Why We Need the Common Good


by Jake Meador

This article appeared in Vol. IV, Issue 1 of Ad Fontes

With the Grain of the Universe

Not long after his death in 1973, a friend of J. R. R. Tolkien was going through his library and came across a copy of C. S. Lewis’s 1943 pamphlet “Christian Behavior.” We know it today as Part 2 of Lewis’s apology for the Christian faith, Mere Christianity. Tucked inside the book was a carefully folded letter that Tolkien wrote but obviously never sent. It is, perhaps unsurprisingly, stern and frank, expressing alarm at one of Lewis’s arguments in the pamphlet. With the benefit of nearly 80 years hindsight, it seems clear that Tolkien was right.

In the pamphlet, Lewis had written about the problem of divorce. Noting that much of Britain was secular and granting that it would be wrong for the nation’s Christians to impose their (Christian) definition of marriage onto the country’s non-Christian citizens, Lewis had proposed a compromise position: State-recognized marriage would be kept strictly separate from church-recognized marriage. A couple could, of course, choose to have their marriage recognized by both church and crown. But there was no obligation to do so. By establishing these separate legal entities, Lewis hoped to create one entity that could be governed by the traditional Christian teachings about the nature of marriage while the other could be defined according to the norms of the nation’s more secular population. The compromise seems sensible enough, right?

But Tolkien saw the problem. Here is how he explains it in the opening paragraphs of the letter:

[Y]ou observe that you are really committed (with the Christian Church as a whole) to the view that Christian marriage – monogamous, permanent, rigidly “faithful” – is in fact the truth about sexual behavior for all humanity: this is the only road of total health (including sex in its proper place) for all men and women. That it is dissonant with men’s present sex-psychology does not disprove this, as you see: “I think it is the instinct that has gone wrong,” you say.


Indeed if this were not so, it would be an intolerable injustice to impose permanent monogamy even on Christians. If Christian marriage were in the last analysis “unnatural” (of the same type as say the prohibition of flesh-meat in certain monastic rules) it could only be imposed on a special “chastity-order” of the Church, not on the universal Church. No item of compulsory Christian morals is valid only for Christians…. I do not think you can possibly support your “policy,” by this argument, for by it you are giving away the very foundation of Christian marriage. The foundation is that this is the correct way of “running the human machine.” Your argument reduces it merely to a way of (perhaps?) getting extra mileage out of a few selected machines.[1]

If we were to summarize Tolkien’s argument, we might put it this way: Christian morality is not ultimately instruction in how to make oneself a member of the Christian club. It is not a self-help program whose rules are adopted by a small set of people who wish to better themselves. Christian morals, rather, are simply moral teachings that agree with the natural design of the universe. They are instructions in how to live with the grain of creation. That is a carpentry metaphor, of course, but it makes the point well: When we cut against the grain, we can ruin both our saw and the wood. So it is when we behave in ways that run counter to the moral teachings of Scripture and nature. Thus, we cannot easily disentangle the decline of Christian influence in society, manifested both in its broadly shared moral assumptions and in the presence of actual Christians, from the decline of that community’s civil life. The two are interwoven. If we are to understand our historical moment and what it demands of Christians, then we must understand this point.

The Problem We Face

In the years since 2015, it has become increasingly fashionable to loudly worry about the future of the church in the western world. It was popular amongst many prior to that, of course, but 2015 ratcheted up the urgency. That year saw multiple fights over religious liberty followed by the landmark Obergefell Supreme Court decision that redefined marriage in the United States.

In the months and years since, many conservative Christians have written essays and even books outlining how this shift happened and explaining the dire consequences it might have for Christians in the United States. The Catholic journalist Mary Eberstadt wrote Dangerous to Believe. First Things editor Rusty Reno authored Resurrecting the Idea of a Christian Society. Providence College professor Anthony Esolen wrote Out of the Ashes. Archbishop of Philadelphia Charles Chaput wrote Strangers in a Strange Land. Most notably, journalist Rod Dreher’s The Benedict Option counseled the church to return to older forms of catechesis and spiritual formation while engaging in a selective and strategic retreat from certain parts of American society.

