The Lewis-Chambers Missed Opportunity

Another of C. S. Lewis’s regular American correspondents was Mary Van Deusen, someone with whom he shared thoughts on deep theological issues and on current events. One of her chief concerns, in the early 1950s, was the knowledge of how communists had infiltrated the American government. In one response to her, Lewis talked about how that issue showcased one problem with the modern concept of democracy:

C. S. Lewis 6Your question about Communists-in-government really raises the whole problem of Democracy. If one accepts the basic principle of Govt. by majorities, how can one consistently try to suppress those problems of public propaganda and getting-into-govt, by which majorities are formed. If the Communists in this country can persuade the majority to sell in to Russia, or even to set up devil-worship and human sacrifice, what is the democratic reply?

When we said “Govt. by the people” did we only mean “as long as we don’t disagree with the people too much”? And is it much good talking about “loyalty.” For on strictly democratic principles I suppose loyalty is obligatory (or even lawful) only so long as the majority want it. I don’t know the answer.

But of one thing he was certain: “Of course there is no question of its being our duty (the minority’s duty) to obey an anti-God govt. if the majority sets it up. We shall have to disobey and be martyred. Perhaps pure democracy is really a false ideal.”

WitnessJust a few months before this response, Van Deusen had encouraged Lewis to get the book Witness by Whittaker Chambers, who had been an underground communist agent in the 1930s, but who had then turned his back on communism and found God. As a senior editor for Time magazine, Chambers had even referenced Lewis in an essay he wrote called “The Devil.” As one reads that essay today, one can see the connection with The Screwtape Letters.

Chambers’s book that Van Deusen wanted Lewis to read was a bestseller in 1952, as it exposed not only the communist underground, but positively pointed to the need for Western civilization to return to its Christian foundations. Many have described Witness as one of the most elegantly written autobiographies of the century, and I agree with that conclusion.

When Van Deusen suggested he get the book, Lewis merely answered, “I’m afraid I can’t find a W. Chambers book. It’s better not to send the book. They all get lost in the pile on my table.” This could be one of the great lost opportunities of the twentieth century. One would have loved to know Lewis’s response to that book, which, although written as an autobiography, is a wordsmith’s delight. But it was not to be.