CS Lewis, Christian Nationalism, and Christianity in Schools
Lewis' political theology cuts across the most prominent options on the American Right.
Over the past two episodes at Mere Fidelity, we have given listeners a decent snapshot of the spectrum of theological-politics currently at work on the American Right.
At one end of the spectrum, Yoram Hazony offered a blistering defense of nationalist-conservatism. Hazony’s account is a more sophisticated version of the kind of politics the Religious Right has long practiced, in which family figures prominently and religious neutrality is eschewed. Though I had not heard the case made since I was in middle-school Sunday school watching David Barton’s history (an anomaly, in fact, in my religious upbringing), Hazony more or less pins the beginning of the United States’ change from a Christian democracy to a liberal democracy on Everson v. Board of Education’s dissolution of prayer in schools.
At the other, Paul Miller defended a Christian liberalism of a distinctively Baptist, democratic variety. Miller is worried about Christian nationalism in both its institutionalized forms (sorry, Queen Elizabeth!) and its populist, rabble-rousing forms (here’s looking at you, Robert Jeffress). And while he wants to argue that the state cannot be morally neutral, it should maintain religious neutrality.
Miller does not (that I remember) take up prayer in schools—but he did go ‘semi-viral’ for his critique of reading the Bible in public schools on David French’s podcast.
On Miller’s telling, Americans are biblically illiterate because for 150 years we allowed public school teachers to teach children a “watered-down, moralistic therapeutic deism” with a Christian name slapped on it. (French chimes in with worries that it was discriminatory as well, and points out—rightly—that public school education was regarded as exclusively Protestant.)
I have reservations about both these options, for reasons that I articulated on the podcast (and that one of the links below explains further). At this point in my life, I am skeptical of the kind of active, cultivated religious nationalism that Hazony espouses: I have no problem with Christendom as a normative concept, but it seems to me there is a crucial difference between attempting to bring it about as some sort of political strategy and rejoicing in its emergence as the fruit of the church’s witness.
Moreover, while Christians might be instinctively conservative, a programmatic conservatism seems untenable. As Chesterton once wrote, “The whole modern world has divided itself into Conservatives and Progressives. The business of Progressives is to go on making mistakes. The business of the Conservatives is to prevent the mistakes being corrected.” Conservatism must offer a way of self-correcting, which means we must sometimes look beyond what we have inherited in order to discern our path forward.
At the same time, I’m not particularly moved by Miller’s Baptist Liberalism. If the Bible is a part of a community’s received inheritance, I see no normative objection to the state teaching it in public schools—even while the state should teach other religious texts as well.
Around the same time America ended prayer in schools (1947), C.S. Lewis was defending teaching the Bible in British schools. In an introduction to B.G. Sandhurst’s surprising hit How Heathen is Britain (1946), Lewis took up the question of whether government should be involved in teaching Christianity in schools. The preface deserves a closer reading.
Lewis takes as a given Sandhurst’s conclusion that schoolboys are not taught Christianity, but also accepts that when they are taught it, they believe it. The combination of those two facts explains the putative decline in religion: “Having discovered that the cause of their ignorance is lack of instruction, we have also discovered the remedy,” he writes. “There is nothing in the nature of the younger generation which incapacitates them for receiving Christianity. If any one is prepared to tell them, they are apparently ready to hear.”
If there is a decline in religiosity, though, it is not young people’s fault—but their teachers’. Though simple, the principle that each generation is taught by the past is crucial for understanding the situation appropriately. As Lewis writes, “We talk of the views of contemporary adolescence as if some peculiarity in contemporary adolescence had produced them out of itself. In reality, they are usually a delayed result—for the mental world also has its time-bombs—of obsolete adolescence, now middle-aged and dominating its form room.”
Such a principle means that there is, in one sense, no going backward once ignorance sets in to a generation: “No generation can bequeath to its successor what it has not got.” If a generation does not have Christianity, then there is no program of retrieval that can bring it back into the schools on its own.
Such a point allows Lewis to adopt a studied indifference toward whether the State advocates Christianity through its schools. “A society which is predominantly Christian will propagate Christianity through its schools: one which is not, will not.” While a programmatic Christianity might be adopted, it cannot be successfuL: “We have, in the long run, little either to hope or fear from government.”
Such an indifference allows Lewis to avoid the kind of fixed, determinate position that simply saying “yes” or “no” to Christianity in schools cannot attain. On the one side, Lewis explicitly rejects any type of systematic effort to “get at” the schools in order to re-inculcate Christianity into the English public. For one reason, he thinks it “unlikely that in the next forty years England will have a government which would encourage or even tolerate any radically Christian elements in its State system of education.” As the State gains power, Christianity will be viewed as an enemy. And for another, forcing Christianity where it is not wanted “should only be making masters hypocrites and hardening thereby the pupils’ hearts.”