To the extent that these books identify an emerging secularism hostile to religious faith and argue it will create unique challenges for American Christians, they are not wrong. But the picture they paint is incomplete, and Tolkien’s letter explains why.

We use the phrase “Christian morality.” We should not. It is not the case that there are any number of moral systems to choose from and that the Christian “system” is the one approved arbitrarily by God. Rather, the natural law is simply the law of all of our natures, Christian or not. Whatever alternative to “Christian morality” you propose will, in one way or another, cut against the grain of creation and, therefore, be ultimately unsustainable as a lived morality. To be sure, because of God’s common grace, some societies, even those un-influenced by the Gospel, will be more successful than others at tapping into the truth of how we ought to live—but all societies know something of this truth.

The problem facing our republic today is not simply that we are a post-Christian society in which certain segments of our population, and especially our nation’s young people, are hostile to Christianity. That is a problem, of course, and especially so in the aftermath of the Trump campaign—many evangelicals made their peace with a thrice-married bully because he would, at least, be their bully. But the deeper problem is that the underlying story which organizes our society and shapes our thinking about morality is badly wanting.

Consider: In a 2006 study, Duke and University of Arizona sociologists found that 1/4 of all Americans reported having no close friends with whom they could discuss their most pressing personal concerns and ambitions.[2] Indeed, half of all Americans reported having two or fewer such friends. In the 12 years since that study, the problem has grown more pronounced. A 2018 Cigna study found that half of all Americans report feeling lonely and 47% of Americans say they do not have “meaningful” personal interactions with anyone—a partner, friend, coworker… anyone—on a daily basis.[3] This experience of loneliness is not simply a sad reality facing many Americans; it is also a public health crisis: One study found that the health effects of long-term loneliness are comparable to smoking 15 cigarettes a day.[4] Other studies have found links between loneliness and diabetes, heart disease, and depression, and have said that loneliness may also be linked to substance abuse and even early death.⁠

It’s not just that we are lonely, though: We’re also forming families later, having fewer kids, and carrying larger amounts of debt into adulthood, which plays a role in how we approach family formation as young adults. And when we have fewer children around, many other aspects of life suffer as well. In an essay reviewing P. D. James’s book Children of Men, Charlie Clark writes,

“The Children of Men proposes that in the absence of any legacy, many of the ordinary and healthy patterns of human life lose their meaning and appeal. Succeeding generations, whether direct descendants or not, are essential to a meaningful legacy.[5]

What happens when this decadent reality becomes established and even normal? Sociological studies can help us answer that question too: The answer is despair.

Throughout America, three types of deaths are on the rise: deaths from alcoholism, deaths from drug overdoses, and suicides. Suicide increased by 21% from 2006 to 2015 alone. Yet that number pales in comparison to an even more staggering one: Since 1990, the number of deaths by drug overdose in the United States has increased by a stunning 500%.

The problem is so acute that sociologists coined a term to describe these three types of deaths: “deaths of despair.”

Thus, the problems that Eberstadt, Chaput, Reno, Esolen, and Dreher describe in their books, though real, are in a sense merely the tip of the iceberg. The problem before us is not that we live in an otherwise stable, sustainable society that is becoming more hostile to religious belief. The problem is, rather, that we live in a fragmenting society in which certain segments have become deeply hostile to religious faith. Yet if we focus narrowly on the religion problem, we will miss the broader narrative of decline. There is, as Francis Schaeffer said in the 1970s, death in the city.

Our Existentialist Malaise

What is to be done?

In his book The Sacrifice of Africa, Notre Dame theologian and ethicist Emmanuel Katongole argues that political life is ultimately an acting out of shared narratives that a wide group of people believe together.

Today, we are living through the death of one political narrative. The task of the church, then, is both to reorient ourselves to a properly Christian narrative through catechesis, liturgy, and virtue and to commend that narrative to our neighbors, by faithfully preaching the Word and by modeling a way of life animated by communal and manifest Christlike love.

