By Alan Snyder, Ph.D.
“Praying for particular things,” said I, “always seems to me like advising God how to run the world. Wouldn’t it be wiser to assume that He knows best?”
“On the same principle,” said he, “I suppose you never ask a man next to you to pass the salt, because God knows best whether you ought to have salt or not. And I suppose you never take an umbrella, because God knows best whether you ought to be wet or dry.”
“That’s quite different,” I protested.
“I don’t see why,” said he. “The odd thing is that He should let us influence the course of events at all. But since He lets us do it in one way I don’t see why He shouldn’t let us do it in the other.”
The above quote from C. S. Lewis is not one of his best known, yet it speaks eloquently to the issue of a Christian’s responsibility to impact the culture. Should the course of events drift along without a significant influence from those who claim to have the ultimate answers for life? Do we merely stand aside and wash our hands of the various spheres of society: education, business, entertainment, or politics? Or do we attempt to infuse into that society Biblical truth and the morality that flows from that truth?
Early Americans, from the colonial era through the Civil War, at least, rarely questioned the need for Christian beliefs to be proclaimed publicly. These Americans used a phrase for this: they called it liberty of conscience. That phrase, while never disappearing entirely from public dialogue, nevertheless now takes a secondary place to another term: pluralism. Many who use the word pluralism might mean the same as the earlier phrase, but the newer perspective is inherently different, if understood in the context of our times. This essay will dissect these two distinct philosophies, then turn to C. S. Lewis for his insights on a Christian’s role in the public realm.
Liberty of Conscience
James Madison, the Father of the Constitution, wrote an essay on property in 1792 that covers the broad spectrum of that word. Madison says property goes beyond external material possessions and embraces internal properties as well. “Man,” Madison argues, “has a property in his opinions and the free communication of them.” Further, “He has a property of peculiar value in his religious opinions, and in the profession and practice dictated by them.” Among those internal properties given by God, Madison singles out the conscience. He declares, “Conscience is the most sacred of all property; . . . [there is] no title to invade a man’s conscience which is more sacred than his castle.” Man’s liberty to follow his conscience, under God and before government, in Madison’s view, is a cornerstone in a society that operates under the principles of a free government.
This foundational belief in liberty of conscience as understood in early America rested on a belief that truth exists. Yet because each man has his own conscience before God, each must be given liberty to find the truth; it cannot be imposed upon anyone, especially by government fiat. Government’s sphere of authority extends to actions only, not to one’s personal beliefs. In such an arrangement, all, regardless of beliefs, are at liberty to voice their opinions in the public square and try to influence the culture and government policies toward what each considers the proper standards, particularly in establishing societal norms for morality.
A country such as the United States is made up of diverse peoples, most of whom are not Christians. Neither can they be forced to accept the Christian way because that would violate liberty of conscience. All historical attempts to “create” Christians by force have only bred hypocrisy. Christians and non-Christians live under the same government. They all have the same rights, and liberty of conscience must be respected.
Consciences, though, can be educated and influenced. Christians, whose liberty of conscience is just as sacred as that of non-Christians, should be free to influence others toward the Christian worldview. All societies have standards. Christians can voice their views on what society’s standards ought to be and use all legitimate educational and political means to promote those standards for their country. Non-Christians are free to do the same.
Noah Webster, the most prominent educator in early America, underwent a Christian conversion in 1808 at the age of fifty. He sought to disseminate Biblical principles in society through his textbooks and his landmark dictionary, in which he incorporated Biblical examples of word usage and short sermonettes on key words such as “religion,” “education,” “democracy,” and “freedom.” One of his endeavors was to help establish a college to train indigent young men for the ministry. It was called Amherst. When the cornerstone for Amherst College was laid on 9 August 1820, Webster gave the opening remarks and declared that Amherst would “aid in the important works of raising the human race from ignorance and debasement; to enlighten their minds; to exalt their character; and to teach them the way to happiness and glory.” Webster was giving voice, via education, to the Christian message, intending to improve his nation thereby. He, and others like him, had liberty of conscience to speak and act on their beliefs.
