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C.S. Lewis and Public Life Book

Chapter 2: How Can People of Faith Apply Morality to Politics?


 Chapter 2:



In ancient and medieval political philosophy, prudence was the crown of the moral virtues because it showed one how to apply the other moral virtues in particular cases. The virtue of prudence remains of critical political importance today. Even if we know the moral standard to apply to politics, how should it be applied in particular cases? Lewis himself supplies some preliminary answers in his essays on contemporary British issues ranging from obscenity prosecutions to criminal punishment. The essays in this chapter focus on the way Lewis applied the moral law to actual political controversies and seek to define the principles that guided his prudential judgments.

Contributing authors to this chapter are:

  • GILBERT MEILAENDER , Professor of Religion, Oberlin College.
  • JOHN G. WEST, JR., Senior Fellow or Discovery Institute and Assistant Professor of Political Science at Seattle Pacific University.


Gilbert Meilaender, Oberlin College

In order to wage successfully, against a determined and able foe, what we call the Second World War, both England and the United States were forced to expand significantly the power of national government. There has been no turning back since then in either country, though there have been periods of reaction against such centralized power. The nation-state dominates our lives in ways we take for granted but which did not exist before that war.

Writing in 1946, shortly after the end of World War II, C. S. Lewis recognized this trend in its early stages and articulated a Christian stance for such a world. In a historical moment increasingly dominated by the power of national government he wrote:

Christianity, with its claims in one way personal and in another way ecumenical and both ways antithetical to omnicompetent government, must always in fact . . .be treated as an enemy. Like learning, like the family, like any ancient and liberal profession, like the common law, it gives the individual a standing ground against the state. (1)

A more characteristically Lewisian statement about ethics and politics would be hard to find. In his vision the individual is exalted, but not in an individualistic way. Christianity cherishes the individual because, made ultimately for fellowship with God, he or she transcends every historical community, including the nation-state and its governmental apparatus because the person cannot wholly be reduced to a part of the larger whole that is a nation. But this person is not simply a free-floating individual for to be destined for communion with God is to be a member of a universal community that itself transcends the societies to which we belong in our everyday life. "Nations, cultures, arts, civilizations-these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat." (2) But every person we meet is a possible future companion of beatitude.

From this perspective, politics is important because of its effect upon the neighbor’s life but politics is also radically desacralized; it is not a sphere in which human fulfillment is possible. This Augustinian understanding is the starting point for most of Lewis’ reflections upon the relation of ethics and politics. The basic outlines of his Augustinianism are imaginatively depicted in the "modern fairy tale for grown-ups," That Hideous Strength. (3)

Augustine wrote of the conflict between two cities–civitas terrena and the civitas dei–and Lewis writes of the conflict between St. Anne’s and Belbury. That struggle, in turn, is taken up into Arthurian legend and seen as an instance of the battle between Logres and Britain. Just as for Augustine any actual community must be understood as the intermingling of the two cities, even so England at any moment is simply a "swaying to and fro between Logres and Britain." (4) Ultimate possibilities are always at stake, but the communities in which we live are the incarnation of neither evil nor good. Only at the end of history will these ultimate possibilities for human existence be set forth in all their clarity.

This general truth sets limits even upon the way Christian ideals can be lived out within civil society. In Matthew 5 Jesus tells his followers that they are not to resist evil, and the persisting presence of Christian pacifism rests chiefly upon that command. Yet, although pacifism has been a recurring possibility within Christian tradition, most Christians have been willing to wage war.

While granting that Jesus’ command articulates the Christian norm of love, they have not thought this norm could be straightforwardly applied to our common life. Defending such a view, Lewis makes a distinction that has been made by other Christian thinkers, most notably Luther, between unilateral and multilateral relations. "[I]nsofar as the only relevant factors in the case are an injury to me by my neighbor and a desire on my part to retaliate, then I hold that Christianity commands the absolute mortificationof that desire." (5) If my good alone,for instance, is threatened by the evildoer, I must attempt to be like Christ in not resisting evil.

