Friday, November 7, 2014

Ben Sasse Is Not a "Christian Crusader"

Ben Sasse:  Nebraska's new senator
Paul Putz, a Ph.D student in history at Baylor University, has written a fascinating post at the blog of the American Society of Church History on the religious beliefs of Nebraska's new senator, Ben Sasse. As a Lutheran, Sasse embraces a "two kingdoms" approach to Christianity and culture.  This means that he does not believe that Christians should be trying to "transform" or "redeem" the larger culture through politics or any other means.  

Putz does a really nice of job of showing the theological illiteracy of many in the press who want to paint Sasse as a "Christian crusader." Lutherans (and those of the Reformed persuasion who also hold to this "two kingdoms" model) do not usually engage in the kind of cultural transformation associated with the Christian Right and other Reformed groups. 

I will let Putz explain:

But Sasse’s scholarly contributions are not the only item of interest for ASCH folks. His personal religious views are worth considering, too, since years down the road Sasse may find himself as a subject of study for an enterprising young scholar’s dissertation analyzing conservative Christianity and American politics in the early twenty-first century. Baptized at a Missouri Synod Lutheran church (LCMS) in Plainview, Nebraska, Sasse attended an LCMS elementary school in Fremont, Nebraska before moving on to Fremont High School and then to Harvard. After Harvard he became associated with the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals, served as an editor of Modern Reformation, and co-edited Here We Stand: A Call from Confessing Evangelicals (1996). That background (and Posner’s essay) was enough for an alarmed writer for Salon to declare him a “hardcore member of the Christian right” and a “conservative Christian crusader.” If we take that description at face value, then Sasse (the Lutheran evangelical culture warrior) perfectly symbolizes the LCMS’s turn to the political right and its increasing connection with conservative evangelicalism, a turn described by James Burkee in Power, Politics, and the Missouri Synod: A Conflict that Changed American Christianity (reviewed in the March 2012 issue of Church History).
It seems to me, though, that the story is a bit more complicated. For one, Sasse apparently had a dalliance with Presbyterianism (see page 81), although he is now apparently back within the Lutheran fold. Second, a steady critic of the Christian Right, D.G. Hart, is a friend and supporter of Sasse. Hart (whose book on Calvinism was reviewed in the latest issue of Church History) is adamant that Ben Sasse is a “2K [Two Kingdoms] Reformed Protestant.” That is to say, Sasse believes that “[t]he affairs of the civil and temporal realm are one thing, the politics of God’s kingdom another.” Hart’s claim is supported by Sasse’s connection with other Reformed 2Kers like Michael Horton and R. Scott Clark.
If Sasse is a 2Ker somewhat in the mold of Hart – and nothing from what I’ve seen of his rhetoric indicates otherwise – then the Christian Right’s dreams of Christianizing America and/or restoring America to its Christian roots are not part of Sasse’s vision. This may be a distinction without a difference for some: although Sasse’s rhetoric does not rely on “return America to God” themes, his views on nearly every current political issue line up with those of the Christian Right. But then again, as Daniel Williams and others have shown, this is true for most GOP members. Perhaps we are at the place where any Republican with a well-known affiliation with Christianity is by default considered part of the Christian Right. At any rate, I’m not prepared to offer a definitive statement of categorization – I’ll leave that to the experts, or maybe even someone who actually sits down with Sasse and talks to him about the subject.