Today, we are living through the death of one political narrative. The task of the church, then, is both to reorient ourselves to a properly Christian narrative.”

In the remainder of this essay, I want to sketch out the defining characteristics of these two narratives and, in particular, identify three key places of conflict between the two narratives, conflicts which we see lived out on a daily basis.

The first political narrative is what I call the existentialist narrative. The term comes from a lecture by the mid-century French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre titled “Existentialism is a Humanism.” Here is Sartre:

What do we mean by saying that existence precedes essence? We mean that man first of all exists, encounters himself, surges up in the world – and defines himself afterwards. If man as the existentialist sees him is not definable, it is because to begin with he is nothing. He will not be anything until later, and then he will be what he makes of himself. Thus, there is no human nature, because there is no God to have a conception of it. Man simply is. Not that he is simply what he conceives himself to be, but he is what he wills, and as he conceives himself after already existing – as he wills to be after that leap towards existence. Man is nothing else but that which he makes of himself.[6]

This might sound more complicated than it is. We can turn to two other places to define the foundational principle here. First, hear the words of the recently retired Justice Anthony Kennedy. This excerpt comes from his majority opinion in the famous Casey v Planned Parenthood case, in which the Republican appointee Kennedy unexpectedly ruled with court progressives to preserve legalized abortion in the United States. Here is the key passage in Kennedy’s majority opinion:

These matters (the private life of the family), involving the most intimate and personal choices a person may make in a lifetime, choices central to personal dignity and autonomy, are central to the liberty protected by the Fourteenth Amendment. At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.

It might seem strange to argue for shared conviction between a radical French left-wing philosopher and an American jurist appointed to the Supreme Court by Ronald Reagan, yet on this point the two are in agreement: Essential to the idea of man’s “freedom” is the idea that man defines himself. For Sartre in particular, we enter the world naked, alone, and isolated, and only our actions define our essence.

This brings us to the third way of defining the existentialist narrative, which comes from the Duke theologian Stanley Hauerwas:

I have no story except the story I chose when I had no story.[7]

The existentialist narrative says that man enters the world alone and without definition and that he creates meaning for himself through action. From this narrative, two additional points typically follow: The primary space in which we define ourselves is the free market, because its essentially competitive nature agrees with the individualist nature of man. The home, the neighborhood, and the church are all suspect because they seek to impose an unchosen identity onto individual people. The market, by contrast, maximizes individual control. That is the first piece. Here is the second: The purpose of the government is to protect our right to self-define. This notion undergirds movements supporting the legal right to abortion or the push by progressives to have Medicaid and Medicare cover procedures like gender reassignment surgery. People have a right to self-define, and the government must protect that right and, when necessary, assist citizens in their realization of that right. Thus, in our revolutionary age, politics is understood to be the work of securing the individual’s right to narrate his own existence. Politics is ordered entirely toward the preservation of private goods which may, but which need not, turn into a shared collective good as the group of privatized individuals realize their identity through the work of the market. The market creates a sphere in which this work can be done, and the government protects the right of each person to have equal access to that sphere and thus to the means of realizing his identity.

This is the existentialist narrative. What can a Christian account of politics say to such a narrative? A great deal, in fact. We must first say that the revolutionary narrative is a lie because it presupposes that we enter the world as undefined, autonomous, essence-less beings. In imitation of Dr. Johnson, we might simply gesture to a mother holding her child and say, “I refute it thusly.” Yet, simple though this rebuttal is, it is the obvious place to begin.

Politics with a Purpose

We do not, in fact, enter the world as autonomous beings, whatever French philosophers or powerful men in black robes say. We are, from our arrival in this world, contingent beings, beings whose existence must be wrapped in the love of another in order to thrive. This is quite literal in the womb, of course, and yet it does not stop being true once we are born.

We are, from our arrival in this world, contingent beings, beings whose existence must be wrapped in the love of another in order to thrive.

