A Review of
In Search of the Common Good:
Christian Fidelity in a Fractured World
Reviewed by Diane Roth
Back in my days working in church-based community organizing, I remember a question one of the leaders asked me: “I wonder if anyone believes in ‘the common good’ any more?” He was speaking of the difficulty emerging in those days of getting Democratic and Republican representatives to work together with us on local issues that we had crafted purposely to try to bridge partisan divides.
I read In Search of the Common Good hoping to find the answer to this question. I’m not sure that Jake Meador answers that question, although on the way to his particular vision of Christian community, I found some surprising common ground. I say surprising because there were many things about his book that alienated me. He speaks from an evangelical perspective, and begins by naming nine things that all evangelicals should believe and bemoans the fact that most people who say that they are evangelical don’t believe all of them. He speaks of “the Left” broadly as the enemy of committed Christianity, as if there could be no Christians, like me, who are committed to the truth of Scripture but who are also committed to (for example) the full inclusion of gay and lesbian people in the body of Christ.
Yet, in some of his critiques of current culture, I find common ground with Jake Meador. He writes eloquently about the extreme individualism that has infected our culture, finding its roots not in the last thirty years of so, but in existential and liberal ideologies. Existential philosophers like Camus and Sartre encourage people to make their own meaning in a meaningless world. Liberal ideology believes in personal freedom above all else – community might be valuable but only inasmuch as it serves our own interests. This is certainly a critique of “liberalism” – but this word “liberal” does not carry the meaning that most modern-day conservatives think it does. This is the “liberalism” at the heart of the word “libertarian”. As well, it is the word at the heart of the whole American Experiment in liberal democracy.
This is no surprise, as I suspect that both Jake Meador and I would agree that the United States is not simply a “Christian nation.” Toward the end of his book, as he recounts the vision of the eternal city, he imagines Christians from all over the world, with their own particular cultures, streaming toward this city, singing and praising in their own ways. So he knows that the word “Christian” is not reserved for its American adherents. In that way I welcome a breadth of vision that I don’t often find in conservative circles.
I also resonated with his critique of farm policy in the United States. He names Department of Agriculture Secretary Earl Butz’s famous line, “get big or get out” – a line meant to tell farmers that the greatest values in farming were efficiency and creating wealth. As a young pastor in the rural Midwestern United States, I saw the results of this policy as small communities declined or were destroyed. But, to my mind, it was liberal political theory that was destroying them. It was policies advanced by conservative Republican politicians, and which they embraced, or at least tried to embrace, and failed, as farmers went bankrupt and left the land.
Predictably, Meador lays most of the blame for our current situation on the Left, and on liberalism. He critiques the Left for reducing the meaning of the word “community” to what government can do. He shares an ominous example from one of Barack Obama’s campaign ads, about a woman named “Julia”, as critiqued by Ross Douthat:
She seems to have no meaningful relationships apart from her bond with the Obama White House: no friends or siblings or extended family, no husband (“Julia decides to have a child”, is all the slide show says), a son who disappears once school starts and parents who only matter because Obamacare grants her the privilege of staying on their health care plan until she’s 26. This lends the whole production a curiously patriarchal quality, with Obama as a beneficent Daddy Warbucks and Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan co-starring as the wicked uncles threatening to steal Julia’s inheritance.
To Meador’s credit, he also believes that the conservative vision of community has also been diminished (although he doesn’t name the phenomenon in conservative circles of revering “job creators” over all others in community as worthy of support and emulation).
So where is the common good? Meador both diagnoses its absence in the loss of meaningful work, the loss of Sabbath, and the loss of wonder, and he finds hints of common good in their presence. It is when he speaks of wonder – and of taking joy and noticing small things in life – that I most resonate with his vision. I hear in this aspect of his vision a concern that I share: that the politics of both the Right and the Left will drown out and overshadow other aspects of community life. In terms of our polarization, they already have.
I see this in churches that nowadays are more comfortable defining themselves by their political commitments than by their theology (if, indeed, they know what their theology is); I see this in families fractured by political differences; I see this in communities that are becoming politically homogenized (whether on the Right or on the Left), so that voices of difference are shamed into silence.
The common good – as Jake Meador rightly notes – is not a pizza, where everyone gets a slice – until it’s gone. But what it is? It is at its heart more a web, where the strands cannot be separated.
Meador’s last chapter – the Eternal City – is both his best, and also profoundly sad. This is the chapter where he visits a great cathedral in St. Paul, Minnesota, and where he proposes to his wife, after a performance of the Messiah. The great vision – and the small joys of life – this is the intersection where “the common good” begins. In some ways it is a wide vision, as he includes not just Christian America, but Christians from the entire world – in this vision. But from the beginning of his book, his vision of Christianity is so exclusive – that I’m not sure that it includes me. That is what makes it profoundly sad.
- A Public Faith – Interview – Miroslav Volf
- Reading for the Common Good – Review – C. Christopher Smith
- Journey to the Common Good – Review – Walter Brueggemann
C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com