A couple of years ago, I began reading Jake Meador’s work on the recommendation of a friend. Meador is a Presbyterian from Lincoln, Nebraska, who has written for many of the usual outlets for those engaged in the public debate about our post-Christian culture (First Things, Christianity Today, National Review) and currently serves as editor-in-chief of Mere Orthodoxy, an online Christian publication. He is also a contributing editor at Plough, a brilliant little magazine of “stories, ideas, and culture” that is one of the best reads out there.
Meador’s work is a valuable contribution to the ongoing discussion of how Christians should face this new era of endings. I particularly appreciate his engagement with the work of Rod Dreher (among others). While honestly addressing the gravity of our post-Christian moment, Meador rejects both reactionism and panic. This approach makes both of his books—In Search of the Common Good: Christian Fidelity in a Fractured World and What are Christians for? Life Together at the End of the World—well worth reading for anyone interested in a multifaceted and beautifully written approach.
Jake Meador kindly agreed to discuss the ideas he has been dealing with in his books and commentary.
You noted, in a recent piece advising against “moral panic mode,” that we are in a strange pregnant-widow moment—the Christian era is (at least in the West) over, but we do not yet know what will come next. This makes politics feel like an incredibly high-stakes game. Let’s take two issues: the horrifying trend of sex change ‘treatments’ for minors, and the destruction of prenatal human life through abortion. These are emergency issues that are destroying young lives. How do you suggest Christians respond to them with the appropriate diagnostic rhetoric without succumbing to moral panic mode?
There are two layers to the appropriate Christian response to the transgender and abortion problems. The first is in the political realm. Politics are meant to help our necessary social relationships be mutually beneficial and delightful. The government has a positive role to play in the moral life of the nation. So the laws of the nation should comport with the moral law. This is not to say that the laws of nations should be equivalent to the moral law, of course. There is a difference between crime and sin. There are often situations when prudence dictates that governments take a more careful, modest approach, rather than a maximalist approach, to moral policy.
However, we certainly should not have laws or norms that violently contradict the moral law. For that reason, promoting policies that ban abortion, ban gender-reassignment surgeries on minors, and so on are appropriate policies to pursue. Some might raise concerns about whether or not enough is being done to support vulnerable pregnant mothers or young people struggling with gender-identity questions. But I think we can both address those questions through non-political means and say that it is good to enact laws that protect the vulnerable and, in so doing, reflect the heart of God as revealed to us in the moral law. We need to recognize that there are multiple communities addressing the problems from different angles and with different resources. Families are not governments, are not churches, are not neighborhoods or towns. Government solutions are not the only answer, but they do matter and should still be ordered rightly. Second, there are many non-political elements to these issues. Most of us do not have a great deal of agency when it comes to defining public policies, drafting legislative bills, passing laws, and so on. But we all have a calling to care for the vulnerable, to work for the good of our neighbor, and to fulfill our various vocations in ways that advance God’s purposes in the world.
For most of us the problem of abortion isn’t primarily about laws and public policies, over which we have no control, but rather is chiefly about our posture toward our neighbors, our awareness of the challenges facing women in our local communities, and the ways we can help make it easier for vulnerable mothers to choose life. This can take many forms, of course—everything from volunteering or giving to pregnancy resource centers, supporting young couples and families (recall that the majority of women seeking abortion already have children and are dealing with economic hardships), and creating forms of common life in your neighborhood that make it easier to have children, include children, and care for children.
Similarly, as it concerns the trans question, it seems self-evident to me that a great deal of what is driving this amongst minors is a social contagion brought about by mass media and, in particular, therapeutically-inclined social media such as Instagram and TikTok. Taking steps to marginalize or remove access to smartphones and social networks for young people would be an immense help. Of course, the lack of in-person community often drives young people toward an online social life. So a further task for us is to create households and church communities that are accessible and hospitable to all people.
There are many ways that the culture war posture hurts us, but one of the foremost, I think, is that it sets us up to regard neighbors we are called to love in purely antagonistic or fear-driven terms. This has two detrimental outcomes. First, it makes us evangelistically impotent to people outside of our communities. You can’t calmly and kindly engage with people who only trigger feelings of immense fear and anger in you. Second, when we engage the world with angry reactivity and jittery, anxious energy, our young people watch and learn. Specifically, they learn that there is something in the world that terrifies us, that we think might somehow overcome us. They will naturally wonder what that something is and want to learn more about it themselves.
