On Ben Sasse and Daring to Hope in Public

On Ben Sasse and Daring to Hope in Public November 5, 2014

SasseLet’s be honest. If you hold to Judeo-Christian ethics, the last few years have not gone well. They have gone very badly indeed. We’ve watched as the permanent things have taken hit after hit, blow after blow. We’ve seen a tidal wave of change sweep over America. We’ve felt helpless. We’ve felt hopeless.

Last night, something extraordinary happened. As CNN reported, in state after state, voters elected candidates to the U. S. Senate–and several governorships–who are meaningfully conservative on social issues. By all appearances, these candidates do not simply shade conservative if you back them into a corner. They are outspoken about their pro-life convictions, they want to restore individual agency to the American people, and they believe the free market can again be an engine for personal uplift.

The young gun who has my attention is Ben Sasse, a 42-year-old conservative Lutheran from Nebraska. He’s a Yale PhD who likes leadership–he turned struggling Midland College around and has a knack for speaking in tones normal, non-wonkish people can understand. He was profiled–I almost said bathed in a soft glow–by the Weekly Standard and National Review not long ago.

I would expect a longform New York Times or New Yorker profile soon; “The Paul Ryan of the Evangelical Politicos,” or something like that (which he has the potential to be). Here’s a shorter one from the NYT that also profiles Tom Cotton, a cotton-farming Methodist and decorated military hero (The Atlantic profiled him at some length). These guys are down-to-earth, but they’re both Harvard graduates. They like ideas, but they also like governance and leadership. Call me crazy, but I see this kind of candidate taking office, and I might begin–against all the odds–to feel a bit of hope, civic hope, public hope, in this fractured time.

I just wrote a book on Chuck Colson called The Colson Way (Thomas Nelson, summer 2015). In the book, I tell Colson’s story and offer a case for evangelical public-square involvement. The church is doing decently well in its ecclesial life, but it has felt like there are few people out there who sense a call to what used to be labeled “public service.” Figures like Sasse and Cotton give me hope. Of course, we’ll have to see how they and others conduct themselves in office. Evangelicals have learned, sometimes bitterly, to avoid the uncritical mistake of thinking that America, not the soon-coming new Jerusalem, is our home.

But let’s be honest: in a Colsonesque way, we need to recognize that the narrative of this country is not etched in stone. It is being written. Right now. Before our eyes. The future is being carved and crafted. Leaders are stepping up. If you’ve been writing an epitaph for America, put the chisel down. Take off your safety glasses. Blink a few times. The clouds are thick, but there might be some sun peeking out. You don’t want to miss it.

Do not misunderstand me: we’ve witnessed a torrent of deleterious cultural change in our day. I don’t think America is on a good trajectory, frankly. There is much out there to discourage us. There is real human suffering that will happen because of legislation and decisions enshrined as law just days prior to this one. I have no idea what the future of this country is. I don’t think anyone does, left or right.

What is clear to me is that Christians cannot make the mistake of thinking that our future is written. We cannot buy the line that America is on a linear course. I’m not sure we are. I think in days ahead, as best I can see, we’ll suffer some major losses, and we might witness some serious gains. This isn’t a rumbling in my stomach, a shiver going up my leg. It’s verifiable. The pro-life movement has made serious headway in America. Cory Gardner just beat a shockingly pro-abortion candidate in Colorado who made the issue central in the campaign. As evangelicals, we’re not where we want to be–but we’re far from where we started after Roe v. Wade, right?

This momentum–and it is real momentum–has come because Christians have kept going. They haven’t bought a narrative. They haven’t fallen prey to despair. They have worked. They kept their nose to the ground. The whole movement has been couched in hope. Pro-life. There is a profound lesson there that we cannot miss. Much as we might weary of contending for the permanent things, we do not contend out of anger. We do so out of love for our neighbor, love that means more than baking cookies (Matthew 22:37). It means getting our hands dirty in the public square on behalf of others.

I’ll say it again: I have no idea where things go from here. We can hope, however, that the sea-change in American political leadership will not mean the standard round of unmet expectations. We can hope that abortion will be ended in our lifetime, as I believe it will. We can hope that the family will be strengthened in days ahead (the natural family, that is). We can hope that religious liberty will continue to exist.

We can also hope that Christians will awaken to the incredible blessings they enjoy in this country. After all, we are not a movement of despair. God is reigning, and he loves nothing more than to surprise us with showers of grace where we expected only famine.

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