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Between Anywhere and Somewhere

An afternoon with U.S. Sen. Ben Sasse

Between Anywhere and Somewhere

Ben Sasse (Laura Beahm/The Hastings Tribune/AP)

When Bernie Sanders backer Kara Eastman in May became the Democratic nominee for a Nebraska congressional seat centered in this city of 411,000, many conservatives took that as one more indication that America is oozing toward socialism.

Eastman, born in 1971, upset an older liberal, former Congressman Brad Ashford. Fretting conservatives added that data point to another: Millennials (sometimes defined as those born between 1977 and 1996) are going politically left rather than right by an almost 4-1 margin.

Other data points were also troubling. One poll showed half of American millennials saying they prefer socialism to capitalism. Membership in the imaginatively named Democratic Socialists of America has grown sevenfold since the 2016 election. The number of chapters has almost quintupled.

But the situation didn’t seem that dire at Scheels Sporting Goods in Omaha. The 177,000-square-foot store has at its focal point, right within the store, a 45-foot, 12-car, 1938 park-style Ferris wheel with a colorful light display. Sales clerks at Scheels’ “try before you buy” archery range were teaching kids and adults about new developments in bow-hunting technology.

Near the range on a Saturday afternoon stood 7-year-old Augustine Breckinridge Sasse. Sen. Ben Sasse and his wife Melissa named “Breck” after the ancient theologian and a modern one, Benjamin Breckinridge Warfield, who taught at Princeton Seminary from 1887 to 1921, just before it turned to the theological left. 

Breck happily chattered about fishing with his dad and their plan to learn about shooting fish with arrows, which seems exceptionally hard to those of us who can barely manage hook, line, and sinker. Meanwhile, the senator chatted with one salesman, looked at $400 bows, and smoothly steered his son to a starter kit for just under $40. 

Sasse, born three months after Kara Eastman, is a 46-year-old, fifth-generation Nebraskan who grew up in Fremont, 40 miles west of Omaha. He hunted, fished, and worked at three classic Midwest coming-of-age jobs: selling Coke at Nebraska football games, detasseling corn (pulling off the top part of the plant), and “walking beans,” which means walking between rows of soybeans and using a hoe or machete to murder cockleburs and anything else that interferes with the growing bean plants. 

Sasse was the Fremont High School valedictorian in 1990: That, plus his prowess in wrestling—his dad coached football and freshman wrestling—won him an undergraduate spot at Harvard. Later, he earned a Ph.D. at Yale. Sasse’s wrestling days are long past, but when he criticized Donald Trump, the president tweeted that Sasse “looks more like a gym rat than a U.S. Senator.”

Sasse’s progress in Harvard’s valley of unbelief was unusual: His Christian faith strengthened. Influenced by the writings of R.C. Sproul and Michael Horton, he moved from a lukewarm Lutheranism to a solidly Reformed belief that B.B. Warfield would have approved. In 1995 and 1996 he served as executive director of CURE (Christians United for Reformation). He then took on a similar position at ACE (Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals) after the two organizations merged. 

Melissa Sasse helped in this process. She graduated from the University of Alabama, became a Campus Crusade staffer at Harvard, and there fell in love with both Ben Sasse and Reformed theology. He is a fervent Nebraska Cornhuskers fan: Happily for their marriage, the Huskers and the Crimson Tide of Alabama have not played since 1978.

The Sasses homeschool Breck and their two teenage daughters, Elizabeth and Alexandra. They attend Grace Church (a young PCA church in Fremont) along with Christ Reformed, a church near Logan Circle in Washington, D.C., they helped start. Sasse may be the only U.S. senator with his name on the cover of a serious theology book. He co-edited with famed Philadelphia Pastor James Montgomery Boice Here We Stand!: A Call from Confessing Evangelicals for a Modern Reformation (1996). 

Here We Stand’s preface reported what was true at that time: “Evangelical books, gospel music, videos, television and radio programs, and seminars are thriving.” It also noted, prophetically, that “we are trying to do the work of God by means of the world’s theology, wisdom, methods, and agenda. … We need another Reformation [or else will be left with] an empty religious shell that ignorantly, foolishly, and presumptuously calls itself ‘evangelical.’”

Sasse has had two volunteer positions within the Reformed theological world: elder in the United Reformed Churches in North America and membership on the board of trustees for Westminster Seminary California. Professional experiences also came in pairs. After college Sasse worked briefly at two top-of-the-line business groups, Boston Consulting and McKinsey. He had short stays in two Bush administration departments, Justice and HHS.

