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. 

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  1. 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.

    The relationship of Christianity to western understandings of human rights have a long, complicated history, that people have argued about for centuries. To simply state that non-believers have borrowed “much of their language and reasoning” from this Christian tradition is overly simplistic. Our western understandings of human rights are probably due more to (secular–or at least Non-Christian) enlightenment thinkers than any specific Christian writings or revelations.

    Indeed, the “Christian” notions of human dignity and compassionate care for the neighbor are largely found across the world, across cultures. They aren’t particularly Christian, rather they are Human.


  2. The obvious reason for the “Christ vs Caesar” situation in 2017 is that Caesar’s laws no longer reflect the Christian ethic. To name some obvious examples, it wasn’t that long ago that abortion was difficult or impossible to obtain legally, and most localities had laws against sodomy. The SCOTUS made abortion legal nationwide, also voided all sodomy laws and, just recently, claimed homosexuals had the right to marry. When a Christian takes a stand against abortion or homosexual marriage, the activists start off with “You have to obey the law” – which is pretty ironic coming from a group of people who weren’t obeying the laws when sodomy was illegal in most parts of the country. Our laws pull further and further away from Christian ethical teaching, to the point where a sitting Senator can question a Christian’s fitness to hold a political position.

    We’re not quite back to “The Christians to the lions,” but incrementally it’s looking very obvious that committed Christians can no longer serve Christ and Caesar faithfully. Ask any of the businesses that had been slapped with six-figure fines for refusing to bake a cake or supply floral arrangements for a “wedding.” In one sense, the Caesars were less depraved than contemporary America, for the Caesars tolerated homosexuality (within certain boundaries) but wouldn’t have dreamt of celebrating it with “marriage.”


    1. Well, not exactly. One Caesar divinized his boy-lover who suddenly drowned and used tax dollars to build up temples and statues to his cult (Hadrian & Antinous); another pretended to be a woman and married a famous charioteer (Elgabalus); another liked to play a pedophilic game with little boys on an island where they were his “minnows” (Tiberius). And this ignores other kinds of Imperial debauchery, murder, warmongering, idolatry, theft, etc. So, while America is debauched, it could be a lot worse. It only seems bad now because for those holding the reigns, it’s always hard to let go.


  3. This piece seems to perpetuate the casuistry that human virtue is dependent on Western Christianity in some necessary way. I spent a portion of my adolescence living in an Eastern culture, and must respectfully dissent from that proposition. I’d suggest–along with John Calvin and most early Protestant thinkers–that God’s revelation to us in the natural order is our primary instructor in virtue. That explains why there’s a fair bit of overlap from one culture to another in terms of how virtue is construed and understood. Of course, geographic and historic circumstance can affect how those virtues become embodied in cultural practices.

    Moreover, many of the virtues that we associate with Western Christendom didn’t emerge with any consistency until after 1648, and did so in a way that generally correlate with the rise of various forms of secularism. In fact, it is probably no accident that those virtues appeared most consistently in societies where church power was decentralized and weak, such as the Netherlands.

    I agree that Western Christianity played a necessary role in the particular emergence of a stable liberal order in the West. And it’s likely true that the various forms of barbarism that preceded it in Europe were probably incapable of producing it. But that hardly proves that Western Christianity is a necessary predicate to such socio-political stability in all instances. Nor does it prove that a more politically robust Christianity is necessarily the solution to the emerging illiberalism in our own culture. After all, the predominant form of Christianity in our immediate cultural context–white evangelicalism–doesn’t appear to be a very suitable vehicle for restoring a stable, realist form of liberalism. After all, white evangelical political ideology generally reflects an illiberal idealism that is no less hostile to a stable liberalism than the progressive illiberalism it purports to counteract.


    1. Scott Tenerman July 5, 2017 at 10:06 am

      lol, I notice you didn’t spend a portion of your adolescence in Africa, Central America, or the Middle East.

      “After all, white evangelical political ideology generally reflects an illiberal idealism that is no less hostile to a stable liberalism than the progressive illiberalism it purports to counteract.”

      Come on. NO less? Not even a little less? Conservative political ideology may demand conformity of behavior (a man can’t marry a man, etc) but it doesn’t demand conformity of thought. This simple distinction proves how much more dangerous the mainstream left is than the mainstream right.


      1. Yes, I’m not familiar with those cultures and wasn’t raised within them. Even so, my point still stands. There’s a fair bit of virtue and wisdom embodied in various strands of Confucian and neo-Confucian thought, much of which predated Christianity by 500+ years. Western Christianity does not have a monopoly on human virtue.


