Notes from underground

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Mere Ideology: The politicisation of C.S. Lewis

I recently read a couple of articles that appear to me to be attempts to co-opt C.S. Lewis for the cause of American Libertarianism.

C. S. Lewis on Mere Liberty and the Evils of Statism, Part 1:

In comparison to contemporary ‘progressive’ Christians such as Jim Wallis, Tony Campolo, Ronald Sider, and Brian McLaren, who clamor for the foolish and disastrous notion of achieving ‘social justice’ through gigantic government powers, was Lewis just ignorant or naive about modern realities, or was he aiming at a deeper and more significant purpose? (See Robert Higgs’s book refuting the ‘progressive’ myth in American history, Crisis and Leviathan, and his book on the disastrous ‘progressive’ state since 1930, Depression, War, and Cold War; see also Arthur A. Ekirch, Jr.’s The Decline of American Liberalism and The Civilian and the Military, and Jonathan Bean’s Race and Liberty in America.) In this article, I only begin to touch on some of Lewis’s many writings pertaining to the subject of liberty and Christian teachings because any truly adequate examination would warrant at least an entire book.

Hat-tip to C S Lewis on economic and social liberty – National Hobbits, Narnia & Spirituality | Examiner.com.

Though the authors of both these articles acknowledge that C.S. Lewis was decidedly non-political, he was also, and I would say even more decidedly non-ideological. Yet both authors seem to want to co-opt Lewis to support an ideology.

What gives me that impression is the use of the word “statism”, which I associate with the decidely anti-Christian ideology of Ayn Rand. I know she didn’t invent the term, but she used it and her followers used it to give it a particular meaning, so it has become an ideologically loaded term.

Not that I like “statism”. It also speaks to me of the totalitarianism of Hitler and Stalin, which elevated the state to the highest value.

I suppose as a political (but not economic or theological) liberal I could make a case for C.S. Lewis being a liberal, and supporting a liberal view of society. When he says things like:

I am a democrat… I am a democrat because I believe that no man or group of men is good enough to be trusted with uncontrolled power over others. And the higher the pretentions of such power, the more dangerous I think it both to the rulers and to the subjects. Hence Theocracy is the worst of all governments. If we must have a tyrant a robber baron is far better than an inquisitor. The baron’s cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity at some point be sated; and since he dimly knows he is doing wrong he may possibly repent. But the inquisitor who mistakes his own cruelty and lust of power and fear for the voice of Heaven will torment us infinitely because he torments us with the approval of his own conscience and his better impulses appear to him as temptations. And since Theocracy is the worst, the nearer any government approaches Theocracy the worse it will be. A metaphysic, held by the rulers with the force of a religion, is a bad sign. It forbids them like the inquisitor, to admit any grain of truth or good in their opponents, it abrogates the ordinary rules of morality, and it gives a seemingly high, super-personal sanction to all the passions by which, like other men, the rulers will frequently be actuated. In a word, it forbids wholesome doubt (Lewis 1966:81).

It was sentiments like that that led me to sign up as a card-carrying member of the Liberal Party when I was a student, and to reject the ideology of the ruling party — Christian Nationalism — as evil and anti-Christian. When Lewis says “I am a democrat because I believe that no man or group of men is good enough to be trusted with uncontrolled power over others” that decided the case for Liberalism back then, because the Liberal Party was the only legal political party that advocated a policy of “one man, one vote”. Even the Progressive Party (whose descendants, the Democratic Alliance, like to claim to be heirs of South African liberalism) believed that one group of men, the rich and the educated, were good enough make decisions on behalf of others.

And Lewis goes on to say

Being a democrat, I am opposed to all very drastic and sudden changes of society (in whatever direction) because they never in fact take place except by a particular technique. That technique involves the seizure of power by a small, highly disciplined group of people; the terror and secret police follow, it would seem, automatically. I do not think any group good enough to have such power. They are men of like passions with ourselves. The secrecy and discipline of their organisation will have already inflamed in them that passion for the inner ring which I think at least as corrupting as avarice; and their high ideological pretensions will have lent all their passions the dangerous prestige of the Cause. Hence, in whatever direction the change is made, it is for me damned by its modus operandi. The worst of all public dangers is the committee of public safety. The character in ‘That hideous strength’ whom the Professor never mentions is Miss Hardcastle, the chief of the secret police. She is the common factor in all revolutions; and, as she says, you won’t get anyone to do her job well unless they get some kick out of it (Lewis 1966:82).

And in the fascist South Africa of the 1960s the Security Police (Veiligheidspolisie) were literally the “safety police”.

Lewis may have been non-political, but it is clear from the above that he was not just non-ideological, but anti-ideological, and I’m pretty sure he would have rejected ideologies like Randism or American Libertarianism just as strongly as he rejected Hitlerism and Stalinism. Ideologies, of course, have codes of political correctness, and American Libertarians make it very clear indeed what views and attitudes they regard as politically incorrect, and we have been given a list of people whose views must be regarded as politically incorrect: Jim Wallis, Tony Campolo, Ronald Sider, and Brian McLaren.