If, however, as will often be the case, the good of others is also threatened, I may need to defend them. If that necessity is a sign that we do not yet live in the City of God, it is better to accept the necessity than to act as if the communities within which we live were not in fact a swaying to and fro between the City of God and the earthly city. "Only liberal societies tolerate Pacifists. In the liberal society, the number of Pacifists will either be large enough to cripple the state as a belligerent, or not. If not, you have done nothing [by adopting a pacifist stance]. If it is large enough, then you have handed over the state which does tolerate Pacifists to its totalitarian neighbor who does not. Pacifism of this kind is taking the straight road to a world in which there will be no Pacifists."(6)

To ask of sinful human history more than it can give is often the quickest way to achieve less good than is possible. We can make comparative judgments of better or worse, just as Augustine admired the ancient Romans more than those of his own day, but we cannot transform our communities into the City of God. An obvious conclusion follows, and Lewis states it clearly: "The practical problem of Christian politics is not that of drawing up schemes for a Christian society, but that of living as innocently as we can with unbelieving fellow-subjects under unbelieving rulers who will never be perfectly wise and good and who will sometimes be very wicked and very foolish."(7) Lewis does not, therefore, expect much from the political realm.

More important still, he thinks it would be a mistake for us to use its power in our efforts to achieve moral goods that go beyond that justice which government exists to provide. Whether we lack or possess political power, it will be equally true that "those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience." (8) Good ethics and good politics are therefore not the same. The political realm seeks not virtue, only justice. If Lewis is hesitant to recommend the use of political power in service of morally desirable goals, that does not mean that no social transformation or improvement of our communities is possible. It means only that our efforts to promote good ethics should not make use of political power. Thus, the sharp distinction between ethics and politics becomes adistinction between the social and the political.

Lewis not only makes this distinction, he clearly seems to think that the social is in one important sense more fundamental than the political."The law must rise to our standards when we improve and sink to them when we decay." (9) That position governs Lewis’ judgment, for example, about both sexual conduct and sexually explicit literature; although he believes that "masturbation, perversion [i.e. , homosexuality], fornication and adultery" are wrong, he realizes that many of his contemporaries no longer regard such conduct as morally evil. (10) Because, in his view, laws will necessarily reflect the mores of a people, the law cannot be expected to continue to support his own moral judgments on these matters and attempts to make it do so are likely to lead only to confusion and hypocrisy. He suggests that the law might rightly still concern itself with adultery because it is an instance of injustice, when promises on which others have depended in significant ways are broken, but not because adultery is an instance of sexual immorality.The law must concern itself with injustice, not with forms of sexual wrong-doing that, however wrong, are not unjust.

Lewis likewise recommends abandoning censorship of literary works on moral grounds because attempts censor such literature inevitably lead to arguments more dangerous than obscene literature itself. In attempting to distinguish good literature from trash we presume that good literature cannot be evil, that it lacks the power to corrupt, or we may assume that, even if it is corrupting, the claims of art matter more than the claims of morality. Both of these assumptions seem doubtful to Lewis and he prefers abandoning censorship to holding our moral judgments hostage to the taste of literary experts. (11)

Does this mean that we must simply acquiesce in the presence of pornographic literature? Not necessarily, Lewis says, after all "we need not read it." (12) Whether that can be an entirely satisfactory answer we may doubt–perhaps it reflects the views of a man who had no children of his own–but this is the sort of position Lewis regularly adopts. For example, in his essay, "After Priggery–What?" he asks what one ought to do about a hypothetical Cleon who, as a journalist, willingly distorts the truth about others. (13) Lewis doubts any legal remedy exists to stop Cleon from writing as he does; he is probably shrewd enough to stop short of what can be proven to be slander or libel. Nor would Lewis have us seek a legal way to proscribe such writing even if we could for "we do not wish the law to have too much power over the freedom of speech." (14) Cleon must be dealt with by social rather than political means. That the political realm must leave him free to act as he does need not mean that our powers of moral judgment are hamstrung. We need the willingness, and the courage since we are likely to be thought intolerant to show in word and deed our judgment of Cleon. We must associate with him as if we were close friends; we must be willing to be shocked by his actions and to express that shock; and we must see to it that our actions do not help to foster or sustain his way of life.

