Lewis: A Christian Political Party

Historians have different emphases in their study of the past. Mine is the influence of Christian faith on a society and its outworking in government. I am a student of “governing,” not politics per se. While the two cannot be separated, I do think it’s important to keep the distinctions.

cross-flagGovernment is something God wants, if it follows His prescription for how to carry out its responsibilities. Politics is the often messy pathway for figuring out who does the governing, and it is sometimes rather discouraging to see its inner workings.

I’m reminded of C. S. Lewis’s rather pointed comment in the essay “Membership”:

A sick society must think much about politics, as a sick man must think much about his digestion.

To be obsessed with politics may, therefore, be an indication of a low state of society, if Lewis is correct.

Naturally, Christians who want their society to reflect Biblical values will want to get involved in politics to try to turn things in a Christian direction. There’s certainly nothing inconsistent in doing so; in fact, I believe we are called to do so. It has something to do with what Jesus said about being “light” and “salt.”

It’s also natural, at this time in America, for most of us who feel that call to align ourselves with the party that wants to curb abortion, to protect the Biblical concept of marriage, and that seeks, at least in its public pronouncements, to uphold the Christian moral standards overall.

Again, there’s nothing wrong with that. But Lewis has this habit of making us think more carefully on how to proceed. In his day, back during WWII, there was a movement toward setting up a Christian political party. Here’s the caution he offered in another essay titled “Meditation on the Third Commandment”:

c-s-lewis-13From many letters to The Guardian, and from much that is printed elsewhere, we learn of the growing desire for a Christian “party,” a Christian “front,” or a Christian “platform” in politics. Nothing is so earnestly to be wished as a real assault by Christianity on the politics of the world: nothing, at first sight, so fitted to deliver this assault as a Christian party.

I have discovered, though, that even earnest Christians seeking to infuse the faith into politics can disagree over the specific means of doing so. This past election has made that abundantly clear. Lewis continues,

Whatever it calls itself, it will represent, not Christendom, but a part of Christendom. The principle which divides it from its brethren and unites it to its political allies will not be theological.

I found myself this year at odds with those with whom I agree on the essentials of the faith. My concern was the person who was chosen to represent the Christian worldview; I believed he was more of a detriment to that worldview than a promoter of it. It pained me to be divided from many of my brethren over that. The party that was supposed to speak for my Christian views seemed to be rather schizophrenic, in my estimation.

Lewis saw the problem:

It [the party representing Christian faith] will have no authority to speak for Christianity; it will have no more power than the political skill of its members gives it to control the behaviour of its unbelieving allies.

But there will be a real, and most disastrous, novelty. It will be not simply a part of Christendom, but a part claiming to be the whole. By the mere act of calling itself the Christian Party it implicitly accuses all Christians who do not join it of apostasy and betrayal.

It will be exposed, in an aggravated degree, to that temptation which the Devil spares none of us at any time—the temptation of claiming for our favourite opinions that kind and degree of certainty and authority which really belongs only to our Faith.

There is one great difference, of course, between the politics of Lewis’s day and ours. No political party back in the 1940s was advocating abortion or same-sex marriage. Lewis was referring more to differences of opinion on more mundane policy positions.

Yet his caution remains, and rightly so. We must always be careful not to put politics on a pedestal. We must disengage ourselves from the temptation to make it an idol.

And we must never allow politics to come between believers who will spend eternity together.

Remember That Lewis Book?

Just a reminder that my book is out there waiting for you. Walter Hooper concluded his endorsement with these words: “I can honestly say I understand Lewis so much better having read this book.”

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The Latest Fake Lewis Quote

I saw it on Facebook, so it must be true! And if it is in all caps with lots of exclamation points afterward, I can rely on its authenticity.

I trust those statements don’t reflect your perspective.

