The Political Magic of C.S. Lewis

Published September 24, 2016

New York Times

When I was on Christmas break from college in 1980, I wrote a letter to the editor of my hometown newspaper, The Tri-City Herald. It was published soon after I began to embrace Christianity, a gradual rather than a dramatic process that didn’t come all that easily.

The letter was a response to a man who had written that Christians were obligated to support a long list of conservative policies. (This was in the immediate aftermath of Ronald Reagan’s election and the rise of the religious right.) “Mr. Mays appears to believe that Christianity and his personal views are synonymous,” I wrote. “Conceivably, they are not. Christianity does not identify with a political ideology or party.”

I was politically conservative at the time, and believed that my religious faith, carefully understood, should inform my politics. Yet I was also troubled by what I believed was the subordination of Christianity to partisan ideology — the ease with which people took something sacred and turned it into a blunt political weapon. It was only years later that I learned that one of the seminal intellectual figures in my journey toward faith, C. S. Lewis, shared a similar approach and concern.

In 1951, Lewis — the author of “The Chronicles of Narnia,” Oxford don, medievalist, lecturer on philosophy and the leading Christian apologist in the 20th century — declined an offer from Winston Churchill to recommend him for an honorary Commander of the British Empire. “There are always knaves who say, and fools who believe, that my religious writings are all covert anti-Leftist propaganda, and my appearance on the Honours List wd. of course strengthen their hands,” Lewis replied. He would not allow vanity and misplaced political ambitions to discredit his public witness.

As this dispiriting election year has shown, there are many politically prominent Christians today who should think and act more like Lewis.

He was known to have “contempt for politics and politicians,” in the words of his brother Warnie, and he steered clear of the political controversies of his time. Yet as Justin Buckley Dyer and Micah J. Watson, associate professors at the University of Missouri and Calvin College, show in their groundbreaking new book, “C.S. Lewis on Politics and the Natural Law,” Lewis’s understanding of truth and human nature, of what constitutes the good life and the good society, had significant political implications.

Lewis saw public matters, and indeed all of life, through a theological lens; his Christian belief had important public consequences because it provided him with insights into the human condition.

Lewis also believed in objective moral truth and considered subjectivism a grave threat to civilization. “If your moral ideas can be true, and those of the Nazis less true,” Lewis wrote in 1952, “there must be something — some Real Morality — for them to be true about.” The moral law, he argued, was revealed in nature and known by reason.

Professors Dyer and Watson write that Lewis had “a very limited view of government’s role and warrant,” was skeptical of its capacity to inculcate virtue and worried about its paternalistic tendencies. The duty of government was to restrain wrongdoing. Because he believed in the fallen nature of humanity, Lewis was concerned by the concentration of political power. “It is easy to think the State has a lot of different objects — military, political, economic, and what not,” Lewis wrote. “But in a way things are much simpler than that. The State exists simply to promote and to protect the ordinary happiness of human beings in this life.”

Lewis was wary of “morals legislation.” For example, during a period when the criminalization of homosexuality was considered by many to be justified, Lewis asked, “What business is it of the State’s?” Nor did he believe it was the duty of government to promote the Christian ideal of marriage. “A great many people seem to think that if you are a Christian yourself you should try to make divorce difficult for everyone,” he wrote in “Mere Christianity.” “I do not think that. At least I know I should be very angry if the Mohammedans tried to prevent the rest of us from drinking wine. My own view is that the Churches should frankly recognize that the majority of the British people are not Christians and, therefore, cannot be expected to live Christian lives.”

“Lewis was committed to classical liberalism in the tradition of John Locke and John Stuart Mill,” according to Professors Dyer and Watson, meaning he believed in the wisdom of limited government, equality under the law, and a robust private sphere. Lewis also presciently warned that Christians were tempted to abuse political power in ways that were bad for both Christianity and the state. He believed that theocracy was the worst form of government and detested the idea of a “Christian party,” which risked blaspheming the name of Christ.

“The danger of mistaking our merely natural, though perhaps legitimate, enthusiasms for holy zeal, is always great,” Lewis wrote. “The demon inherent in every party is at all times ready enough to disguise himself as the Holy Ghost; the formation of a Christian Party means handing over to him the most efficient makeup we can find.”

Lewis knew that a faith-informed conscience could advance justice and that Christianity played an enormous part in establishing the concept of natural rights and the dignity of the human person. But he also believed that legislation is not an exact science; that a Christian citizen does not, in the words of Professors Dyer and Watson, “have the authority to represent his or her prudential judgment as required by Christianity”; and that no political party can come close to approximating God’s ideal. Christianity is about ends, not means, according to Lewis, and so he spent a good deal of his life articulating what he believed was the telos, the ultimate purpose, of human beings. Lewis was convinced that partisan political engagement often undermined that effort.

For those of us who believe in the truth of Christianity and still believe in the good of politics, the last several decades — and the last 15 months in particular — have often been painful. Like water that refracts light and changes the shape of things, politics can distort and invert Christianity, turning a faith that at its core is about grace, reconciliation and redemption into one that is characterized by bitterness, recriminations and lack of charity. There is a good deal of hating and dehumanization going on in the name of Christ.

Followers of Jesus aren’t doing a very good job of living faithfully in a broken world, perhaps because we’re looking inward instead of upward. “Aim at heaven and you will get earth ‘thrown in,’ ” Lewis reminded us. “Aim at earth and you will get neither.”

Peter Wehner, a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, served in the last three Republican administrations and is a New York Times contributing opinion writer.

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