Book Review

The pleading of Ben Sasse in “Them: Why We Hate Each Other—And How to Heal”

November 20, 2018

William F. Buckley famously said of the mission of National Review, “It stands athwart history, yelling Stop.” Ben Sasse’s new book, Them: Why We Hate Each Other–and How to Heal might similarly be summarized as one that stands athwart society, pleading, “Don’t you see what’s happening?”

Them “is not about politics,” Sasse, a United States Senator, tells readers (3). And by that he means the book isn’t designed to persuade readers of particular policy prescriptions. This is not to say politics has nothing to do with the book. It does, very much so, but politics is in view as a symptom rather than as the disease itself.

What is the primary problem?


The problems

Sasse devotes the first four chapters of Them to explore the problem of loneliness and its wide-ranging societal effects. “Our world is nudging us toward rootlessness, when only a recovery of rootedness can help us,” Sasse writes (15). This rootlessness leads to loneliness. Lonely people seek out identity and community somewhere, even if it means (which it has) finding “home” in a terrible place—like politics. In turn, when politics becomes ultimate then Americans become fanatical, lots of ugly things start to happen, and our republic atrophies.

This loneliness is seen both at home and at work. “We’re hyperconnected, and we’re disconnected,” Sasse notes (28), and the increasingly mobile economy, in which men and women move from job to job and place to place tends to contribute to our rootlessness. “We need to be needed,” Sasse argues regarding the importance of jobs (62), but when identity-shaping vocations are stripped away, depositing rootless people into nonfunctioning communitiunities, the net effect is not a happy one.

Further, Sasse considers what he calls anti-tribes: “We’re meant to be for things and people, but absent that, most of us will choose to be against things and people, together, rather than to be alone” (72). Nowhere is this seen more clearly than in our politics and media. News outlets (on both the left and right) capitalize on this and have built an entire business model around it: “Hosts, producers, and executives know that Americans are primed to despise each other—they just need a target. And anger is intoxicating” (108).

In a memorable and newsmaking section, Sasse chides Fox News host Sean Hannity as an example of fostering anti-tribes on his shows: “The storyline is simple: Liberals are evil, you’re a victim, and you should be furious. Hannity tells a lot of angry, isolated people what they want to hear” (106, cf. 121). To be sure, Sasse assigns blame to left and right, while also assuring that there are many journalists who work hard trying to do their jobs well. Regarding President Trump, Sasse sharply criticizes “the president’s lack of interest in facts,” (126) but at the same time he argues that the problem isn’t isolated to the current Commander in Chief: “Donald Trump created none of this—he simply plays the fiddle ‘better’ than anyone has ever managed before” (125).

The solutions

In the final four chapters of the book, Sasse provides solutions to these wide-ranging problems. These prescriptions are extensions of one overarching argument: we need to remember what it means to be American, namely, that America is first and foremost an idea, “a commitment to the universal dignity of persons everywhere,” (134) and this idea must be shared and sustained for our republic to survive.

In these prescriptive chapters, Sasse takes on technology. He’s “Christmas-morning giddy” about many of these new technologies, but fears that we haven’t “reflected adequately on the downsides” they bring (177). In one of the most useful portions of the book, Sasse offers sixteen rules his family observes to make sure technology is a servant but not a master (199). Sasse counsels readers in the title of one chapter to “Buy a Cemetery Plot,” not so much because he’s concerned about the funeral industry but because too often Americans “look for reasons to avoid investing our time or energy or resources in a particular place or at a particular moment” (212). If we invest ourselves wherever we are, though, we become more rooted to place and more committed to our neighbors. Regardless of where we are, “we need to figure out a way to realize a sense of home” (236).

In all—as Sasse sketches in a substantive concluding chapter—healing entails at least three basic things: (10 rejecting anti-tribes; (2) putting politics in its proper (subordinate) place; and (3) finding our identity more in people and place than in politics.

Them is the right book for the country

Them feels like the sort of book that was somehow co-authored through the ages by Augustine, James Madison, Neil Postman, and Wendell Berry. Prophetic without being preachy, the diagnosis Sasse provides is at the same time both self-evident and yet desperately needed.