That we are unavoidably social creatures whose lives are contingent upon the lives of others is not a surprise to most Christian political theorists. The great German Reformed jurist Johannes Althusius writes of this compellingly in his Politica:

As long as he remains isolated and does not mingle in the society of men, he cannot live at all comfortably and well while lacking so many necessary and useful things. As an aid and remedy for this state of affairs is offered him in symbiotic life, he is led, and almost impelled, to embrace it if he wants to live comfortably and well, even if he merely wants to live.[8]

For this reason, human beings cannot think of our worldly existence as attempting to realize some nebulous and synthetic identity. Rather, we must attempt to structure our lives such that our necessary communal relationships help to make life mutually delightful for everyone. Continuing, Althusius writes,

The final cause of politics is the enjoyment of a comfortable, useful, and happy life, and of the common welfare—that we may live with piety and honor a peaceful and quiet life, that while true piety toward God and justice among the citizens may prevail at home, defense against the enemy from abroad may be maintained, and that concord and peace may always and everywhere thrive.[9]

This alternative grounding for our political life together provides an alternative telos. Indeed, it may be truer to say that it provides a telos, as the revolutionary account doesn’t really provide our political life with a goal of its own, but merely sees it as serving a privatized, synthetic one. Indeed, the existential account doesn’t provide a basis for political life at all. It offers merely an account of how individuals can use other individuals to realize their authentic identities.

It is not a coincidence, in other words, that the only people for whom our society is working are those with the means to essentially purchase their identity via lifestyle choices. When one rejects the natural sociability of humanity, one rejects much of what makes life pleasant. Once this happens, one must either rely on capital to maintain one’s living standards, filling the gaps left open by the dissolution of civil society, or one will suffer. Indeed, there’s a real sense in which Althusius, writing in the early 17th century, anticipated the problems of our day with far greater clarity than did any of the people promoting the revolutionary account of political life.

Writing in the preface to his third edition of the Politica, Althusius notes that political societies must have a telos because otherwise they lack direction. Politics become a real-life version of a monkey with a gun—a lethal force wielded indiscriminately. For Althusius, like many other early Reformed thinkers, including Melancthon, this telos is supplied by the Decalogue.

[The Ten Commandments] carry a torch before the social life that we seek, and… they prescribe and constitute a way, rule, guiding star, and boundary for human society. If anyone would take them out of politics, he would destroy it; indeed, he would destroy all symbiosis and social life among men.[10]

It’s essential to follow his reasoning on this point. Common goods are goods that must be enjoyed collectively. So advancing the individual goods of society’s members does not, in itself, advance the common good. Individual goods are enjoyed privately. Common goods are enjoyed together, or they cease to exist. Think of the violinist who wishes to play the “Mass in B Minor.” He cannot go off by himself with his violin and enjoy the music. He must play it as part of an orchestra. Such things are common goods. Therefore, the natural, moral law (and, following others, Althusius sees the Decalogue as the distillation of the natural law) is necessary for a true society to exist because the moral law “aims” society, as it were. It tells a people what the common good is that they will share together and, ideally, extend to others as well. The moral law, then, inaugurates the polity. Without the moral law, there can be no shared telos and thus no true common good.

Writing two hundred years after Althusius, the great Dutch political theorist Gilhaume Groen von Prinsterer explains the consequence of losing these Althusian principles. In his lectures on Unbelief and Revolution Groen argues that the fragmenting of the West, which was beginning in his own day, is attributable to what he calls “the revolution,” essentially an act of unbelief.[11]

By “the revolution,” Groen means the rejection of the polity as a truly natural good shared by a society and the replacement of it with society as an artificial construct built upon the choice of its members. Once this move was made, the sovereignty of man superseded, in theory, the sovereignty of God, and certain outcomes were nearly inevitable:

Tearing themselves loose from the solid ground of unchangeable principles, men began to soar without support in the airy spaces of speculation. The upshot was untold misery. A golden age was expected, an age of iron arrived. Energy wrongly directed is the more disastrous as it is the more powerful.[12]

