The Hope & the Agony of Politics

I’ve never been a utopian when it comes to politics. I’ve always known heaven won’t be created on earth. Yet, along with that realization, I’ve maintained a commitment to instilling Biblical values into politics as much as possible. When government follows policies based on Biblical principles, I believe we get closer to the ideal, regardless of the pervasive sinfulness of men.

This past political season was a jolt to my hopes. Faced for the first time with two candidates for president who never should be allowed close to the Oval Office, I had to go another route with my vote. My conscience constrained me.

What bothered me most was what I consider a nearly wholesale abandonment of principle by those who call themselves conservatives, and even worse, those who are my fellow Christian believers who ultimately decided that principles no longer mattered in this situation.

Note: this is not an indictment of many who struggled with their consciences and voted for Trump because they couldn’t imagine the alternative. My concern is with those who have become unapologetic apologists for a man regardless of what he says or does.

Yesterday, I read a column by Erick Erickson that echoed what I’ve been feeling. I’m going to share some of his pertinent comments and intersperse mine. Erickson feels betrayed by politics and by those he thought were his spiritual/intellectual companions. He says that, although he’s always been a Republican, he no longer has a home in that party.

I understand how he feels.

On the right, a party that used to be centered around the idea of smaller government and individual empowerment is instead captured by its own personality that centers around a strong man in Washington and whatever he wants.

I have argued for a constitutional understanding of government for more than thirty years. I thought Republicans, on the whole, agreed with that perspective. Instead, I’m seeing far less concern for that now that “we” have a supposedly strong man in power.

Erickson then addresses the Christian community that has sought, like I have, to return Biblical principles into our governing (especially after the ill effects of the Obama tenure):

Christians are supposed to find some peace in the world by knowing that there is a last day and they are on the winning team. But right now a bunch of American Christians are looking to political solutions for spiritual problems and convincing themselves they’re making a Heaven on earth. . . .

So many people going to church on Sunday looked at Trump and called him a Cyrus, but increasingly this looks like a Maccabean revolt. Sure, they threw out those they saw as pagans and set about purifying temple America, but things did not exactly go well for the people or the kingdom thereafter.

Of course it was all downhill to Herod and the first coming, so maybe it’ll all be downhill from here to the second coming. That increasingly looks likely as the world goes mad, this country included.

Hyperbole? Not from where I’m sitting. That’s my perception also.

He then switches to what he would like to see in politics; I’ll share a few of his dreams:

I want a new party, and a conservative one where conservatism is not defined by beating the other side, but by pursuing the best policies.

I want a party that is pro-family and structures the tax code accordingly and fights for school choice so parents can get their kids educated instead of indoctrinated.

I want a party that is pro-life and that does not run from the Bible.

I want a party that does not define people by the color of their skin or where their families came from, but sees us all as part of the American experiment.

And I want a party that is beholden to ideas, not men.

I will add my “amen” to all of that. And with Erickson, I can also say that I, at one time, thought that existed. Now I’m not so sure. You see, I’ve not changed, but my party has. Ronald Reagan used to say that he hadn’t changed, but that the Democrat party he had always been a part of was the one that moved away from his beliefs.

What happened to a conservatism that was based on ideas, not nationalism? Caring for one’s nation is good, but there is a line that can be crossed. When does one’s devotion to the nation become a substitute for devotion to God?

Here’s one more short paragraph from Erickson’s piece that resonates with me:

To the extent that I have changed, though, I think I have changed for the better. I have a harder time reconciling my faith to my politics and see so many of my friends trying to squeeze their faith into their politics. I would rather go the opposite way and connect my politics to my faith, giving up those things that cannot be reconciled.

One of the key concepts I’ve tried to communicate to students, and to anyone else who will listen to me (I guess that’s why I write this blog) is that you start with Scripture and then make everything align with that. You never start with what others say is true and then do your best to inject Scripture into it, thereby making a false attempt to Christianize something that is not Christian at all.

I’m going to continue on the path of making God’s truth my cornerstone. I will not bow to the political gods who say I should set my Biblical principles aside for the sake of a few Supreme Court justices or some temporary victories via executive orders.

