C.S. Lewis and Public Life Book

Chapter 5: How Should People of Faith Be Involved In Politics?




Should Christians or other people of faith form their own political parties, or should they work through the existing party system? Should they form exclusively religious political groups, or should they form political coalitions with people outside their faith traditions? What are the dangers and temptations religious adherents face when they become involved in politics, and how might they be successfully overcome? These are the questions that are the focus of this concluding chapter.

Contributing authors to this chapter are:

  • FRED BARNES, Executive Editor of The Weekly Standard.
  • DON BONKER, former United States Congressman.
  • DALE FOREMAN, former Majority Leader, Washington State House of Representatives.


Fred Barnes, The Weekly Standard

The question we have before us is, "How should Christians become involved in politics?" We are asking not "whether" but "how." C. S. Lewis, in one of his writings, is specific about how: Christians in politics should be like serpents and doves. The reference is to Matthew10:16, where Christ is sending his disciples out into Israel, telling them to be shrewd as serpents and innocent as doves. I think this passage is relevant to politics and journalism as well, especially political journalism. Several years ago a friend pointed this scripture out to me when I asked him where I could find a Biblical guideline to follow as a journalist. Since that time I have tried to follow it, without much success. Few politicians, or journalists for that matter, have succeeded in being both shrewd and innocent. It is easy to be shrewd. It is hard to be innocent. Humility is hard to find in politics and journalism, too. In fact, it is easier to find humility in Washington politics than in Washington journalism these days.

Lewis offers another way, beside being shrewd and innocent, for politicians to act: He suggests they be like a medieval knight. A knight, he says, is a man of blood and iron, a man familiar with the sight of smashed faces and the ragged stumps of lopped off limbs, and he is also a demure, almost a maiden-like guest in hall, a gentle, modest, unobtrusive man. He is not a compromise or a happy mean between ferocity and meekness. He is fierce and meek in the extreme. Few politicians or journalists are this either. Those who are, like Senator Bob Kerry of Nebraska, can be widely seen by the press as flaky. Modeling yourself after the medieval knight may mean you will have a code of honor but it won’t guarantee you popularity or success.

Lewis saw politics as having great potential for corrupting Christians. I can think of many Christians in politics who have come to Washington and their faith has faded, vanished, or decayed. There are few who, during a successful career in Washington, had a deepening of their faith. Abraham Lincoln is a good example. The Lincoln who was President was more spiritual, more attentive, and more ardent a Christian than he was as a lawyer in Springfield, Illinois, as a state legislator, or a congressman. But it tells us something that we have to go so far back to find a good example. House member Bill Armstrong actually came to Christianity as a member of Congress by reading a booklet with the Four Spiritual Laws, but I can’t think of any others. Someone like Don Bonker may know more. There are just as few journalists whose faith deepened after they worked in Washington. My guess is that if C. S. Lewis could see Washington today he would favor term limits.

But there are more Christians in politics than simply those who work in Washington, and more Christians active in politics than just those in elected office. The most active Christians in politics now are obvious: the religious right, the Christian right and its allies, in many cases the Catholic Church, Mormons–this large group generally called the Christian right. They are so active we can wonder what Lewis would think of them. I have no doubt he would be somewhat critical. He would think they had succumbed to, what he called in his essay "Meditation on the Third Commandment," mistaking our merely natural, or perhaps legitimate enthusiasm, for holy zeal. But I think his vision of Christians in politics is too narrow and cramped, and I disagree with it because his idea of Christians in politics is that they simply pester politicians with letters, nothing more.

Lewis goes on to say the political world should be a place where politicians take care not to alienate Christians. This is too passive a way of looking at politics; Christians should be active in politics. The Christian right is important and, on balance, a force for good in American politics because they are active. Many people disagree with my assessment but my reason for thinking this way about the religious right is that they have put issues on the agenda other groups either haven’t addressed or don’t consider important. Abortion is a good example. Few people, and fewer politicians want to deal with this issue. They would rather not deal with it and yet it is the great moral issue of our time. Divorce and family decay are other issues the Christian right has brought to public attention, even if they are not responsible for making these issues to begin with and, obviously, the role of religion in American politics has become more pronounced.

Christians active in politics are also more interested in the issue of character in leadership than most. I am generalizing and simplifying. You can argue that they tend to wink at the character flaws of politicians they don’t like while ignoring the flaws of those they do. This is a fair criticism but they have enhanced the focus on character in political leadership and this is important.