What is needed, instead, is a calming presence that suggests we are secure within ourselves because we are secure in the truths of our principles and beliefs. Christians, of all people, should be immune to such things, for we know how the story of our world ends. That knowledge should help us to engage our neighbors, even our neighbors who wish us ill or believe horrifying things, from a place of settled conviction that doesn’t delight in triggering them or fear offending them.
Calm confidence is an attractive strategy. But how would you respond to those who would push back and quote Flannery O’Connor (as Rod Dreher often does): “When the world is deaf, you have to shout”? Where would the work of Matt Walsh on exposing what’s going on in hospitals with transgender surgeries, or Libs of TikTok videos (which can give the impression that every city teems with drag queens), or Christopher Rufo’s work on public school curriculum fall into this approach? Is there ever a time when calm confidence gives way to rhetoric that sounds the alarm, like the abolitionists did in the face of slavery? Or is this genuinely counter-productive for the reasons you mention?
It’s important to distinguish between two different things that a figure like Rufo does. On the one hand, I think there is great value in simply documenting what is happening in hospitals, schools, large corporations, and so on with regards to Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion requirements and gender-identity issues. Because of the way information is concealed and misrepresented by many progressives, I think their work is enormously helpful.
That being said, Rufo in particular has been fairly candid about his project, saying that,
We have successfully frozen their brand—“critical race theory”—into the public conversation and are steadily driving up negative perceptions. We will eventually turn it toxic, as we put all of the various cultural insanities under that brand category. The goal is to have the public read something crazy in the newspaper and immediately think “critical race theory.” We have decodified the term and will recodify it to annex the entire range of cultural constructions that are unpopular with Americans.
The problem here is that this is fundamentally dishonest argumentation. To say that our campaign is to redefine established terms to mean what we want, such that average Americans think critical race theory is a shorthand for anything I dislike or think is crazy, is to endorse deception, lying, and propaganda as viable forms of public speech. For Christians, the 9th commandment will not allow us to use these tactics. Additionally, if the Ten Commandments are simply a codification of the natural law, as many historic Christians have argued, then it isn’t simply that Christians are forbidden to use these tactics, but that all people are because such tactics are dishonorable. This becomes especially apparent if one considers how the church has historically understood this commandment.
Finally, I do worry that the O’Connor line is overused. It’s actually not clear to me that shouting will work today. If anything, I suspect our current cultural somnambulance is a function of being yelled at all the time. So if our strategy to get people’s attention is to shout … well, that’s everyone‘s strategy.
What’s more, if you pair my second point about honesty and character with this later point about noise, I think it’s worth thinking very carefully about whose turf we are playing on when we participate in the noisy, angry, vituperative public square that now exists. In Screwtape Letters, Lewis likens hell to a kingdom of noise. Cardinal Sarah has made similar arguments in his own work. If we simply construct new loud noise to go against the noise we don’t like, we have to ask ourselves what matters more: That our loud noise is slightly different, or that it’s still a loud noise?
A friend was listening to a podcast with Aaron Renn recently where a quote from Eric Voeglein was shared: “No one is obliged to take part in the spiritual crisis of a society; on the contrary, everyone is obliged to avoid this folly and live his life in order.” I think that’s right. But if the spiritual crisis of our society is broader than a narrow set of questions around sex and gender ideology—and certainly that’s the argument Cardinal Sarah would make, as would the three most recent pontiffs—then I think we need to be more attentive to the underlying structure of that crisis and take the steps necessary to insure that we are not taking part in it.
That brings me to something that underpins all of this. We are in a post-Christian society, but there are different views on what this means. Chantal Delsol believes we are seeing the rise of a new paganism. Rod Dreher believes that persecution is inevitable, even in America. The sheer number of historical parallels I’ve seen drawn in the last few months alone (4th century AD; Spanish Civil War; Weimar) illustrates a lack of consensus on this. What is your view of our trajectory and its implications?
In the first season of the This Cultural Moment podcast, Mark Sayers and John Mark Comer suggest that we should distinguish between a post-Christian culture—which is going to basically define itself in terms of repudiating Christianity as often and loudly as possible—and cultures that might not be Christian but also aren’t necessarily obsessed with repudiating or negating Christianity; they mostly don’t care about the faith.
