The Political and Apolitical C.S. Lewis

January 30, 2014

Even fifty years after his death, evangelicals continue to look to C.S. Lewis for wisdom on a host of topics for four simple reasons. First, and most important, Lewis was a thoroughgoing Christian, describing himself as believing in Christianity as he believed in the sun, not only because he saw it, but because by it he saw everything else. Second, Lewis himself was an enormously gifted and creative thinker and communicator. Third, Lewis drew deeply from the most profound and substantive philosophers, poets and theologians in the Western tradition and beyond. Finally, Lewis attended to the most crucial and perennial of ideas and themes common to humanity. If we continue to look to him, it is not because he is infallible, but because he identified and addressed eternal realities and lasting earthly concerns.

It might seem Lewis does not offer much for evangelicals looking for wisdom on politics, an arena fraught with peril and controversy for as long as evangelicals have sought to be salt and light in the culture. Lewis was known to avoid and indeed disdain newspapers. He turned down an honorary recognition from Winston Churchill so as to avoid encouraging those who would dismiss him as politically partisan. He did not keep up with the latest political news, and I suspect he would find our twenty-four-hour news cycle and social media conglomerate a particularly modern abomination. One might imagine the incomparable G.K. Chesterton on Twitter, perhaps trading witticisms with Bernard Shaw. But not Lewis.

Yet much depends on how we define politics. If we accept the typically negative connotation of politics as consisting of sausage-making legislative deals, bureaucratic and institutional power structures, and the seemingly constant state of electoral campaigning, then we will not find much political thought from Lewis. He disdained this side of politics, at one point referring to government in a private letter as at best a necessary evil.[1] Americans would seem to agree, if Congresss approval ratings are any indication.

We have good reason, however, to think of politics as more than the merely instrumental hurly-burly maelstrom of self-interest and cynicism we see on the news and blogs. The word politics comes to us from the Greeks, whom Lewis knew and read intimately (Lewis remarked that he sometimes found himself thinking in Greek). Politics refers to the business of the polis, the almost-untranslatable Greek word describing their understanding of community, which combined spheres and identities we moderns tend to keep separate: religion, government, family, school, business. The polis, Aristotle tells us, is established and maintained with a view to some good. That is, the political in this sense refers to perennial questions that pertain to human beings as such. What is the good life? How should we live together? What things are so good as to be required, by force if necessary, and what things are so evil as to be prohibited, by force if necessary? Do human beings have a deeper purpose than mere survival or pleasure?

Conceived of in this way, politics is inextricably tied to the most fundamental questions about human nature and purpose. Unlike the graduated income tax, Lewis had a great deal to say about these matters, and we can take from him four lessons that remain salient for contemporary Christian thinking about politics.

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.[2] 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 Gods 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 Gods 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.[3] Bringing to mind Lord Actons 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.[4] 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 governments 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.[5]

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.[6]

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.[7] 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.[8]

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, Lewiss 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.[9]


[1] Lewis, Letters of C.S. Lewis, ed. W.H. Lewis (Harcourt Brace & World, 1966), 473.

[2] Lewis, Mere Christianity, (Harper Collins, 1980), 134.

[3] Lewis, Equality, in Present Concerns, ed. Walter Hooper (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1987), 17.

[4] Lewis, The Weight of Glory, in The Weight of Glory and Other Addresses, ed. Walter Hooper. (Macmillan, 1980).

[5] Lewis, Membership, in Weight of Glory, 121.

[6] Lewis, Mere Christianity, 82-83.

[7] Lewis, Meditation on the Third Commandment, in God in the Dock, ed. Walter Hooper. (Eerdmans, 1970), 196-99.

[8] Lewis, The Humanitarian Theory of Punishment, in God in the Dock, 292.

[9] Lewis, Mere Christianity, 134.

Micah Watson

Professor Watson is a native of the great golden state of California where he completed his undergraduate degree at U.C. Davis. He earned his M.A. degree in Church-State Studies at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, and holds M.A. and doctorate degrees in Politics from Princeton University.   Professor Watson joined the … Read More

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24