Why does it work out this way? Once there is no natural order or common good toward which society labors collectively, society can only become a competition with both the people and the magistrate prone to egregious abuses of their rightful place within the polity. You cannot maintain a substantive account of rights when nature is dissolved, for it becomes impossible to coherently account for what a person is rightfully owed by virtue of his humanity. Groen explains:

There simply could be no concord or harmony in the (revolutionary) state since respect for each other’s rights had become impossible: each side in turn systematically overstepped its rights, thereby annulling the rights of others; government and people each aspired to total submission and unrestricted supremacy; the unrest and constant tension rendered collisions unavoidable. The theory could not but antagonize king and subject, the subject seeing in the king a potential tyrant and the king seeing in the subject a potential rebel.[13]

Within a revolutionary order, a Christian attempt to retrieve the common good is its own sort of revolution. Yet unlike the unbeliever’s revolution, which is conditioned only by power, the Christian revolution comes with fixed boundaries that cannot be transgressed.  A Christian account of politics recognizes that the imago Dei exists and makes demands on our politics. So, too, the polity possesses a certain kind of existence that demands a certain response. We are not “free” to violate the bounds it sets any more than, to return to where we began, Tolkien’s heroes were free to take up the ring of power for themselves.

On the one hand, this makes us vulnerable. White light, Tolkien tells us, can be broken. In a certain sense, black is stronger. So it is in our day: It is entirely possible that the church today is called to be broken by the revolution, to accept its public martyrdom. To acknowledge this, however, is not to retreat from the work of politics. Rather, it is to recognize that politics disassociated from the loves which make martyrdom plausible cannot be just because it cannot even offer an account of what politics is. Here we must let Althusius have the last word:

The final cause of politics is the enjoyment of a comfortable, useful, and happy life, and of the common welfare—that we may live with piety and honor a peaceful and quiet life.[14]

Ultimately such a life gestures toward the world to come, when each will sit under his own vine and fig tree and no one shall make him afraid. Fidelity in our context, however, requires not the repudiation of this vision for a lesser vision of politics, but a commitment to it–even when that commitment is costly.


Discover a foundation of a politics of the common good!

[1] 1.The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien, New York: Mariner Books: 2000, 60.

[2] 2.Duke Today Staff, “Americans Have Fewer Friends Outside the Family, Duke Study

Shows.” Duke Today, June 23, 2006. https://today.duke.edu/2006/06/socialisolation.html

[3] 3.Polack, Ellie, “New Cigna Study Reveals Loneliness at Epidemic Levels in America.”

Cigna Today, May 1, 2018. https://www.cigna.com/newsroom/news-releases/2018/new-

cigna-study-reveals-loneliness-at-epidemic-levels-in-america

[4] 4.CBC News Staff, “Why Loneliness Can Be as Unhealthy as Smoking 15 Cigarettes a

Day.” CBC News, August 16, 2017. https://www.cbc.ca/news/health/loneliness-public-

health-psychologist-1.4249637

[5] 5.Clark, Charlie, “Children of Men by P.D. James.” Mere Orthodoxy, May 11, 2017.

[6] 6.Sartre, Jean-Paul, “Existentialism is a Humanism,” Existentialism From Dostoevsky To

Sartre (Pickle Partners Publishing, 2016).

[7] 7.I heard him use this line in a lecture given at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln in

November of 2012.

[8] 8.Althusius, Johannes. Politica, “The General Elements of Politics,” Liberty Fund: 1995,

paragraph 4. https://oll.libertyfund.org/titles/althusius-politica?q=live+at+all+comforta

bly#Althusius_0002_145

[9] 9.Althusius, Politica, “The General Elements of Politics,” paragraph 30.

[10] 10.Althusius, Politica, Preface.

[11] 11.Groen van Prinsterer, Willem. Unbelief and Revolution. Grand Rapids: Lexham Clas-

sics, 2018.

[12] 12.Groen van Prinsterer, Unbelief and Revolution, 86.

[13] 13.Groen van Prinsterer, Unbelief and Revolution, 64-65.

[14] 14.Althusius, Politica, “The General Elements of Politics,” paragraph 30.