Another testimony to liberty of conscience and the need for Christians to speak to the culture comes from Charles G. Finney, one of the premier evangelists of the antebellum era. Finney is not known primarily for his commentary on politics and government, but he did have some robust observations with respect to Christians’ obligation to take part in politics. Finney himself was a strong supporter of the abolition of slavery and refused to take the position of professor of theology at Oberlin College until the trustees agreed to allow women and free blacks to attend class with white males.
In his Systematic Theology, Finney makes the case for Christian political participation, explaining that God requires civil government, and that in a representative government such as America’s, “every man having a right to vote, every human being who has moral influence, is bound to exert that influence in the promotion of virtue and happiness.” Christians, Finney continues, must “exert their influence to secure a legislation that is in accordance with the law of God.” Finney connects inextricably politics and religion when he says, “In a popular government, politics are an important part of religion.” Separation of church and state did not mean separation of Christian beliefs from influence in government. He concluded that Christians “are bound to meddle with politics in popular governments, because they are bound to seek the universal good of all men; and this is one department of human interests materially affecting all their higher interests.”
In response to the argument that Christians should avoid all political connections and attempts to influence legislation, Finney replied that Christians should promote “wholesome government.” Why should Christians leave it to the wicked to decide what the laws should be? “It would be strange that selfish men should need the restraints of law, and yet that Christians should have no right to meet this necessity by supporting governments that will restrain them,” he argued.
Post-Civil War America experienced a worldview revolution. The Biblical framework that informed most citizens gradually receded. The term “liberty of conscience” also receded, and that new word, “pluralism,” became more commonplace. To be fair, many people probably thought the terms were synonymous, but there was a shift in definition that corresponded to the shift in worldview, until a full-blown pluralistic philosophy finally emerged. How does it differ from liberty of conscience?
Basically, pluralism has developed into a different concept altogether, while maintaining a superficial resemblance to liberty of conscience. The cornerstone for modern pluralism is moral relativism. Those who advocate pluralism usually don’t believe in absolute truth. That starting point is a radical break from the past. In theory, pluralism claims that all views receive equal treatment, that all are equally valid. This raises the question, of course, of how inherently contradictory viewpoints can be equally valid. The answer many offer is that each person has his own truth, and that it is wrong, in this postmodern world, to declare anyone’s truth as invalid.
Despite the assurance that all views will be treated with respect, beliefs based on Christian faith, which maintain an absolute standard of right and wrong given by God, naturally run counter to pluralism’s main premise. If Christian morality is what one promotes, it declares anything contrary to that morality to be sinful. Here is where the theory of pluralism breaks down. Those who stress the tolerance of pluralism attack the absolutism of Biblical morality. Those who believe in the Bible’s moral worldview often are accused of being intolerant. We see this playing out in the policy realm with societal acceptance of homosexuality and same-sex marriage, with an addendum lately on the “rights” of those considered to be transgendered. Those who oppose this new morality and view it as simply the old immorality are marginalized, or at least the attempt is made to marginalize them. The champions of tolerance have decided they will not tolerate Biblical morality.
The college campus has become a hothouse for the weed of intolerance. We now have a mania for “safe spaces,” we’re warned against using “trigger words” that might offend, and we’re told that certain viewpoints will not be tolerated on the campus—all in the name of a tolerant pluralism. Even more incoherent is the denunciation of Christian influence because it is “trying to legislate morality.”
The phrase “legislating morality” deserves special mention. The assumption is that morality cannot and should not be legislated. Yet what is a law (or an edict promulgated by a college administration)? Every law is a statement by the community—political or otherwise—declaring certain actions to be wrong and others to be right. Lawbreakers receive penalties. Obviously, these laws are not mere suggestions. Whenever one is dealing with right and wrong, morality is the issue. All laws are moral statements. Even the stop sign on the corner is a moral statement: “Refuse to stop here and you will be penalized. It is wrong to drive past here without stopping because the community has deemed it unsafe to the lives and property of other individuals.” Therefore, it is wrong not to stop.