Sasse also taught for two years at the University of Texas at Austin, but left in an attempt to rescue his failing hometown college, Midland. When Sasse became Midland’s president in 2009 at age 37, the institution was falling and rising in all the wrong places: fewer than 600 students, more than $1 million in annual deficits. Helped by an influx of 300 students when nearby Dana College went under, and by the introduction of curriculum initiatives and new sports teams, Midland doubled its enrollment during the Sasse years and survived financially. 

The contacts he made helped in Sasse’s successful run for the U.S. Senate in 2014, where he won support as a Republican who knew the Ivy League and Washington but hadn’t lost his fondness for home: He talked about detasseling; wheeled around the state in an old RV, the “Benebago”; and wheeled out stacks of Obama administration regulations. 

Sasse took solidly conservative positions and did not run away from the abortion issue: “I’m zealously pro-life. I grew up in the movement. My mom had me praying outside abortion clinics when I was a kid. … God gives us the gift of life. Government exists to do a limited number of things, and one of those is to protect the most vulnerable among us. The unborn are at the top of that list.” 

But Sasse is skeptical about some aspects of evangelical political involvement, and has been for a long time. His doctoral dissertation, “The Anti-Madalyn Majority,” criticized atheist Madalyn Murray O’Hair but also “culture-warring entrepreneurs who ascended partly by inflating her importance so they could denounce her cause and build their empires.”

When Sasse arrived in Washington in 2015, he followed conservative tradition by not speaking from the Senate floor for months and Christian tradition by checking out congressional Bible studies, only to find that study was rare and “telling stories about yourself” was standard.  

Because Sasse in 2016 and 2017 criticized Donald Trump, Time anointed him as “the anti-Trump,” and Mother Jones declared, “If the Republican Party Can Be Saved from Its Trumpocalypse, This Senator Could Be the Key.” But it’s not that simple. The Slate website last year, after finding Sasse overwhelmingly voted in support of Trump policies, headlined its story, “The Wasted Mind of Ben Sasse.”

Sasse last year vigorously criticized Trump’s imprecatory tweeting, and on June 29 tweeted in response, “Please just stop. This isn’t normal and it’s beneath the dignity of your office.” On Oct. 12, Sean Hannity tweeted, “One of the biggest mistakes in my career was supporting @BenSasse. Just useless.” This year Sasse has fasted from Twitter and jabbed traditionally: On the Senate floor on March 21, he criticized Trump’s congratulatory telephone call to Vladimir Putin, calling Putin a despot who “aims to make Soviet tyranny great again.” 

Last month Sasse opposed Trump’s call for Russian reinstatement into the G-7, the group of major industrial powers: “This is weak. Putin is not our friend and he is not the President’s buddy. He is a thug using Soviet-style aggression to wage a shadow war against America, and our leaders should act like it.” But Sasse has supported Trump policies in other areas: For example, regarding America’s nuclear deal with Iran, Sasse said, “Donald Trump isn’t ripping up a treaty; he’s walking away from Barack Obama’s personal pledge. Two and a half years ago, President Obama made a bad deal with Iran without support from Congress.”

Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call/AP

Sasse on the campaign trail in 2014 with his wife Melissa and daughters Elizabeth and Alexandra (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call/AP)

Sasse’s big issue this spring was trade policy, where his Boston Consulting and McKinsey experience melds with his representation of Nebraska, a state that profits from agricultural exports. He calls blanket protectionism “a big part of why America had a Great Depression. ‘Make America Great Again’ shouldn’t mean ‘Make America 1929 Again.’” When Trump spoke of a new $100 billion of tariffs, Sasse said he hoped “the President is just blowing off steam again but, if he’s even half-serious, this is nuts.”

On June 9, though, Sasse held out a carrot: When Trump expressed interest in negotiations to eliminate G-7 trade barriers and tariffs, Sasse said, “I would happily carry his bag to every single meeting.” Then Sasse showed a stick: “The path to more trade begins with less whining on the global stage. … Pretending that we’re losers isn’t true. The constant victim-talk doesn’t help anyone.”

Anti-whining is in many ways the message of Sasse’s first book as a senator, The Vanishing American Adult, which includes chapter titles like “Embrace Work Pain” and “Consume Less.” Sasse criticizes the tendency to “spoon-feed young adults who we should instead nudge to travel and to read.” He was amazed as a college president to learn that “parents call college professors to complain about grades, and sometimes even contact residence hall directors to negotiate better rooms or intervene in roommate problems. I’m not that old, but the idea that my parents would have even considered doing such a thing is mind-blowing to me.”

