C.S. Lewis and Public Life How Should People of Faith Talk about PoliticalDISCOVERY INSTITUTE
Christians and other people of faith often disagree about how to articulate their moral concerns in the public arena. As religious people are often attacked for how they articulate their views in public, determining the appropriate language to use when dealing with political issues is one of the most pressing tasks for civic-minded people of faith today. C.S. Lewis has much to say on the topic of framing moral issues, and the essays in this chapter focus on this aspect of his writings.
Contributing authors to this chapter are:
G. West, Jr., Senior Fellow of Discovery Institute and Assistant
Professor of Political Science at Seattle Pacific University.
Many people today seem to think that you shouldn't talk about morality in politics. After all, they ask, isn't morality purely subjective? How can we seek to legislate it? Even many people who think morality has a place in politics aren't persuaded that religious people should talk about morality in public affairs because their moral views, it is claimed, are based solely on their religious convictions.
Who is right? Is morality purely subjective? Is the morality of religious believers based solely on their religious convictions and hence illegitimate in public discourse? These are some basic questions that need to be answered before people of faith can enter the public arena, and C. S. Lewis has some key insights that will help us answer them.
Nearly a half-a century ago, Lewis published a small, penetrating volume titled The Abolition of Man. It attacked the moral relativism he saw creeping into British education. Lewis was eerily prophetic; what he warned about in the 1940s has come to pass with a vengeance not only in Britain, but in America.
The triumph of moral relativism has been particularly evident in our colleges and universities. Where as universities of 150 years ago all had professors of ethics who extolled the universality of the moral law, the colleges of today are populated by social scientists who berate us for our rampaging "ethnocentrism," our unmitigated arrogance in believing that our "values" might somehow be "right."
Exposed to this message for four years, even the most sturdy are apt to become infected. I remember having breakfast with a friend who was about to obtain a degree in psychology. Our discussion was wide ranging, but when the subject of morality came up she became curiously bewildered. Taught for four years that values are solely a function of culture and personal preference, she maintained that there were no objective grounds to justify moral judgments against other cultures.
"What about the Nazis?" I asked. "Surely we have an objective basis to condemn what they did?"
She thought a moment, looked more bewildered than ever, and then answered to the effect that she was personally revolted by what the Nazis did but she could still find no objective basis for her revulsion.
One hardly need look to higher education, however, to observe that relativism has run riot. It is everywhere, from the grade schools to the government. Indeed, politicians have found the perfectly equivocal way to express their relativism: "Of course, I personally believe that [insert whatever vice one wishes] is wrong. But I simply have no right to impose my beliefs on anyone else."
Even the nation's churches have fallen before the relativist's onslaught. One need look no further than the recent divisive battles over sexual morality within mainline Protestant denominations.
True, there are many traditional Christians who maintain a belief in an unchanging moral code particularly among evangelicals and conservative Catholics. Unfortunately, their defense of morality is often highly problematic from a political standpoint. This is because many of them regard the Bible or church tradition as the only legitimate sources of morality. In short, they tie all morality directly back to their faith.
The problem with doing this is that it implies that those who don't believe in Christianity cannot really be good citizens. After all, only believers can have access to the true morality; so only they can be trusted to make laws. What has been called the theological-political problem resurfaces with a vengeance, for in this situation there exists no common ground on which believers and non-believers can meet for debate and joint action in the political arena. If this is the situation as it really exists, Christians face two stark alternatives: They can try to institute a modified theocracy where Christians will rule according to revelation; or they can withdraw from politics altogether because they dislike the compulsion implicit in theocracy.
Neither is very palatable. Which brings me back to C. S. Lewis, and why his view of morality is so important today. Like traditional Christians of today, Lewis argued for moral truth. But he did so on grounds broader than the Bible.
In the natural law tradition of Cicero and Aquinas, Lewis argued for the existence of a moral code transcending time and place and accessible to and therefore binding on ALL people, whether they believe in Christianity or not. That moral code, argued Lewis, cannot be escaped; it is the source from which all moral judgments come. Its cardinal virtues justice, honesty, good faith, magnanimity, generosity, mercy are known independently of experience. They are grasped intuitively in the same way that we know 2+2=4. According to Lewis, these basic precepts form a moral common ground that undergirds all civilized societies.
