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C.S. Lewis, spin and political truth

Seek those who search the truth. Beware those who find it. —Unknown

In this election year, when political spin continues to trump substantive debate on the issues, where do you find the truth?

If you said religion, you’re not alone. A recent Gallup poll found that 61 percent of Americans believe that “religion can answer all or most of today’s problems.” It’s not surprising. We live in an infinitely complex world, and every individual needs a personal philosophy to navigate this undulating sea of change.

We face a multitude of decisions on a daily basis, from choosing peers or hobbies to discovering one’s major or career, and we all need guidance in that search. For some, direction can be found in relatives or mentors. For others, it’s friends. For the majority of Americans—white church-going Protestants—Christianity is the answer.

In the past, I have criticized Christians’ anti-intellectual attempts to simplify the Word of God for the masses, forcing a homogenized one-size-fits-all version of reality down our throats. Although I would argue that the threat of oversimplification remains, at its best Christianity seeks to change the world by changing the hearts and minds of individuals.

C.S. Lewis agreed. As an atheist-turned-believer, Lewis sensed that in the very nature of political disagreement lay clues to the meaning of the universe. In his manifesto Mere Christianity, Lewis—a scholar of the English language—persuasively “proves” the existence of God and why Christianity best answers the questions we have about that God.

Cultural relativism aside, he argues first that an absolute interpretation of right and wrong (in other words, finding the truth) is prerequisite to establishing human law. This absolute understanding, he says, is not always clear to us but is planted latently in every human being. If a particular society has no conception of what is right, then its members would be hard-pressed to say, for example, that slavery or Nazism is wrong.

Second, Lewis recognizes that no one lives up completely to this internal standard, to what we believe inside is right. So, strangely enough, we humans have an inkling of how we ought to behave but consistently break these rules we set for ourselves.

It may not be obvious, but Lewis is talking politics: “The right direction leads not only to peace but to knowledge. When a man is getting better he understands more and more clearly the evil that is still left in him. When a man is getting worse, he understands his own badness less and less. A moderately bad man knows he is not very good: a thoroughly bad man thinks he is all right.”

The problems we see in the world are really just manifestations of the fundamental problem within each of us: that nagging desire to ignore what we don’t like about ourselves in favor of placing the blame on others or the nebulous “society” in which we live.

For many readers, Lewis’s argument hits close to home. But there’s a lot that he and his spin on Christianity get wrong. He posits, “One of the marks of a certain type of bad man is that he cannot give up a thing himself without wanting everyone else to give it up. That is not the Christian way… The moment he starts saying the things are bad in themselves, or looking down his nose at other people who do use them, he has taken the wrong turning.”

This assertion, however, undermines his logic that Christianity’s message (including proselytization) is the Right Way. If taking his lesson to heart, Christians should lay down the tools of mass evangelism and conversion, instead focusing on what they can do in their own lives to change.

Perhaps more importantly, Lewis dismisses the possibility that this inner discomfort suggests a highly evolved survival mechanism, rather than the existence of God. In the words of Lewis, even if God does exist, “How should we know what He means us to be like?”

A Being as infinite and incomprehensible as God should not be subject to the perverse realm of our cultural vagaries. It is Lewis’s own question that should drive serious doubt about Christian assumptions concerning God and His plan for us.

Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry would do well to continue studying how Americans find the truth, a lesson written directly out of Bill Clinton’s political playbook. Adding John Edwards to the ticket has reconnected the party to Middle America, but it will be the battle over values—not issues—that will decide the November contest.

Regardless of Kerry’s individual faith, if he avoids talking about religion, his political message will not resonate widely with American voters.

And, in that case, may God help us all. (Sorry, I couldn’t resist.)


Philip Kurian is a Trinity senior.


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