It is to such forms of social pressure that Lewis appeals, and we ought not underestimate their power, but it may be that Lewis himself underestimates the educative power of law. In his mind the danger that a law which lacks widespread popular support will lead to hypocrisy is always the greatest danger. In this country prohibition is the standard example of such a failed attempt to use law to inculcate morality. But Lewis puts the matter a little too simply when he writes that "the law must rise to our standards when we improve and sink to them when we decay." (15) The movement works in both directions.

If law is shaped by public standards then those standards can also be shaped by the symbolic power of legal sanction. In this country the civil rights legislation of the 1960s is the standard example. That both prohibition and civil rights continue to be subjects for argument indicates the complexity of the problem. Perhaps the greater truth lies with Lewis and his tendency to fear government more than hope in it, but it is hard to believe the law has no effect on the way we learn to think about what should and shouldnot be done. The line between the social and the political, crucial as it is, is sometimes a little more blurred than Lewis depicts it.

Having said this I would not want to dispute the fundamental truth of his insight. Indeed, I would emphasize its importance for Christians. Discussing the educational system of his time, Lewis suggests that even if government takes more control over education "[a] society which is predominantly Christian will propagate Christianity through its schools: one which is not, will not." (16) The trick, therefore, is to capture the hearts and minds of one’s fellow citizens which may take more ingenuity, and be harder in some respects, than political action but its effects may be more lasting. If Lewis overemphasized this truth it was, nevertheless, a truth that he discerned.


1. C. S. Lewis, "On the Transmission of Christianity," in God in the Dock, ed. Walter Hooper (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans,1970). P. 118.

2. C. S. Lewis, "The Weight of Glory," in The Weight of Glory and Other Addresses, revised and expanded edition edited by Walter Hooper (NY: Macmillan, 1980. P. 19.)

3. C. S. Lewis, That Hideous Strength. (NY: Macmillan,1965).

4. Ibid., p. 370.

5. C. S. Lewis, "Why I Am Not a Pacifist," in The Weight of Glory, p. 49

6. Ibid., p. 44.

7. C. S. Lewis, "The Humanitarian Theory of Punishment," in God in the Dock, pp. 292f.

8. Ibid., p. 292.

9. C. S. Lewis, "Sex in Literature," in Present Concerns, ed. Walter Hooper (San Diego, New York, London: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1988), p. 105.

10. Ibid., p. 106.

11. Ibid., pp. 106-108.

12. Ibid., p. 108.

13. C. S. Lewis, "After Priggery–What?" pp.56-60 in Present Concerns.

14. Ibid., p. 59.

15. C. S. Lewis, "Sex in Literature," p. 105.

16. C. S. Lewis, "On the Transmission of Christianity,"p. 106.



John G. West, Jr., Discovery Institute and Seattle Pacific University

If I had to summarize in a single sentence what we can learn from C.S. Lewis about how to apply moral principles to politics it would be this: Good intentions are not good enough.

Knowing that one has the right moral principles is not the same thing as applying those principles in politics. Translating moral principles into public policy requires something more than a mere knowledge of morality. It requires what classical moralists used to call "prudence,"which was something Lewis prized.

Lewis aptly defined prudence as "practical common sense, taking the trouble to think out what you are doing and what is likely to come of it."

Lewis complained that "nowadays most people hardly think of Prudence as one of the ‘virtues,’" and he chided fellow Christians for being especially guilty of this offence. "Because Christ said we could only get into His world by being like children, many Christians have the idea that, provided you are ‘good,’ it does not matter being a fool. But that is a misunderstanding."

Being good-hearted, in other words, is no excuse for being soft-headed. According to Lewis, consequences matter, and one of the problems with idealists in politics is that they often don’t recognize this fact. They crusade for perfect health, universal employment, or everlasting peace, but they don’t bother to pay any attention to the disastrous effects their policies would likely bring about if actually enacted.

