E.J. Dionne on Ben Sasse’s Failure to Oppose Donald Trump’s “National Emergency”

Sasse 2

Ben Sasse, the senator from Nebraska, has been a vocal critic of Donald Trump.  Yet rarely does his opposition to Trump move beyond words.  For example, when twelve GOP senators broke with their party to oppose Donald Trump’s “national emergency” declaration on the U.S.-Mexico border, Sasse supported the president.  The conservative Washington Examiner called Sasse’s decision “myopic.”

Over at Commonweal, E.J. Dionne wonders when Sasse is going to take a stand against the president.  Last week I described Sasse’s failure to vote against the national emergency by invoking a line from the musical Hamilton: “If you stand for nothing, Ben, what will you fall for?”

Here is a taste of Dionne’s piece:

But the real takeaway here is the support Trump still won from the vast majority of Republicans—and, in particular, the abject capitulation of many who had suggested or said outright that they would oppose his invocation of emergency powers. Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C., wrote in The Washington Post last month that “I cannot justify providing the executive with more ways to bypass Congress.” Yet, when the roll was called, he did exactly that, supporting Trump’s “emergency.” The Post’s Aaron Blake rightly called it “a flip flop for the ages.”

The most disappointing vote came from Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Neb., a principled Trump opponent from the earliest days of the 2016 primaries. Sasse issued an intellectually vacuous statement saying that as a “constitutional conservative,” he thinks the president’s emergency powers are too broad. But he justified his vote to go along with Trump by trashing House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and “bare-knuckled politics.” This sounded like projection, since the “bare-knuckled politics” was on Trump’s side. Sasse, like Tillis, is on the ballot in 2020.

My first encounter with Sasse was in January 2016. He was in Iowa to speak on behalf of every major Republican running against Trump. I respected his gutsy willingness to see Trump as exactly who he is. “He’s a strongman with a will to power,” Sasse told me then. “Trump has been the only guy on the Republican side of the aisle that regularly campaigns and says things like, ‘If I’m elected president, I’ll be able to do whatever I want.’” 

Three years on, we know that Sasse was right from the start. But what are he and his Republican colleagues willing to do about it? For a majority of them, sadly including Sasse himself, the answer is: precious little.

Read the entire piece here.

Hey Ben Sasse, What About Merrick Garland?

7954c-sasse

This morning I praised Ben Sasse for his powerful speech yesterday during the Brett Kavanaugh hearings.  I still do.  Sasse chided his fellow Senators for not doing their jobs as defined by the Constitution.

But where was Sasse’s constitutional principles when his party decided not to give a hearing to Merrick Garland, Barack Obama’s choice to replace Antonin Scalia?  Where was the Senate’s lively and engaged debate, the kind of stuff Sasse talked about in his Kavanaugh speech?  At the time, Sasse didn’t say much about Garland. But as I see it, he certainly didn’t defend the Senate’s constitutional requirement to advise and consent.  Sasse was complicit in this partisan attempt to undermine Obama’s appointee.

Here are a couple links:

According to this Washington Post graphic, Sasse did not support hearings for Garland and refused to meet with him.

When NPR’s Steve Inskeep asked him about why the GOP turned the Merrick nomination into a partisan issue, Sasse dodged the question.

A Member of Ben Sasse’s Dissertation Committee Offers Him Some Advice

Nebraska Senator Ben Sasse has a Ph.D in American history from Yale.  Here is an exchange between Sasse and Yale historian Glenda Gilmore.  She served on Sasse’s dissertation committee along with Jon Butler and Harry Stout.

“Sasse has the intellectual credentials and resume that Paul Ryan wants you to *think* he has”

He has a Ph.D in American history from Yale.  In November 2016 he was one of the few leaders of the GOP who did not eventually toe the party line in support of Donald Trump. He goes on Sunday morning news shows and gives brilliant performances.

He has yet to respond to my requests to appear on The Way of Improvement Leads Home Podcast, but I can forgive him for that.  He is probably busy.  I will keep trying.