Sasse’s “Build a Bookshelf” chapter cites not only C.S. Lewis but Michael Lewis’ Moneyball. He notes that John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion “says that if you begin with questions about human fallenness, they will lead inevitably to the contrast between our brokenness and the idea of a righteous standard, namely the holiness of God.” Sasse also recommends J. Gresham Machen’s great Christianity and Liberalism (published in 1923 but still in print). 

Other Sasse recommendations are part of a once-standard canon—Luther, Aristotle, Plato, Augustine, Anselm, Aquinas, Chaucer, Shakespeare, Hamilton, Madison, John Jay, Tocqueville, Frederick Douglass, Adam Smith, Orwell, Huxley, Willa Cather, Twain, Baldwin, and Ralph Ellison—that most students no longer encounter. 

Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call/AP

Sasse helps his daughter Alexandra with algebra homework as Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., looks on, during a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call/AP)

Sasse’s next big offensive may start on Oct. 16, the planned publication date for his second senatorial book, Them: Why We Hate Each Other—and How to Heal. In it Sasse will emphasize the decline of local communities, the failures of centralization, and the need to rebuild local, nongovernmental institutions. Otherwise, we face more outrage and anger—and that works in favor of candidates like Omaha’s Kara Eastman.

David Goodhart’s The Road to Somewhere: The Populist Revolt and the Future of Politics (Hurst, 2017) sees British politics as a battle “between the people who see the world from Anywhere and the people who see it from Somewhere.” Goodhart’s “Anywheres” are used to moving around and “have portable ‘achieved’ identities, based on educational and career success.” His “Somewheres” have identities based on group and location: Scottish farmer, Cornish housewife.

Anywheres and Somewheres both include a huge variety of people and social types, but Anywheres are often members of “the new elite” who think internationally and profit from rapid change, while Somewheres—“60 percent of British people still live within 20 miles of where they lived when they were 14”—have long roots and favored Brexit. The United States has a similar divide.

CNN and others are already speculating about Sasse, an Anywhere (by education and early career choice) with the roots of a Somewhere, as an attractive presidential candidate down the road. But he is well aware of the problems that emerge when we yearn to be part of what C.S. Lewis called “the Inner Ring.” His Christian understanding helps him to see that Somewhere is not a garden and Anywhere is not a heavenly city.

Marvin Olasky

Marvin Olasky

Marvin is editor in chief of WORLD News Group and the author of more than 20 books, including The Tragedy of American Compassion. His latest book is World View: Seeking Grace and Truth in Our Common Life. Follow Marvin on Twitter @MarvinOlasky.

Comments

  • Xion's picture
    Xion
    Posted: Mon, 07/09/2018 01:31 am

    Sen Sasse seems like a fine Christian and independent thinker who isn't afraid to speak his mind.  However, having been cast as the face of the #NeverTrump movement (and thus explaining Olasky's enamour), heaven forbid that his mission to create a house divided would succeed! 

    This view that Christians must only support the saintly gave us Jimmy Carter and would have left the world in ruins as Winston Churchill, Douglas MacArthur, George Patton and many other uncouth heros would have been shunned in favor of indecisive moral busybodies.  Does God rule?  Of course, but scripture is rich with His willingness to use the basest of men to accomplish his will.  The worldly are better suited for dealing with this world.  Rather than trying to elect Sunday School teachers, may the most qualified person for the job win.

    "The master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly. For the people of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own kind than are the people of the light."  Luke 16:8

  • Dick Friedrich
    Posted: Mon, 07/09/2018 12:03 pm

    Well said. As in every other arena, there are no saints in politics. But, neither does that mean that Christians should be stoical or apathetic, especially in the US. Along with the Luke passage I like God's instruction in Jeremiah 29, ". . . seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile . . . "

  • Brendan Bossard's picture
    Brendan Bossard
    Posted: Mon, 07/09/2018 02:01 pm

    Xion, who was looking for a "saintly" president?

  • Xion's picture
    Xion
    Posted: Mon, 07/09/2018 07:40 pm

    Brendon --> Christian NeverTrumpers

  • Brendan Bossard's picture
    Brendan Bossard
    Posted: Mon, 07/09/2018 09:43 pm

    Really?  On what basis do you say that they are looking for a "saintly" president?

  • Joe M
    Posted: Fri, 07/13/2018 12:57 am

    I like Sasse, and love WORLD. But OMgosh, please stop it... "Baldwin, and Ralph Ellison" are part of a canon Refromed people used to push? ROFLOL. Absurd. And Baldwin is wildly overrated, to boot.