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C.S. Lewis and Public Life Book

Chapter 3: How Should People of Faith View the State?

Should the government be viewed as the primary agent for solving social problems? Should it seek to equalize wealth among different groups of citizens? In short, what is the proper role of government? The essays in this chapter seek to answer such questions by examining Lewis’s defense of limited government and his critique of the welfare state.

Contributing authors to this chapter are:

  • GEORGE GILDER, Senior Fellow of Discovery Institute and author of Wealth and Poverty, Men and Marriage, Life after Television and other books.
  • TOM BETHELL, correspondent for The American Spectator.

George Gilder, Discovery Institute

C. S. Lewis is not normally regarded as or known to be a political writer, yet he, more than any other writer, has shaped the beginnings of my career in politics. He accuated my move to the right. I remember my delight as a child in discovering I shared a birthday with Lewis. I thought this was a wonderful portent for my career as a writer and, although I got distracted over the years by books about sex, money and other subjects he addressed, I have always planned to write books in the spirit of Lewis.

I think that one of Lewis’s greatest insights is the real presence of the Devil. Lewis points out that Satan is a powerful presence in the world, and any culture that doesn’t aspire toward God, that doesn’t seek to exalt the good, or want the true, good and beautiful, is likely to succumb to the blandishments of Screwtape. A similarly important insight Lewis offers us is this: Reason can make you see the good or understand the good, but it cannot make you want the good. Only worship and faith can make you want the good. I think both insights are important as we see the general collapse of both secular culture and secular ethics. With these insights, Lewis gives us the profoundest glimpse into the afflictions of our culture, and in his work, he presents a powerful alternative to our moral collapse. Indeed, he gives us literature which is the greatest body of literature of this era.

Lewis’s views on government and economics, however, are problematic. He sees economics as the dismal science. One can readily understand why given the period in which he lived. Lewis wrote shortly after the close of the Second World War, with all the horrors it evinced; and after the Great Depression, with the poverty and suffering it entailed. As a consequence, he believed that there was a tragic paradox at the center of economics: Ultimately a successful economy would probably be a welfare-state technocracy. Such an economy would tend to extinguish freedom, which Lewis believed was essential to human happiness and virtue. In his occasional, glancing comments on economics, one senses the tragic predicament of a man who sees that the good society will be a free society, a simple society, a productive society, but not necessarily a fully productive society. Yet in order to feed the billions of people around the world, it might be necessary to create some kind of technocratic welfare state.

This is a contradiction Lewis never fully resolves in his works. I think it is a case where he was in the thrall of his time. Almost all intellectuals of his period were influenced by Marxism, scientism and technocracy. They were deeply impressed by Orwell’s distopia in 1984. They didn’t really understand the full promise of capitalism, that freedom is not only necessary to happiness and virtue, but equally necessary to prosperity. The absence of this understanding, which Hayek, Ayn Rand and only a few other writers of the time had, is the crucial limitation of Lewis’s writings. I think if you look at capitalism closely, at what it really entails, you will find it is a mode of productive giving.

One of the great fallacies held by the left, even by some Christians, is that giving is easy, that it is a matter of redistributing money or transferring resources to other people, and that this form of giving or transfer or wealth is itself charitable. However, if we think of the perplexities we face around Christmas-time, then we will understand that giving is really difficult. It is hard to find things other people really need and want; it is difficult to give help without hurting. It seems to me that capital investment (which Lewis didn’t understand at all and imagined might be contrary to Christian belief) is a mode of giving that actually helps its recipients. In order to make an investment you have to entrust your wealth to others and, for that investment to prosper, the people who manage the investment must be responsive to the needs of others. Indeed, a business has to be responsive to the needs of others in order to succeed and businessmen have to be oriented toward the needs of others.

Sometimes I think Lewis felt that prosperity was a kind of Faustian pact. We get prosperity only by a deal with the devil where we give into greed or power (in the case of the technocracy). I think that successful and prosperous capitalism depends on altruism, on understanding the needs of others and on serving others. Servant leadership is the prime obligation and theme of successful enterprise. It begins by saving. What is saving? It is foregoing your own consumption in order to give your wealth to others to be used by others. Because this transfer of wealth only succeeds if the others who received it also serve others, capitalism results in ever-expanding circles of altruistic orientation toward the needs of other people. Unless capitalism functions within this moral order, it cannot prevail or prosper.

