When journalists have sifted through the tea leaves and the ashes left by campaign 2018, they'll doubtless be watching a singular Nebraskan, Sen. Ben Sasse, 46. He'll be the intellectual leader of Donald Trump-wary conservatives in Congress who embrace the Republicans' 1856-2015 heritage. Sasse will be up for re-election in 2020 (unless he retires).
Though a Republican or independent presidential run seems most unlikely, Sasse bids for a voice on the nation's future with his October book "Them," subtitled "Why We Hate Each Other -- and How to Heal" St. Martin's Press). Showing off his chops as a Yale Ph.D. in American history (his dissertation treated President Ronald Reagan and the "religious right"), Sasse analyzes massive disruptions in the economy and the culture that he says will continue to erode Americans' confidence and sense of shared purpose.
As a remedy, he proposes reviving old-fashioned local communities. He also wants Americans to shun destructive media and decries the partisan furies that characterize the Trump era, though the book barely mentions the president or their disagreements. He appeals for vigorous public policy debates that respect the dignity of opponents as fellow citizens. The book’s handling of religious liberty disputes is especially important.
Future media write-ups should emphasize that Sasse is also the most interesting evangelical Protestant in Congress. He previewed “Them” in a 2017 commencement address when The Guy’s daughter graduated from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary (for the good stuff, skip ahead to 9:40). Sasse also spoke that year to the Gospel Coalition and in 2016 at Westminster Seminary — California. And here’s what Sasse said on the Senate floor about #MeToo and Judge Brett Kavanaugh.
Journalists will want to peruse his religiously-pitched 2016 interview with World, a Christian newsmagazine. Secular outlets have portrayed Sasse as sort of impressive but lamentably conservative, as in Mother Jones just before the 2016 election when Sasse declined to vote for Trump, slate.com in 2017 and Vanity Fair last month.
“Them” barely mentions a theme The Guy considers essential for a Sasse interview: What’s the role for religion, especially local congregations, in the healthy restored culture Sasse yearns for? Also, what does he see as the future role in this for fellow evangelicals who’ve so faithfully boosted Trump?
Sasse was raised and confirmed in the Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod. He became active in Campus Crusade at Harvard (wife-to-be Melissa was a Cru staffer), was a varsity wrestler and spent a semester at Oxford. He then earned master’s degrees at St. John’s College, and at Yale prior to the Ph.D. Along the way, he embraced Reformed (= "Calvinist") theology.
He has been a management consultant, chief of staff to a U.S. Congressman, chief of staff in a unit of the Bush 41 justice department, assistant secretary of health and human services, University of Texas teacher, and in the years before his Senate victory the president of Midland Lutheran College (now Midland University) in his hometown of Fremont. Appointed at the notably young age of 37, he reportedly saved the school by stabilizing shaky finances and doubling student enrollment. (Speaking of education, the Sasses’ three children are homeschooled.)
This variegated career also included a stint as executive director of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals, during which Sasse co-edited “Here We Stand!,” its 2004 anthology on the need for thorough church reformation.
For full-bore treatment, journalists will want to debrief three Republican Senate pals that he told World are theological discussion partners: Steve Daines of Montana (an Evangelical Presbyterian Church member), James Lankford of Oklahoma (a Southern Baptist and former church camp director), and Tim Scott of South Carolina (affiliated with ARC, the Association of Related Churches).
During a Nebraska visit, a reporter might attend worship at Sasse’s Presbyterian Church in America congregation, and ride along on one of his shifts as an Uber driver keeping in touch with the grass roots.