my overall argument that Sasse's dissertation is compelling and valuable, regardless of who wrote it, but this post has "Tea Party" in the title, so is probably what you came for.] 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. 


Mark T. Edwards at: May 27, 2014 at 5:49 PM said...

Great post, Charlie!

How might we square Sasse's work with studies such as David Swartz's Moral Minority, Robert Self's All in the Family, or Seth Dowland's writings that see gender and sexuality (including abortion) as crucial to the political realignments of the 1970s-including evangelical conservatives' rush to the Reagan Revolution? Is Sasse saying that anti-secularism trumped "protection" of family values for those who became the religious right?

Tom Van Dyke at: May 27, 2014 at 10:08 PM said...

Excellent apologia for a man who might routinely be disqualified from getting a serious hearing.

That God was a reality for most of American history--to even the least religious of the Founders and Framers--is the cornerstone of Sasse's [and what is now pretty much only the right's] argument.

Pluralism was seen in that light, that nonbelief was constitutionally protected but that didn't mean the Founding principles demanded "neutrality" on God's very existence.

If beginning c. 1972 one party made God optional while the other kept him as a necessary being, one could say the rest is details.

Charlie McCrary at: May 28, 2014 at 11:19 AM said...

Thanks, Tom. I do hope people read it for its contributions than as a secret playbook for his Senate run. I think that we need more work on "pluralism" and especially its relation to American law, as a reworking of Americans' concept of what it means to be "religious."

Good question, Mark. There is surprisingly little in the dissertation about "family values" issues. Sasse does say a lot about perceived declines in "morality," so I think he would say that the nascent religious right folded in abortion, ERA, etc. into a category "secular left" that was dismantling American morality. So, it's all the same type of issue. And, for many of Sasse's grassroots Americans, secularization led to a decline in values. In this way, "well, they kicked God out of schools in '62" becomes a way to explain myriad "problems" in later decades. The section in the dissertation on conservatives' reactions to campus radicalism is probably the place where this argument is clearest.

As far as Swartz's folks, frankly they don't really square with Sasse's work. It's hard to incorporate them into many of our narratives (which, of course, points to a historiographical problem.) Sasse says quite a bit about doctrinal specificity, with "mainline" denominations being more willing to back a nonsectarian sort of civil religion and evangelicals initially opposing it but eventually coming around. But Jim Wallis isn't mentioned, and I don't know where/how he'd fit in this story.

Mark T. Edwards at: May 28, 2014 at 11:53 AM said...

Thanks so much, Charlie,

When I discuss those SC cases in my politics class, I show a graph (not sure which Religious Right site I got it from ) charting the rise in homicides in the US after 1962 when they "took God out of the schools." As you say, it is a "plain folk" narrative that still carries a lot of weight.

Adam Park at: May 28, 2014 at 1:02 PM said...


Political party-making aside. Do you think that move to construct and define oneself over and against a kind of secularity is a (the?) defining feature of American evangelicalism?

Charlie McCrary at: May 28, 2014 at 4:27 PM said...

Hey Adam. I do think it's a defining feature, at least in the last fifty years, though probably before that too. The more specific point, though--and I think Sasse gestures toward this point, but he doesn't make it explicitly--is that evangelicals' self-definition against secularity gives us insight into changing understandings of what "secularism" means. Or, like Tom said above, what "pluralism" means.

I'd have to think more about this, but it seems to me like the context of American law in this way informs evangelicals' self-constructions as it defines and redefines the category "religion."

Jonathan at: May 30, 2014 at 9:38 AM said...


Thanks for the post. I found it very interesting--especially as Sasse is the odds on favorite to win the Senate seat in Nebraska this fall. Should the narrative be: From American Religious History to the Senate in 12 years? Makes the rest of us look like pikers.

Mark, the chart you describe is definitely used by Barton's Wallbuilders. The logical fallacy visually implicit is that chronological correlation does not prove causation.

newer post older post