Becker’s machinations have been largely lost to history, since historians of the period, to Sasse’s dismay, have focused more on the Vietnam War and civil rights movement than on religion. But as Sasse’s narrative proceeds, it becomes clear that despite failing to amend the Constitution to permit mandatory school prayer (an effort Newt Gingrich half-heartedly resurrected in the 1990s), Becker emerges as the courageous, if unsophisticated, defender of Sasse’s pious, patriotic multitudes.
Becker repeatedly referred to his adversaries as a “fraternity of secularists” in the Democratic Party. But as Sasse documents in compelling detail, Becker was ultimately outsmarted and crushingly humiliated by Celler and his mainline Protestant allies, who dissected, undermined, and rebutted Becker’s arguments for the amendment. (The mainline Protestants, through the National Council of Churches, often attacked by the right as a communist tool, were united in opposition to the amendment. Evangelicals, in contrast, lacked a unified position.)
Despite Becker’s humiliation, he rises from the ashes as a roughed-up hero in Sasse’s telling. Sasse likens him to William Jennings Bryan, embarrassed by Clarence Darrow in the Scopes monkey trial. To Sasse, however, Becker should not be a source of shame for conservatives, but a source of pride, a true believer representing the authentic American masses. “His dreadful performance as lead witness,” Sasse writes, “ultimately resulted less from an arrogant commitment to grandstanding than from a genuine naiveté about this thicket.”
Despite Becker’s loss, Sasse argues that a conservative push for the entanglement of religion and politics prevailed. “Americans did not want a privatization of faith,” he maintains, adding,
Democrats faced a major obstacle in equaling the fervor of the Republicans in the prayer crusade because of the visibility of the alliance between the Democratic Party and the liberal Jewish groups so closely identified with the legal secularization movement.
For Sasse, the Nixon era was not defined by his notorious efforts to drum up fear of “acid, amnesty, and abortion,” but by his and Spiro Agnew’s savvy sympathies for the “bottom-up” masses’ existing religious fears. Nixon and his “silent majority,” Sasse writes, “spoke effectively to and for the small-town values still prized by most of the country.” Most historians’ telling of the conservative resurgence of the 1960s and 70s, he goes on, has neglected the central role of conservative reaction to secularization. “Indeed angst about secularization, more than any other complaint,” he writes, “provided a lens through which Americans could see all other social problems as sharing a common root, a liberal root.”
Other historians, notably Randall Balmer, have documented conservative backlash to school desegregation and the 1976 revocation of Bob Jones University’s tax-exempt status for its interracial dating ban as motivating forces for the religious right. Sasse conceded “nativist passions and racist status anxiety surely comprise part of the story, but not the whole of it.”
Instead, he argues, the religious right “is better understood first as a consequence of fears about top-down communism — and about the evaporation of a religious understanding of the nation — than as simply a product of resistance to the sexual revolution or desegregation.”
Sasse’s nostalgia for grassroots impulses lead him to pinpoint the religious right’s rise before Reagan. It was Nixon, not Reagan, Sasse argues, who brought political vitality to the religious right as a grassroots movement, emphasizing a “cleavage” between the religious and the irreligious, and leaning on the support of the evangelist Billy Graham to burnish his credentials. The GOP didn’t win over working-class white voters by opposing civil rights and abortion, according to Sasse, but by highlighting a clash between religion and secularism. It wasn’t Reagan who turned the tide of white evangelicals to the Republican Party, but Nixon. Evangelicals didn’t become more prominent in the public square because of Reagan’s presidency, and their storied role in his election, but in the rise of “entrepreneurial” evangelicalism and the explosion of para-church structures, which “remade the experience of lived religion for countless lay Protestants.”
Sasse’s reflections on the Moral Majority period are shot through with skepticism for evangelical political leadership, with its “willingness to run out in front of the masses claiming to be their leaders.” Throughout, his nostalgia for the supposedly grassroots promoters of a true American religious ethic seems to trump the role of any of the religious leaders organizing around Reagan’s candidacy.
Sasse’s dissertation was written during the presidency of George W. Bush (in whose administration Sasse later served). As a candidate 10 years later, Sasse has reprised themes about elites (the Obama administration) imposing something terrible (the contraception coverage benefit) on religious objectors. Ultimately that issue will be decided by a Court that has eroded the Warren Court’s Establishment Clause jurisprudence and embraced legislative prayer, at least, in a decision that has alarmed secularists. But should the Court’s “activist judges” rule in the Obama administration’s favor, you can count on conservative leaders stoking the fears of Ben Sasse’s religious “grassroots.”
Sarah Posner, author of God’s Profits: Faith, Fraud, and the Republican Crusade for Values Voters, covers politics and religion. Her work has appeared in The Washington Post, The Guardian, The Atlantic, The American Prospect, The Nation, Salon, and other publications. Follow her on Twitter.
Copyright 2014 The National Memo