Obama is just now completing his speech at the prayer breakfast and he quoted CS Lewis in support of his notions of a Christian in government.
Clearly, someone at the White House is doing some research. I for one doubt very much that Obama has ever read Lewis beyond the quote he used. Here is what Obama quoted:
“Christianity has not, and does not profess to have a detailed political program. It is meant for all men at all times, and the particular program which suited one place or time would not suit another.”
In full: “The second thing to get clear is that Christianity has not, and does not profess to have, a detailed political programme for applying “Do as you would be done by” to a particular society at a particular moment. It could not have. It is meant for all men at all times and the particular programme which suited one place or time would not suit another. And anyhow, that is not how Christianity works. When it tells you to feed the hungry, it does not give you lessons in cookery. When it tells you to read the Scriptures it does not give you lessons in Hebrew and Greek, or even in English grammar. It was never intended to replace or supercede the ordinary human arts and sciences: it is rather a director which will set them all to the right jobs, and a source of energy which will give them all new life, if only they will put themselves at its disposal.”
One gathers from this statement that Lewis believes one should not think there is any particular ‘Christian’ way of doing politics, that different times may require different politics, but Christianity is for all people in all times and places; ie, politics is about the ‘how’ of doing something- it is the ‘means’ to the ‘end’, and the ‘means’ are morally neutral- just the tool by which a particular end is reached, and Christianity may speak to the latter, but not to the former, just as cooking is neutral while the eating and feeding may not be.
The use of this quote was an effort to make the case by Obama that the policies proposed by he and himself should be evaluated based on their sincere intentions, coupled, I suppose, with their pragmatic effects. Ironically, it ties in perfectly with something I said in a recent post, in reference to a quote by GK Chesterton regarding people with ‘sincere intention.’ I said: “One needs only eyes, a brain, and a willingness to take reality as it really is, rather than bathe oneself in pipe dreams and figure that everything is on the table for consideration, so long as the intent is sincere.”
First of all, it is important to keep CS Lewis in context. Lewis said a great many other things, as well. He was not fond of the State and its reach. Moreover, there is a discernible progression of this thoughts from his early days as a Christian to his death in 1963. If Obama read Lewis’s The Abolition of Man, he would not think that Lewis believed, really, that politics is only about the means to a particular end.
It might be a nice idea to think of politics merely as a piece of technology… A hammer is a hammer, and it can be used to drive in nails or cave in someone’s skull- as a tool, it is neutral, only its end comes into moral view. But could one say that something like slandering Hermann Cain with libelous accusations is likewise merely a tool, a machination that is morally neutral, to be judged only on its final outcome- what some person or persons believes is morally preferable: having Cain out of the race? I think most people would say that if you want a guy out of the race, that doesn’t mean any means you employ to accomplish that is morally permitted, just because of the ‘goodness’ of the end. CS Lewis was not making that argument. I hope.
There is a serious problem in taking Obama’s argument here on its face. We know he has read Saul Alinksy’s Rules for Radicals because we know that he has actually taught students principles out of Alinksy’s book. Therein, we find a quote similar to the intent Obama had for the Lewis quote, but by Alinsky:
This is not an ideological book except insofar as argument for change, rather than for the status quo, can be called an ideology; different people, in different places, in different situations and different times will construct their own solutions and symbols of salvation for those times. (emphasis mine)
Alinsky explicitly rejected the value of considering the moral appropriateness of ‘means,’ asserting that the ‘mass good’ outweighs such trite notions. In his own words:
The practical revolutionary will understand Goethe’s “conscience is the virtue of observers and not of agents of action”; in action, one does not always enjoy the luxury of a decision that is consistent both with one’s individual conscience and the good of mankind. The choice must always be for the latter. Action is for mass salvation and not for the individual’s personal salvation. He who sacrifices mass good for his personal conscience has a peculiar conception of “personal salvation”; he doesn’t care enough for people to be “corrupted” for them. (pg 25, chapter titled: Of Means and Ends)
In other words, don’t let your morality get in the way of the ‘good of mankind.’
It is a strange kind of double-mindedness which thinks that one can join Saul Alinsky’s views on politics with CS Lewis’s.
For the purpose of this conversation, the most important thing to do is draw from Alinsky one of his main thrusts, and bear it in mind when Obama cites Lewis. Alinsky flat out said that anything you do to get you power was justified and justifiable. A person who says such a thing will not hesitate to lie to you, and tell you what you need to hear in order to gain your support, regardless of the sincerity of your statement. Alinsky does not shy away from this, and Obama is demonstrably a disciple of Alinksy. I have yet to see any evidence he is a disciple of Lewis.
So, recognize that Obama belongs to the camp that says that the most important thing to do is to gain and hold on to power, and you say and do whatever is necessary to achieve that. If he quotes Lewis to you and you like Lewis, as I do, take it with a grain of salt.
But to speak to the Lewis quote in particular, I will admit that on its face it does support this notion of ‘politics as piece of technology.’ Lewis is not God; I respect him, but I don’t believe he was right about everything. Certainly, this quote has to be put into the full context of all of Lewis’s beliefs, too, but even doing so one comes away with the idea that Lewis is suggesting that the ‘how’ is morally neutral, and this is what politics ideally is about.
Well, he’s wrong about that. GK Chesterton was better, recognizing that Christian values do not allow us to consider ANY option, just because we are motivated by Christian charity. Christian charity may say, ‘Feed the poor’, but that doesn’t mean anything we do to feed them is on the table. For example, ‘Rob the rich’ goes against a balancing moral concern- that is, the Christian cannot steal or support stealing, even for a ‘good cause.’
But more importantly, while Lewis was thoroughly in tune to the evils and horrors embodied by Nazi and communist ideology, eugenics programs, etc, he failed to recognize how the people who advocated for such things deliberately used deception in the public sphere to implement them. In the Screwtape Letters, Lewis argues (via fiction) that the idea to spread dissension is to have political partisans constantly calling into question the other person’s sincerity but never doubting their own. Certainly, that is a recipe for a toxic society, and obviously when you have people of ‘good will’ with different ideas behaving that way, toxic consciences result. But of course we have to keep an eye on that phrase ‘good will.’ What does one do when you have good reason to believe that the people entering the political fray purposely believe that deception is an appropriate ‘tool’?
One could say that all politicians think that way, but eugenicists, progressives, communists, etc, took it to a whole new level. Lewis knew about these people and their tactics but this statement of his does not take them into consideration. This is a serious lapse on his part. On account of such people millions of people had already died while he himself walked the earth. Since his death in 63, millions more have died, and this doesn’t even count the millions of unborn that have been slaughtered because of concerns ‘for the common good’ about ‘over-population.’ China, of course, being the clearest example of this, but elsewhere on this blog I have argued the same thing is going on here in the US.
So, Lewis’s quote does not really grapple with the whole reality of what we are currently up against. It is unwise to accept the words of politicians (of all stripes) on their face. And it is simply wrong to entertain the idea that everything is on the table for consideration, just because our intent is sincere.
For another interesting perspective, look here.