But why does the Nebraska Senator, for all his brilliance and conviction, continue to provide a rubber stamp for Donald Trump? Ben Mathis-Lilley explores this question in an essay at Slate titled “The Wasted Mind of Ben Sasse.”  It is subtitled “The Nebraska senator has urgent, persuasive ideas for saving American politics. Why won’t he act on them?”

Here is a taste:

...But at the same time, Sasse’s Senate votes have so far aligned with Trump’s wishes 95 percent of the time, the same level of support that Trump has gotten from right-wing ideologues like Ted Cruz and party loyalists like Chuck Grassley. Sasse voted to confirm ill-informed Cabinet appointees like Ben Carson and Betsy DeVos; he’s voted to steamroll the judicial filibuster and stayed silent about the secretive way the Republican health care bill was written and presented to the public. During a June 25 appearance at a conservative activist conference, as other senators in his own party were criticizing the bill and the process by which it had been constructed, Sasse asked whether his remarks would be on the record before announcing that he would not have any comments at all. It was only after the proposal had almost completely stalled that Sasse proposed an alternative.

This, in a nutshell, is the central problem of Ben Sasse. He is a performatively deep thinker, an advocate of public decency who makes a case for good-faith discourse that is both eloquent and, in the FAKE NEWS!!!!!!1! era, timely. He states that case convincingly in his new book about raising hard-working and civic-minded children, The Vanishing American Adult. “Living in a republic demands a great deal of us,” he writes in a sort of mission statement for his public persona. “Among the responsibilities of each citizen in a participatory democracy is keeping ourselves sufficiently informed so that we can participate effectively, argue our positions honorably, and hopefully, forge sufficient consensus to understand each other and then to govern.” But so far, Sasse’s practical participation in our democracy—he was elected to the Senate in 2014—has mostly advanced the interests of an increasingly authoritarian, unreasonable Republican Party. In his first remarks on the Senate floor, he argued that the body should “strengthen and clarify meaningful contests of ideas.” Four months later, he wouldn’t even give Obama Supreme Court nominee Merrick Garland a perfunctory meeting. And he certainly didn’t advocate giving Garland a hearing and a floor vote, as one would imagine he should have given his expressed desire for the Senate to become a lively forum for dramatic, legitimate debate rather than pre-written sound bites and predictable party-line votes.

Read the entire piece here.

Ben Sasse’s New Book

SASSEI need to read it.

After I read Emma Green’s review of Sasse’s The Vanishing American Adult I was struck by two things:

First, I am eager to see how Sasse’s understanding of a virtuous republic differs from the Obama vision of a virtuous republic.  Obama did not use the term “virtue” that often, but his appeals to self-sacrifice for the good of the country certainly drew heavily from the founding fathers’ understanding of the term.  I have argued this multiple times, including here.

Second, it looks like the Nebraska Senator’s call for a republic of virtue draws deeply from the wells of American history, political philosophy, theology, and ethics.  (One might expect this from a Yale Ph.D in American history).  It sounds like it is a much more thoughtful and intellectually respectable argument than the one put out last year by evangelical culture warrior and radio host Eric Metaxas.

Here is a taste of Green’s review:

Sasse pays little attention to the real divides in income, race, and religious conviction that have left many Americans feeling like they live among strangers in a country that wasn’t built for them. Some of his ideas seem punitive, showing the dark side of the Protestant work ethic he so cherishes: Historically, Sasse writes, “the important American cultural cleavage was … not rich versus poor, but rather dignified working poor versus supposedly lazy, undeserving poor.” He updates this mythical archetype for the modern age: parents who stream another Netflix sitcom instead of shoveling their neighbor’s walk, or “needy, undisciplined, coddled, presumptuous” young people who lack “much of a filter between their public personas and their inner lives.” Blaming Millennials for American’s cultural drift is the book’s most grievous and inexplicable category error—maybe we could call it ad millennialem, in the spirit of Sasse’s exhortation for the young to study ancient Rome on their path to virtue. It’s an out for the 45-year-old senator to finger the generation below him rather than grapple with the structural inequalities and cultural differences that have fractured the country over the course of many years.

