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Ben Sasse Heightens the Contradictions

March 1st, 2019 | 8 min read

By Jake Meador

In a November 2018 episode of Saturday Night Live, congressman-elect Lt. Cmdr. Dan Crenshaw of Texas appeared with SNL star Pete Davidson. The much-discussed segment came one week after Davidson had made tasteless jokes about Crenshaw’s eye patch, which he has to wear after losing an eye on his third tour of duty in Afghanistan.

As the segment closed, Crenshaw stopped making jokes and played it straight, saying that the incident was a reminder of what makes for a functioning, healthy republic:

There’s a lot of lessons to learn here. Not just that the left and right can still agree on some things, but this: Americans can forgive one another. We can remember what brings us together as a country and still see the good in each other.

The monologue, which was widely circulated on social media and praised by many placed Crenshaw firmly in a group of Republican politicians that use their position in public office as an opportunity to attempt what Nebraska junior Sen. Ben Sasse has referred to as “civil catechesis.” Sasse himself is perhaps the foremost amongst these Republicans, but former Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake and Utah Sen. Mitt Romney would belong to this group as well. So too would a number of prominent conservative commentators, including Charles Murray, David Brooks, and Jonah Goldberg.

What unites the catechists is their commitment to what Sasse calls “the American Idea.” The catechists believe that the crisis facing America stems from a forgetting of the principles upon which the nation is built. Citing Reagan, Sasse defines the American Idea as the notion that, “you and I have within ourselves the God-given right and the ability to determine our own destiny.” Individual people are born free and the natural state of affairs, according to the American Idea, is that people would freely associate, freely contribute to a shared life together in a place, and order their lives to promote their good—all without ever needing to request the government’s permission to do so.

In order to refashion America’s civil society, the catechists argue, we must recommit ourselves to this idea. Both of Sasse’s books published since his election are dedicated to advancing aspects of that idea—The Vanishing American Adult was a crash course in self-sufficiency and independence. His latest book, Them, is an extended and often moving argument for the virtues that help us to be good pluralists.

It is, in fact, an extended argument for the goodness of loving one’s neighbor, though it does remain agnostic on questions of religious dogma which would provide a more explicit basis for that behavior. The question is whether or not this religious agnosticism can be maintained over the long haul or if one needs some kind of broader religious framework for sustaining such a principle. This reluctance to make theological arguments—a reluctance that Sasse shares with Goldberg whose latest book begins by ruling out appeals to theology or religious doctrine—is precisely why the catechists’ project is doomed according to another class of Christian conservatives.

These critics, the Post-Liberals, view the American project as being fundamentally incoherent, doomed to suffer the sort of decline that we are now witnessing in both our nation’s capitol and, in a different way, in its countrysides. The argument that Patrick Deneen and other post-liberals, like Rod Dreher and Archbishop Charles Chaput, wish to make is that the American Idea is incoherent because it seeks to advance “freedom” while being religiously agnostic, which is to say “agnostic about the definition, meaning, and end of human freedom.”

Though Sasse’s Them is a splendid book—I was quite surprised by exactly how much I enjoyed and admired it—it is weakened by the absence of any serious engagement with post-liberal conservatism and by the failure to ask more critical questions about the American Idea. Sasse regularly appeals to de Tocqueville when making his arguments, but he never seems to come around to the parts of de Tocqueville that Deneen regularly cites in which the French writer discusses his reasons for pessimism about the sustainability of the American project.

This brings us to Sen. Sasse’s recently defeated Senate bill, “The Born-Alive Abortion Survivors Protection Act,” which failed a cloture vote when it received only 53 of the 60 necessary votes to pass.

There are two ways to read the failure of the bill. One is the line that Alexandra DeSanctis takes at National Review arguing that the bill has failed because of Democratic misrepresentations, that its Democratic opponents are opposing it on spurious grounds that have no basis in the actual text of the bill.

This reading is not wrong technically, but it misses the broader context of the bill. It is technically correct because nothing in the bill itself has any bearing whatsoever on abortion rights. Nothing in the bill actually draws the meddling hand of government into the practices of medical professionals in an inappropriate way. And the bill is still necessary even with the 2002 Born-Alive Infants Protection Act which, as DeSanctis noted, does not actually impose any penalties on medical professionals who fail to provide care to the survivors of abortion.

Yet this reading of the bill fails for a simple reason: It assumes that common ground can be found on the abortion question which, though not explicitly addressed in the bill, is obviously implicated in it. Sasse himself has said that the bill is designed to end what he calls “fourth trimester abortions,” after all. The special pleading of conservatives who wish to act as if this bill has nothing to do with abortion does not hold up. The bill may not directly address the abortion question, but it does shape the way that Americans think about the status of the unborn. Because of that, it exposes the enormous fault lines that have opened up between the parties on this question.

The days in which “safe, legal, and rare,” could appeal to a wide swathe of Americans are over. For pro-lifers, abortion is the taking of innocent life, a thing which simply should not be legal or should only be legal in the most extreme cases. For “reproductive justice” advocates, the right to legal abortion is about protecting the autonomy of human persons, of preserving the unencumbered choice of women whose choice would otherwise be naturally encumbered in ways that a man’s is not simply because of their ability to bear children. It was nearly 75 years ago that the early feminist Simone de Beauvoir said that a woman’s fertility “rivets” her to her own body, curtailing her freedom in ways that a man’s freedom by definition cannot be constrained. In this vision, abortion is simply another form of contraception. There is no need to feel badly about it, no need to view it as a sad thing. This is the thought process that stands behind much contemporary pro-abortion activism on the left, including the Shout Your Abortion meme.

This case, then, is simply the most visceral possible example of why Deneen’s pessimism is so persuasive and why the strategy of the catechists seems insufficient. Theoretically, a commitment to principled pluralism and classical liberalism would, one expects, be good medicine for a culture as polarized as ours. If there is a way for Republicans to diffuse the tension, one would think it’d be to embrace the principled liberalism espoused by Sasse, Crenshaw, and the rest. But what happens when even the catechists find themselves—perhaps unintentionally—heightening the contradictions? What happens when the competing moral visions in our republic are so at odds with one another that even the liberalism of Sasse and company cannot be countenanced? We will soon find out.

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Jake Meador

Jake Meador is the editor-in-chief of Mere Orthodoxy. He is a 2010 graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln where he studied English and History. He lives in Lincoln, NE with his wife Joie, their daughter Davy Joy, and sons Wendell, Austin, and Ambrose. Jake's writing has appeared in The Atlantic, Commonweal, Christianity Today, Fare Forward, the University Bookman, Books & Culture, First Things, National Review, Front Porch Republic, and The Run of Play and he has written or contributed to several books, including "In Search of the Common Good," "What Are Christians For?" (both with InterVarsity Press), "A Protestant Christendom?" (with Davenant Press), and "Telling the Stories Right" (with the Front Porch Republic Press).