I am accused of advocating a health and wealth gospel, but I don’t have any facile belief that Christians in business will necessarily prevail. I do, however, have a strong belief that a capitalist system which flouts the altruistic Christian propositions at the heart of giving and charity will not succeed. It is the orientation toward the needs of others that makes capitalism succeed. It succeeds to the extent that it really does partake of the Christian ethic. To the extent that capitalists are greedy and predatory, they destroy the very prerequisites of a prosperous system. Capitalist prosperity comes from giving, not from taking. I think this is the crucial message that hovers around the works and writings of Lewis but it is not, perhaps, central to them.

I believe that Lewis’s The Abolition of Man is the single most important political essay of this century. It was fundamental to the abolition of most of my thinking. I would like to close by quoting it because it shows the dangers of technocracy, the technocratic concentration of power in government, or even in large private conglomerations of power, if they flout the crucial moral structures of the Christian life:

If any one age really attains, by eugenics and scientific education, the power to make its descendants what it pleases [think how this warning can be applied to our current technocracy of cloning, in vitro fertilization, and bioengineering], all men who live after it are patients of that power. They are weaker, not stronger… The real picture is that of one dominant age… which resists all previous ages most successfully and dominates all subsequent ages most irresistibly, and thus is the real master of the human species. But even within this master generation (itself an infinitesimal minority of the species) the power will be exercised by a minority smaller still. Man’s conquest of nature, if the dreams of the scientific planners are realized, means the rules of a few hundreds of men over billions upon billions of men. There neither is nor can be any simple increase of power on Man’s side. Each new power won by man is a power over man as well.

That is the distopian vision which Lewis offered. I believe that new technologies have emerged which in fact empower individuals against technocracies and against concentrations of power. The essence of the personal computer revolution is that it empowers individuals to escape the domination of the Hollywood and television culture which affects all of us and affronted Lewis. I think it is the promise of an anti-technocratic technology which is increasingly ascendant in American capitalism today.

Tom Bethell, The American Spectator

Traditionally, the question “How should Christians View the State?” has found an answer in St. Paul’s Epistle to the Romans: “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore, he who resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment.” [Rom 13:1-2] St. Peter said much the same thing: “Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution. . . Live as free men, yet without using your freedom as a pretext for evil; but live as servants of God.” [1 Pet 2: 13, 16] St. Paul further enjoins us to pray for kings and all who exercise authority “that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life, godly and respectful in every way.” [1 Tim 2:2]

The new Catechism of the Catholic Church addresses the question of restrictions upon political authority, which “must be exercised within the limits of the moral order and must guarantee the conditions for the exercise of freedom.” [1923] It must also be committed to “the common good of society.” Citizens are enjoined in conscience “not to follow the directives of civil authorities when they are contrary to the demands of the moral order.” [2256]

These three points should be made about the ancient injunctions to obedience. First, we should take them to heart. In addition to rendering unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and unto God the things that are God’s, Jesus enjoined us to “resist not evil.” We should put individual ahead of collective salvation; helping our neighbor before planning to save the human race. Christian influence should be spread more by example than by the law. We should not become too agitated about political programs one way or the other. C. S. Lewis’s senior devil, Screwtape, advises Wormwood: “once you have made the World an end, and not a means, you almost have your man, and it makes very little difference what kind of worldly end he is pursuing. Provided that meetings, pamphlets, policies, movements, causes, and crusades, matter more to him then prayers and sacraments and charity, he is ours . . . “

Secondly, at a time when Christian communities consisted of but a few thousand people in the whole world, simple prudence dictated that they should be law-abiding. And that is what they were. “They participate in all things as citizens and endure all things as foreigners,” we are told,”They obey the established laws and their way of life surpasses the laws.” [Epist ad Diognatum] They were not at that point campaigning against slavery and infanticide.

Thirdly, an imperfect rule of law, such as obtained in the Roman world, was considered by Christians to be preferable to lawlessness and anarchy. So it is in other parts of the world today. The Christian must be cautious about upsetting predictable and orderly but un-Christian institutions; the result may be a greater evil. Such considerations often recommend acquiescence, and a sense of gratitude when the powers that be are tolerant enough to allow private groups to pursue their own ends in private. But that is not the situation in the U. S. today, I hasten to add. Here we have seen a mounting and increasingly overt aggression against the Christian order, with growing lawlessness evidently tolerated as an acceptable price to pay.

