By Jonathon Van Maren
Acouple 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.