The Strategy of Screwtape

Written by: Tom Breeden

We talk often at the One America Movement about the science behind toxic polarization. There’s something empowering about knowing the hows and whys of our contemporary divisions. If we understand what’s going on, we can do something about it!

But Christians believe that there is more to this world than what we can observe, and the Bible teaches us that there is a spiritual component to our struggles. The Apostle Paul recognized this when he told the church in Ephesus, 

For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.

(Ephesians 6:12 ESV)

The apostle understood that people were not his enemy – there are spiritual forces at work in our present conflicts. The Bible teaches that we should consider these spiritual dynamics to fully understand our challenges.

C.S. Lewis captures this spiritual aspect with imagination and artistic flair in The Screwtape Letters. This book contains a collection of fictional letters from the seasoned Screwtape to his disciple Wormwood, as representatives of Satan and the demonic forces in the spiritual realm. Using fiction like this invites us to consider real things, like what tempts us to sin and causes us to fall short of the people we aspire to be. Some of Screwtape’s strategies are the same things science says are polarizing us today.

In one letter, Screwtape suggests that Wormwood could drive a division between a young Christian man {“the patient”} and that man’s mother. Where can Wormwood find a wedge like that? In assumptions. 

Your patient must demand that all his own utterances are to be taken at their face value and judged simply on the actual words, while at the same time judging all his mother’s utterances with the fullest and most over-sensitive interpretation of the tone and the context and the suspected intention.1

Wormwood is supposed to convince the patient that everything he (the patient) says is innocent and good, but everything his mother says is awful and malicious. Social scientists call this motive misattribution. It’s when we assume the best about ourselves and our motives, but we believe the worst about everyone else. It’s the belief that we are motivated by love, but the other person is motivated by hate. 

However, the truth is much more complicated. We are all driven by diverse and complex motivations. Sometimes the things that motivate us aren’t obvious at all! The best way to resist Screwtape’s strategy is to assume the best and give each other the benefit of the doubt. 

The demons don’t rest with motive misattribution. A later letter suggests that extremism is another path to temptation. Lewis wrote this book in the early days of World War II when one’s stance on the war was tantamount in British politics. So, Screwtape suggests: 

Let him begin by treating the Patriotism or the Pacifism as 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.2

Being pro-war or anti-war is really all that matters in Lewis’ scenario. It matters even more than being a Christian, and, eventually, the patient’s Christian faith just becomes a way to justify his political stance. 

Social scientists call this a singular, rigid identity. This is when the complexity of who we are gets flattened into a binary. Are you pro-war or anti-war? Are you for gun control or against it? Are you a cat person or a dog person? Singular rigid identities reduce everything to Team A versus Team B, and that reduction pushes us to even further extremes. 

So, what do we do in the face of this temptation to simplicity? One option is to remember what’s most important to you – what social scientists call a superordinate identity. Gathering around a superordinate identity allows us to stay in community with each other even when we disagree on less important issues. Or, as in Lewis’ example, we can be Patriots or Pacifists and still sit at the table together as Christians. 

Consider also the cross-cutting identities you have in common with other people in your community. You may be white, and she may be Black, but you’re both rooting for the same basketball team. A millennial and a boomer can unite around a common love for watching the television show Survivor. We can consciously resist Screwtape’s strategy by refusing to reduce our identities to a single checkbox. 

Where are we tempted to assume the worst about other people? How are we tempted to distance or exclude other people? Our answers may be Screwtape’s strategy to polarize us. But don’t worry! By drawing from the resources of our faith and the lessons from the science of polarization, we can resist him and his divisive devices, too.  

1-2Lewis, C.S. The Screwtape Letters. New York: HarperOne, 1996. 13-14.

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