The Political and Apolitical C.S. Lewis

by
January 30, 2014

Even fifty years after his death, evangelicals continue to look to C.S. Lewis for wisdom on a host of topics for four simple reasons. First, and most important, Lewis was a thoroughgoing Christian, describing himself as believing in Christianity as he believed in the sun, not only because he saw it, but because by it he saw everything else. Second, Lewis himself was an enormously gifted and creative thinker and communicator. Third, Lewis drew deeply from the most profound and substantive philosophers, poets and theologians in the Western tradition and beyond. Finally, Lewis attended to the most crucial and perennial of ideas and themes common to humanity. If we continue to look to him, it is not because he is infallible, but because he identified and addressed eternal realities and lasting earthly concerns.

It might seem Lewis does not offer much for evangelicals looking for wisdom on politics, an arena fraught with peril and controversy for as long as evangelicals have sought to be salt and light in the culture. Lewis was known to avoid and indeed disdain newspapers. He turned down an honorary recognition from Winston Churchill so as to avoid encouraging those who would dismiss him as politically partisan. He did not keep up with the latest political news, and I suspect he would find our twenty-four-hour news cycle and social media conglomerate a particularly modern abomination. One might imagine the incomparable G.K. Chesterton on Twitter, perhaps trading witticisms with Bernard Shaw. But not Lewis.

Yet much depends on how we define politics. If we accept the typically negative connotation of “politics” as consisting of sausage-making legislative deals, bureaucratic and institutional power structures, and the seemingly constant state of electoral campaigning, then we will not find much political thought from Lewis. He disdained this side of politics, at one point referring to government in a private letter as “at best a necessary evil.”[1] Americans would seem to agree, if Congress’s approval ratings are any indication.

We have good reason, however, to think of politics as more than the merely instrumental hurly-burly maelstrom of self-interest and cynicism we see on the news and blogs. The word “politics” comes to us from the Greeks, whom Lewis knew and read intimately (Lewis remarked that he sometimes found himself thinking in Greek). Politics refers to the business of the polis, the almost-untranslatable Greek word describing their understanding of community, which combined spheres and identities we moderns tend to keep separate: religion, government, family, school, business. The polis, Aristotle tells us, is established and maintained with a view to some good. That is, the political in this sense refers to perennial questions that pertain to human beings as such. What is the good life? How should we live together? What things are so good as to be required, by force if necessary, and what things are so evil as to be prohibited, by force if necessary? Do human beings have a deeper purpose than mere survival or pleasure?

Conceived of in this way, politics is inextricably tied to the most fundamental questions about human nature and purpose. Unlike the graduated income tax, Lewis had a great deal to say about these matters, and we can take from him four lessons that remain salient for contemporary Christian thinking about politics.

The first lesson is that politics is not everything, nor is it nothing. Lewis noted that the people who did the most for this world are those who had their minds most on the next.[2] This world has a built-in purpose; history has a direction to it that leads to God and a coming reality that frames everything we do in this already-but-not-yet phase of life. Lewis grounds his view of second things on the priority of the first thing, and in doing so follows Jesus’ command to seek first God’s kingdom and then all these other things shall follow. Politics is one of these second things, as it is a practice necessary to protect and promote the good earthly gifts God has provided. The dignity that rightly pertains to political matters depends on our recognition of its limits.

Lewis believed those limits to be rather robust for two reasons, and this is our second lesson. Men and women are made in God’s image, and destined to a future existence that dwarfs this earthly sojourn. At the same time, human beings are fallen. These bedrock truths about the human condition limit the scope of government.

Lewis supported democracy, he wrote in his essay “Equality,” because he believed in the Fall.[3] Bringing to mind Lord Acton’s maxim about power and corruption, Lewis wrote that human beings are so fallen that they cannot be trusted with untrammeled power, and democracy, for all its faults, better checks this dynamic than other systems.