For all this activity I think Lewis would warn the Christian right about at least two things. The first warning would be against politics consuming the Christianity of the Christians in politics and the second would be against Christianity consuming what should only be political. Christians can be too shrewd, too much the insider, too interested in victory without looking at substance and content that is involved. I think you can find some of this in Pat Robertson’s presidential campaign in 1988, a campaign that seemed increasingly aimed at simply getting him elected instead of championing the values that put him in the running to begin with. I think you can see this problem in the Christian Coalition and I have warned Ralph Reed about it. I worry when he says: "Well, we’re not worried much now about abortion and really abolishing it. We’ll work around the edges about parental consent. We’ve really got to work on those tax cuts." Tax cuts shouldn’t be that high on the agenda for the Christian Coalition. They are high on my agenda, but it shouldn’t be higher on the agenda for the Coalition.

Then there is what I call interest group Christianity, an attempt to have affirmative action for Christians. Some Christians think, "Well, let’s see. We were 20% of the vote George Bush got so we’ve got to get 20% of the jobs in his administration." This reduces Christians in politics to a pressure group, not an interest group, and that is pathetic. Christians then are not only in politics but of politics.

Another temptation is to be excessively innocent, to think that Christianity has an answer for everything, leaving nothing to the political, civic, or private realm outside religious beliefs. As you know, there is a Christian position on the Balanced Budget amendment and tort reform, and on no-fault insurance. This is a mistaken position, too. And with this there is always the temptation for Christians to treat people who disagree with them on these issues as the enemy.

While I think Lewis’ idea of Christian political activity is too narrow and passive I think these warnings are ones he would give us, warnings we should heed. His suggestions for how Christians should act in politics–being shrewd as a serpent, being innocent as a dove, modeling oneself after the medieval knight, avoiding the temptation to sublimate Christianity for a political victory, and avoiding the temptation to naively assume Christianity must be used to resolve every political issue–will give us clear, good guidelines for how Christians should be involved in politics.


Don Bonker, former member, United States Congress.

I think we know C. S. Lewis was not a political activist, perhaps not even an ardent voter. He would, however, probably agree that friends who want to stay on good terms avoid two topics: politics and religion. If you want to invite a lively debate mix these topics. Now why is this so? I have thought about this often over the years because I did combine politics and religion. Combining politics and religion invites debate and controversy because, when we speak of religion, we are talking about absolutes and, when we speak of politics, we are talking about the art of compromise. So how can you compromise absolutes? It is very difficult, which is why the Founding Fathers wisely put some distance between the church and state.

But religion shapes our view of the world and our notion of right and wrong and politics is a process by which we translate this notion into publicpolicy. This is difficult in a pluralistic society and yet religion and politics are finally inseparable. The challenge, then, is how our faith should guide our politics. Ideally a public servant will have a faith which guides him or her so that the values rooted in that faith can be applied to public policy. If it is true that "As a man thinketh, so is he, "then thinking the thoughts of God and following in his ways is a good place to begin.

But Isaiah reminds us we will have trouble doing this because "God’s ways are not your ways; neither are his thoughts your thoughts." In fact, close examination reveals God’s ways to be generally opposite of man’s ways. So, if you want to be exalted you must humble yourself, to become rich you must become poor, and to be a great leader you must be a servant. There is the core of the Jeffersonian idea of a good public servant and there is a striking similarity between the servanthood of Christ and the Jeffersonian concept of public service. Humility is the basis of both.

Serving others is a noble calling, but as Christ reminded us 2000 years ago, the kings and great rulers of earth will lord it over the people. It is also hard for a politician who is trying to please the public to follow God’s path when it is contrary to the public norm. So when you turn on the T.V. to your favorite channel and you get that view of Congress you don’t see humility. Instead, you see raw power in the Congress, the likes of which I have not seen in all the years that I served there.

And in the midst of all this I am often asked how I can be both a Democrat and a Christian. I think we can see there is a difference between faith and politics and that with the power and arrogance in Congress you cannot measure a person’s faith by his or her party membership. And can you measure a person’s faith by the positions that person takes on an issue? The real measure of how a person’s faith manifests in politics is neither through party membership nor the position he or she has on issue but in whether that person knows who he or she is.

Shakespeare had it right when he said, "This above all, to thine own self be true and it must follow that as the day, the night, those who cannot then are false to any man." and when I was Clark County auditor–when I had real power, before I was elected to Congress–everybody who aspired to political office would come to seek my support because I was a kind of political chief of the county. I would inquire of them their motives. "Why are you getting into public office?" I would ask: "Why do you want to run? Why do you want to serve others?" It was amazing how many shallow responses I was given. It is really amazing that people who want to get in politics today follow a process: go to Stanford, get your degree,do the requisite political chores, and run for office at an early age.

And when do these people ask themselves who they are? When you look closely enough, you can see President Clinton struggling with the question of who he is. Now if he can’t define himself, how can he define a nation? How can he define the party he represents if he can’t define himself? Ronald Reagan never had that problem. He knew who he was.

