C.S. Lewis on Christianity and politics

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In a recent article in The New York Times about the political views of C.S. Lewis, Peter Wehner writes,

For those of us who believe in the truth of Christianity and still believe in the good of politics, the last several decades — and the last 15 months in particular — have often been painful. Like water that refracts light and changes the shape of things, politics can distort and invert Christianity, turning a faith that at its core is about grace, reconciliation and redemption into one that is characterized by bitterness, recriminations and lack of charity. There is a good deal of hating and dehumanization going on in the name of Christ.

Followers of Jesus aren’t doing a very good job of living faithfully in a broken world, perhaps because we’re looking inward instead of upward. “Aim at heaven and you will get earth ‘thrown in,’ ” Lewis reminded us. “Aim at earth and you will get neither.”

We need to each, for the benefit of our relationships with others, and especially in this election year fervor, figure out how to disentangle our faith from politics. To help us do that, I’m calling on the trusted words of C.S. Lewis, which, because they were spoken from another country way before Christianity in America got entangled with politics, makes their relevance to us today even more important.

For example, during a period when the criminalization of homosexuality was considered by many to be justified, Lewis asked, “What business is it of the State’s?” Nor did he believe it was the duty of government to promote the Christian ideal of marriage. “A great many people seem to think that if you are a Christian yourself you should try to make divorce difficult for everyone,” he wrote in Mere Christianity. “I do not think that. At least I know I should be very angry if the Mohammedans tried to prevent the rest of us from drinking wine. My own view is that the Churches should frankly recognize that the majority of the British people are not Christians and, therefore, cannot be expected to live Christian lives.” We could have saved ourselves a lot of trouble had we heard those words 30 years ago.

According to the New Testament, government exists primarily to keep order in society — to punish evil and reward good. It’s not going make anybody a better person, and certainly, is it not going help anyone be a Christian. And even if it could get people to behave like Christians, without a relationship with Jesus Christ, they, and we, would be worse off thinking that their compliance with Christian behavior made them Christians.

One of Lewis’s most famous quotes helps us balance our faith and our politics: “I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen: not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.” Our Christianity doesn’t give us a Christian politic, it gives us a Christian perspective on politics, and because of a certain ambiguity in the views of both, this is not, nor ever will be, a dogmatic, closed position.

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13 Responses to C.S. Lewis on Christianity and politics

  1. Mark Seguin says:

    Another very good Catch!

  2. drewdsnider says:

    Could not agree more … government’s business is not about legislating morality: if it were, then that would take away the freedom of choice God gives us. I’ve said before, that if we as Christians are doing our job — living and shining the Light that helps us all see — then it really won’t matter what laws governments enact: people will choose good over evil.

  3. Lisa in Sunland says:

    This quote seems a bit at odds with the clear message of this Catch: “According to the New Testament, government exists primarily to keep order in society – to punish evil and reward good.” Many would argue that the Christian worldview is the “good” (after all, its what the Bible advises!) so that government should then logically keep society in Christian order. What say you for clarification, Sir?

    And separately, nothing comes to mind when I try to think of when the government has ever given a “reward”? Except maybe welfare, which isn’t a reward for “good,” but is still a reward…. Blessings on ya!

    • jwfisch says:

      Here’s where I got that from: “Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every human authority: whether to the emperor, as the supreme authority, or to governors, who are sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to commend those who do right. (1 Peter 2:13-14) “Reward” was probably the wrong word. “Commend” is used here. Yet I’m not sure what it is either. It probably means the rule of law that commends certain rights for people. It also might have to do with protection that the law provides.

      • Lisa in Sunland says:

        I wasn’t seeking the Biblical quote so much as wondering how you’d link it with the rest of the Catch. If the government (governors) are to commend those who do right, and punish those who do wrong, then it supports the view of many Christians that the governmental “right” and “wrong” should be “right” and “wrong” as defined in the Bible. And since we get to choose our governors rather than have an emperor, that adds a complication to those who would be intense, vocal and strident about their politics. I guess it comes down to: I wish my governors and laws to define – and therefore reward and punish – right and wrong as I interpret them from the Bible. But I’m certainly not willing to behave in a non-Christian way to get my ideas across or candidates in place!

      • jwfisch says:

        The right and wrong spoken of here is not the right and wrong of the Bible. It’s how that particular governmental body defines it. This is the stuff of the Supreme Court or the Rule of Law in other countries. It does, however, spring from the law written on the heart of every human being.

      • Bob Waters says:

        But I Peter 2:13-14 doesn’t say that government exists ONLY for that purpose. And yes, I know- you didn’t say that it did. But since I have actually encountered people who have tried to make that argument on the basis of this and other passages, I thought that it ought to be pointed out.

  4. johnhaak says:

    Lisa,

    I think the scripture of I Peter 2 gives the general truth that all governments enforce their laws. Roman laws of that day were not Christian so Peter’s advice was a respect for the government, whatever standard they set. As you state we have democracy and not doictatorship so we can vote for government that agrees with our view “Right and Wrong”. But ultimately we must respect and submit to whatever government we get. [Abide by its’ laws even as we speak up against it.]

    So I think the connection here is that Respect for government is essential; what kind of government is always going to be human and non-Jesus-like and many ways. Respect it anyway.

  5. johnhaak says:

    Great subject John.

    The caveat, maybe not forseen by Lewis, is that when adult behavior endangers innocent ones/minors it is a concern of Jesus Followers.

    Adults are free to do whatever they choose in rejecting Christ but no one is free to let their choices ruin innocent lives. We take kids away from unfit parents; we rescue minors from sex-trafficking. That is why I speak against same-sex marriage: not that I mind the adults having it but the children that will be hurt by living under it. The long-term studies trend toward showing that damage is being done so I error on protecting children. [As i do against alcoholic parents, verbally abusive parents, serial-divorce parents, etc.]

    Undoubtedly this raises lots of discussion points (which I am glad you never shy away from) but I would return to the bigger issue: speaking up for victims is true Jesus-kind-of-politics.

    Vote for Jesus!

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