But it’s also a mistake to call The Vanishing American Adult a “consummate politician’s book” or a naïve ode to the power of chores, as The New York Times has done—Sasse is working in a much older tradition of writing and thinking. Throughout the book, he keeps returning to Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Emile as a reference point and implicit model for what he’s doing. In keeping with Sasse’s studied performance of folksy erudition, this 18th-century text is a bit of a political-philosophy deep cut. It follows the fictional story of a child, Emile, as he gains the education he needs to survive in a corrupt society. The book is about the wisdom that comes from firsthand experience, like flying kites to teach a sense of direction or swimming streams that will one day become the Hellespont.

Like Rousseau, Sasse believes challenging experiences form a person’s character and the heart of education. Like Rousseau, Sasse sees healthy society as a function of virtuous individuals. The senator is making “a plea for self-discipline and self-control” as “the one and only dignified alternative to discipline and control” by the government. At its core, the book also pleads for something greater: the rehabilitation of shared values in a time of intense difference; a focus on culture as the deepest challenge of politics; and the ability to imagine virtue as part of who we are as citizens, whether Sasse gets it right or not.

Read the entire review here.

 

What Would It Take for Anti-Trump Evangelicals to Vote for Hillary Clinton?

hillary-christian

A lot.

Some evangelicals will never vote for Hillary Clinton.  She is connected to Barack Obama. She supports a women’s right to choose.  She promises to appoint Supreme Court justices that will undermine religious liberty. She is married to Bill Clinton, a man who cheated on her in the White House and was impeached.  She lied about the e-mail server.

In any other election, most evangelicals would vote for the GOP candidate.  Never Hillary.

But this election is different.  In this election a significant portion of evangelicals believe that the GOP candidate is not qualified to be president.

We don’t really know the size of the never-Trump evangelical coalition.  One survey has found that 65% of white evangelicals are voting for Trump and 16% back Clinton.  That leaves about 20% of white evangelicals who have either not yet made up their mind, will vote for a third-party candidate, or will not vote in the presidential election.  This 20% is led by group of outspoken evangelicals such as Southern Baptist Russell Moore and Nebraska Senator Ben Sasse.

Can these anti-Trump evangelical conservatives be convinced to vote for Clinton?

If Clinton were to make an appeal to this demographic she would need to address two main issues: abortion and religious liberty.

On abortion, it goes without saying that President Hillary Clinton is not going to be working to overthrow Roe v. Wade.  Nor will she appoint Supreme Court justices who will do so. But what if she would propose, policy wonk that she is, a systematic plan to limit the number of abortion in the United States?  I am not talking about returning to the old pro-choice Democratic mantra of “safe, legal, and rare.”  Evangelicals will need more than a catchphrase.  They will need to hear Clinton connect her public policy pronouncements with a specific a plan to reduce the number of abortions in the United States.

Some evangelicals would possibly vote for Clinton if she spoke out more forcefully about the controversial Planned Parenthood videos released in 2015.  When these videos appeared she called them “disturbing.”  Since then her comments about Planned Parenthood have been nothing but positive.  Actually, Trump has been more nuanced on this issue than Clinton.

We know, for example, that Clinton has worked hard in her career to reduce teenage pregnancies.  She might get more evangelical votes from the never-Trump crowd if she would connect this work more directly to the reduction of abortions.  This might also bring her closer to the position of her own church.

Clinton has said very little about abortion on the trail.  When asked about abortion at the third debate she defended a traditional pro-choice position and seemed to dodge Chris Wallace’s question about her support for late-term abortions.  Many evangelicals were turned off by this.

Clinton has also been very quiet on matters of religious liberty.  Yes, she pays lip service to religious liberty when Trump makes comments about barring Muslims from coming into the country, but she has not addressed some of the religious issues facing many evangelicals.  This is especially the case with marriage.