In the fourth century, Roman emperors themselves started to become Christian, and at that point we find something very different. Having “captured the monarch, Christians were often tempted to rely on force rather than persuasion or good example to “encourage” heathens and heretics to convert. In The City of God, Augustine sought to justify the Emperor’s expropriation of Donatist heretics, on the grounds that property could only be owned by divine right (“according to which all things belong to the righteous”), or by human right (“which is the jurisdiction of the kings of the earth”) Either way the heretics were out of luck. They objected on the grounds that they had worked for what they owned. We don’t know the details, but they were probably right to be upset. Expropriation is not excusable on grounds of doctrinal error.

Ever since, alliance with state power has been the great temptation of organized religion, including Christianity, usually to its great detriment. Wherever Islam has held sway, it has succumbed to this temptation. The attempt to compel people to be good (and while we’re at it, to pay for the upkeep of the clergymen and their premises) had a terribly corrupting effect and prompted Reformations and great waves of anti-clericalism. But it has not been a problem in the United States, where of course church and State were wisely separated from the beginning.

What we are plainly seeing in the U. S. now, and in other parts of the western world, is something quite different and perhaps new. A general apostasy against all transcendent religion has begun to take hold within influential segments of the population, and the state has increasingly found ways to take the side of secularism against an embattled Christian remnant. In the U. S., the forces of secularism have taken advantage of the constitutional doctrine of separate realms by expounding the domain of the state as much as possible, and excluding all traces of religion from that domain.

Much of this revolution — no lesser word will do — has taken place since C. S. Lewis’s death. So he may not be our best guide in some respects. But it was under way in his lifetime and he saw it coming. In Mere Christianity, based on earlier radio talks, he seems unwilling to label things too bluntly in case he comes across as a Tory apologist. He turned down a C. B. E (Commander of the British Empire), fearing that his religious writings might appear as “covert anti-Leftist propaganda.” He said in Mere Christianity that fully Christian society would not include “silly luxuries”and “would be what we now call leftist.” If pressed he surely would have added that membership in it would be voluntary.

He deplored the “humanitarian view” of crime, which transmutes immorality into pathology and substitutes treatment for punishment. This outlook, now so widespread, makes objects of us all and deprives us of our rights. Our rulers become our owners: “My dear fellow, no one is blaming you . . . We’re healing you.” The modern state, he said, exists not to protect our rights but to do us good or to make us good. Even at that time, he thought, taxes were choking off liberty. Only economic independence allows for an education that is not controlled by the government.

We see Lewis distressed by the thought that a planned society will subject us all to experts, and worrying that C. P. Snow may be right and that a fully planned “world welfare state” will be necessary if starvation is to be avoided. A well intended world enslavement could be the result. Here at least we can detect a small change for the better since the 1950s. As we saw in Cairo last September, the world planners and scientific experts are still very much with us, flooding the world with condoms and surplus food and actually causing famines in places where the local agriculture is precarious. But today, surely, very few people outside UNESCO, Vice President Al Gore’s office, or the U. N. Populations Bureau really believes in such planning any more. Those who do have lost power, relatively speaking, and are increasingly viewed as the rearguard advocates of their own job security. They can still do a lot of harm, but few think, as C. S. Lewis worried 40years ago, that we just might have to find a place for them if starvation is to be avoided.

After World War II, C. S. Lewis knew that he was living at a time of revolution; one whose roots were shared by Nazis, Communists, many socialists and progressives. All denied the permanence and objective reality of moral law. Rulers had been transformed into “leaders” and seemed infused with a great and destruction moral ambition on behalf of the human race in general (although they were prepared to exempt themselves). C. S. Lewis took note of the desire to implement sweeping programs and to remake human nature itself. In his inaugural lecture at Cambridge in 1955 he said:

“In all previous ages that I can think of the principal aim of rulers except at rare and short intervals was to keep their subjects quiet, to forestall or extinguish widespread excitement, and persuade people to attend quietly to their several occupations. And on the whole their subjects agreed with them. They even prayed (in words that sound curiously old-fashioned) to be able to live “a peaceable life in all godliness and honesty” and “pass their time in rest and quietness.” But now the organization of mass excitement seems to be almost the normal organ of political power. We live in an age of “appeals,” “drives” and”campaigns.”