Why focus on that today? There’s a supposed C. S. Lewis quote floating around that people are sharing incessantly because it seems so apropos to our current political situation. We are told it comes from his classic work, The Screwtape Letters, and goes like this:

My dear Wormwood,

Be sure that the patient remains firmly fixated on politics. Arguments, political gossip, and obsessing on the faults of people they have never met serves as an excellent distraction from advancing in personal virtue, character, and the things the patient can control.

Make sure to keep the patient in a constant state of angst, frustration, and general disdain towards the rest of the human race in order to avoid any kind of charity or inner peace from further developing.

Ensure the patient continues to believe that the problem is “out there” in the “broken system” rather than recognizing there is a problem with himself.

Keep up the good work,

Uncle Screwtape

Then, to make it real official, it says it comes directly from Lewis’s book. It even gives a 1942 date. That should make you believe it for sure.

Now, I’m not saying there isn’t some truth in that “quote,” but I have major problems with anyone making something up and then attributing it to a famous author who said nothing of the sort.

What kind of person does that? The goal may be laudable, but the method is disgraceful. Ever heard of the ends justify the means? That’s never acceptable.

We should all keep in mind this cautionary word from Abraham Lincoln:

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Lewis: We Need Knowledge of the Past

We’ve been in a political season for about a year and a half now. In one sense, the political season never ends. This is especially true for someone like me since I am a professor of American history. I’m naturally drawn to political news and analysis.

There is a temptation, though, to be so immersed in politics that one sees it as all-consuming. C. S. Lewis recognized that temptation. In his day, WWII was one of those potentially all-consuming events. Some people, at that time, were saying that all other activities, including Lewis’s own profession as a professor, should be set aside so that all thought and energy would be concentrated on the war.

NPG x45075,Clive Staples ('C.S.') Lewis,by Walter StonemanLewis said no to that. One of his most enlightening essays, “Learning in War-Time,” addressed the complaint that some had about allowing normal day-to-day activities to continue uninterrupted.

Lewis wanted to be sure he was not misunderstood: the war was a righteous one and every citizen had a duty to support it. “Every duty is a religious duty,” he believed, “and our obligation to perform every duty is therefore absolute.”

Rescuing a drowning man is a duty, he continued, and if we happened to live on a coast, perhaps we should be well prepared as lifesavers. But even such a laudatory effort as lifesaving needs to be seen as only part of one’s overall duties.

If anyone devoted himself to lifesaving in the sense of giving it his total attention—so that he thought and spoke of nothing else and demanded the cessation of all other human activities until everyone had learned to swim—he would be a monomaniac.

The rescue of drowning men is, then, a duty worth dying for, but not worth living for.

Lewis then opined that all political duties were like that. Politics is not the sum total of life. Seeking to put the right people in political office is a worthy endeavor, but it should never consume one’s life.

He who surrenders himself without reservation to the temporal claims of a nation, or a party, or a class is rendering to Caesar that which, of all things, most emphatically belongs to God: himself.

For Lewis personally, God had charted a course for his life that pointed to intellectual activity, something that was not to cease simply because a war was going on. One of his most famous quotes comes from this essay: “Good philosophy must exist, if for no other reason, because bad philosophy needs to be answered.”

He then offers me, as a historian, this encouraging word:

keep-calm-learn-historyMost of all, perhaps, we need intimate knowledge of the past. Not that the past has any magic about it, but because we cannot study the future, and yet need something to set against the present, to remind us that the basic assumptions have been quite different in different periods and that much which seems certain to the uneducated is merely temporary fashion.

A man who has lived in many places is not likely to be deceived by the local errors of his native village; the scholar has lived in many times and is therefore in some degree immune from the great cataract of nonsense that pours from the press and the microphone of his own age.

There continues to be a “great cataract of nonsense” in our day. The America of 2016 suffers from a type of myopia, forgetting what has gone before, never learning from the past. History offers us tremendous lessons if we are willing to learn from them.

The reason I am so focused, at times, on the current political situation, is that I am disturbed by our ignorance of the past and our apparent unwillingness to correct what we have done wrong previously. We think we are charting a new course that will lead us to some type of utopia when, in fact, we are simply following some of the same old ruts that have caused misery before.