We also should see governments as limited given their respective mortality. In his sermon “The Weight of Glory,” Lewis reminds us that human beings have an eternal destiny, whether of unimaginable joy or abject horror and misery.[4] In contrast, the lives of governments, businesses, cultures and even taxes have the lifespan of gnats. Governments are temporary, people are eternal. This is a potent reminder for us, then, that the former should always be seen as subservient to the latter. For these reasons, then, in his essay “Membership,” Lewis described government’s mandate as modest, though still important:

As long as we are thinking of natural values we must say that the sun looks down on nothing half so good as a household laughing together over a meal, or two friends talking over a pint of beer, or a man alone reading a book that interests him; and that all economies, politics, laws, armies, and institutions, save insofar as they prolong and multiply such scenes, are a mere ploughing the sand and sowing the ocean, a meaningless vanity and vexation of the spirit. Collective activities are, of course, necessary, but this is the end to which they are necessary.[5]

If these first two lessons help us situate politics, what does Lewis say about what should guide our political activity? Lewis famously defended both biblical truth and a version of natural law, what he called the Tao. Lewis believed that while God revealed political ends, or goals, in the Bible, He did not usually prescribe the specific means to achieve these ends. God tells us to feed the hungry but leaves it up to us to learn how to cook. We must protect and provide for the widow and orphan, fight oppression, and pursue justice; but the Bible does not provide details on whether a bicameral legislature or proportional representation will be best suited to achieve those ends.[6]

The best Christian political thought and action will be accomplished, then, not by clergy per se but by Christians engaged in the practice of politics as financiers in finance and doctors in medicine. Politics is a craft, a discipline, and so a genuinely Christian politics will be practiced by Christians who apply the Golden Rule to the varying contingencies and messiness of politics.

The fourth consideration from Lewis is both a warning and an encouragement. In an essay titled “Meditation on the Third Commandment,” Lewis considers the dangers of conflating Christian involvement in politics with a formal Christian party or attempting to Christianize an existing party.[7] The problem is that politics is, in part, about means to achieve ends, and Christians can and do disagree in good faith about the best means. The result will either be a party that fundamentally disagrees about means (which cannot function as a party), or a group of Christians purporting to represent all Christians in matters on which the Bible is not clear (which risks violating the third commandment). This is the warning, then, but what did Lewis encourage Christians to do instead?

Lewis did not think retreating from the public square was an option. “The practical problem of Christian politics is not that of drawing up schemes for a Christian society,” Lewis wrote in another essay, “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.”[8]

The alternative to quietism is, in part, for Christians to clearly articulate their non-negotiable convictions, in the hopes that in a pluralistic society parties wishing to garner the support of Christians will take care not to alienate them. Yet Lewis concluded his meditation with more powerful advice, reminding us again how putting God first can impact the second things. In language that evangelicals in particular will harken to, Lewis notes that the best way of being salt and light in the culture is to share the Gospel. After all, “He who converts his neighbor has performed the most practical Christian-political act of all.”

This is not to say that Lewis would have us evangelize merely for the sake of politics. Far from it. Rather, Lewis’s final encouragement to us is that while political schemes and practices have their place, the truly Christian witness in the political world will be found in the sort of people we are: fallen, redeemed, loved, and living for the love of God and loving our neighbors as ourselves. Politics is about our shared conception of the good life, and that includes earthly matters. Our Father in heaven knows we need these things. Yet our witness to the earthly good life only works in the light of our witness to the good life, for those who “aim at heaven get earth thrown in: those who aim at earth get neither.”[9]


[1] Lewis, Letters of C.S. Lewis, ed. W.H. Lewis (Harcourt Brace & World, 1966), 473.

[2] Lewis, Mere Christianity, (Harper Collins, 1980), 134.

[3] Lewis, “Equality,” in Present Concerns, ed. Walter Hooper (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1987), 17.

[4] Lewis, “The Weight of Glory,” in The Weight of Glory and Other Addresses, ed. Walter Hooper. (Macmillan, 1980).

[5] Lewis, “Membership,” in Weight of Glory, 121.

[6] Lewis, Mere Christianity, 82-83.

[7] Lewis, “Meditation on the Third Commandment,” in God in the Dock, ed. Walter Hooper. (Eerdmans, 1970), 196-99.

[8] Lewis, “The Humanitarian Theory of Punishment,” in God in the Dock, 292.

[9] Lewis, Mere Christianity, 134.


Micah Watson
Micah Watson is William Spoelhof Teacher-Scholar Chair in Political Science at Calvin College. He is a native of California where he completed his undergraduate degree at U.C. Davis. He completed his M.A. degree in Church-State Studies at Baylor University in Waco, Texas. He holds an M.A. and doctorate degree in Politics from Princeton University.