The Lewisian View of Democracy

My doctorate is in history. My teaching career included seven years in a graduate school of government, showing how history needs to be taken into account when considering the function of government and public policy. And of course the basis for everything I have taught has been Biblical principles.

Therefore, it’s not hard to understand why I maintain an active interest in politics and current affairs. I seek to educate others in those principles and hope to see them influence our nation’s public policy.

I’m also a devotee of a republican form of government, one that is usually called “democratic,” but which is more properly “republican,” meaning that there is a certain amount of representation of the governed involved. In an imperfect world, this outward form is the closest to a government tied to what I consider to be Biblical principles.

But as I said, this is an imperfect world, and there is no such thing as a perfect government.

C. S. Lewis recognized this also. In his essay, “Equality,” he used the word democracy to write about it, but I can give him some leeway on that. He meant the same thing as I would mean by representative government, i.e., a republic.

What’s so good about his ruminations on “democracy” is his understanding for why it is desirable despite its faults.

I am a democrat because I believe in the Fall of Man. I think most people are democrats for the opposite reason.

A great deal of democratic enthusiasm descends from the ideas of people like Rousseau, who believed in democracy because they thought mankind so wise and good that everyone deserved a share in the government. The danger of defending democracy on those grounds is that they’re not true.

Many reading those words might be startled. Where is Lewis going with this? To the foundations of Biblical principles, of course.

I find that they’re not true without looking further than myself. I don’t deserve a share in governing a hen-roost, much less a nation. . . . The real reason for democracy is . . . Mankind is so fallen that no man can be trusted with unchecked power over his fellows.

Aristotle said that some people were only fit to be slaves. I do not contradict him. But I reject slavery because I see no men fit to be masters.

The rub, though, is that many men and women jockeying for political office really do think they are well suited to be the masters of others. They all do it in the name of the people, naturally; they use the grand rhetoric of “democracy” to convince others they should be trusted with power. They are grand in their own minds.

In another essay, “Democratic Education,” Lewis offers this warning:

Democracy demands that little men should not take big ones too seriously; it dies when it is full of little men who think they are big themselves.

As I survey the political field currently, I see a lot of little men—and women—who think they’re really something wonderful. They think that leading a nation is the apex of life. They think nations are greater than individuals. They are wrong. Why? Lewis explains in a familiar passage in Mere Christianity:

Immortality makes this other difference between totalitarianism and democracy. If individuals live only seventy years, then a state, or a nation, or a civilisation, which may last for a thousand years, is more important than an individual.

But if Christianity is true, then the individual is not only more important but incomparably more important, for he is everlasting and the life of a state or a civilisation, compared with his, is only a moment.

If our political leaders were to grasp that truth, it would be a start down the path of proper humility. Humility is in short supply in the political realm; it is one of our most urgent needs.

The Hallmark of Humility

Ronald Reagan, on his desk in the Oval Office, kept a small plaque with the following words:

“There is no limit to what a man can do or where he can go if he does not mind who gets the credit.”

The first time I read those words, they struck a chord in me—not because I naturally lived those words, but because it was a striking reminder that too often I didn’t.

On one of my visits to the Reagan Library, I bought a paperweight with those very words. It’s now on my office desk. I find that I need such a reminder at critical times.

Reagan exemplified humility in his high station, something that is rare indeed. Yet it is a requirement from God that we live in humility and that it be a hallmark of our character. After all, it’s what Jesus exhibited when He voluntarily set aside all of His divine prerogatives and chose to suffer and die for us.

One of the most poignant Scriptural passages for me is found in Philippians, chapter 2:

Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind regard one another as more important than yourselves; do not merely look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others.

Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus, who, although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men.

Being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.

May that example be what inspires us today.

Screwtape & Humility

In preparation for a class I will be teaching on The Screwtape Letters at a local church from January to April next year, I knew I needed to get a new copy of the book, as mine was falling apart from decades of use. I settled on the annotated edition by Paul McCusker.

I know I must have read sometime the preface Lewis wrote for the 1961 edition of his classic, but if so, it has escaped my memory. Reading it yesterday, I received a fresh reminder (as if I needed another one) of why I love reading Lewis.

His humorous self-deprecation is a hallmark of his overall view of his importance, and this preface highlights it.

While acknowledging that sales of the book have been prodigious, far beyond his expectations, he pokes a hole in sales figures, explaining that they don’t always mean what their authors hope they mean. “If you gauged the amount of Bible reading in England by the number of Bibles sold, you would go far astray,” he warns. And the same can be said for Screwtape, which he believes might “suffer from a similar ambiguity.”

“It is the sort of book,” he muses, “that gets given to godchildren, the sort that gets read aloud at retreats. It is even, as I have noticed with a chastened smile, the sort that gravitates towards spare bedrooms, there to live a life of undisturbed tranquility.”