Sayers suggests that we have left the post-Christian moment behind in the West and are in something new: a moment of political religion. In other words, we are now looking to politics to provide a sense of fulfillment, meaning, and purpose that was traditionally found in religious faith and practice. If you think about it in these terms, it’s not hard to see why Sayers would make that argument. Indeed, many conservative commentators have already made this observation concerning progressivism as it relates to gay and trans rights. But I don’t think it’s terribly hard to spot a similar religious fervor at a Donald Trump rally or to see how Christian symbolism gets twisted and perverted toward nationalist ends. When church choirs sing ‘hymns’ called “Make America Great Again” as part of a purportedly Christian public worship service, I think it’s clear that we have adopted a deeply religious posture toward political parties and figures.
What I’m leery of is developing over-determined, over-confident readings of what is going on. I expect things will get fairly difficult for Christians in blue states, particularly the states that are in the process of shredding parental rights, like Washington state. That said, even in blue states, the current pattern of our Supreme Court suggests that virtually all cases will be decided in favor of more expansive conceptions of religious liberty. It’s not clear that progressives can do anything about it—court packing remains mostly a fever dream amongst “The Squad” that will never get anywhere as long as the Democratic senate caucus includes figures like Manchin and Sinema. It is very possible that the GOP will retake the White House in 2024—particularly if Ron DeSantis is the nominee. There are also hopeful signs from political institutions in red states, like the success of DeSantis’ anti-’woke’ agenda in Florida.
Obviously, this doesn’t necessarily help with overweening HR teams at large corporations. On that point, I think it will be vital for Christians to practice solidarity and trust with one another so as to effectively provide an anti-cancelation resource (including financial help) for their members who suffer professionally for their Christian beliefs.
All of which is to say: I think rightly labeling cultural pathologies and ideologies is actually pretty difficult, and we should be careful of over-reading specific trends in ways that ignore or neglect other equally real trends and patterns. Those qualifications aside, my instinct is to side with Jon Askonas in arguing that the decisive factors shaping our culture most significantly right now are technological.
First industrial and now digital technology are the acids that have dissolved a great deal of the basis for common life in the West and in the world more generally. So if I had to pick a single lens to focus on in critiquing contemporary culture, it would be technology and my constructive project would be to try and develop a positive account of creatureliness. (Kirsten Sanders, who sometimes writes for us at Mere Orthodoxy and who wrote a reply to Jon’s article on technology, is working on precisely this problem.)
So the kind of projects that most interest me are political projects that attempt to target big tech and tech addiction and communal practices that help us rediscover creatureliness.
The more I engage with the reality of the digital world—I found Frank Mulder’s Hyperrreality very jarring, for example—the more I am persuaded that Christians are fundamentally failing to understand the threat of technology. Why do you think that so many of us have failed to see the danger of the new world rising up around us?
Well, two things immediately spring to mind. First, American conservatism has always been deeply preoccupied with a negative, individualistic conception of freedom: freedom experienced individually rather than communally, ‘freedom from’ rather than ‘freedom to.’ There are historical reasons for this, many of which have to do with Cold War politics, so I don’t want to be dismissive of it. But the notion of common life, social ecology, and even the value of tradition and custom gets largely lost because they constrict individual freedom. As a result, the mechanisms and habits of thought that would help us recognize the dangers of hyperreality have mostly been ignored, marginalized, or rejected by many American conservatives for the past several decades.
Second, and related to the faulty conception of freedom, the American Right has positioned itself in opposition to ‘big’ government and in favor of innovation in the marketplace. It was well primed to support virtually any form of innovation that promised to be commercially successful and to expand the range of possible choices for individual people.
In short, the dangers that tech poses to a robust experience of common life mostly went unnoticed by mainstream American conservatives. Jon Askonas covered all of this recently in a much discussed essay at Compact. Roger Scruton also dealt with this at length in his own work, of course.
For the conservative, the heart of the question is “what do you want to conserve?” Scruton’s answer would be a certain sort of social ecology—and I’m not altogether happy with Scruton here because I think Scruton instrumentalized Christianity, which is a horrible, even idolatrous, error. But I can respect that he has a constructive vision of shared life that he wants to preserve. American conservatives seldom rise to this level. Their chief interest seems to be in preserving a frontier society founded on maximizing opportunity for individual people. So they have done all they can to make the public square resemble a wilderness out of which individual Americans can carve a new world.