Paul Tsongas was my candidate for president. We have been friends for twenty years. He has always more or less known who he was and what he was about. It was not until he came face to face with cancer, however, that I saw a deeper, richer man. Now he really knows who he is and when he speaks before groups he exudes that.

Yet as I said earlier, people who want to get into politics go through the process, through Stanford, the degree, the chores, and the running, and this whole approach is contrary to what we should be seeing in those people. We need a better model. Let us look at God’s model. We have one in the Bible and in it we find two recurring themes. The first is that when God chose a leader, especially in the Old Testament, he chose the most unlikely person. Like Joseph and Moses, they all said: "Why me? No, I stutter, I can’t speak well. I’ve been in prison." What is going on here? It wasn’t someone aspiring to get his name on the ballot but God chose him. The second theme we find is that of the incredible suffering people endured before they finally became a leader. An example from our time, perhaps the most amazing political figure of our time is Nelson Mandela, a man who possesses unbelievable charisma. How did he prepare to become President of this difficult country at a historic time? He spent 27 years in prison. God was working in him, as he has worked in others during periods of trial, defeat and setbacks. This is God’s way.

Our way is different. Go to college, work for that senator, put your name on the ballot , and go to it. Fred Barnes put his finger on it–God is more interested in the character than he is in the office. If Bill Clinton has shown us one thing it is that if you don’t have strength of character within you when you take the oath of office you are not going to get it once you arrive.

Those who have this strength of character can recognize we live with diversity and we cannot get rid of it. They can look at Congress they know they are looking at a microcosm of America and the geographic, political and ideological diversity it contains. This diversity is both a strength of, as well as a threat to, our political system. It is hard to find political consensus. You may find a vote of roughly four-hundred and twenty once in a while but most of the time the vote is very close. Of diversity in the body of Christ Paul has written eloquently. He speaks of hands and arms each having different functions and that in this diversity you still have unity. Why is it no possible for us to have that in our political system? It takes some tolerance of other viewpoints.

During all the years I was in the House I was in a prayer group with three other congressmen. Among the four of us could be found the rich diversity I have already described. There was one who was on the far right, Paul Trible, one on the far left, two from the north and two from the south. We embodied all of that diversity and we met faithfully every week that Congress was in session. We didn’t sit down and argue about the issues. Paul Trible used to boast that, every time we went on the floor to vote, he would cross out my vote because I would vote one way and he the other, but there was a bond that came from getting together in our faith, and our commitment to one another, that was irrespective of the issues we voted on. The bond got deeper and stronger and it was amazing how we impressed everyone else in the House because they saw something that was stronger than our differences. Of course we find that unity in a soveriegn God but it is not only the unity of our faith, it was in love for one another. It was manifest beautifully over the years and continues even though we have been out of Congress for years.

The strength of it was in diversity. You could probably get four conservatives who get together like that but that is not unusual. When liberal, conservative, Democrat, and Republican meet then it says something about God’s love. It is the same way if a managment leader and a labor leader have a similar bond; it means their faith in God and their love for one another is stronger than the differences between them, differences that would otherwise divide us as a nation.

Does this mean that Christians should form their own party? No. Should they then work within existing parties? Yes. Let diversity be felt and let your example lead the way. I think that is how we can have both politics and religion and through both make a better society.


Dale Foreman, former Majority Leader,Washington State House of Representatives

We are living in an age of reform brought about in part by an unusual mobilization of Christian men and women, a mobilization which is unusual but not unique, for history is full of examples of Christians at work in politics. The abolition of slavery in England and then America, the reformation of child labor laws, and the temperance movement were all causes Christians supported. Today the issues are different–gay rights, prayer in school, charter schools, and others–but, after a generation of ambivalence, millions of Christians are writing letters to Congressmen, doorbelling, giving money, and putting up yard signs. Dozens of outspoken evangelical candidates won election to our state legislature in November.

In Europe Christians have been directly involved in politics for a long time, and many countries have "Christian Democratic" parties. I have often wondered why we do not see a "Christian" political party in this country. And should we? Should there even be a coalition to promote conservative economic and social agendas?

Lewis seems to object to such a partisan program even as he also wishes men were good enough to succeed in making one. He even suggests that not all Christians become involved in politics. In the chapter "Social Morality" in Mere Christainity he writes:

And when they said the Church ought to give us the lead, they ought to mean that some Christians–those who have the right talents,–should be economists and statesmen . . . and that their whole efforts in politics and economics should be directed to putting . . .(the Golden Rule) into action. . . . The application of Christian principles to say trade unionism or education must come from Christian trade unionists and Christian schoolmasters; just as Christian literature comes from Christian novelists and dramatists and not from the bench of Bishops getting together and trying to write plays and novels in their spare time.

