Simply Become the Majority

“The game,” intimates Screwtape to Wormwood, “is to have them all running about with fire extinguishers whenever there is a flood, and all crowding to that side of the boat which is already nearly gunwale under.” He goes on, “Cruel ages are put on their guard against Sentimentality, feckless and idle ones against Respectability, lecherous ones against Puritanism; and whenever all men are really hastening to be slaves or tyrants we make Liberalism the prime bogey.”

That last line about “Liberalism” in particular deserves some pondering. Pillorying liberalism (in its more classical sense, as per Screwtape) and its socio-cultural conventions has become fashionable for elites on all sides. Entire books have appeared on the subject. In most places, the loudest voices have been pontificating that a more fulsome, energetic politics is needed to revolutionize the thin gruel of the status quo.  

Nor is the phenomenon limited to the secular realm. To one degree or another, plenty of Christians have been clamoring for a more aggressive, ambitious political program from both ends of the Left-Right spectrum (as I have noted elsewhere). This puts conscientious believers in a difficult spot as advocates of a particular “political theology” will often present their agendas as specially “Christian” and thus quasi-obligatory for their co-religionists.

Dissolution and Dishonor

This is hardly new. “Nothing is so earnestly to be wished,” C. S. Lewis wrote in the middle of 1941 and at the height of WWII, “as a real assault by Christianity on the politics of the world: nothing, at first sight, so fitted to deliver this assault as a Christian Party.” His essay “Meditation on the Third Commandment” argues that these urges are generally to be resisted. In his view, such political fronts were asking for trouble, not least because Christians themselves, while they might agree about many ends, often disagree about means. Consequently, Christian fronts would get swallowed up by whatever secular coalition were nearest them ideologically. One could be forgiven for thinking that something very much like that has already happened in the United States. 

Further, Lewis distrusted the sectarian zeal that these Christian fronts tended to foster. In the first place, it sows real confusion in the world about who’s a “real” Christian and who isn’t. A Christian front “will be not simply a part of Christendom, but a part claiming to be the whole. By the mere act of calling itself the Christian Party it implicitly accuses all Christians who do not join it of apostasy and betrayal.” Worse still:

The demon inherent in every party is at all times ready enough to disguise himself as the Holy Ghost; the formation of a Christian Party means handing over to him the most efficient make-up we can find. And when once the disguise has succeeded, his commands will presently be taken to abrogate all moral laws and to justify whatever the unbelieving allies of the ‘Christian’ Party wish to do. If ever Christian men can be brought to think treachery and murder the lawful means of establishing the regime they desire, and faked trials, religious persecution and organized hooliganism the lawful means of maintaining it, it will, surely, be by just such a process as this. The history of the late medieval pseudo-Crusader, of the Covenanters, of the Orangemen, should be remembered. On those who add ‘Thus said the Lord’ to their merely human utterances descends the doom of a conscience which seems clearer and clearer the more it is loaded with sin.

All of this, hints the essay’s title, simply serves to dishonor God’s name insofar as his people represent it. Lewis’s practical solutions might strike some as utterly tame, mundane, and perhaps even a little naïve:

An interdenominational Christian Voters’ Society might draw up a list of assurances about ends and means which every member was expected to exact from any political party as the price of his support. Such a society might claim to represent Christendom far more truly than any ‘Christian Front’; and for that reason I should be prepared, in principle, for membership and obedience to be obligatory on Christians. ‘So all it comes down to is pestering [Members of Parliament] with letters?’ Yes: just that. I think such pestering combines the dove and the serpent. I think it means a world where parties have to take care not to alienate Christians, instead of a world where Christians have to be ‘loyal’ to infidel parties.

Disciples and Dinosaurs

In his closing, Lewis indicates the best option: “There is a third way—by becoming a majority. He who converts his neighbour has performed the most practical Christian-political act of all.” This arguably gets us to the underlying issue, which we could frame this way: what is the purpose of Christianity? Is it fundamentally a top-down social, political, and economic arrangement of civilization—or is it more like an ancient school of Greek philosophy, offering a system of beliefs and way of life that chiefly characterizes an individual or a small group of individuals?

I think Lewis strongly implies the latter here. In terms of Christianity’s relation to the social order, he reminds us that we must attend to first things first. Electoral action, philosophical consideration, policy wonkery—all of these are fine and perhaps even commendable enterprises with which a Christian may engage, so long as they don’t distract from the real and unglamorous business of making authentic disciples of our children, our brothers, our neighbors, and ourselves. Advancing the Kingdom of God in our world necessitates starting from the bottom up. “Once the feet are put right,” as remarks Aslan about the reanimated giant, “all the rest of him will follow.”

While he hardly constitutes the highest spiritual authority for contemporary Christians, Lewis’s wisdom and insights have still rightly earned him a venerable status in Anglophone Christianity. This is perhaps especially true for those literate Christians who increasingly feel bewildered and disoriented by the swirling winds of today’s cultural fashions and political trends. Lewis was, by his own label, a “dinosaur”: someone often more “at home” in the tenth century than the twentieth. It is surprising, then, to find him commonsensically defending a modern system like liberalism. Since the warning comes from someone of his profile, it should strike home with us all the more forcefully.

Author: Andrew Koperski

Andrew Koperski is a master's student at Ohio University where he studies ancient and medieval history. He takes particular interest in issues concerning Christianity, politics, and culture--both in the past and in the present. When he's not reading, he enjoys weightlifting, basketball, fishing, and otherwise spending time with his wife, Caroline.

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