  4. On a further note, B.D. McClay has posted an excellent review/criticism of Sasse’s thesis in the most recent issue of Cardus.

    I grew up in a working-class community in the Midwest. The virtues that Sasse espoused made perfect sense in an era where good manufacturing jobs were plentiful and where people generally needed a plan to fail. But that era is over. What do these virtues mean in a world where automation has obviated the need for many laborers? That’s the question that Sasse seeks to answer. But Sasse seems to do nothing more than play the same broken record that charlatans on the Religious Right have been playing for some time.

    Some decades ago, we lived in an economic order in which there was a tangible nexus between the virtues that Sasse espouses and economic stability. People at that time didn’t live virtuously simply out of blind obedience to some moral authority. No. They lived virtuously because they could see a direct connection between their moral choices and their own economic and social stability. That nexus has disappeared for many Americans who lack a creative-class skill set. But instead of developing policies that seek to reestablish that nexus, Sasse and his Religious Right forebears prefer to resort to moralistic finger-wagging. This resort to authoritarian moralism is is hard to distinguish, however, from the illiberalism that Sasse and his fellow “conservatives” often decry. Frankly, I’ve grown a bit weary of conservative Christians who posit some flavor of authoritarianism as the only reasonable solution to the social crises that continue to afflict working-class communities.

    In his review, McClay likens Sasse and his ilk to the character of Napoleon the pig from Animal Farm. It strikes me as a rather apposite characterization.


    1. Scott Tenerman July 5, 2017 at 9:58 am

      I read McClay’s piece on Cardus. In it she writes:

      “Sasse’s own book opens with a warning that the kind of economy that rewarded this kind of work is about to go out the door and never come back, but the rest is a plea that the habits the economy supposedly rewarded remain in place without the reward.”

      This is confusing to me. I would need to read it in context to judge just how insightful or blinkered Sasse is being here.

      Yet the virtues addressed in this review are older than the assembly line and predate your childhood Midwest factories by centuries. Family, community, reading good things rather than rubbish, a strong work ethic…we may reach a point where families and communities are required to grow and defend a portion of their own food supply. Such virtues will come in handy in such a ‘fer-instance’.

      People at that time didn’t live virtuously simply out of blind obedience to some moral authority. No. They lived virtuously because they could see a direct connection between their moral choices and their own economic and social stability.

      That’s quite a statement. A generalization made without support, spoken by someone that either A) doesn’t believe in God and is cynical about those who do, or B) has failed to qualify this statement with the caveat that of course many people do live virtuously out of obedience to God.

      But instead of developing policies that seek to reestablish that nexus…

      Which policies would those be, I wonder, and how effective could they be when so many are attached to the unsustainable consumption of tomorrow’s productivity today, and when voters are unwilling to punish 90% of incumbent representatives to a legislative body only 11% of them approve of?

      ..Sasse and his Religious Right forebears prefer to resort to moralistic finger-wagging. This resort to authoritarian moralism..

      What finger-wagging? What authoritarianism? Is this a criticism of Sasse’s book or just a blow at the right in general? You seem to take offense at the idea that good people will produce a good society, and rather what’s needed is good governance and policies…who exactly is the authoritarian here?


      1. I’m not seeking to be cynical about Christian belief. I’m simply pointing out what behavioral economists have pointed out over and over again: People generally react in ways that they believe will enhance their economic position within a particular socio-economic context. The particular institutional forms of Christianity that emerge in various such contexts generally do so because they provide such a benefit. In that sense, my critique is directed to a particular institutionalized form of Christian practice–particularly, American evangelical Christianity–not the Christian faith itself.

        Christianity comes in any number of institutionalized forms, which have their own non-essential institutional attributes. As people participate in these institutions, their conduct and decision-making becomes shaped by that participation. In most cases, people continue to participate in those institutions precisely because that shaping yields certain socio-economic benefits. But, for most working-class Americans, participation in evangelical Christian institutions no longer provides such benefits. Thus, the promotion of evangelical Christianity among such people amounts to little more than moralistic finger-wagging from those for whom evangelical Christianity still provides such benefits.


        1. Scott Tenerman July 10, 2017 at 1:19 pm

          Oh, well, if behavioral economists said so, I guess that settles the matter! Is there any more useless field of study than psychology? On to the word “Thus”, the premise having been fully established! You’re killing me, man.
          Also, don’t forget “white”, “white” American evangelical Christianity; it’s important to distinguish between that and the brown kind. I don’t know why, personally, but as often as you mention it I’m assuming you have a reason!


          1. Is there any more useless field of study than psychology?
            Spoken like a true Scientologist.

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