Over the years I’ve tried on several iterations of Christian orthodoxy–I was baptized Catholic (grandmother’s wish), then went on to Congregational Presbyterian, Unitarian, and Episcopalian versions. Sometimes my engagement was passionate, sometimes not, but I settled on being an Episcopalian 30 years ago because I liked the rituals – the smells and bells – Catholic without those politics. My attitude changed when a rigidly conservative vestry forced my friend, Robert Taylor, Dean of St. Mark’s Cathedral, to resign. He was a star, but gay, and that got under their skin. Since then I’ve felt a kind of benign indifference.
I include this personal history to give some credibility to what I’m about to write. I’m not unfamiliar with Christian apologetics and greatly admire some of its better writers – Diedrich Bonhoeffer, Paul Tillich, Reinhold Niebuhr, Karen Armstrong, and C.S. Lewis – but it’s Lewis that’s been on my mind lately.
He’s the author of the enormously successful, sometimes controversial, series of novels The Chronicles of Narnia (seven volumes of Young Adult fiction that includes The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, Prince Caspian etc.) and the subject of the award winning 1993 biopic Shadowlands.
The reason Lewis has been on my mind lately is an article by Garrett Epps in the latest Atlantic magazine in which the author uses Lewis’ fable The Screwtape Letters as an allegory for the Trump era. The Screwtape, of the title, is a senior devil and the book is a collection of 31 letters Screwtape sends to a junior devil named Wormwood advising him on how to reap souls for his master below.
Epps does a masterful job of drawing the parallels. “In Letter VII, Screwtape, the senior demon, reveals hell’s long-term strategy for the modern world: to produce people who do not believe in God but do believe, in some vague way, in magic: ‘If once we can produce our perfect work—the Materialist Magician, the man, not using, but veritably worshipping, what he vaguely calls ‘Forces’ while denying the existence of ‘spirits’—then the end of the war [against God] will be in sight.
That image—of those who worship force while denying spirit—has haunted me ever since; it epitomizes the dilemma of a human society in moral free fall because it has without knowing it, abandoned belief in its own pretended first principles.
In the age of Trump, we are seeing a legal incarnation of Screwtape—the lawless legalist who worships the law as force but denies the existence of its spirit.”
In this allegory, Epps sees Attorney General William Barr as Screwtape and The Donald as his Wormwood (how apt).
Screwtape (Barr) believes in an all-powerful dominating executive, secrecy, the absence of oversight, and abhors judicial review. “The president is not above the law; the president is the law.” This is the so-called “unitary executive” and Screwtape has been its biggest advocate since he was a junior lawyer in the Reagan White House. Wormwood laps it up. Two generations of able minds have “spun the fable” that the Founders intended the president to be a kind of dictator – though, of course, they don’t use that language.
“Like Screwtape’s materialist magician, Barr, the lawless legalist, embodies force without spirit; constitutionalism without liberty; democratic form without self-government. For two generations, he and people like him have been working to bring this vision to reality. They are on the verge of victory.”
Let’s hope not. Wormwood is flailing. With 42 days until the inauguration, he is ranting like Mad King Ludwig and the courtiers are scrambling to find any possible way to keep him on the throne.
The Trump era is probably the end of America as we knew it, but it is not the end of America all together. It can be rebuilt, but it will take time, energy, resources, creativity, cooperation, and patience. Screwtape and Wormwood have done immeasurable harm in the last four years. I don’t expect to live long enough to see the institutions fully restored, but my fingers are crossed for my children, grandchildren and beyond. Let’s send Screwtape and Wormwood back where they came from, just as they tried to do to millions of immigrants.
See Garrett Epps full article, Worshipping the Law While Denying its Spirit https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2019/11/cs-lewis-bill-barr/602623/