Ben Sasse, winner of last week’s Republican Senate primary in Nebraska and likely the next senator from that state, is a Tea Party hero with an unusual credential: a PhD in history from Yale.
Sasse — a proud anti-choice activist, homeschooler, and opponent of Obamacare and its “entire failed worldview” — bills himself as an outsider to politics, with an expertise in “business turnaround projects” for such powerhouses as Boston Consulting Group and McKinsey and Company.
Even before winning the primary, Sasse had been the subject of favorable profiles in both the National Review (“Obamacare’s Cornhusker Nemesis”) and the Weekly Standard (“A Virtuoso Pol from Nebraska?”). In a reverential interview, Glenn Beck told the candidate, “I can hear the Constitution running through your veins.”
If the Constitution could actually flow through the human circulatory system, there’s one part I might imagine Sasse omitting: the Establishment Clause, or at least the Establishment Clause as interpreted by the Warren Court, whose church-state decisions of the early 1960s form the lynchpin of Sasse’s 2004 doctoral dissertation.
It’s that dissertation, not the right’s adulation of their Ivy-educated everyman, that offers the greatest insight into Sasse’s political orientation, one in which religion — and, more critically, “elite” dismissal of it — takes center stage in the story of America and the rise of the modern conservative movement.
In 2004’s “The Anti-Madalyn Majority: Secular Left, Religious Right, and the Rise of Reagan’s America,” Sasse argues that journalists and historians have misapprehended, and indeed misreported, the story of the rise of the modern religious right. His historical marker is not placed — as many histories of the movement have placed it — at the 1980 election of Ronald Reagan, whose candidacy was supported by Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority and the coalition of religious leaders Reagan notoriously embraced.
Rather, he argues, not unpersuasively, that the roots of the modern religious right lie in the 1962 and 1963 Supreme Court decisions striking down mandatory public school prayer and Bible reading. Those decisions, Sasse maintains, touched a nerve among what he calls the “masses,” by which he means Americans horrified by rapid cultural changes, a reaction that “elites” dismissed as the backwater views of an unrepresentative, anti-modernist minority.
By failing to recognize what Sasse characterizes as a spontaneous, grassroots reaction to “judicial tyranny” (yes, Sasse documents the use of that term in the Cold War era), intellectual and journalistic elites, along with the entire Democratic Party, failed to grasp the true motivation of religious conservatives, or the political turns they would force the country to take.
Madalyn Murray O’Hair is the odd ghost hovering over Sasse’s project. It’s almost as though the exhibitionist atheist is, for Sasse, a persistent bogeyman in American culture, despite O’Hair’s death a decade earlier and the rising prominence of dozens of more staid advocates of atheism and secularism. Indeed, Sasse admits, in spite of the title of his prize-winning thesis and the many pixels he devoted to O’Hair herself (whom Sasse repeatedly calls “Madalyn” much like conservatives refer to a Clinton as “Hillary”), that she was merely a “symbol” and “never really the substance of the threat.” Yet, he maintains, “she was an important catalyst in the formation of a particular incarnation of a worldview, with a long pedigree in American history, that godless elites were stealing the nation from godly masses.”
That worldview, as becomes evident, is one with which Sasse is deeply sympathetic. As a historical matter, Sasse is correct that much of the reaction to the Court’s Establishment Clause cases was rooted in Christian anti-communist movements (which I fully agree formed an underappreciated foundation for the modern religious right). But even though the historical record is rife with demagogues who stirred up anti-communist (and then, anti-secularist) passions, in his thesis Sasse claims instead that this grassroots reaction was sua sponte.
Only later in the dissertation — after documenting, in fascinating detail, congressional hearings on a proposed Constitutional amendment to permit school prayer — does Sasse concede that reporters “did uncover some other unseemly conservative allies, such as the John Birch Society, Billy Hargis, and Gerald L.K. Smith,” founder of the anti-Semitic Christian Nationalist Crusade.
But before that concession, Sasse spends considerable time with the records of the House Judiciary Committee, and the mail it received from what Sasse portrays as the country’s salt and light citizens opposing “activist judges” on the Supreme Court.
At the center of this episode was a Republican congressman from New York, Frank Becker, a Catholic, who first proposed the school prayer amendment in the wake of the 1962 Supreme Court decision in Engel v. Vitale. Throughout, Sasse portrays Becker as a true believer, not a calculating politician, whose tenacious focus derived less from a studied assessment of his audience than from his heartfelt conviction that the hope of America lay in its special relationship with the Almighty, and in the nation’s resolve to doggedly oppose the most formidable system of atheistic imperialism the world had ever known.
Becker, depicted here as a David to a Democratic Goliath, was stymied by the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, Emanuel Celler (who Sasse repeatedly reminds us was Jewish), who refused to hold hearings on Becker’s proposal. But Becker was so committed to defending God and country, Sasse writes, that he then devoted his energies to educating the public about the mechanics of a discharge petition to force the chairman’s hand. “There was something almost Shakespearean,” Sasse notes, “about a man claiming to represent the great majority in defense of the great tradition now having to depend on an arcane legislative procedure.”
Sasse insists that the public outcry for a school prayer amendment was a “genuinely ‘bottom-up’ movement,” citing letters and other documents in the Judiciary Committee trove. A high-school student in Wyoming, for example, “implored all faithful countrymen ‘to remember that when Adolf Hitler came to power in Germany, his first move toward world conquest was the expulsion of religion from the schools.”
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.