The Corner

Obama, Islam, and C.S. Lewis

Ramesh and Daniel have both mentioned the presidential inclination to delimit the “true” beliefs of Muslims. The inimitable C. S. Lewis, in the preface to Mere Christianity, had something to say about this subject, albeit in a slightly different context:

Far deeper objections may be felt—and have been expressed— against my use of the word Christian to mean one who accepts the common doctrines of Christianity. People ask: “Who are you, to lay down who is, and who is not a Christian?” or “May not many a man who cannot believe these doctrines be far more truly a Christian, far closer to the spirit of Christ, than some who do?” Now this objection is in one sense very right, very charitable, very spiritual, very sensitive. It has every amiable quality except that of being useful. We simply cannot, without disaster, use language as these objectors want us to use it.

By way of illustration, Lewis points to the history of the word “gentleman,” which “originally meant something recognisable: one who had a coat of arms and some landed property.” To call someone a gentleman was not a compliment, but a fact. But along came an inclination to distinguish, among the landed class, “true” gentlemen, so that “gentleman” became a term of commendation — to be opposed to, say, cad. “We had lots of terms of approval already,” Lewis laments. The addition of “gentleman” to that list did not add anything; it merely made “gentleman” a useless word.

He then applies that lesson to the word “Christian”:

Now if once we allow people to start spiritualising and refining, or as they might say “deepening,” the sense of the word Christian, it too will speedily become a useless word. In the first place, Christians themselves will never be able to apply it to anyone. It is not for us to say who, in the deepest sense, is or is not close to the spirit of Christ. We do not see into men’s hearts. We cannot judge, and are indeed forbidden to judge.

It would be wicked arrogance for us to say that any man is, or is not, a Christian in this refined sense. And obviously a word which we can never apply is not going to be a very useful word. As for the unbelievers, they will no doubt cheerfully use the word in the refined sense. It will become in their mouths simply a term of praise. In calling anyone a Christian they will mean that they think him a good man. But that way of using the word will be no enrichment of the language, for we already have the word good. Meanwhile, the word Christian will have been spoiled for any really useful purpose it might have served.

We must therefore stick to the original, obvious meaning. The name Christians was first given at Antioch (Acts 11:26) to “the disciples,” to those who accepted the teaching of the apostles. There is no question of its being restricted to those who profited by that teaching as much as they should have. There is no question of its being extended to those who in some refined, spiritual, inward fashion were “far closer to the spirit of Christ” than the less satisfactory of the disciples. The point is not a theological, or moral one. It is only a question of using words so that we can all understand what is being said. When a man who accepts the Christian doctrine lives unworthily of it, it is much clearer to say he is a bad Christian than to say he is not a Christian.

Similarly, the point with Obama — or Bush or Clinton — need not be a theological or moral one. What they, and others, have done is to transform “Islam” or “Muslim” from neutral words of description into words of praise. In the president’s mouth, these words no longer communicate any content; they only express approval. When Barack Obama says “Muslim,” he means “a self-proclaimed Muslim with whom I agree.”

Of course, we can communicate at all only because words mean things. So emptying words of their content does not facilitate, but hinders clear communication. And that is not a pedantic point. This confusion poses a danger to the integrity of our public debates.

Consider the assertion that illegal immigrants are “Americans.” When a conservative says that illegal immigrants are not “Americans,” he most likely means that that person is not a legal citizen of the United States. But when his opponent says that many illegal immigrants are, in fact, “Americans,” he is employing a version of the word that is, in Lewis’s terms, “refined” or “spiritualized.” One speaker is using a distinct, neutral descriptor; the other is expressing approbation. 

How are these interlocutors ever to agree on a conclusion to their debate when they cannot agree on its terms?

In his book Abuse of Language, Abuse of Power, Josef Pieper wrote, “The dignity of the word, to be sure, consists in this: through the word is accomplished what no other means can accomplish, namely, communication based on reality.”

Inevitably, when you obscure the language, you obscure the reality. But in many cases, that helps to win the argument.


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