Lewis concludes his essay with what WWII should teach his generation. His conclusion applies to our generation as well if we think political programs will be our savior:

If we had foolish un-Christian hopes about human culture, they are now shattered. If we thought we were building up a heaven on earth, if we looked for something that would turn the present world from a place of pilgrimage into a permanent city satisfying the soul of man, we are disillusioned, and not a moment too soon.

We must never forget that we are pilgrims on this earth, and that the pilgrimage goes on regardless of what happens in politics and government.

Lewis on Anger, Hardship, & Persecution

I thought that, in this election season where emotions are running high, it might be good to note a few select quotes from C. S. Lewis on the subject of anger. In one of Lewis’s poems, not published until after his death, he states simply,

Anger’s the anaesthetic of the mind.

When anger takes over, the mind goes numb. Rational thought becomes difficult. Has that happened lately? Doesn’t anger spur all too many in their politics on both sides?

c-s-lewis-15In his excellent novel, Till We Have Faces, Lewis has his character note this:

My anger protected me only for a short time; anger wearies itself out and truth comes in.

All I can say is that I hope that comes true once we have put the election behind us.

Lewis also informs us in one of his essays,

Reasonableness and amiability (both cheerful “habits” of the mind) are stronger in the end than the . . . spleen. To rail is the sad privilege of the loser.

And a loser there will be. Some of us think that no matter who wins, the nation is the loser.

Many Christians are concerned about the possibility of persecution under a new presidency. However, maybe we ought to welcome it. I’m particularly distressed by how some Christians are treating fellow believers right now over political differences. Again, I think Lewis gives us some words that might provide perspective. In a letter to correspondent Don Giovanni Calabria, he says,

I could well believe that it is God’s intention, since we have refused milder remedies, to compel us into unity, by persecution even and hardship.

Satan is without doubt nothing else than a hammer in the hand of a benevolent and severe God. For all, either willingly or unwillingly, do the will of God: Judas and Satan as tools or instruments, John and Peter as sons.

Don’t misunderstand me, please. I do think it’s important what we decide in elections, and those decisions have consequences. But let’s never lose sight of the fact that the Lord can use even a bad consequence to push us in a better direction.

If hardship and persecution come, maybe we’ll finally discover that we need to love one another.

Anger, Bitterness, & an Election

Of all the consequences of this presidential election, the one that dismays me most is the rupture between those who have been friends and allies in a cause. It has happened in the political/cultural conservative camp in general and among conservative Christians also. The latter is the more grievous.

Some are now questioning whether the breach that has been created can ever be healed. I believe it can be, but I don’t know if it will.

angerI have been distressed from the start of the campaign, in the primaries, as I’ve witnessed so much anger being expressed through support for Donald Trump. It’s as if he became a magnet for many who have been so frustrated with the developments in the Obama years.

I understand that frustration. More has changed negatively in the last eight years than in previous decades combined. But it’s always a sign of danger when anger drives actions. It’s very dangerous when anger becomes the primary determinant in voting. When emotions control the mind, we usually go astray.

The Scripture deals directly with that problem. In James 1:20 we’re admonished,

But everyone must be quick to hear, slow to speak and slow to anger; for the anger of man does not achieve the righteousness of God.

When we give vent to our anger, we may think we are doing God’s will, but James’s caution should remind us that He has a better way.

Anger that is allowed to fester goes one step further into a bitterness that spreads its malignancy to others, as the writer of the book of Hebrews, chapter 12, warns us:

Pursue peace with all men, and the sanctification without which no one will see the Lord. See to it that no one comes short of the grace of God; that no root of bitterness springing up causes trouble, and by it many be defiled.

The first piece of instruction in that passage is that we are to do whatever we can to maintain peaceful relations with all. Shouldn’t that be especially true of brothers and sisters in Christ?