I know nothing of Tony Campolo, but I’ve read some of the writings of some of the others, and I’ve not noticed a great love of totalitarianism or theocracy in what they write. Missing from the list, however, is Rousas John Rushdoony, who advocated something like the theocracy that Lewis thought the worst of all possible forms of government.

I agree with David Theroux and Mark Sommer to some extent, when they say that not all human problems can be solved by politics. But their silence on the ways in which they think they can be solved leaves me wondering whether they perhaps think that it is better that they not be solved at all. Christian attempts to solve all problems by politics do not work too well, as Will D. Campbell and James Y. Holloway point out in their book Up to our steeples in politics. As they say, what is wrong with us that can be solved by politics is not all that is wrong with us.

But we in the Church persist: we are still hopeful that though all these means we can build a kingdom in which all things will be set right between man and man (and occasionally between man and God), refusing to recognize that these means are an attempt to build a kingdom by our guidelines and blueprints, by our sociology and politics, not by what God’s reconciliation has already done for the world in Christ. In this book we are trying to confess that the goals of the contemporary Church – that is to say, the Church of St John’s by the Gas Station, the Christian College, the denominational and interdenominational seminary – the goals of these Christian communities are blasphemous. The reconciliation the Church is seeking to accomplish today by these subterfuges has already been wrought. The brotherhood – the “one blood” of Acts 17, 26 – that the Church makes its goal today is already a fact. And because this is so, that very fact judges our goals and our efforts to achieve brotherhood by social action as blasphemous, as trying to be God. Instead of witnessing to Christ, the social action of the Church lends support to the totalitarianism of the wars and political systems of the 20th century. By its social action, the Church permits and encourages the State and culture to define all issues and rules and fields of battle. The Church then tries to do what the State, without the Church’s support, has already decided to do: to “solve” all human problems by politics. And this is specifically the political messianism of contemporary totalitarianism and of Revelation 13. “Politics” by definition can only “adjust” and “rearrange.” It cannot – as politics – “solve” anything. But the Church’s social action encourages the very movements in the contemporary political processes which are moving us straightaway into 20th-century totalitarianism (Campbell & Holloway 1970:2).

But the way American Libertarians talk, it sounds as though while they reject the attempt to solve all problems by politics, they propose instead to solve them all by economics, and specifically by American big business, whose interests must take precedence over everything else.

And I doubt very much that C.S. Lewis would have supported that notion. The nearest equivalent to Ayn Rand’s heroes — Dagny Taggart, John Galt and Howard Roark — in C.S. Lewis’s novels is Dick Devine, and Lewis gives him an altogether different treatment. The Sackville-Bagginses could also be said to represent the “entrepreneurial spirit”, which probably needs to be exorcised rather than encouraged.

A few weeks ago my blogging friend Matt Stone posted this ikon on his blog, asking “What is it saying theologically and politically?”

My response was that what it is saying theologically and politically is that political power and authority are to be exercised subject to Christ, and not sought for their own sake. The task of those in authority is to make the earthly kingdom an image of the heavenly one in righteousness and justice.

And I think that C.S. Lewis had somewhat similar notions, when he made Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy kings and queens of Narnia to promote justice and righteousness. And when their successors in Prince Caspian abused their power, they returned to Narnia to put things right. Mark Sommer in his article extols freedom and social liberty, but despises social justice. Yet in The Silver Chair Jill Pole discovers at her school (a libertarian institution, if ever there was one) that liberty without justice is a recipe for misery.

We cannot solve all problems though politics because what is wrong with us that can be solved by politics is not all that is wrong with us. It is a bit like the relation between law and grace. Law can restrain us from evil, but it cannot make us good. Justice is not love. The most that can be said is that it is a kind of congealed love. Law and politics cannot make men love one another, but they can restrain the effects of their lack of love, and that is justice.

As for trying to trying to solve problems by economics, let the Orthodox philosopher Nicolas Berdyaev have the last word:

The Origin of Russian Communism (Ann Arbor Paperbacks)The Origin of Russian Communism by Nikolai Berdyaev

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Quote: It was the industrialist capitalist period which subjected man to the power of economics and money, and it does not become its adepts to teach communists the evangelical truth that man does not live by bread alone. The question of bread for myself is a material question, but the question of bread for my neighbours, for everybody, is a spiritual and religious question. Man does not live by bread alone, but he does live by bread and there should be bread for all. Society should be so organized that there is bread for all, and then it is that the spiritual question will present itself before men in all its depth. It is not permissible to base a struggle for spiritual interests and for a spiritual renaissance on the fact that for a considerable part of humanity bread will not be guaranteed. Such cynicism as this justly evokes an atheistic reaction and the denial of spirit. Christians ought to be permeated with a sense of the religious importance of the elementary needs of men, the vast masses of men, and not to despise these needs from the point of view of an exalted spirituality.

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Notes and References
Campbell, Will D. Holloway, James Y. 1970. Up to our steeples in politics. New York: Paulist.
Lewis, C.S. 1966. Of other worlds: essays and stories. London:Geoffrey Bles.

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