Screwtape On Idolatry

Though written during World War II, C. S. Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters has lost none of its social relevance or power to convict. Consider this passage from Letter VII, in which senior devil Screwtape advises his nephew Wormwood on whether it would be better to make his “patient”—the young man whom he is tempting—into a patriot or a pacifist.

“Whichever he adopts, your main task will be the same. Let him begin by treating the Patriotism or the Pacifism as a part of his religion. Then let him, under the influence of partisan spirit, come to regard it as the most important part. Then quietly and gradually nurse him on to the stage at which the religion becomes merely part of the ‘Cause,’ in which Christianity is valued chiefly because of the excellent arguments it can produce in favour of the British war effort or of pacifism.”

Screwtape, it seems, has done little to change his tactics between the War against Fascism and the War on Terror. I fear that there are many believers (and congregations) today who may begin by adopting their position for or against the Iraq War on the basis of their Christian convictions, but who end by bending their Christian convictions to fit their partisan beliefs. That is to say, rather than allowing their patriotism/pacifism to flow naturally out of their individual (or corporate) relationship with

Christ, they find ever-ingenious—and often disingenuous—ways to “baptize” their previous political commitments.

The same slippery slope from Christian-inspired activism to Christian-validated idolatry can even occur in areas that are more specifically ecclesiastical in focus. Many congregations across the nation have sought to transform themselves from a single-ethnic, monochromatic body of believers into a multiethnic church that intentionally promotes diversity among its pastoral staff and parishioners. The desire to open one’s doors to Christ-followers of all races and ethnicities is certainly a worthy one, one that finds a biblical basis in Acts and several of Paul’s epistles and that has the potential to bring revival to churches and cities across the country.

But a subtle danger threatens the congregation that would be overly intentional in its intention to institutionalize racial and ethnic diversity. If the church allows its multiethnic mission to define its central and sole identity, it will be tempted to mute, ignore, or even revise aspects of the Bible, orthodox theology, and/or sacred tradition that do not support and promote that identity. It will be tempted as well to judge other congregations (and individuals) not by their adherence to the gospel message but by how they measure up against the diversity yardstick.

If such a congregation continues to slide down the slippery slope toward idolatry, it may discover, too late, that it has ceased to be a multiethnic CHURCH, and has morphed into a MULTIETHNIC church. Ethnic diversity will no longer be one of the fruits of the Great Commission; rather, Christianity will have been reduced to one more helpful ally in the building of an egalitarian, multiethnic utopia.

I use the multiethnic church as my example, not because I think the ideals that undergird it are bad ones, but because they are so praiseworthy. But then, to paraphrase a line from Lewis, brass is more often mistaken for gold than clay is. To the modern American mind, nurtured since birth to believe that equality and inclusivism are absolute virtues on par with faith, hope, and love, it is easy to so conflate the promise of ethnic diversity with that of the gospel message that the latter comes to serve the former, rather than vice versa.

During my undergraduate years, I happened upon a tract by Melody Green, “Abortion: Attitudes for Action,” that I have never forgotten. Though Melody was and still is strongly committed to saving the unborn, her stronger and foundational commitment to Christ impelled her to add this advice to her tract: “Christians working for pro-life must be pro-Jesus first. He must be our focus. We must be careful not to allow ourselves to be consumed by a cause, rather than consumed by Jesus.

Giving even a godly cause priority above our personal relationship with God will grieve Him. Jesus must be our foundation—otherwise we may see our own eternal life sacrificed on the altar of worthy causes” (
Let us give the last word not to Screwtape but to the disciple whom Jesus loved: “Dear children, keep yourselves from idols” (1 John 5:21).


Louis Markos has been a Professor of English at Houston Baptist University since 1991; he is the author of The Life and Writings of C. S. Lewis, Lewis Agonistes, and From Achilles to Christ: Why Christians Should Read the Pagan Classics (IVP, 2007).

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