Fundamental to Lewis’s conception of prudence was his unflinching realism about human nature. Human beings are both limited and sinful according to Lewis. They are limited in their knowledge about the world around them.They are limited in their ability to do anything about the knowledge they have. And in those cases where they should know what to do (and be able to do it), their judgment is often derailed by their selfishness. As a result, earthly perfection is unobtainable. Political utopians who think otherwise deceive themselves. Their kind of thinking, said Lewis,

assum[es] that the great permanent miseries in human life must be curable if only we can find the right cure; and it then proceeds by elimination and concludes that whatever is left, however unlikely to prove a cure, must nevertheless do so. But I have received no assurance that anything we can do will eradicate suffering. I think the best results are obtained by people who work quietly away at limited objectives, such as the abolition of the slave trade, or prison reform, or factory acts, or tuberculosis, not by those who think they can achieve universal justice, or health, or peace. I think the art of life consists in tackling each immediate evil as well as we can.

Lewis thought that Christians in politics needed to heed the hard lessons of human imperfection just as much as the secularists. This is true of the Christians on both the left and the right. Today Christians of a liberal persuasion are at the forefront of urging universal health care, strengthened environmental protection, and increased spending on poverty programs. The problem is that many of the proposals they embrace have unintended consequences that may defeat the very purposes they are trying to achieve. By failing to pay attention to the potential consequences of their policies, they are opening the door to disaster. We’ve seen this in the past, perhaps most wrenchingly 1920s and 30s, when Christian pacifists helped weaken Europe’s resolve against Hitler.

But Christian liberals aren’t the only ones who need to beware of the pitfall of utopianism in politics. This temptation can be just as attractive to Christian conservatives. Some of them still yearn for the days of teacher-led prayers and Bible reading in the state schools. They presumably think that these practices will help instill reverence for both God and morality in students. But will they? Lewis had his doubts about using the government to promote religion. Writing about efforts to teach Christianity in government-run schools in Britain, Lewis pointed out that if non-Christian teachers were charged with inculcating Christianity in their pupils, unbelief would be the most likely result. "As the teachers are," he observed, "so they will teach. Your ‘reform’ may incommode and overwork them, but it will not radically alter the total effect of their teaching if we were permitted to force a Christian curriculum on the existing schools with the existing teachers we should only be making masters hypocrites and hardening thereby the pupil’s hearts." Lewis’s point here is worth serious reflection. There are limits to what we can achieve through government, regardless of whether we are conservative or liberal.

Paying attention to consequences, of course, has its limits in politics. We are not God. We can’t perfectly predict what will happen when we propose a certain action. So we need to be wary of justifying our policies solely in terms of their results, because this can lead us to use the end result to justify almost any means.

In other words, we must be prudent about our use of prudence. Lewis himself recognized this, as can be seen in his novel That Hideous Strength. There a sinister government agency, known by the acronym NICE, conspires to takeover Great Britain. A small intrepid group of people gather to oppose NICE. But what do they do? Bomb government offices? Start a rebellion? No, they pray-and wait.

"I am not allowed to be too prudent," says Ransom, the de facto director of the group. "I am not allowed to use desperate remedies until desperate diseases are really apparent. Otherwise we become just like our enemies-breaking all the rules whenever we imagine that it might possibly do some vague good to humanity in the remote future."

Lewis never says that there aren’t dire circumstances where ordinary rules have to be broken in pursuit of the higher good. But he does emphasizethat we need to be extremely careful before we break ordinary rules in the name of the end result.

Despite this caveat about the abuse of prudence, however, Lewis’s main point remains: In the real world, consequences matter; and in politics it’s not enough to have good intentions. What should this mean for us today? Well, I think all of us of faith who decide to enter the political arena should force ourselves to answer some hard questions about our public policy positions: Will these policies actually achieve the goals we are proclaiming? At what cost? And what might be some of their unintended consequences?

If we asked these questions more regularly than we do now, our political positions would the be better for it. We also might be a little more humble and a little more charitable, because we would recognize that political judgments are not easy and they are never perfect. As Lewis more than once explained (echoing Aristotle), specific applications of moral principles "do not admit of mathematical certainty." The more specific the application of a moral principle, the greater the possibility of error–especially when fallible humans are involved. Hence, political partisans should be wary of being too dogmatic.