In C. S. Lewis’s Screwtape Letters, the demon Screwtape advises his protege and nephew Wormwood to convince his human target that politics are a key part of his faith. “Then let him, under the influence of partisan spirit, come to regard it as the most important part,” Screwtape said. That way, faith would become a mere pretext for politics.
Lewis did not need to see the excesses of the Moral Majority, or the recent white evangelical dalliance with Donald Trump, to understand the risk of politics supplanting faith. And as George Marsden’s new book C. S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity: A Biography shows, Lewis’s non-partisan bent was part of the explanation for Lewis’s enduring influence.
Mere Christianity needed to take a non-partisan tone because it began as a series of BBC radio addresses during World War II. But its lack of commentary on politics also reflected Lewis’s own temperament. Marsden notes that Lewis had little interest in politics and rarely read the newspapers. (What a tempting thought, as we draw near the end of this uniquely inane election cycle! Certainly many of us could at least use a short-term fast from the news and social media.)
Especially in our participatory democracy, I would agree with those who argue that Christians ought to participate in voting. And of course there are political issues of pressing concern to Christians, not least religious liberty and the value of all human life.
Even Lewis conceded that he could envision an ideal Christian political and social order. But he did not think that order would line up with any contemporary political options at his time, as it would probably be (according to his view) left-wing in economic policy but conservative and traditionalist on social issues. Political programs, to Lewis, were inherently ephemeral and contingent upon time and place. The gospel, conversely, applies equally to all people in all cultures. Thus, there could never be a unitary “Christian politics.”
Unfortunately, the election of 2016 has shown us again the price that Christians pay when partisan politics becomes a central concern for the faithful. (I’m as guilty of this as anyone, as I have followed this election cycle with a combination of fascination and revulsion, and it has been a major topic in my Twitter feed.)
Lewis reminds us of the perils of partisanship for the faith of an individual, and of a church, as well as for faith’s role in our culture. Not only can partisanship cloud our moral judgment, but it can also give the watching world the impression that our faith is really just a cloak for politics. Even if we do have a political program, or a political party, that we really like, we should remember how ephemeral politics is, by definition.
The results and winners of the 2016 election will pass away. The kingdom of God will not.