Lewis then offers this little story:

Sometimes it is bought for even more humiliating reasons. A lady whom I knew discovered that the pretty little probationer [student nurse] who filled her hot-water bottle in the hospital had read Screwtape. She also discovered why.

“You see,” said the girl, “we were warned that at interviews, after the real, technical questions are over, matrons and people sometimes ask about your general interests. The best thing to say is that you’ve read something.

“So they gave us a list of about ten books that usually go down pretty well and said we ought to read at least one of them.”

“And you chose Screwtape?”

“Well, of course; it was the shortest.”

Later in the preface, Lewis contests the compliment often paid to him that the book must have been “the ripe fruit of many years’ study in moral and ascetic theology.” The compliment is undeserved, Lewis responds:

They forgot that there is an equally reliable, though less creditable, way of learning how temptation works. “My heart,”—I need no other’s—“showeth me the wickedness of the ungodly.”

Lewis’s genuine humility, in tandem with his witty, erudite style, fill his works with vitality no matter how often one reads them.

Lewis on Intellectual Pride

How does one decide which C. S. Lewis essay one likes best? Just when you have read one and concluded nothing could be better, another one invades your mind and spirit, and you’re now convinced this has to be the crowning jewel.

As an academic, I am drawn to the essays in which Lewis takes aim at those of us in academia. He’s particularly pointed in those because he’s also taking aim at himself.

One of the greatest temptations for scholars is to take pride in their scholarship. I use Lewis’s essay, “Learning in War-Time” in the course I teach on him, and hope it can be a warning for the budding scholars in the classroom.

Lewis is clear that there are many paths people may follow as they walk out their Christian commitment, one of which is the world of higher education. Here’s what he has to say to those of us who trod this path:

The intellectual life is not the only road to God, nor the safest, but we find it to be a road, and it may be the appointed road for us. Of course it will be so only so long as we keep the impulse pure and disinterested. That is the great difficulty.

Then comes the specific warning:

As the author of the Theologia Germanica says, we may come to love knowledge—our knowing—more than the thing known: to delight not in the exercise of our talents but in the fact that they are ours, or even in the reputation they bring us.

Every success in the scholar’s life increases this danger. If it becomes irresistible, he must give up his scholarly work. The time for plucking out the right eye has arrived.

A dagger straight into any inflated pride—my inflated pride at times—or at least into the temptation to fall into that sin. This Scripture in I Corinthians 8 comes to mind:

We know that “We all possess knowledge.” But knowledge puffs up while love builds up.

Why is intellectual arrogance so quick to rise within us? It makes us feel important. We understand more than others (we think). That makes us better than the ignorant masses (we boast).

Now, we may never say such a thing out loud, but if that attitude becomes more than just a fleeting temptation and it takes root in our heart, it’s time for a deep repentance and a humbling of our spirit.

As we’re reminded in the book of James, chapter 4, “God is opposed to the proud but gives grace to the humble.”

All intellectual boasting is sin. Instead, we should be eternally grateful that God is willing to use us in intellectual endeavors, and that He can only use us in that way if we remain humble and submit that talent to Him.

Lewis: Delighting in God

Lewis’s exuberance in the faith shines through in many of his writings, whether they be apologetic or fiction. One of his later books, Reflections on the Psalms, contains nuggets like these:

The most valuable thing the Psalms do for me is to express that same delight in God which made David dance.

There . . . I find an experience fully God-centered, asking of God no gift more urgently than His presence, the gift of Himself, joyous to the highest degree, and unmistakably real.

My study of Lewis during my sabbatical helped me see his character more clearly then ever. Reading his letters to Americans provided insights into who he really was and what moved him.

What I love most about Lewis, I think, is that even though he was one of the most astute minds of the twentieth century, able to be classed with the best and the brightest, he understood that a rigorous intellect could be coupled with devotion and humility without any cognitive dissonance.

He was a man who realized that all talents and abilities, intellectual or otherwise, were gifts from God and should be treated as such. He was not embarrassed to show pure joy in contemplation of the nature of the One who gives all good things.

Pride and arrogance, be gone!

Pelosi, Trump, & Reagan–Oh My!

Democrats are in disarray. They need assurance that they are on track for the future. Their leaders are in the business of reassuring them that what happened in the 2010 and 2014 congressional elections and the 2016 presidential election are all anomalies. Don’t worry, they’re told, the leadership knows what it’s doing.

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As if to prove to themselves that’s the case, Democrats in the House have given Nancy Pelosi another victory–she’s been chosen as their leader again, despite all those electoral disasters.

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Some in the party find that incomprehensible; they need to find some excuse for how it happened.