The trouble is ‘the frontier’ is a universal acid that dissolves whatever it touches. Once you label anything ‘frontier’ it essentially becomes a space in which we live according to a moral free-for-all, which is precisely what we see in America’s racial history and, indeed, the history of my home state of Nebraska on what was once the prairies of the Midwest before the arrival of the white man. We might recall the words of T. S. Eliot, born an American but later became a kind of European conservative. He argued in one of his books that the characteristic mark of American-style democratic liberalism is that it is less a fixed destination and more an origin point; it is not defined by where it is going and by a propulsive energy radiating ever outward.
What I think we need to recover now—and here I’m not even sure if I would call myself a conservative, frankly, given the state of American conservatism—is a richer relationship to creation and to our neighbors within the world. The great Dutch Calvinist Herman Bavinck proposed in 1908 that what is required is an “organic” worldview that would synthesize and unify reality, a view he offered in contrast to the “mechanical” worldview which hollows out and erodes reality, reducing it to little more than raw material to be used in whatever way seems best to us.
Considering the above discussion, what is some preliminary reading you would recommend?
To understand more about the dangers of technology, I suggest Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death and Illich’s Tools for Conviviality and Deschooling Society. Hartmut Rosa’s work on resonance is also fascinating.
On the theological side, I’m far from the first to say it, but Herman Bavinck is someone we would do well to retrieve. His Christian Worldview is fantastic. His biography by James Eglinton is the best introduction to his work. The future for us must be both modern and orthodox. Bavinck shows us how to do that.
One of the more formative works for me has been The Sacrifice of Africa by Emmanuel Katongole. It is a masterful work whose relevance extends well beyond post-colonial Africa. Politics and the Order of Love by Eric Gregory provides a positive and constructive account of liberalism that mostly sidesteps many of the current debates in ways that are striking and interesting.
Finally, I think we’ll fail if we do not engage in personal, moral, spiritual, and imaginative formation to ground our intellectual work. So read great fiction and, most of all, spend time in Scripture. God meets us in His Word. Scripture will rebuke and chasten us and guide us. Last week my wife and I took our kids out for a walk at dusk at a local park near our home. As we walked back to our car, night had fallen so I used my phone light the way. Guided by these small points of light, I was reminded of the Psalmist’s description of God’s Word as a light to our feet. The world is dark. We ourselves are often dark, even to ourselves. But God’s Word is light. It is clearer than we ourselves are. A firm grounding in Scripture is essential.
Finally, what are your policy goals?
I’ll preface this by saying that policy is not my primary area of expertise. That said, two areas I’m thinking about, which are closely related. The first is how to promote new technologies and uses of technology that make it easier to build small, independent household economies? And how can we make it easier for Americans to have and raise children?
I’m aware that pro-natal policies don’t automatically bump up the birthrate, but for families that would like to have more children, friendly policies can help make that possible. Ross Douthat’s piece on this for Plough is very good. While I don’t agree with everything in it, I also think Matt Bruenig’s “Family Fun Pack” article has a lot of good ideas in it.
I’m also interested in promoting rural high-speed internet to make remote work more plausible for people in middle America and to make it easier for knowledge workers to move back to their hometowns or other rural places if they so desire. My wife spent three months working on a small farm in rural Iowa early in our marriage. It was a fairly pivotal experience for us and it was only possible because my employer let me work remotely for the summer.
This could also make it easier for families to have more children. It’s easier to imagine another kid if you can reasonably afford a three bedroom, 1,500-square-foot house (like the one where my wife and I are raising our four kids) than it would be if you’re paying an obscene rate to rent a small, two-bed, 800-square-foot apartment in the city.
I’m also interested in policy ideas that would break the bond between having good health insurance and working for a faceless megacorporation. A lot of young people find themselves living highly mobile lives that make family formation and more general community formation nearly impossible because income and insurance needs propel them into a fairly narrow range of lifestyle choices, all of which tend toward mobility and isolation. (Leah Sargeant’s piece on “Sad Secular Monks” is worth reading.) I don’t think we can or should attempt to plan our economy centrally. But if we can make it easier for people to live near their hometown, to buy a house, to become independent, and to marry and have children, then I think we should. Unfortunately, much of our economic regime now tends toward the goal of creating privatized, individual workers to serve the capitalist class. This is why, for example, it’s easier to get Senate Republicans to support redefining marriage than to support a more expansive child tax credit. Small wonder that we’re lonely, depressed, and not having children. So whatever can reasonably be done to help address these issues should be done.