God’s Law, Man’s Freedom, & Good Government: A Lewis Perspective

As a historian, and as someone who has also taught in a master’s program of government, I am naturally attuned to the politics of our day. That doesn’t mean I love politics or am particularly enamored of the way politics manifests itself through the aggrandizement of politicians’ egos. Yet I cannot divorce myself from it because it now seems to invade every aspect of our lives.

What I do like is governing, in the sense that God is interested in good government; after all, He has told us that it is needed in our sinful world in order to keep sinfulness in check.

C. S. Lewis wasn’t fond of politics either. He heard so many arguments in his home at an early age that he developed an aversion to the subject. That aversion, however, didn’t apply to the law that God implanted into His universe and the need for government that reflected His law. For those who may wish to delve into this further, I do recommend this book by Dyer and Watson.

What I seek to do today is to think about what Lewis wrote in one of my favorite of his essays, “The Poison of Subjectivism,” and how it applies to our current politics (without naming names).

Politicians everywhere want people to believe that they have all the answers to the many problems we face, and that somehow, if only we were to elect them, we would be ushered into a new reality. In fact, it is more often a new unreality.

One of the key words bandied about nowadays is “progressive.” Lewis notes that we always are being told that we must “progress,” or we will become stagnant. His response?

Love is not dishonoured by constancy, and when we wash our hands we are seeking stagnation and “putting the clock back,” artificially restoring our hands to the status quo in which they began the day and resisting the natural trend of events which would increase their dirtiness steadily from our birth to our death.

For the emotive term “stagnant” let us substitute the descriptive term “permanent.” Does a permanent moral standard preclude progress? On the contrary, except on the supposition of a changeless standard, progress is impossible.

If good is a fixed point, it is at least possible that we should get nearer and nearer to it; but if the terminus is as mobile as the train, how can the train progress toward it?

Our ideas of the good may change, but they cannot change either for the better or the worse if there is no absolute and immutable good to which they can approximate or from which they can recede. We can go on getting a sum more and more nearly right only if the one perfectly right answer is “stagnant.”

Yet we are now in the process of changing the unchanging standard of absolute right and wrong. As a society, we are morphing into something that Lewis would barely recognize, and, admittedly, something that I never thought I would see in my lifetime. Man’s ideas of what is good are replacing the standard that God established. And politicians go with the flow. That wouldn’t be quite so bad if they didn’t have the means to overturn God’s standard, but some are even saying they don’t have to follow the rule of law anymore; give them the power and they will simply declare the new standard—who cares about the rule of law?

“Many a popular ‘planner’ on a democratic platform,” Lewis warned, “many a mild-eyed scientist in a democratic laboratory means, in the last resort, just what the Fascist means.” That’s a strong statement. How does he follow it up? “He believes that ‘good’ means whatever men are conditioned to approve. He believes that it is the function of him and his kind to condition men; to create consciences by eugenics, psychological manipulation of infants, state education, and mass propaganda.”

What then happens to God’s law, man’s freedom, and good government?

The very idea of freedom presupposes some objective moral law which overarches rulers and ruled alike. Subjectivism about values is eternally incompatible with democracy. We and our rulers are of one kind only so long as we are subject to one law. But if there is no Law of Nature, the ethos of any society is the creation of its rulers, educators, and conditioners; and every creator stands above and outside his own creation.

That’s a disturbing prospect; yet so many who want to rule seem to have this perspective. At the end of his essay, Lewis counsels that “unless we return to the crude and nursery-like belief in objective values, we perish.” He goes on to say that if we maintain those objective values, we actually might vote for leaders “by other standards than have recently been in fashion.” We might actually demand of our rulers qualities such as “virtue, knowledge, diligence, and skill.” I can wholeheartedly say with him,

“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 a novel thing that would be—sadly.