But what about the social scientists' objection that moralities differ across cultures? Surely this proves that there is no universal moral standard that we can apply? But this is faulty logic, argued Lewis. A mere difference in beliefs does not prove that all beliefs are equal. The fact that a man in an insane asylum claims to be Napoleon does not refute his doctor's belief that he is not. Nor would anyone seriously contend that 5 X 5 equals 26 merely because several third graders, not knowing how to multiply, say so.
But of course, I have been writing as if the social scientists' claim that different cultures have radically different moral codes is factually correct; as Lewis relished demonstrating, however, it is not. In fact, there is tremendous agreement on moral fundamentals across cultures, as Lewis showed by cataloguing similar ethical injunctions from some of the world's major civilizations.
The few cultures that may radically disagree with this moral consensus can be accounted for in the same way that we account for criminals and lunatics in the real world: We do not say, for example, that the prohibition against murder is merely a subjective preference because Charles Manson may disagree; instead, we say that Charles Manson is either very wicked or very sick.
Lewis was aware that some Christians object to natural law because they think it detracts from the dignity of revealed religion. But he could not accept their view. Far from contradicting Christianity, he argued, natural law is actually presupposed by it. Observing that a convert to Christianity "accept[s] the forgiveness of sins," Lewis pointed out that a person first must understand the difference between right and wrong before he can see his need for God's forgiveness. Lewis added that if Christianity really "brought a new ethical code into the world we should have to conclude that all who first preached it wholly misunderstood their own message: for all of them [including Christ] came demanding repentance and offering forgiveness, a demand and an offer both meaningless except on the assumption of a moral law already known and already broken."
The practical consequences of Lewis's understanding of morality are considerable. The present controversy over religion in politics largely hinges on the assumption that the traditional morality espoused by religious adherents cannot be justified apart from divine revelation, and hence it is illegitimate as a guide to secular policy. But according to Lewis, this is a red herring. Traditional morality of the type we find in the Bible is also reasonable morality, the morality of common sense. Thus, as Christians, we should not be afraid to apply our moral principles to politics. But we need to be willing to articulate these principles in a way that is convincing to those who may not share our faith. If we want to be politically effective as well as theologically sound we must recognize that public policy needs to be based squarely on public principles.
This book and the issues it seeks to explore are part of a much wider ecumenical rapprochement between evangelicals and Catholics. Finding common ground on numerous issues associated with the "orthodox" side of the cultural fault-line, Catholics, as well as orthodox Jews and Mormons are developing shared political agendas in spite of long standing theological differences. It is sometimes suggested that the seriousness of the cultural crisis means that theological quibbling must be set aside for the more tangible goals of political solidarity; we are reminded we are on a "war-time footing."
Sociologically, this trend demonstrates more than the shared co belligerency of conservative cultural warriors, it also reflects a growing confusion among evangelicals as to their own theological identity as distinct from their political identity. In many evangelical quarters the rampant politicization of faith has made these identities indistinguishable. Thus it is not surprising that C. S. Lewis would be called upon to bring together those whose communal identities span the gap between Billy Graham and Pope John Paul. It is a task perfectly suited to the Anglican Oxford don with personal roots in Belfast. Lewis is an intellectual folk hero who uniquely bridges both communities.
And in reading Lewis one is repeatedly struck by the foresight with which he anticipated the patterns of our modern ethical crisis. He astutely describes our modern ethos where ethics is reduced to opinion and moral absolutes are replaced by games of academic power. Nearly fifty years ago he wrote, "The Nietzschean ethic can be accepted only if we are ready to scrap traditional morals as a mere error and then to put ourselves in a position where we can find no ground for any value judgments at all." Such is the Faustian bargain that has been made by many in our time whether by Rortyin epistemology or by Madonna in sexual identity.
Lewis' discussions of what he variously called "Tao", traditional morality, or natural law also have specific relevance to our political practice. While there are ongoing discussions as to the epistemic basis for this trans-cultural normative framework such as that of Carl F. H. Henry's in this month's issue of First Things there is wide agreement between Catholics and evangelicals as to Lewis' appeal to the existence of a pre-analytical objective normative framework. Evangelicals have not appealed to the created givenness of reality, both in terms of the good and the beautiful, as much as they should because it is this moral givenness that, while distorted by sin, repeatedly points to a reality and rational beyond itself what Peter Berger calls "signals of transcendence."