Second, there is a stiff warning about sanctification in the Christian life: without it, we may be cut off from the Lord. That, by itself, should stun us into being careful in our words, actions, and reactions.

bitternessThen the writer focuses on what he calls a “root” of bitterness. If bitterness does take root in our minds, it has the natural tendency to see all things through that bitterness. Not only will it affect our very souls but it will infect the lives of others.

The Biblical message is clear on this issue. Probably the best overall teaching on this is found in Ephesians chapter 4, in which the apostle Paul says,

Be angry, and yet do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and do not give the devil an opportunity.

screwtape-lettersPaul recognizes that anger is natural and not necessarily wrong; after all, God gets angry. However, one can be angry without the anger leading us into sin. There is a line that can be crossed, but must not be. When we cross it, we are giving Satan a playground of his own; it allows him the opportunity to destroy lives. For a quick refresher on that, I recommend C. S. Lewis’s masterful work, The Screwtape Letters, which exposes exactly how the hellish realm seeks to lead Christians on the wrong path.

Here’s the end of Paul’s admonition in Ephesians 4:

Let no unwholesome word proceed from your mouth, but only such a word as is good for edification according to the need of the moment, so that it will give grace to those who hear.

Do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, by whom you were sealed for the day of redemption.

Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice. Be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving each other, just as God in Christ also has forgiven you.

There are times we are to speak forcefully about something, but it must always be in love. We can share our hearts about the issues we face in this nation, but we must never allow even the most earnest sharing to descend into name-calling and/or false accusations against another.

We are to speak the truth, and it can be with energy and urgency, but it cannot be spoken in anger, and we simply cannot let bitterness take over.

Perhaps we all need to check our spirits today. What are we communicating and how are we communicating it?

Lewis on the Old Books

“Every age has its own outlook,” C. S. Lewis instructed. “It is specially good at seeing certain truths and specially liable to make certain mistakes.” Amen to that. “We all, therefore,” he continued, “need the books that will correct the characteristic mistakes of our own period. And that means the old books.”

Image: Dublin Library. The WSRL is a humble and intimate gathering ...Was Lewis saying that only old books are worthwhile? Was he so anti-modern that he believed nothing written in the last century could conceivably offer us wisdom? After all, in his inaugural lecture at Cambridge, he famously referred to himself as a “dinosaur,” one of the last specimens of those who live comfortably in their native land of previous epochs.

That’s hardly his intention. What he was doing in this quote was attacking the oh-so-modern fallacy (found in every age, by the way) that we have progressed so far that we understand things much better than previous ages and generations.

I teach historiography. Part of the course delves into different schools of historical interpretation. One common mistake for historians is to believe that progress is inevitable, that each succeeding generation is wiser than the last one.

I ran into this perspective in my doctoral program. One book used in a course on American colonial history was infused with a sneeringly condescending attitude toward those so-called primitive early Americans. They were just so backward, the book implied. Not like the new generation that has come so far.

Of course, in the view of that author, to “come so far” meant that we have set aside all those outmoded ideas about God that seemed to drive many of the early settlers. The hubris in the book was astounding.

c-s-lewis-2All Lewis was saying in this quote is that each era has its truth emphases and each also has its own characteristic mistakes and/or falsehoods that it believes. How do we guard against this arrogance? Return to the thoughts and beliefs of earlier times and keep in mind that whatever faults they had, they also might have contained truths that we, in our pride, have foolishly abandoned.

The “old books” are not error-free, but they do put a check on our runaway love affair with ourselves. They remind us of things we may have forgotten as a society.

There is one old book, though, that is error-free and never leads us astray. If we take it seriously, our pride is leveled and we recognize our true place in the universe.

As I survey the mess our current society has devolved into, I’m reminded of another Lewis quote: “Moral collapse follows upon spiritual collapse.” If we are disturbed by what we see happening morally in our day, we must acknowledge the real reason for this development. We have allowed our Christianity to be compromised to the point that it no longer is the salt and light it was intended to be.

We must return to the one Old Book that puts things right again.