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Meanwhile, congratulations on her victory come from one unexpected source:

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Yes, Republicans are on a roll, and Donald Trump has a new approach that no other president has ever tried:

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I have mixed feelings about that approach. While I love having the media shut out on occasion, the constant tweet flow from the president-elect doesn’t come across as presidential to me. It would be much better, of course, if he were more restrained in his comments, but that’s probably not in the offing.

For instance, tweeting that flag burners should be punished either with prison time or loss of citizenship runs counter to the First Amendment. Now, he can get away with saying such things simply because the majority of Americans (myself included) deplore that action. It’s insulting to the nation that gives everyone the opportunity to express disagreement. Destroying the flag is an act of ingratitude, and it is supremely juvenile.

Yet it’s a political winner for Trump. Our anger over the brazen act “trumps” concern for the First Amendment.

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But anytime we minimize the First Amendment, we are treading on dangerous ground.

Trump also is congratulating himself over keeping Carrier in Indiana rather than having the company move some of its activity to Mexico.  Again, this is a mixed bag. One can be glad those jobs were saved, yet how is this different from the crony capitalism that Trump supporters supposedly deplore? Giving one company a break that other companies in the same field don’t get is the ultimate in having the government choose winners and losers.

Trump is now embarking upon what he calls a “Thank You Tour,” holding rallies ostensibly to thank his supporters. I listened to part of his first rally. I’m sorry, but to me it sounds more like a “Trump Ego Tour.”

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Oh, no, there you go, Snyder, just Trump-bashing again. No, that’s not my aim. As I’ve said, I will give him credit when it is due, and I do hope for the best. I’m pleased with a number of his cabinet appointments. I’ll write about those sometime next week, I presume, once a secretary of state is chosen.

But I’m looking for something else in him—humility. You see, I’m old enough to remember Ronald Reagan, the president who never took credit for anything, but always thanked God for blessings and praised the innovative nature of the American people. He gave credit to both God and the people for the economic revival in his day, not to himself. Trump is always bragging about the credit he deserves. That’s not the Reagan spirit that I seek.

I have a paperweight I purchased at the Reagan Library with one of my favorite Reagan quotes engraved upon it. It reads as follows:

There is no limit to what a man can do or where he can go if he doesn’t mind who gets the credit.

That can be true of Donald Trump also. For the sake of the nation, I pray he will begin to understand that truth.

Speaking Boldly About Ultimate Truth

I read through the book of Isaiah recently. It’s poignant in so many ways. It has provided encouragement to speak boldly about ultimate truth. Most blogs that focus on politics and government don’t delve into ultimate truth, but merely comment on events from a distinct political perspective. My mission from God [that’s not boasting, by the way; all Christians have a mission, and all nonchristians have one waiting for them if they submit their lives to Him] is to place current events in the framework of Biblical principles and in the light of eternity.

In chapter 51, these words stood out to me:

Lift up your eyes to the sky, then look to the earth beneath; for the sky will vanish like smoke, and the earth will wear out like a garment and its inhabitants will die in like manner. But My salvation will be forever, and My righteousness will not wane.

We live our lives as if what we see around us will go on indefinitely. That’s not the case. While what transpires on this earth is important, it’s primarily the proving ground for eternity. Consequently, what should be my outlook? The chapter continues:

Listen to Me, you who know righteousness, a people in whose heart is My law; do not fear the reproach of man, nor be dismayed at their revilings. For the moth will eat them like a garment, and the grub will eat them like wool. But My righteousness will be forever, and My salvation to all generations.

There have been times that I have not spoken what the Lord has placed in my heart for fear of what others will say. I don’t like to be reproached any more than you do. When it comes to matters political, economic, or whatever, it’s often easier to pull back and avoid confrontation. Why should I be the sore thumb sticking up, declaring against all that modern man believes, that homosexuality is a sin? Why continue to point out deviations from sound Biblical economic theory and the rule of law under constitutionalism? So few care anymore. Why not be quiet and at peace?

Then more words from this chapter stand out and strengthen my resolve:

I, even I, am He who comforts you. Who are you that you are afraid of man who dies and of the son of man who is made like grass, that you have forgotten the Lord your Maker, who stretched out the heavens and laid the foundations of the earth?

As a historian, I’ve studied many great individuals from the past. But who has accounted them “great”? Was Alexander the Great really great or a self-centered, bloodthirsty tyrant? By the way, he’s dead now, in case you hadn’t noticed. The same can be said of all the Roman emperors, Napoleon, Stalin, Hitler, Mao, or any other despot you wish to name. Some American presidents who thought they were God’s personal messengers with a “brand new message” have learned otherwise since their deaths [Woodrow Wilson comes to mind].

All those who hold high positions today will one day have to stand before the One who stretched out the heavens and laid the foundations of the earth. Many surprises await. Jesus made it clear:

Some are last who will be first and some are first who will be last. [Luke 13:30]

Thank you, Lord, for the reminder to be humble, to speak Your truths, and to remember what really matters.