Lewis uses this understanding of a universally assumed moral order as a central component of his apologetic approach-reminding. He assumes that people intuitively know the good and that choosing otherwise would exact a natural consequence. "Ethical injunctions," he wrote, "have always been premises, never conclusions." Thus, he argues, the pre-existence of traditional moral norms is assumed in all moral arguments, even by our contemporaries who abandon aspects of traditional morality which do not appeal to them, and that when one speaks of these matters one does not have to speak of morality using strictly Christian language. These traditional moral norms are rooted in the permanence of reality itself.
But how applicable is Lewis' insight to our modern American political practice? I will argue that it has little applicability unless we can meet several difficult criteria.
First, the use of Lewis' approach requires a level of intellectual and cultural capital that is largely lacking in the evangelical church, the Religious Right, and most Washington politicians. It is inimical to sound-bite politics and spin-doctor media manipulation. It requires the making and sustaining of publicly accessible arguments. Even if the instruments of modern politics were supportive of such an endeavor, too often those attracted to the political limelight and to the management of political campaigns are incapable of reading Lewis, let alone of applying his theoretical approach or rhetorical style. To make use of Lewis means shifting our political priority from legislative coercion to public persuasion. The absence of such a culture of persuasion in the political arena is evident in the reaction George Weigel and William Kristol received to their National Review statement, "A Pro-Life Strategy for Republicans."
Second, the use of Lewis' approach must be preceded by an internal critique of our own moral community. His approach cannot be applied as "politically useful" if it is not first consistent with our moral practice. I speak here as an evangelical specifically to the evangelical community. Lewis warns against two modern tendencies what I will call the Freudian and Nietzschean impulse. The Freudian impulse shows itself in the evangelical community in the form of an epistemological referent which is therapeutic instead of theological. One sees this in conflicts over interpretations of Scripture which are resolved by an appeal to the authority of feelings; in vernacular this is equivalent to saying, "The Bible teaches whatever I get out of it." This view erodes the functional authority of the Bible in modern society and no doubt the same would be true if one were appealing to the objective dictates of Natural Law. Morality has been reduced to a subjective choice, not an objective norm which is true irrespective of one's desire for self-actualization. So we cannot criticize Richard or Andrea Dworkin without first addressing the widespread accommodation of subjectivism, in its therapeutic guise, in our own camp. We must address the Freudian impulse in ourselves.
The Nietzschean impulse is the drive to win at all costs and this drive, too, is too often apparent in the Religious Right. The raw appeal to power politics, to statistical evidence, to majoritarian rhetoric only thinly veil an ethic based on the dictates of power rather than principle. In our present sociocultural context, any application of Lewis' appeal to natural law will garner a sharp critique from both the secular Left as well as the religious Right; the left will dismiss it as residual medieval scholasticism and the Right will dismiss it as secular humanism. Such an approach could antagonize large numbers of voters and be disliked by both foes and allies. And what if Lewis' approach is right but fails to translate into immediate political dividends? Do we have a political culture on the Right that is willing to lose votes on principle or will the pressure of short-term victory inevitably lead the Right to the convoluted rationalizations that would make Nietzsche smile?
Finally, I think we have to take seriously Lewis' own disinterest in politics. This disinterest was more than a case of his idiosyncratic temperament or academic turn of mind, it was because he genuinely thought there were more important things to think about and do for the kingdom's sake. "He who converts his neighbor has performed the most practical Christian political act of all," he reminds us and he would remind us that there is more to public life than political life; there is more to Christian activism than political activism and there is more to our identity in Christ than our policy positions.
Three questions, in light of all this, must be wrestled with as we think about the relationship between faith and politics. How can we make our public witness cultural and not simply political? How can we make our public witness consistent with the patterns of Jesus' love for the sinner and the socially stigmatized? How can we make our public witness maintain the clarity of our primary identity as "resident" aliens" who are part of a coming kingdom?