Yet this is an objection against re-importing Christianity into schools, not preserving it. On that score, Lewis has no objection. As he writes, “If any man, in some little corner out of the reach of the omnicompetent, can make, or preserve a really Christian school, that is another matter. His duty is plain.”*
Lewis’ tacit distinction between preservation and reclaiming is worth considering within our debates about how a Christian politics might look. Yet there is also a localism at work within his preface: while the State might enforce an agenda within its schools, it meets at some point the resistance of the real men and women who are tasked with enacting it. As he writes, “let the abstract scheme of education be what it will: its actual operation will be what the men make it.” By avoiding abstractions, Lewis is able to open up possibilities for action within his normative commitments that today’s Christian liberals fail to admit—even while avoiding the kind of reactionary anxiety to rebuild a religious democracy that besets todays “nationalist conservatives.”
Lewis thought the task before the church of his time was urgent—which was, as he saw it, the conversion of adults and adolescents. Yet he also saw grounds for hope within both the Christian theological framework and the sociology of procreation. There “is no need to be uneasy about the ultimate event,” he writes, in a phrase that signals an eschatological commitment. Yet he does not leave his confidence there: “As long as Christians have children and non-Christians do not,” he goes on, “one need have no anxiety for the next century.” The immanent materialism at work within the secular world Lewis critiqued is self-defeating, in a way that a Christian hope as manifested in giving birth to new generations can never be.
Lewis’ essay comes from a different world. While he stood at the precipice of a declining Christianity (which he saw coming), we are now in the midst of it. Lewis knew better than most the ways in which the educational ethos of Britain could deform students’ souls: his most important work, The Abolition of Man, was published only three years before his preface to How Heathen is Britain?, and offered a bleak assessment of the way in which educational methods were undermining students’ commitment to the moral life. Despite that, though, Lewis declined to take the path of advocating for the deliberate re-Christianization of public schools that still attracts many people today. His reluctance was not founded, finally, upon his aversion to “Christian nationalism” but on his unbounded confidence in the truth and (eventual) victory of the Christian faith over all its foes.
Would that we had a similar confidence today.
Details on the New Platform
As you have noticed, I’m now on Substack. I am sorry for the inconvenience this might cause some of you, but the change needed to be made. There are a few items worth noting.
If you were a member over on Revue, you will have three free months of access.
$5 per month is the cheapest option Substack allows. However, I set the annual fee at $40 a month—just over the $3 a month on Substack.
If that is still too much, you can take 20% off the price here (paid annually).
If that’s still too much, you can take 50% off the price (paid annually) here.
And if you’re a teacher or college student and want 75% off annually, get that here.
As always, if you want a free membership (no questions asked), just respond to this email.
Substack has a commenting system. This will be limited to members. I’ll read them (as much as I do my email!), and source newsletter issue ideas from them…but I almost certainly won’t be active in the comments.
Substack makes it easy to give gift subscriptions, so feel free to do that. And if you want to support my work by becoming a “Founding Member,” well, that’s an option too.
Around the Web
[One major disadvantage of Substack: standalone links are much less visually compelling than Revue. I might do more than titles, but…possibly not. Bear with me.]
Political theology and political authority: Evaluating Oliver O’Donovan’s Christian liberalism. This is a brilliant essay by Jonathan Cole on Oliver O’Donovan’s “conservative Christian liberalism.” As someone who has been deeply shaped by O’Donovan’s outlook, it helped me understand my own commitments, and why I feel many of the tensions with American theological politics that I feel.
NYT: Why Do We Talk About Miscarriage Differently From Abortion? Two lawyers collapse abortions and miscarriage together. The odds of me writing a response to this one here in the next week or so are…high.
The Penultimate Word
“To see [Christ] today is to see this One condemned, expelled and rejected in our place. To believe in Him is necessarily to realise that His place ought to have been ours. To love Him and to hope in Him is to be required, in remembrance of what we deserved and as a sign of fellowship with Him, to take up and bear our much smaller crosses, and not to be able to escape this requirement.
The narrow way of the Christian who belongs to Him, which leads through the strait gate of discipleship, means neither more nor less for man than that in order to win his life he should give it up for lost and really lose it. It is thus that Jesus Christ is the true Witness and Himself the truth.
It is with this offence and folly that He meets us, and not otherwise. This is what we cannot ignore in this encounter, yet also cannot of ourselves accept. This is what presents to the falsehood of man the challenge to render it innocuous, to work it over, to translate and reinterpret and transform it, to make it a less troublesome penultimate Word of God instead of His ultimate Word.” — Karl Barth