Though there has been no shortage of voices questioning the hold that screens and social media have on our lives, Sasse covers this terrain efficiently and deeply in a way few others have. Additionally, the list of sixteen truths that govern the Sasse family’s approach toward technology, family, and friends (199) is worth the price of the book in and of itself—even if just as a conversation starter. Beyond the book’s primary argument about loneliness and localism, some of the most thought-provoking aspects of the book surround the coming disruption the digital economy will bring to the American workforce. Clear-eyed and thoughtful, Sasse canvasses artificial intelligence, automation, and the digital economy in a way that many readers will likely have never considered.

Perhaps the most significant element of the book, though, is the second section, unveiling the business model of so much of our mass media. As one who works in the public space and runs a media relations department, I’ve experienced this on both the left and the right. “Are you willing to say,” I’ve been asked by a show producer, “that this elected official is evil and hates Christians?” “Of course not,” I’ve answered, “but I’m happy to say where we disagree strongly with his political convictions.” “Thanks,” the producer tells me. The call ends, and the show moves on until they find a Christian personality who’s willing to stick more closely to their script. Sasse, however, peels off the veneer in a way that shows readers the “game” that’s being played (122), or perhaps even more so, the way Americans themselves are being played. Interestingly enough, some in the media world have lashed out at Sasse in the wake of this book’s release—offended, outraged, and telling their listeners all about it. Of course, by doing this, they prove Sasse’s point. Sasse’s critique, however, is not just of this business model, but also of its consumers—because the plan doesn’t work unless the demand for titallation exceeds the demand for truth. A far cry from cynicism or defeatism, though, Sasse is right to note that there is still a way out of the mess—one that starts with reforming our habits and affections.

Them is the right book for the church

To be clear, while Sasse is an evangelical Christian, Them is not a Christian book, nor is it overtly theological. That said, it is deeply resonant with a Christian worldview, and throughout it raises a number of questions that might be uniquely helpful for Christians and churches.

For starters, Christians ought very much to consider who “we” are. That is to say, if part of the problem in our society is the demonization of “them,” then one of the questions we need to answer is, “Who are we?” Too often, American evangelicals are tempted to identify more closely with our political tribes than with the people from the tribes, tongues, and nations with whom we will spend eternity. Politics just feels more real. And that’s a problem. In churches where it’s more likely that a break from political orthodoxy will cause greater alarm and fiercer division than will a break from, well, actual orthodoxy, we have a real problem. In Them, Sasse points to Alexis de Tocqueville’s crediting the United States success to their “voluntary associations,” what Edmund Burke called the “little platoons” of society (235). Sasse rightly stresses their importance for our republic, but for those of us in Christ, the primary “little platoon” in which we find ourselves is the local church—existing as it does as the colony of a coming (and advancing) kingdom. Them ought to serve to remind us of where our primary allegiance resides.

Not only that, but Christians ought to consider how, and by what, they are being shaped. If nothing else, Sasse’s book shows that great wisdom and discernment is needed when it comes to media consumption. The lesson from Them is not, “Don’t trust the media.” Instead, the lesson is, “Don’t you see what’s going on here?” What’s going on here, is, too often, a competition for clicks and an invitation to outrage. If we know that, we’ll be slow to baptize outlets or elected officials or media personalities and be quick to understand our neighbors who may differ from us—seeing them not as “them” (as enemies to be vanquished) but first and foremost as either present or potential brothers and sisters in Christ toward whom we should have compassion. More still, wisdom applied to what we consume will help ensure that our political convictions are formed first and foremost by Scripture rather than drive-time personalities.

All told, Them is thoughtful, provocative, and sorely-needed in our outrage-drunk moment. It’s sure to make some uncomfortable, but a prophetic word always does. It may not be the book that Washington wants. But it’s the book that America needs.

Daniel Patterson

Daniel Patterson is former Executive Vice President of the ERLC. He holds a Ph.D. in Systematic Theology from the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He and his wife Molly have been married since 2010, and together they have three children. Read More by this Author

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24