While Lewis was very specific, even dogmatic (in the best sense) about theology and metaphysics, he was on principle usually very unspecific and open about positions related to ethics and politics with the single exception that he identified, again and again, the substantial agreement, in general, of all ethical systems.
According to Lewis, we can talk intelligently about Christianity, but not about Christian Ethics. Lewis stresses that there was no point in time when Christian Ethics entered the world as a new set of commands. Christianity is a novelty; Christian ethics is not. Lewis does not intend to deny that we find in Christian Ethics "a deepening" and some "changes of emphasis in the moral code." However, "only serious ignorance of Jewish and Pagan culture would lead anyone to the conclusion that it is a radically new thing." (Lewis, "On Ethics")
My example in support of Lewis's position: From the perspective of their beginning points, the ethical views of Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill might seem different from the ethical views of Immanual Kant. To paraphrase Bentham: Nature has placed mankind under the sovereign guidance of two supreme masters: pleasure and pain. It is for them alone to point out what we ought to do as well as determine what we shall do. For Bentham, benefit, advantage, pleasure, good and happiness all amount to the same thing. Kant, in contrast, differentiates most clearly between the good and the pleasurable. Kant: Everything in nature works according to laws. Rational beings alone have the faculty of acting according to the conception of laws, that is according to principles. They have free will. Still, probably eighty percent of the time Bentham and Kant would be in agreement about the content of specific ethical actions. They are both, more or less, building on what Lewis calls in The Abolition of Man the Tao (the Way, the Natural Law) . Moreover, those who urge us to choose any moral code are already moralists. And this moral code, in Lewis's case, was taught, explicitly and implicitly, by his nurse, his parents, his religion, and sages and poets from every culture of which has any knowledge. Ultimately, Lewis defends the doctrine of objective value, the Natural Law, "the belief that certain attitudes are really true, and others really false, to the kind of thing the universe is and the kind of things we are."
Two of the general insights from this exceedingly vast store of knowledge and insight are the following: 1) Human persons are free and significant; 2) Prudence, Justice, Fortitude and Temperance, the "Cardinal Virtues," are invaluable and they should be incorporated in our lives and behavior. Importantly, Faith, Hope, and Charity, are not a part of this general storehouse of knowledge and insight. And by infusing these (when appropriate) into society, the Christian can make a unique contribution to civilization on this side of heaven..
So where should we turn to get help related to language and formation of a mind-set to solve political problems? Most certainly to Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, Aquinas, and Locke. Lewis's view is that it's all right to study new books but we should beware of them. According to Lewis, "A new book is still on its trial and the amateur is not in a position to judge it." [Lewis, "On the Reading of Old Books"] We all need books that will correct the characteristic mistakes and mistaken perspectives of our own period. And that means old books. At a minimum, read one old book for every three new ones you read.
Personally, I'd recommend going beyond Lewis's specific recommendations to even larger ones. I think the proper language and mind-set for the Christian interested in politics (or anything else, for that matter) includes art, music, and literature, as well. I'm pleased to defend what are often called "the liberal arts." Let's immerse ourselves in Rembrandt and Renoir, Michelangelo, Bellini, and Rodin, Bach, Beethoven, and Wagner, Homer, Shakespeare, Dickens and Ibsen. And for every three modern compositions, paintings, artifacts, literary works we buy (or immerse ourselves in) let's experience anew one of the above mentioned classics. My hunch is that we would, then, reflect much better the language and mind-set needed to deal effectively with the myriad and complicated ethical problems today.
C.S. Lewis and Public Life Book Chapter 1: How Should People of Faith Talk About Political Issues? Discovery Institute (1998).
This book originated with a Discovery Institute conference held on January14, 1995 at Trinity Episcopal Church in Seattle. Fieldstead and Company made the conference and the book possible.
Discovery Institute is a non-profit, non-partisan, public policy think tank headquartered in Seattle dealing with national and international affairs. The Institute is dedicated to exploring and promoting public policies that advance representative democracy, free enterprise and individual liberty. For more information e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or browse Discovery's website below.
Copyright © 1998 Discovery
Not all articles published on CERC are the objects of official Church teaching, but these are supplied to provide supplementary information.