I want to look back on my decisions and not experience deep regret over my subordination of God’s ways to man’s ways. He calls us to be faithful, and that is what I intend to be.

Lewis on Politics & Culture

C. S. Lewis’s “Meditation on the Third Commandment” is one of his essays I’ve used in my Lewis class because I include in the class some of his commentary on politics and government. He gives the essay this title because of his concern that Christians not take the name of the Lord in vain when we are involved in politics.

Although Lewis repeatedly said he wasn’t interested in politics, his writings belie that to some degree. He was definitely concerned about good government (his letters to Americans testify to that) and about how Christians should conduct themselves in the public sphere.

He wrote this essay to an Anglican newspaper called The Guardian in response to letters written to the paper by Christians who were advocating for the establishment of a Christian political party.

Lewis’s first point is that Christians disagree on some matters of public policy, so no one party could possibly incorporate all Christians’ views on government policy. It would turn into merely a subset of Christians who presume to speak for all, a group he called “schismatics blasphemously claiming to represent” Christianity.

Instead, Lewis promotes the tactic of Christians using their influence by exerting pressure on the various parties. He suggests setting up an interdenominational Christian Voters’ Society that could agree “on ends and means which every member was expected to exact from any political party as the price of his support.”

Far from taking a hands-off approach, Lewis says,

“So all it comes down to is pestering M.P.’s with letters?” Yes: just that. I think such pestering combines the dove and the serpent. I think it means a world where parties have to take care not to alienate Christians, instead of a world where Christians have to be “loyal” to infidel parties.

I agree. My “loyalty,” as such, is not to a party but to Biblical principles. Those principles lead me to support one party over another, but they also constrain me: I cannot place all confidence in a political party. Neither can I blindly proclaim loyalty when that party does things that blatantly contradict those principles.

Lewis concludes his thoughts with this:

But I had forgotten. There is a third way—by becoming a majority. He who converts his neighbour has performed the most practical Christian-political act of all.

Again, I agree. Our primary calling from God is the Great Commission. Yet I’m concerned that some Christians hide behind this, believing that they therefore don’t have to care much about politics and government. They also might think they have no obligation to change the culture but should concentrate solely on individual salvation.

We need to keep in mind, though, that when enough individuals are touched by God’s grace, the culture is touched also. I think it’s incumbent upon Christians to do whatever we can to challenge anti-Christian trends in the culture.

There’s no valid reason that I can see in Scripture for neglecting the culture as a whole. After all, didn’t Jesus tell us we are salt and light? We can do both: seek the salvation of individuals while simultaneously persuading others of the need for a more Biblical culture.

Indeed, we ought to do both. That, I think, is what Lewis was saying.

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.

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, Politics, & a Dire Warning

In my study of C. S. Lewis while preparing my new book about his influence on Americans, I was constantly confronted with the opposite of what I had been told about him with regard to his views on politics and government. Lewis didn’t like the subject, I was told. Yet he mentioned it rather frequently in his letters to Americans.

Then, as I re-read a lot of his essays, I again was surprised by how often he commented on the principles of good government and how often he critiqued what he witnessed taking place in his own government.

on-politics-and-natural-lawSo I included many of his comments on government in my book. Now I’m delighted to find there is another new Lewis book that emphasizes that insight. I’m in the process of reading it, but I already like its thesis. C. S. Lewis on Politics and the Natural Law is one that some of you might like to purchase (after first getting America Discovers C. S. Lewis, of course).

In light of our current presidential election and what I consider the awful choices placed before us, I think it is instructive to turn to some of Lewis’s commentary on good government.

For instance, in his excellent essay, “The Poison of Subjectivism,” he ends with these thoughts about voting, which I believe have a direct application to our present situation:

Unless we return to the crude and nursery-like belief in objective values, we perish. If we do, we may live, and such a return might have one minor advantage. If we believed in the absolute reality of elementary moral platitudes, we should value those who solicit our votes by other standards than have recently been in fashion.