The idea that morality cannot be legislated masks an agenda: the replacement of Christian principles of government and society with humanistic principles. The majority’s concept of morality always will be legislated; that concept of morality, however, might not be Biblically based. The Christian response is not to force the Christian viewpoint, but it can be a wholehearted attempt to reeducate society in Biblical principles. That’s why the public square exists, to debate the proper standard for a society.
The Lewis Perspective
One might be excused for thinking that C. S. Lewis avoided anything political, since he stated rather consistently that he abhorred politics. That would be an inaccurate assessment. While it is true that he despised the petty politics of his nation, he was always a staunch defender of truth in the public sphere, whether dealing with theological issues or more practical matters of governing. Why write the kinds of books he did if not for the purpose of influencing the society of his day? The Abolition of Man and its fiction counterpart, That Hideous Strength, are only two examples of his attempt to warn people of the dangers of scientism applied to education and government.
Lewis’s tenure as president of the Oxford Socratic Club shows his willingness to openly debate matters with those who were not Christians. He noted the importance, in a university, of Christians breaking out of their shells and interacting with those of different beliefs. Lewis never argued for a kind of pluralistic neutrality in those debates. He was forthright in how they should be conducted: “We never claimed to be impartial. But argument is. It has a life of its own. No man can tell where it will go. We expose ourselves, and the weakest of our party, to your fire no less than you are exposed to ours.”
He also knew that the Christian message had to be communicated in every way possible. One does that, he noted, by attacking “the enemy’s line of communication.” He followed this thought with one of his more famous quotes:
What we want is not more little books about Christianity, but more little books by Christians on other subjects—with their Christianity latent. . . . It is not the books written in direct defence of Materialism that make the modern man a materialist; it is the materialistic assumptions in all the other books. In the same way, it is not books on Christianity that will really trouble him. But he would be troubled if, whenever he wanted a cheap popular introduction to some science, the best work on the market was always by a Christian.
Then came an appeal to put one’s theology into the vernacular in order to truly communicate the message to an unbelieving audience. “I have come to the conviction,” he concluded, “that if you cannot translate your thoughts into uneducated language, then your thoughts were confused.”
Lewis called on his fellow Christians to engage the culture in every possible way. Education was certainly a key component for furthering the Biblical worldview; he called it “only the most fully conscious of the channels whereby each generation influences the next.” He expressed concern that the State might “take education more and more firmly under its wing.” By doing so, it could potentially “foster conformity, perhaps even servility, up to a point,” but it still would require people to do the teaching, and “as long as we remain a democracy, it is men who give the State its powers,” he noted optimistically. “And over these men, until all freedom is extinguished, the free winds of opinion blow. Their minds are formed by influences which government cannot control.”
Lewis believed in those “free winds of opinion” that could not be controlled by the government, but he did mention the condition: “as long as we remain a democracy.” While he favored a democratic system, which would allow for the free interchange of ideas in the public square, he also offered cautions that democracy, while very important for expressing points of view on policy and the standards by which a society ought to conform, was not a cure-all for society’s ills. He believed in democracy, he said, because he believed in the fall of man. “A great deal of democratic enthusiasm descends from the ideas of people like Rousseau, who believed in democracy because they thought mankind so wise and good that everyone deserved a share in the government.” That was a false grounds for wanting democracy, he asserted. Instead, he came at it from the opposite side: “Mankind is so fallen that no man can be trusted with unchecked power over his fellows. Aristotle said that some people were only fit to be slaves. I do not contradict him. But I reject slavery because I see no men fit to be masters.”
