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Public Life in the Shadowlands: What C.S. Lewis Can Teach Us about Politics

Original Article

Even before the film Shadowlands, C. S. Lewis was probably the most widely recognized Christian thinker of the twentieth century. By the end of the 1980s, his books already had sold more than seventy million copies, an achievement that surely places Lewis among the best-selling authors of all time.

Lewis is most appreciated today for his superlative imagination and his lucid defense of Christian orthodoxy. But he also was a keen observer of social and political affairs. As Americans struggle to define the proper relationship between religious faith, moral principle, and political action, there is much that they might learn from this inimitable British academic.

Turning to Lewis for advice about politics is undeniably a bit paradoxical. According to stepson David Gresham, Lewis was skeptical of politicians and not really interested in current events. He even observed that he had no use for the “great issues” of his day. “Lord! how I loathe great issues,” he wrote in 1940. “Could one start a Stagnation Party—which at General Elections would boast that during its term of office no event of the least importance had taken place?” Lewis likewise avoided making partisan commitments. During the 1930s, he told a student that he refrained from donating money “to anything that had a directly political implication” ; and in 1951, he declined a title offered him by Prime Minister Winston Churchill (whom he greatly admired), because he feared that critics would seize upon the honor as evidence that his “religious writings are all covert anti-Leftist propaganda….”

Despite this seeming indifference to political life, Lewis wrote about a variety of political topics, including crime, war, censorship, capital punishment, conscription, socialism, vivisection, the welfare state and the atomic bomb. When he discussed these matters, however, his primary concern was not public policy. Political problems of the day interested him only insofar as they involved matters that endured. Looked at in this light, Lewis’s habit of writing about politics and his simultaneous detachment from the political arena are perfectly understandable. Uninterested in the partisan passions of the moment, he always tried to find the permanent in the political. As a result, much of what he has to say about public life remains acutely relevant. Indeed, it is the very timelessness of Lewis’s writings that makes them so timely.

Public Morality Based on Public Principles

Of all the political lessons that can be learned from Lewis, perhaps the most important is that public morality should be founded squarely upon public principles.

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This essay is based on a lecture to the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion in 1998, which in turn was revised and expanded from an article written for Policy Review in 1994.