Jake Meador might have titled this volume Politics for Hobbits: How the Shire Can Change Everything. I don’t say this pejoratively; I count myself among those who think we can learn profound things about life and community from J. R. R. Tolkien. And Meador himself isn’t shy about the relevance of Middle Earth to the present American situation. In the book’s beginning, after a brief review of the failure of the American church (culminating in conservative Christians’ support for Donald Trump in 2016), Meador takes us to the fiery side of Mount Doom:
In a key moment, Sam attempts to encourage Frodo by asking him if he remembers the taste of strawberries and cream, the sound of water, the beauties…of the Shire. This should be instructive to us. Love of small things, fidelity to small places, these are the things that matter and ultimately enable great deeds of courage.
Meador’s book has a Tolkien-esque epic sweep. He describes the interconnected spiritual desiccation and social collapse of contemporary American society. He explains three deeper causes of our present national illness—the loss of meaning, the loss of wonder, and the loss of good work—and argues that these ills can be cured by a recovery of real Sabbath rest, thick communal membership, and meaningful work. He ties these rich social practices into a discussion of Christian citizenship that ranges from philosophical foundations to policy prescriptions. Finally, he brings it all around to the summum bonum of any genuinely Christian political vision: the eternal City of God.
It is a wide-ranging discussion, but the memories of Samwise Gamgee serve as a guide throughout. “We might say that the failure of evangelicalism,” Meador writes, “is that we have forgotten the taste of strawberries and cream, and so have not lived with love in our hearts. And we are now passing into a well-deserved exile. But even in exile there is hope.”
Ultimately that hope resides in the City of God, but on a temporal plane, Meador aims to ground the Christian social vision in an intentional life shared with family and friends in local communities. He wants us to become attached to particular places and people, with their unique histories, and to enjoy the everyday gifts of nature by imbibing them thoughtfully and thankfully. A soul that is profoundly attached becomes, in turn, open to a sense of wonder.
“There is a relationship between enchantment and communal life,” he argues. “Both are premised on the idea that my self is porous and can be penetrated and transformed by the world that exists outside myself.” Thus, local communities are the pathway to social and spiritual renewal, which fortifies the soul against the shallowness of our age and, ultimately, revivifies concern for the common good.
Although I disagree with Meador on many points, this vision of community strikes me as true and beautiful. Love always begins with the particular and the personal and moves outward, for as St. John teaches us, if a man cannot love his brother whom he has seen, he cannot love God whom he has not seen (I John 4:20). Moreover, as political theorists from Aristotle to Tocqueville have understood, personal loves do not undermine devotion to the common good, but rather enable it.
Nevertheless, the argument of Meador’s book frequently goes awry. First, Meador’s diagnoses of the problems we face are at times tendentious and simplistic. Postwar American Catholics made peace with democratic politics, he avers, out of a simple “lust for mainstream respectability.” This claim fits neatly into his criticism of Christian public engagement more broadly—thus establishing the need to humbly return to the quiet of private life. But it also ignores the work of important figures like Fulton Sheen, Jacques Maritain, and John Courtney Murray, all of whom dealt seriously with the questions Meador claims Catholics glibly skirted in their lust for public prominence.
He makes similar categorical claims about evangelical Trump voters that simply do not match the complexity of the facts. They were clearly after power and prestige, Meador repeatedly declares. Yet, as Michael Barone has observed, the largest bloc of evangelical Trump voters—those with stronger religious commitment to their church communities—resisted his candidacy until they felt they had no other choice. Meador tosses everyone into the early supporter box, slaps the label “Idolator” on it, and calls it a day.
At a theoretical level, there is also a significant lacuna in Meador’s treatment of political life. A key part of his argument centers on the appreciation of everyday life: an attentiveness to people and places, the relationships and history that make a home what it is. Noticeably absent from his picture of the natural life of a community, however, is any treatment of political culture (aside from critiques of American individualism and capitalism).
If politics is a natural form of community—and he allows that it is—to really know a place is to know its forms of order and the political history of its people. Healthy political institutions embody a shared commitment to live together in a common pursuit of justice and the common good, and thus become objects of love and key features of home. We see this less in a society often embarrassed of patriotism, but even now it’s clear that American affections for our founding documents, our commitment to the rule of law and due process, and fundamental rights like religious liberty run deep. What is more, the history of our people—of our home—is significantly a history of these political institutions.
This matters to Meador’s argument in critical ways. In the first place, it significantly complicates, and at times erases, the distinction he attempts to maintain between the realm of home/local community and the domain of political action. If Christians were more embedded in the lives of their communities, he argues, their current preoccupation with maintaining “the ongoing viability of their dominant institutions” would wane. Instead, they might devote more effort to service out of love. But this analysis relies on a misunderstanding of the social reality of politics and political institutions.
By Meador’s lights, politics is about power, and Christian political action has been about the desire to maintain it. But while politics clearly involves power, it is at its core about much more: the search for order and a common good among countrymen, and preserving and perfecting the institutions that embody that quest across generations. I have argued in these pages that evangelicals have often failed to understand this generational reality and responsibility. Indeed, Americans in general do not. Yet most Americans—and conservative Christians are no exception—love their country and its institutions and feel some responsibility to generations past and future to preserve them. This is part of what it means to love one’s home.
All of this, I would suggest, commends to us another political virtue to place alongside Meador’s recommendation of Christian humility: courage. After all, courage is of the essence as Frodo and Sam pass beyond—as they must—the boundaries of the Shire.
Matthew D. Wright is an associate professor of government in the Torrey Honors Institute at Biola University and the 2019-2020 John and Daria Barry Visiting Research Scholar in the James Madison Program at Princeton University. He is the author of A Vindication of Politics: On the Common Good and Human Flourishing.