We find that when the clergy get directly involved in politics, from Father Robert Drinan to Pat Robertson, Christians on both ends of the political spectrum are driven away from the church. Yet even Lewis admits that his vision of a unified Christian laity working out the specifics of education reform, charter schools, special education funding, and other issues based on the Golden Rule is simple too fantastic to work, too naive. He writes:

If there were such a society in existence and you and I visited it, I think we would come away with a curious impression. We should feel that its economic life was very socialistic, and in that sense "advanced", but that its family life and code of manners were rather old fashioned–perhaps even ceremonious or aristocratic . . . Each of us would like some bits of it, but I am afraid very few of us would like the whole thing. . . .That is why we do not get much further; and that is why people who are fighting for quite opposite things both say they are fighting for Christianity.

Not only does Lewis suggest that not all Christians be directly involved in politics; not only does he suggest that were a Christian society possible we, even as Christians, would not really like it, he also suggests thata Christian society is itself impossible because Christianity does not offer us solutions easily amenable to party affiliations. There will be something Christianity advocates that some political party or group will find unappealing.

And so the Presbyterians who are pro-life pursue their vision of true Christianity–life is sacred and must be preserved at all costs–and Paul Hill, a former Presbyterian minister, murders the murderous abortionist and has a clear conscience. At the same time the United Presbyterian Church takes a pro-choice stand. All come from the same tradition, the same theological seminaries and use the same sacred texts, yet they reach radically opposite conclusions.

It is clear that a Christian political party, group or coalition will create confusion, strife and disillusionment among those sincere Christians who take divergent paths. Lewis himself, nearly a saint to many evangelicals who revere him who haven’t even read his books, spoke favorably of a socialist economy which would be anathema to most Christian political activists today.

But even if this reality fail to persuade us that America does not need a Christian political party, the example of Christians who were seduced by ambition and pride should persuade us. The Italian monk Savonarola became mayor of Florence in 1492 because of his eloquence and commanding personality. He had been something like a prophet, preaching against the Medici family and burning books at the Piazza della Signoria , and when Charles VIII expelled the Medicis from Florence, Savonarola took the reins of government. For four years he ran the city as a theocracy using spies to carry out his moral cleansing. He sent groups of young boys to break into houses and collect things unfit for pious people. On the last day of the carnival in 1497 all these things were destroyed in a bonfire to the pleasure of the people. Yet four years after taking office Savonarola himself was burned at the stake where he had burned the work of Boccaccio and Petrarch, paintings of nude or semi-clothed women, instruments, playing cards, and other things unfit for pious people.

And other Christians like Oliver Cromwell show us that Christians can view power as an end in itself, forgetting the scriptural warnings against pride and ambition. The dangers of blending politics and religion are fascinating. The relationship between politics and religion is as relevant today in this era of Muslim fundamentalists, the Jewish Defense League and the Christian Coalition as it ever was. Each of these groups wants to make sure politics does not exclude them, more still, that they can be successful in politics

Now we all want to be inside the circle of favor; no one wants to be ignored or considered an outsider. Lewis addresses the problem of being an outsider in his essay "The Inner Ring." Politicians first want to be elected, to be part of a majority, to be leader of the majority, and finally to have complete control. This is the drive to be part of "the inner ring" and as Lewis correctly concludes:

Of all passions the passion for the Inner Ring is most skillful in making a man who is not yet very bad do very bad things. . . . Until you conquer the fear of being an outsider, an outsider you will remain.

Lewis is not simply reminding us that "the grass is always greener on the other side." He is saying that if you are always striving for one more honor and one more achievement you are doomed to frustration. "The quest for the Inner Ring will break your hearts unless you break it. "The surprising result of breaking the cycle can be true satisfaction with serving, becoming a skilled craftsman in statecraft, and caring more about the soundness of public policy than who receives credit for it. As history has shown us, many Christians became so concerned about political success they dishonored the Gospel in the process.

Christians should be involved in politics and many are, as should be in all parts of public life; but Christians will have more influence if they don’t wave their "Christian" banner in the public’s face all the time. We must remind ourselves that humility and tolerance are virtues. We need to be the salt and light of the earth without recreating the Spanish Inquisition. We should also realize that our lives will be more persuasive than our arguments. Christians are not arguing for political goals at all in the end, but for Christ, and here I will close with one of my favorite devotional thoughts:

Here lies the power of truth. The unstudied, unconscious influence of a holy life is the most convincing sermon that can be given in favor of Christianity. Argument, even when unanswerable, may provoke only opposition, but a godly example has a power that is impossible wholly to ignore.