Lewis had an exchange on this issue with one of his regular American correspondents, Mary Van Deusen, who had raised the concern about communists infiltrating the government. Lewis responded that that raised the whole issue of one of the problems of a democracy. A democratic form of government, he explained, rested on the will of the majority. What if, he queried, a majority should someday introduce communism, or even devil worship or human sacrifice? How should we respond in such situations? “When we said ‘Govt. by the people’ did we only mean ‘as long as we don’t disagree with the people too much’”? He concluded, “Of course there is no question of its being our duty (the minority’s duty) to obey an anti-God govt. if the majority sets it up. We shall have to disobey and be martyred. Perhaps pure democracy is really a false ideal.”
To forestall that terrible scenario from becoming reality, Lewis encouraged Christian involvement in the public square. When Van Deusen wrote to him about some very good people getting positions in the American government, he was pleased. One of his greatest fears about America, he shared with her, was “that politics were not in the hands of your best types and that this, in the long run, might prove ruinous. A change in that, the beginning of what might be called a volunteer aristocracy, might have incalculable effects.” In fact, Lewis, in another of his essays, comes out strongly in favor of specific political activity with regard to appealing to legislators. While rejecting the idea of setting up a Christian political party, he nonetheless proposed what he called an “interdenominational Christian Voters’ Society” that should operate as a kind of pressure group. If a political party sought the support of this society, it would have to pledge first its support for the society’s goals for the nation. ‘“So all it comes down to is pestering M.P.’s 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.”
Lewis’s prescription for direct political involvement was the practical side of his approach, but it wasn’t pure pragmatism. All attempts to influence the public square had to be based on God’s absolute moral requirements. In response to the hypothetical question as to whether some kind of permanent moral standard would stand in the way of progress, Lewis replied that without such a standard, no one would be able to measure progress. “If good is a fixed point,” he argued, “it is at least possible that we should get nearer and nearer to it; but if the terminus is as mobile as the train, how can the train progress towards it? Our ideas of the good may change, but they cannot change either for the better or the worse if there is no absolute and immutable good to which they can approximate or from which they can recede.” Absolute moral standards for society are society’s only hope, he concluded.
Unless we return to the crude and nursery-like belief in objective values, we perish. . . . If we believed in the absolute reality of elementary moral platitudes, we should value those who solicit our votes by other standards than have recently been in fashion.
While we believe that good is something to be invented, we demand of our rulers such qualities as “vision,” “dynamism,” “creativity,” and the like. If we returned to the objective view we should demand qualities much rarer, and much more beneficial—virtue, knowledge, diligence, and skill. “Vision” is for sale, or claims to be for sale, everywhere. But give me a man who will do a day’s work for a day’s pay, who will refuse bribes, who will not make up his facts, and who has learned his job.
Just how optimistic was Lewis that Christians taking up the challenge of the public square would make any real difference? In an address given at his own Magdalen College during World War II, Lewis dealt with the question of the futility of human endeavor. He wanted to make it abundantly clear that we, as Christians, do our duty, regardless of the success or failure of our efforts. “I am not for one moment trying to suggest that this long-term futility provides any ground for diminishing our efforts to make human life, while it lasts, less painful and less unfair than it has been up to date,” he insisted. Then drawing on an illustration, he continued, “The fact that the ship is sinking is no reason for allowing her to be a floating hell while she still floats. Indeed, there is a certain fine irony in the idea of keeping the ship very punctiliously in good order up to the very moment at which she goes down.” If we are living in a world that is sinking, we nevertheless have an obligation to make it less of a hell than it would be without our influence. He concluded, “If the universe is shameless and idiotic, that is no reason why we should imitate it. Well brought up people have always regarded the tumbril and the scaffold as places for one’s best clothes and best manners.”
As long as a public square exists and Christians are not banned from it, the responsibility to speak out for truth remains. If the Christian worldview and the morality that naturally emanates from it is rejected by the society at large, Christians must remain faithful to God’s command to be His voice, even if the world attempts to drown out that voice.