This is still the world that we live in. Today, however, the anti-Christian character of these drives and campaigns has become overt. Lewis expressed grave reservations about state education, but I think even he would have been startled to learn that, only a generation after his death, state high schools would be openly propagandizing on behalf of homosexuality, with textbooks written for the purpose; that school “clinics” would be dispensing condoms and that England, the U. S. and all other countries of Western Europe had legalized abortion and in some states were providing them free of charge. We ourselves are apt to forget how swiftly this revolution has unfolded. Reading an article in the American Journal of Psychiatry the other day, I was surprised to see a reference, as recently as 1979, to the “unnatural practices” of homosexuals. They would not daresay that now.

The state has not so much been the instigator of these developments as it has been responsive to pressure groups supporting them. An activist like Bill Clinton, some of whose appointments have gone to forthright proponents of immorality (Joycelyn Elders), has been the exception rather than the rule. More generally, the breakdown of traditional morality, the collapse of the taboos against “living in sin,” against childbearing outside marriage, took place first in the general populous without particular encouragement from the state. True, government welfare policies have since greatly reinforced and perpetuated this breakdown, but it seems the weakening of traditional morality came first, and the welfare programs were the response.

I believe the main reason why the state succumbed to pressure to recognize and then to entrench anti-Christian standards is that that pressure was far more intense than anything felt from the side of orthodoxy. This is an important reason why Christians must now become more active. The alternative is to be swept away.

How then must we respond? Note that the constitutional structure is such that the state can never be explicitly recaptured by Christians. That would breach the wall of separation. Atheists can take it but we can’t take it back. What we can do is to insist that the only legitimate roles for government are the maintenance of order, the protection of property, and the defense of the shores; taking money from some and giving it to others merely contributes to the moral delinquency of the recipients and the cynicism of the donors. We must enlarge (restore) the sphere of the private, steer clear of state schools if possible, and perhaps above all, end the subsidization of immorality and illegitimacy in the guise of helping the poor. A number of items in the GOP Contract with America should help — particularly term limits: we must let the sitting Republicans know that they have only a short lease on power anyway, so they might as well try to get something done before they’re gone, too.

In addition to the organized interest of the social workers, one of the great obstacles to reform is likely to be the clergy. After the last election, we soon saw on TV the Roman Catholic Bishop of Youngstown, Ohio, warning that welfare cutbacks would only “hurt the poor.” He seemed quite blind to arguments that current policy encouraged and materially sustains behavior that is sinful by the light of the doctrine that he professes. The majority of the Catholic bishops in the U. S., and no doubt the Episcopal hierarchy as well, surely see things the same way. Whether these people can be persuaded to believe in anything other than socialism remains to be seen. Here, it seems to me, things are far more out of kilter than they ever were in Washington. The Christian decline of recent decades may be as much attributable to an intellectually corrupted leadership that seeks the good opinion of the secular establishment and is afraid of being unpopular as to politicians in Washington.

Well, here I am talking about policies, movements, causes and crusades, rather than prayers, sacraments and charity, just as C. S. Lewis warned and Screwtape hoped. And beginning to sound uncharitable, you’ll notice. So I’m afraid Wormwood may have got a-hold of me after all. We should be aware of the danger, of course. But it also seems to me that we have been passive for long enough and that the time has come for a little counter-revolution.

George Gilder

Senior Fellow and Co-Founder of Discovery Institute
George Gilder  is Chairman of Gilder Publishing LLC, located in Great Barrington, Massachusetts. A co-founder of Discovery Institute, Mr. Gilder is a Senior Fellow of the Center on Wealth, Poverty, and Morality, and also directs Discovery's Technology and Democracy Project. His latest book, Life After Google: The Fall of Big Data and the Rise of the Blockchain Economy (2018), Gilder waves goodbye to today's Internet.  In a rocketing journey into the very near-future, he argues that Silicon Valley, long dominated by a few giants, faces a “great unbundling,” which will disperse computer power and commerce and transform the economy and the Internet.

Tom Bethell

Tom Bethell graduated from Oxford University and is a long-time journalist who has served as Washington editor for Harper’s, a contributing editor to Washington Monthly, and a senior editor at The American Spectator. He has written articles for many magazines, including Fortune, the New York Times Magazine, and The Atlantic Monthly. Praised by Tom Wolfe as “one of our most brilliant essayists,” Bethell is the previous author of The Noblest Triumph: Property through the Ages, Eric Hoffer: The Longshoreman Philosopher, and The Politically Incorrect Guide to Science. He resides in Washington, DC.