From Micah Watson, Associate Professor of Political Science and Director of the Center for Politics and Religion at Union University:
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.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. 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. 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.
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.
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. 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.”
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.”
– The Political and Apolitical C. S. Lewis (Canon & Culture)