This guest review is written by Ben Whisenant.
Nebraska Senator Ben Sasse has written a book about raising children to be adults, and strangely for a book written by a sitting politician, it contains no concrete policy proposals. It’s a truism, especially on the political right, that politics is downstream of culture. From this perspective, politics and politicians are limited. The problems plaguing our society are rooted in communities and families; and the solutions must be formed by communities and families. Instead of passing the buck impotent politicians, Americans must take a long, honest look in the mirror. Sasse acknowledges this and writes from the point of view of a husband, father, historian, Augustinian, and American.
The aim of his book then is to help parents recalibrate their family culture in order to produce someone who is habituated toward doing virtuous deeds. Sasse wants to help parents in “nudging affections” toward a shared conception of the good. There are significant points of contact between James K.A. Smith, especially in You Are What You Love, and Sasse’s new book.
Sasse believes that parents and communities have ceded too much power to modern schooling, which has imbibed Dewey’s view that the end of education is “not the full flowering of the individual, but rather ‘all education proceeds by the participation of the individual in the social consciousness of the race.’” Sasse proposes two steps: one, shift the burden on education, which he distinguishes from schooling, back to the family and community, and second, give those institutions tools to train young citizens toward character, good habits. Sasse’s advice about how to do this comprises the second half of the book (Sasse advises that -parents embrace a five-fold program: “discover the body”; “develop a work ethic”; “embrace limited consumption”; “learn how to travel and to travel light”; “learn how to read and decide what to read.” To Sasse, all of these are linked tightly with learning from your community and alternative communities. Additionally, they are activities designed to reshape the young person and cause them to desire the right thing—tools to orient the heart toward the good. Sasse, as an Augustinian, understands that the human heart is fallen, and on its own, will not gravitate to virtue. This educational program is designed to make parenting an activity of intentional person-making.
Smith’s recent book You Are What You Love seems to share many of the same assumptions as Sasse’s book. For Smith, we are not primarily “thinking things” we are “loving things,” and people pursue what they love. Smith writes: “Our wants and longings and desires are at the core of our identity, the wellspring from which our actions and behavior flow. Our wants reverberate from our hearts, the epicenter of the human person.” This prompts an obvious question: what if you don’t love the right things? Going further, Smith observes that “you might not love what you think.” For fallen people, that will always be true to greater and lesser degrees. The remedy to disoriented loves is to be immersed in a liturgy that reforms your loves, pointing you in the right direction, to use Smith’s metaphor of the compass. The majority of the book then provides ways to work that liturgy down into your bones, so that you begin to long for the right things.
When hearts are pulled to negative things that work against flourishing, that life starts to be characterized by vice. Smith observes that humans “can’t not be headed somewhere,” and those liturgies, those stories, that capture our hearts move us to action for good or for ill. Unfortunately, many Americans are listening to a story that praises consumption over production and pulls people toward the path of least resistance, or sloth. Sasse saw this vice among the students at Midland, when he was the president. Sasse’s first, and favorite, example of this is students at the college who didn’t finish putting their Christmas tree up.
He writes: “I couldn’t conceptualize growing up without the compulsion—first external, but over time, the more important internal and self-directed kind of compulsion—to attempt to finish hard things.” The students, apparently, had not been formed by their communities and families to value useful work above ease. With Smith in our ear, we have to ask what liturgical tradition formed them, if it wasn’t the liturgy of industrious—in the best sense of the word—labor. It’s fair to conclude that they were molded by a liturgy of online shopping, two-day delivery, cheap, disposable consumer goods, student-centered education, and—the most damning element—participation trophies. The core of the agreement between Sasse and Smith is here: The external realities and liturgies people rehearse on a day to day basis eventually alter the warp and woof of the heart. From there, the heart directs the actions of the life.
