John R. Muether
The Vanishing American Adult: Our Coming-of-Age Crisis—and How to Rebuild a Culture of Self-Reliance, by Ben Sasse. New York: St. Martin’s, 2017, 306 pages, $27.99.
Benjamin Sasse may be a familiar name to some Ordained Servant readers from his days on the editorial staff of Modern Reformation, 1997–2004, during the time when CURE (Citizens United for Reformation) morphed into ACE (the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals). No doubt Sasse remains committed to recovering the Reformation, but as the junior Senator from Nebraska he devotes himself to recovering America in this bestselling book.
The Vanishing American Adult describes a generation of Americans who have not grown up. Victims of “soft parenting,” millennials are generally missing the coming-of-age opportunities that give shape to adult life. Addicted to technology and medicated for behavioral ailments, they are staying home and marrying less and later. The result is not merely families in crisis. The lost appreciation for hard work and failure to achieve economic independence are crippling the political order, because our fraying democracy represents these family dysfunctions writ large.
This argument is hardly new, so what is unique about Sasse’s approach? For one, despite the subtitle, this is not merely a “how to” instructional guide. Several chapters are sustained reflections on vocation, suffering, death and dying, media ecology, and the dangers of overconsumption. He urges countervailing practices such as greater intergenerational connectivity, and preparation for dying well, and observing the difference between the adventure of travel and the passive sightseeing of tourism. While each chapter ends with a list of “stepping stones”—a starter set of practices—Sasse avoids simple prescriptions. At times Sasse employs flyover-country means for reviving American adulthood, such as commending farm life. (Here he includes his teenage daughter’s hilarious dispatches on Nebraska farm life that rendered her an internet sensation). But altogether this is less a nostalgic call for Thoreauian self-reliance than a commendation for simple and deliberate living.
“The purpose of this book,” Sasse makes clear, “is not to persuade you of any theological points” (28). Much of his argument focuses on the social effects of America’s increasingly irreligious age. (For example, we have lost the significance of religious rites of passages from childhood to adulthood, in first communions and bar mitzvahs.) This book is not about how Christians transform the culture. He seeks to avoid the “battlegrounds of the culture wars” (104), and true to that aim, neither abortion nor homosexuality finds an entry in the index. Sasse seeks to restore an American Creed—not a civil religion, but a reminder that America is still premised on a creed, a set of values enshrined in the Constitution. So there are reasons for Christians and non-Christians to unite to serve the common good, not to make America great again but to make America an idea again.
The last chapter, “Build a Bookshelf,” is a creatively constructed bibliographical essay where Sasse describes his sixty favorite books that he returns to again and again. He encourages readers to construct their own collections, urging care to cover several categories and genres. His own categories begin with God and continue to anthropology, markets, tyrants, a humanistic perspective on science, and fiction. He commends J. Gresham Machen’s Christianity and Liberalism, even for those “who hate the core argument” because it demonstrates “how polemics tackle something important head-on,” thus encouraging thoughtful intellectual engagement (231).
Reading this book prompted me to wonder: might this become Sasse’s version of Profiles in Courage? John F. Kennedy published his bestseller three years before his successful 1960 presidential campaign. But there are at least two differences: there is strong reason to think Sasse actually wrote this book, and Sasse’s father, a retired high school wrestling coach, will not likely influence voters to grant his son a Pulitzer Prize. Still there is a sense of a manifesto to this book that at least suggests aspirations for the 2020 election season.
Beyond whatever political ambitions Sasse harbors, this book serves as a helpful primer on civic engagement for politically charged Christians. In a recent speech on Islamic terrorism on the floor of the Senate, Sasse described his dual citizenship in this way: “I am a Christian. . . . But I am also in this life an American, and I have taken an oath of office to the Constitution.” The Vanishing American Adult is a tangible demonstration of a “two kingdom” approach to political discourse. Politics do not matter most. But Christians must strive with non-Christians to preserve conditions that will enable all Americans to devote themselves to (and even to debate peacefully about) things that do matter most.
John R. Muether serves as a ruling elder at Reformation Orthodox Presbyterian Church in Oviedo, Florida, library director at Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando, Florida, and historian of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church.