Many people today seem to think that religion in politics is somehow a new phenomenon. It isn’t. Religion has never stayed out of politics, especially in America. During the Revolutionary War, ministers urged their congregations to resist King George. During the early 1800s, clergy and laity alike spearheaded campaigns to defend the rights of the Indians, to abolish slavery, to help the poor and reform prison conditions. In our own era, people of faith have championed civil rights at home and human rights abroad.
Religion can be a tremendously constructive agent in public affairs; it can inspire us to high idealism, something which is often sadly lacking in our public life.
At the same time, however, it is true that religion can be a terribly disruptive influence in public life. Hence the fears we hear expressed in some quarters about mixing religion and politics.
So how do we make sure faith plays a constructive role in politics rather than a destructive one? And how can people of faith effectively respond to those who claim that religion should have no public role? Finally, what are the dangers and limits of political action that people of faith need to be aware of?
These are some of the questions that this online book seeks to answer–with help of C. S. Lewis.
Even before the film Shadowlands, C. S. Lewis was probably the most widely recognized Christian thinker of the twentieth century. He certainly was the most widely read. His books have sold more than 100 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 we Americans struggle to define the proper relationship between religious faith, moral principle, and political action, there is much we 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. Lewis even observed once 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 an honorary award offered him by Prime Minister Winston Churchill (whom he greatly admired), because he feared that critics would seize upon the award as evidence that his "religious writings are all covert anti-Leftist propaganda."
Despite this seeming indifference to political life, Lewis in fact wrote about a great 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.
In the following chapters, we will be looking at Lewis’s various writings for clues on how people of faith should approach politics and political action.
The essays in this book do not pretend supply all of the answers about faith and public life. But it is my hope that they will provide readers with a deeper understanding of the issues involved–and suggest some possibilities for further exploration.