However, how they want to apply this understanding of human formation is where they diverge. Smith is using this model to aid churches and communities in forming citizens of the Kingdom of God—pilgrims on the way to the New Jerusalem, paying attention to the liturgy of God’s people and letting it form and remold their affections. Sasse wants to use the model to form citizens dedicated to republican virtues: commitment to neighbor, affection for their inherited Western tradition, engagement in Puritan-style industriousness, and appreciation for the diverse regions and cultures of the United States. Sasse proposes a liturgy to create mature, honorable citizens—and rulers—of the Republic. Indeed, he believes that this is not just an ideal that Americans could pursue it; it is a mandatory component of the American project. If families do not raise children who exhibit these traits, we might as well call it quits, warning that “if the idea of America is not reborn in our children’s hearts, we will all suffer a shared orphanhood.“
Sasse’s American liturgy is certainly not a know-nothing patriotism committed to “blood and soil.” Instead, it is one that is committed to the republican ideals of the Founding, which spoke of the American government as securing rights and privileges guaranteed by God. Indeed, the patriots made an “appeal to heaven” in their cause, believing they were engaged in a godly, and righteous movement. Sasse sees this American liturgy as a positive, and one that he, a Christian, can heartily embrace. Yet, Smith has emphatically warned Christians about the dangers of the American liturgy. In Desiring the Kingdom, Smith highlights that we are being formed when we are standing for the national anthem, reciting the pledge of allegiance, and praising members of the military for making the “ultimate sacrifice,” and for Smith, this forming tends to push Christians away from the Kingdom of God; instead of being compatible with the Christian liturgy, it, subtly, erodes allegiance to Christ and his kingdom by communicating that the defining characteristic of a person is his or her citizenship in an earthly kingdom. Though he allows that it can ‘make room for additional loyalties,” he believes “it is not willing to entertain trumping loyalties.”
If that is true, then patriotism seems to be antithetical to a religion that claims Jesus is Lord, not Caesar. Sasse and Smith, ultimately have a disagreement over the nature of the American liturgy. For Sasse, when it is at its best, it provides a neutral ground for Christians and non-Christians to govern together, debate together, and serve one another, holding non-ultimate goods in common (such as the aforementioned virtue of productivity) while disagreeing about ultimate goods (such as mankind’s chief end). Indeed, that’s the genius of America in Sasse’s view; it “requires us to pursue meaning amid multiple communities of belief and affection. The statement of faith recited in this liturgical community is a ‘creed affirming the dignity and natural rights of everyone across the globe.’” Though the creed is pitched as secular, available to anyone, that simply isn’t satisfying. This statement of belief is the child, not the parent.
With a creed, though, there are the orthodox, and there are the unorthodox, the heretics. Sasse’s vision might be a type of pluralism, but it is not a libertarian, anyone-can-come-and-join pluralism: There is a barrier to entry for the melting pot. There’s tolerance in this view, but the tolerance is not absolute; it has no room for those who do not aspire to live this virtuous life, or for those who will not inculcate these values in their children and community. The sharp edge of his argument is that Americans must actively campaign against competing values which our culture regularly praises, notably consumption, and some ways of life and some cultural practices aren’t allowed.
Finally, Sasse’s call to virtue, while it will be convincing to many, myself included, fails to grapple with an important issue: there’s nothing beneath the argument that is purely secular. There are some pragmatic elements to this line of reasoning—a virtuous citizen is more productive and helps power the economy and the community; a more literate and thoughtful worker while be better equipped to navigate technological disruption—but at the end of the day, it will breakdown when pressed for a “why.”
As Steven Smith argues in The Disenchantment of Secular Discourse, we do have conversations about visions of the good in the public arena, with a “secular vocabulary”; however, that’s only possible “by smuggling in notions that are formally inadmissible.” Sasse’s argument about raising children is grounded in a Judeo-Christian understanding of human dignity and human responsibility. Indeed, the United States was born swimming in that water, and it shapes our public discourse; we just spend a lot of time and effort pretending that we’re neutral. Thankfully, non-believers have borrowed much of their language and reasoning from this Christian tradition; we can and should be grateful for that, but we should also point it out. For example, Senator Bernie Sanders ardently contends that healthcare is a human right; he just can’t intelligently explain why humans have rights. He’s “smuggled” Christian notions of human dignity and compassionate care for neighbor.
James Smith has the opportunity to speak to the Christianity community, folks who share his basic assumptions about God and the chief end of man; they’re a called out people who agree on the foundational reality of union with Christ: the “why” for the pursuit of virtue is clear. Sasse addresses a different audience and has the burden to communicate in least common denominator language. It would seem however, that even that least common denominator language is only possible because the public discourse was steeped in a religious worldview. There is a case to be made that the virtues Sasse is calling Americans back to are present in the major religious traditions, but if the trend of young people identifying as nonreligious continues, it may be harder and harder to give Americans a “why” for pursuing virtue.
Ben Whisenant and his wife Katie are both native Tennesseans. He graduated from Harding University in 2014 with a degree in English Literature and now works in Academic Collection Development; he also teaches catechism classes at his church. You can follow him on twitter @benwhisenant.