C. S. Lewis and the rebuilding of New Orleans

By Dave Crater crater@wilberforcecenter.org The first in a three-volume edition of the collected letters of Oxford don C.S. Lewis is now out from HarperSanFrancisco. “The funny thing,” Lewis wrote of Sir Walter Raleigh to his father in June 1926, “is that Raleigh’s views on the things of the spirit…are not really in opposition to the atmosphere of Christianity. Whatever he thought about the historical side of it, he must have known…that the religious view, whether literally true or not, was at any rate much more like the reality than the views of the scientists and rationalists.”

Or, alternately, the world is so obviously a spiritual place that any spiritual account of it is closer to the truth than that of the scientists and rationalists -- and a view with a Christian flavor to it, Lewis was then discovering, is downright enchanting. There is a reason the story of a dying and rising god pervades world myth.

Lewis did not live to see Hurricane Katrina pull back the “thin veneer of civilization” from the urban results of a half-century of scientific, rationalistic American liberalism. If he had, he might well have commented upon it from the perspective just quoted -- that even a vaguely spiritual view of the world has more explanatory and political power than all the research and reason of secularists.

For scientific rationalism eats like an acid at statesmanship, a quality we see in sore state in Louisiana and Washington post-Katrina. As Paul Johnson opined in the Denver Post on Sunday, and as we at the Wilberforce Center celebrated at our annual conference the day prior, statesmanship is “about service in difficult times, about selfless leaders without expectation of payment or status.”

Holding such a view of statesmanship, William Wilberforce almost single-handedly rid the British empire of slavery in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.

Alas, our method of statecraft today is about blaming others in difficult times, about selfish leaders with great expectation of payment and status who live daily planning and maneuvering for their next promotion until an act of God – a term of legal art from a less rationalistic time – shows them where their focus might have been better placed.

Though Mr. Bush is the least guilty of it among our current crop, the affliction is as bad if not worse in the Republican party, where a complacent and bureaucratic inertia widely and militantly resists coherent conservatism, than in the Democratic party, where rationalistic liberalism is often powerful enough to trump even the most powerful personal ambition.

Yet Mr. Bush has the chance, when he addresses the nation tonight, to remind us of Sir Walter Raleigh’s views of the things of the spirit:

* that property ownership and private enterprise have spiritual power;

* that those forces can rebuild cities just as they build cities in the first place;

* that “small government conservatism” cannot be to blame in New Orleans because it was nowhere to be found in New Orleans;

*that the urban poor on such notorious display have, in a very real sense, been temporarily liberated from the ghetto and their liberal slavemasters who keep them there;

* that real, selfless statesmanship is impossible without real (private) community and “small government conservatism.”

In a word, Mr. Bush can remind us that scientific rationalism and political liberalism are impotent gods with no power to rebuild a city.

Dave Crater