Barack Obama and C. S. Lewis on Equality

In December 2011 President Obama visited Osawatomie, Kansas, summoning the ghost of Teddy Roosevelt who delivered a famous speech there in 1910 on progressive nationalism. Obama declared that economic inequality is “the defining issue of our time” and dedicated his administration to restoring fairness:

I’m here in Kansas to reaffirm my deep conviction that we’re greater together than we are on our own. I believe that this country succeeds when everyone gets a fair shot, when everyone does their fair share, when everyone plays by the same rules. These aren’t Democratic values or Republican values. These aren’t 1 percent values or 99 percent values. They’re American values. And we have to reclaim them.

When I reflect on C. S. Lewis’ words below, I wonder whether Obama conceives of equality as intrinsically good, whether he treats equality as “a medicine or a safety-gadget” or “an ideal,” whether the source of his demand for equality is “the desire for fair play” or “the hatred of superiority.” It is impossible to make definite judgments here, but I have my hunches about Obama.

I do not think that equality is one of those things (like wisdom or happiness) which are good simply in themselves and for their own sakes. I think it is in the same class as medicine, which is good because we are ill, or clothes which are good because we are no longer innocent. I don’t think the old authority in kings, priests, husbands, or fathers, and the old obedience in subjects, laymen, wives, and sons, was in itself a degrading or evil thing at all. I think it was intrinsically as good and beautiful as the nakedness of Adam and Eve. It was rightly taken away because men became bad and abused it. To attempt to restore it now would be the same error as that of the Nudists. Legal and economic equality are absolutely necessary remedies for the Fall, and protection against cruelty.
– “Equality” (1943)

When equality is treated not as a medicine or a safety-gadget but an ideal we begin to breed that stunted and envious sort of mind which hates all superiority.
– “Equality” (1943)

The demand for equality has two sources; one of them is among the noblest, the other is the basest, of human emotions. The noble source is the desire for fair play. But the other source is the hatred of superiority.
“Democratic Education” (1944)



2 thoughts on “Barack Obama and C. S. Lewis on Equality

  1. C. S. Lewis is particularly wise here. Strengths were created neither for abuse and smugness nor ultimately to be ignored and dismissed, but for service and interdependence in a body of diverse strengths.

    A common problem in denominations (and warring sub-groups within denominations) is a tendency to honor one strength (e.g. service to the poor or cultural/personal savvy or doctrinal rigor) over others, leading to a deformed and crippled Body.

    • Albert: I agree with the “common problem in denominations” that you described. How would you suggest that the Body of Christ honors multiple strengths rather than privileging some and neglecting others?

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