While we believe that good is something to be invented, we demand of our rulers such qualities as “vision,” “dynamism,” “creativity,” and the like. If we returned to the objective view we should demand qualities much rarer, and much more beneficial–virtue, knowledge, diligence, and skill.

“Vision” is for sale, or claims to be for sale, everywhere. But give me a man who will do a day’s work for a day’s pay, who will refuse bribes, who will not make up his facts, and who has learned his job.

What are we looking for in our candidates today? Far too few seek virtue and honesty in those we put forward to lead.

Another of his essays—one of my favorites—“Is Progress Possible? Willing Slaves of the Welfare State,” takes aim directly at our desire to have the state take care of us. He ends that essay with this dire warning:

What assurance have we that our masters will or can keep the promise which induced us to sell ourselves? Let us not be deceived by phrases about “Man taking charge of his own destiny.” All that can really happen is that some men will take charge of the destiny of the others.

They will be simply men; none perfect; some greedy, cruel, and dishonest. The more completely we are planned the more powerful they will be. Have we discovered some new reason why, this time, power should not corrupt as it has done before?

And what of those who are already corrupt and are now seeking to be our masters? Sober thoughts as we go through this election season.

Christians & Politics: Cynicism or Faithfulness?

For years I have been trying to encourage political participation—or at least political awareness—among Christians. While there are many who have seen the light on this, some still remain on the sidelines, allowing what once was a drift in the wrong direction to turn into a tsunami.

Sometimes, I hear the refrain that it makes no difference, all politicians are the same, so there’s no point in trying. I must admit, when one surveys the political field, it can be discouraging.

For instance, we have a president who has one solution for everything, an idea he has had since his tutelage by a communist mentor as a young man:

Young Obama

The one who wants to replace him on the Democrat side has, shall we say, a problem with honesty and integrity (along with truly wrongheaded policies):

Trouble Believing

The bureaucracy at the federal level often makes bewildering decisions:

Water on Mars

And the other party, the one that’s supposed to be the counterweight to those who seek to subvert the Constitution and the rule of law, is infested with far too many members more concerned with their public image than principle:

A Little Pushy

So, yes, I understand why people can become cynical and think nothing they do can make a difference. The only problem with that thinking, though, as a Christian, is that it is a faithless position to take.

If you want to guarantee that things get worse, stay on the sidelines and do nothing. But the Gospel I believe in, and the God of that Gospel, tells us to make disciples of all nations. He also tells us to be light and salt in a society. If we give in to a kind of fatalism for our future, we act against the very commands we have been given.

God doesn’t promise that we will win every battle, but He does want to see warriors on the field, doing their best as they take their orders from Him. The question in our minds ought to be the one asked by Jesus Himself when He queried, “When the Son of Man comes [back], will He find faith on the earth”?

I want to be found faithful. How about you?

C. S. Lewis: The Purpose of Government

That Hideous StrengthOne doesn’t normally think of C. S. Lewis as a political scientist; neither would he have relished the title. Yet while he rarely enters into any deep discussion of politics and government, he had definite views on both. All one has to do is read the last entry of his science fiction trilogy, That Hideous Strength, to see his utter distaste for any government that thinks its purpose is to control the lives of all citizens. That novel offers a dark portrait of where absolute control will take us as a society. It also shows God’s disdain for the arrogance of man.

Even in his classic Mere Christianity, Lewis touches on this:

It is easy to think the State has a lot of different objects—military, political, economic, and what not. 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.

A husband and wife chatting over a fire, a couple of friends having a game of darts in a pub, a man reading a book in his own room or digging in his own garden—that is what the State is there for. And unless they are helping to increase and prolong such moments, all the laws, parliaments, armies, courts, police, economics, etc., are simply a waste of time.

Notice he didn’t say the State makes you happy, nor that it tells the husband and wife what type of fire they’re allowed to build for their chat, nor how many dartboards are permitted in the pub, nor which books the man should read, nor whether he can even have a garden of his own. It is understood those are all personal choices; the role of government is to make sure we are free to enjoy them. The Nanny State didn’t mesh with Lewis’s vision of good government, and neither should it be our goal.

And if you’ve never read That Hideous Strength, I would urge you to check it out.