Granted, evangelicals should not expect Clinton to defend traditional marriage or set out to overturn Obergfell v. Hodges.  (I might add here that evangelicals should not expect this from Trump either).  But is she willing to support some form of principled or “confident” pluralism?  Some evangelicals of the never-Trump variety would be very happy to live in a society in which those who believe marriage is only between a man and a woman, and those who do not believe this, can live together despite their differences.

The recent attempts in California to cut financial aid for students at faith-based colleges that uphold traditional views of marriage is one example of a threat to religious liberty that has many evangelicals concerned.  So does the earlier Gordon College case and the recent news about the Society of Biblical Literature considering banning InterVarsity Press from their national conference book exhibit.

Or perhaps none of this matters.  Why would Hillary Clinton address these issues when she probably doesn’t need the votes of the anti-Trump evangelicals to win the election?

Are Missouri Synod Lutherans “Evangelical?”

7954c-sasse

Senator Ben Sasse

Some of you may remember my post on Saturday in which I presented the various “evangelical” voting options for the presidential election in November.

Over at Old Life blog, Darryl Hart, a historian at Hillsdale College, apparently took umbrage with a small part of the post.  Here is what he wrote:

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)?

I am glad my parenthetical remark about Sasse, the LCMS Church, and “evangelicals” prompted Darryl Hart to write an ENTIRE POST on it at his blog. LCMS

According to Sasse’s Wikipedia page:”Sasse grew up a Lutheran and was baptized in the Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod. He later became an elder in the United Reformed Churches in North America, and served on the board of trustees for Westminster Seminary California. He is now currently a member at St. Paul’s Lutheran Church, a church of the LCMS.” The Wiki page cites this website:

For what it’s worth.

Maybe Senator Sasse, who also has a Ph.D in history, is out there and can weigh-in.

Maybe the Wikipedia page or the source it cites is wrong.

Hart’s point about Lutherans as “evangelicals” is a fair one, but I do think that calling the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod “evangelical” is complicated. I am no expert on the LCMS so I can only appeal to anecdotes from my experience teaching a lot of LCMS students at Valparaiso University between 2000-2002. Many of them did not entirely connect with the evangelical subculture and certainly did not talk very much about being “born-again” apart from their catechism and confirmation classes.

So let me throw this out to my readers.  Do Missouri Synod Lutherans identity themselves as “evangelicals?”  (I know this opens up a whole can of worms about the definition of the word “evangelical,” but I thought I would bring it up anyway and see what readers have to say).

 

Evangelical Options in November

Evangelical votersI wrote about this yesterday in the comments section of this post, but I thought I would elaborate a bit more here.

How will evangelicals vote in November?

This post is premised on the belief that evangelicals–while unified around their belief in the new birth, the inspiration of the Bible, and certain core doctrines (Trinity, deity of Christ, Jesus’s resurrection)– are a diverse bunch when it comes to how their beliefs translate into the world of politics.

Here are some of the ways evangelicals have approached, and will approach, the 2016 POTUS election cycle:

1. Some evangelicals will vote for Trump because he will “Make America Great Again.”. These evangelicals backed Trump in the GOP primaries even when there were other evangelical-friendly candidates available (Cruz, Rubio, Carson, Huckabee, Santorum). They include Dallas Baptist pastor Robert Jeffress, Liberty University president Jerry Falwell Jr., and all of those evangelicals who voted for Trump in the southern primaries and elsewhere.  Many of these evangelicals were present at this meeting in September 2015.

2. Some evangelicals will  vote for Trump because if they don’t Hillary Clinton will be elected president and they  will lose the Supreme Court. Most of these evangelicals backed another candidate during the primaries, but they have now turned to Trump as their only option.  They include Mike Pence, James Dobson, Tony Perkins, and Eric Metaxas.  Some of these “anti-Hillary” Trump supporters can come across as very excited about The Donald. Others are going to hold their nose and pull the lever for him.

3.  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.

4.. Some evangelicals will vote for a third-party candidate.  I don’t know of any major evangelicals who have come out in support of the Libertarian ticket or the Green ticket.  If you know of evangelical leaders who are endorsing these candidate please let me know in the comments. I am curious.

