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On Loving and Hating Places

January 15th, 2016 | 6 min read

By Jake Meador

There are a few more things that need to be said as we wrap up this week’s Crump-related fun. (And no, I did not watch last night’s debate so do not ask me about it. I was busy playing Football Manager and reading Anthony Esolen.)

There is a way of opposing the political establishment that really is nihilistic and conservatives have been very good at it in recent years. Indeed, there is almost certainly a strong link between the success of the professional malcontents on the right like Rush Limbaugh and the ascent of candidates like Crump. That is what we need to avoid now.

Specifically we need to avoid a politics that is more concerned with angrily denouncing what is wrong then with offering positive visions of what is right. My interest in DC is thus actually quite minimal. I am interested in Nebraska because I love Nebraska and it is my home. I am only interested in DC to the extent that my love of Nebraska obliges me to dislike DC. Beyond that, I do not much care what they are up to out east. My concern is with the life of Nebraska and particularly the life of my family, the church, and my neighbors in Nebraska. And this is where our concern needs to be focused—on local places and people that we actually have the capacity to influence in good, beautiful ways. From this basic point there follows a few general points:

First, evangelicalism is generally horrible at thinking in these ways. We are far more comfortable thinking of large-scale, technique-driven ways to change the world than we are at thinking about building healthy small communities. We are, after all, the ones who began giving the name “church” to groups of several thousand people who meet in warehouse with amphitheaters inside to listen to loud music (but not sing) and hear motivational pep talks from charismatic leaders.

At our worst, we have even further facilitated this demolition of church life and pastoral ministry by embracing things like video sermons that are beamed to many different campuses, which creates even greater distance between pastor and congregant and further embeds in our practice the idea that public worship is something one attends in much the same way one attends a concert or sporting event. The idea of living in close friendship with our fellow congregants and of actually knowing our pastors thus becomes even more foreign to us.

This is an old video, but still very much relevant:

The issues that drive us to support men like Crump thus run much deeper than our politics, but touch the fundamental ways in which we understand the spiritual life and our life in particular places. It is no surprise that a movement with such a poor understanding of these things would make an idol of national politics and make a habit of supporting men who are manifestly undeserving of support.

Second, we need to think even more locally than just our city or state; we need to think about our homes. For all the havoc that DC can wreak on the church, it has very little control over what goes on in the average Christian home. And if what went on in the average Christian home were more recognizably Christian and more joyful, I suspect that we wouldn’t be facing nearly the difficulties that we are right now.

Unfortunately, there are not enough Christian homes that are actually distinct places where the life of the family is lived and Christian people are formed. We are often too busy pursuing professional success and keeping our children busy with far too many extracurriculars. Our homes, much like the homes of our non-Christian neighbors, thus often become little more than consumption hubs with little to no distinctive family life happening within them.

Wendell Berry has said it best:

Marriage, in what is evidently its most popular version, is now on the one hand an intimate ‘relationship’ involving (ideally) two successful careerists in the same bed, and on the other hand a sort of private political system in which rights and interests must be constantly asserted and defended. Marriage, in other words, has now taken the form of divorce: a prolonged and impassioned negotiation as to how things shall be divided. During their understandably temporary association, the ‘married’ couple will typically consume a large quantity of merchandise and a large portion of each other.

The modern household is the place where the consumptive couple do their consuming. Nothing productive is done there. Such work as is done there is done at the expense of the resident couple or family, and to the profit of suppliers of energy and household technology. For entertainment, the inmates consume television or purchase other consumable diversion elsewhere.

There are, however, still some married couples who understand themselves as belonging to their marriage, to each other, and to their children. What they have they have in common, and so, to them, helping each other does not seem merely to damage their ability to compete against each other. To them, ‘mine’ is not so powerful or necessary a pronoun as ‘ours.’

This sort of marriage usually has at its heart a household that is to some extent productive. The couple, that is, makes around itself a household economy that involves the work of both wife and husband, that gives them a measure of economic independence and self-employment, a measure of freedom, as well as a common ground and a common satisfaction.

Third, all of these warnings can come with a slogging joylessness trailing just behind them. Part of this is likely because the sorts of people sensitive to these concerns often have some very crankish instincts and this can cause their principled resistance to the status quo to begin looking less like that and more like a general misanthropy. (This is me raising my hand.)

This is particularly dangerous because it will undermine everything we want (need, really) to do locally in our cities and homes. Speaking only for myself, I’ve known family-first conservative types whose own children can’t stand being around them. So in thinking about family life we need to be thinking chiefly about joy, laughter, fun, and beauty.

Fourth, there is a particular challenge in all of this for Christian people who actually live in the places that have most completely forgotten about the little platoons of society and have embraced the sort of atomized individualism that defines our day. There are still Christian people living in DC and New York and San Francisco and Boston, after all.

And while it is entirely appropriate for Christians to feel a certain revulsion to much of what goes on in those places, it is also necessary that those of us who don’t live in those places have something useful to say to those who do. At the very least, we need to have enough humility and trust in our brothers and sisters that we can support them in their attempt to live Christianly in places that are very hostile to orthodoxy.

It is fine to hate DC if we’re talking about DC as what would happen if Wither showed up at Barad Dur and said to Sauron, “You know what Mordor really needs? Committees.” But it’s also vital to recognize that there are Christian people in DC, some by choice and others by necessity, who may well love DC in the same way that those of us outside it love our places. Indeed, as Chesterton reminds us, one of the ways that DC might be turned around is by having more Christian people there who are able to see its darkness and love it anyway because they can see possibilities for it that, if I’m honest, I personally struggle to see as an outsider.

So we need to be able to distinguish between DC the hub of government corruption and DC the place or San Francisco, the nexus of the technopoly and San Francisco the place. These are hard distinctions and, being in Nebraska, I have the luxury of not having to think about them as much as residents of those places do.

But as Christian thinkers we need to not only be doing the hard work of combatting the evangelical love of bigness in general, but also of supporting individual evangelicals and churches that are attempting to think seriously about how to be good members of their places, even if those places happen to be DC or Boston.

And on that note, we’ll turn our attention away from Crump and the 2016 nomination. We’ll be back next week to finish the series I started in December before my dad got sick and to hopefully run a few book reviews and more guest submissions.

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Jake Meador

Jake Meador is the editor-in-chief of Mere Orthodoxy. He is a 2010 graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln where he studied English and History. He lives in Lincoln, NE with his wife Joie, their daughter Davy Joy, and sons Wendell, Austin, and Ambrose. Jake's writing has appeared in The Atlantic, Commonweal, Christianity Today, Fare Forward, the University Bookman, Books & Culture, First Things, National Review, Front Porch Republic, and The Run of Play and he has written or contributed to several books, including "In Search of the Common Good," "What Are Christians For?" (both with InterVarsity Press), "A Protestant Christendom?" (with Davenant Press), and "Telling the Stories Right" (with the Front Porch Republic Press).