5.. Some evangelicals will not vote in the presidential election. They will exercise their civic duty by casting votes in non-presidential or “down-ballot” elections.

6. Some evangelicals will vote for Hillary Clinton.  I am guessing that many evangelical Democrats–including most black evangelicals– will vote for her.  Recently Thabiti Anyabwile, an African-American Southern Baptist pastor in Washington D.C.,  made a case for Clinton at the theologically conservative (but politically diverse–I assume) Gospel Coalition blog.

Is there a category I am missing?

If you are an evangelical (or something close) where do you place yourself?

Ben Sasse Is Not a "Christian Crusader"

Ben Sasse:  Nebraska’s new senator

Paul Putz, a Ph.D student in history at Baylor University, has written a fascinating post at the blog of the American Society of Church History on the religious beliefs of Nebraska’s new senator, Ben Sasse. As a Lutheran, Sasse embraces a “two kingdoms” approach to Christianity and culture.  This means that he does not believe that Christians should be trying to “transform” or “redeem” the larger culture through politics or any other means.  

Putz does a really nice of job of showing the theological illiteracy of many in the press who want to paint Sasse as a “Christian crusader.” Lutherans (and those of the Reformed persuasion who also hold to this “two kingdoms” model) do not usually engage in the kind of cultural transformation associated with the Christian Right and other Reformed groups. 

I will let Putz explain:

But Sasse’s scholarly contributions are not the only item of interest for ASCH folks. His personal religious views are worth considering, too, since years down the road Sasse may find himself as a subject of study for an enterprising young scholar’s dissertation analyzing conservative Christianity and American politics in the early twenty-first century. Baptized at a Missouri Synod Lutheran church (LCMS) in Plainview, Nebraska, Sasse attended an LCMS elementary school in Fremont, Nebraska before moving on to Fremont High School and then to Harvard. After Harvard he became associated with the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals, served as an editor of Modern Reformation, and co-edited Here We Stand: A Call from Confessing Evangelicals (1996). That background (and Posner’s essay) was enough for an alarmed writer for Salon to declare him a “hardcore member of the Christian right” and a “conservative Christian crusader.” If we take that description at face value, then Sasse (the Lutheran evangelical culture warrior) perfectly symbolizes the LCMS’s turn to the political right and its increasing connection with conservative evangelicalism, a turn described by James Burkee in Power, Politics, and the Missouri Synod: A Conflict that Changed American Christianity (reviewed in the March 2012 issue of Church History).

It seems to me, though, that the story is a bit more complicated. For one, Sasse apparently had a dalliance with Presbyterianism (see page 81), although he is now apparently back within the Lutheran fold. Second, a steady critic of the Christian Right, D.G. Hart, is a friend and supporter of Sasse. Hart (whose book on Calvinism was reviewed in the latest issue of Church History) is adamant that Ben Sasse is a “2K [Two Kingdoms] Reformed Protestant.” That is to say, Sasse believes that “[t]he affairs of the civil and temporal realm are one thing, the politics of God’s kingdom another.” Hart’s claim is supported by Sasse’s connection with other Reformed 2Kers like Michael Horton and R. Scott Clark.
If Sasse is a 2Ker somewhat in the mold of Hart – and nothing from what I’ve seen of his rhetoric indicates otherwise – then the Christian Right’s dreams of Christianizing America and/or restoring America to its Christian roots are not part of Sasse’s vision. This may be a distinction without a difference for some: although Sasse’s rhetoric does not rely on “return America to God” themes, his views on nearly every current political issue line up with those of the Christian Right. But then again, as Daniel Williams and others have shown, this is true for most GOP members. Perhaps we are at the place where any Republican with a well-known affiliation with Christianity is by default considered part of the Christian Right. At any rate, I’m not prepared to offer a definitive statement of categorization – I’ll leave that to the experts, or maybe even someone who actually sits down with Sasse and talks to him about the subject.