Special Report

William Wilberforce Forced Left

Guess who's claiming this Tory abolitionist and colleague of Edmund Burke as one of their own.

By 2.27.07

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Amazing Grace, the new film about British abolitionist leader William Wilberforce, has inspired a rush to claim the evangelical parliamentarian as a religious and social role model. The modern evangelical left is especially anxious to do so.

Jim Wallis of Sojourners, perhaps the most prominent evangelical left spokesman, likes to define his evangelical faith by politics rather than his theology. "I'm a 19th century evangelical," he likes to say, referring to abolitionists and crusaders against child labor, etc. Predictably, Wallis is claiming Wilberforce as an evangelical left paragon. In fact, Wilberforce, like Methodist founder John Wesley and other 18th century evangelical revivalists, belonged to the ruling Tory Party and was both conservative and reforming, not revolutionary, in his causes.

Like his colleague Edmund Burke, Wilberforce was deeply disturbed by the French Revolution, and suspicious of all utopian schemes to re-create society. His 40-year campaign against slavery was gradualist, and Wilberforce never relented in believing that society can only be truly reformed by religion, not by government fiat. This is the very inverse of Jim Wallis's style of evangelical left politics, which often conflate the Gospel with the welfare state and government regulation.

The Wilberforce film is also an opportunity for the evangelical left to knock religious conservatives, who presumably are indifferent to the plight of the world's suffering, and are absorbed in the garish riches of their suburban mega-churches. In the folklore of the evangelical left, their more numerous co-religionists on the right are mindless supporters of war, laissez-faire economics, and environmental despoliation. George W. Bush is especially obnoxious to the evangelical left because of his own evangelical faith, and because evangelicals have been his most steadfastly supportive voting bloc.

NO EVANGELICAL HERSELF, Arianna Huffington on her blog nonetheless linked to comments about Wilberforce and Bush by Chuck Gutenson, a professor at Asbury Theological Seminary in Kentucky, and a loyal supporter of Jim Wallis's Sojourners. Gutenson was especially enraged by a local Kentucky newspaper column's comparison of George W. Bush's pugnaciousness on the Iraq War to Wilberforce's unswerving crusade against slavery. The red-state op-ed had reckoned that "George Bush is the modern equivalent of William Wilberforce, a resolute man of faith engaged in a long term, but unpopular struggle." Apparently, the columnist also compared Bush to Martin Luther King, Jr. and Gandhi. Naturally Gutenson was aghast. "Can you imagine Martin Luther King (much less Gandhi!) supporting Bush's decision to go to war in Iraq?" Gutenson incredulously asked. "One can imagine many statements King or Gandhi might have more for Bush, but one can rest assured that 'stay the course in Iraq' would not be one of them."

Point taken, but neither Gandhi nor King, for all their stature, would be a dispenser of relevant advice about statecraft and war, as both were adamant pacifists. Infamously, Gandhi refused to back Great Britain against Nazi Germany or distinguish between the British Empire and the Third Reich. King's opposition to the Vietnam War, in which he called the United States' the "greatest purveyor of violence in the world today," lacked the moral astuteness of his heroic crusade against racial segregation.

Gutenson, who also inclines towards pacifism, likewise cited Wilberforce's "own objection to war, having argued against the war with France strenuously enough to suffer a period of estrangement from his good friend [British prime minister] Pitt." According to Gutenson, "Wilberforce would have been more akin to contemporary war objectors who are smeared with the charge of being 'unpatriotic' or of being an 'appeaser' because he thought war inconsistent with Christian faith."

Well, Wilberforce was not quite Jim Wallis. He was not a pacifist. And whatever his early objections to Britain's military intervention against the French Revolution, which had the lamentable result of delaying Wilberforce's anti-slavery campaign, Wilberforce supported Britain's forceful opposition to Napoleon's vast conquests. "We have every reason to believe Wilberforce would object to Bush's war in Iraq," Gutenson concluded. That is possibly true, but Wilberforce's objections would have been based more on skepticism about nation-building than on the pseudo-pacifism of the modern evangelical left, which has rejected historic Christianity's traditional teachings about "just war."

The anti-slavery policy that Wilberforce persuaded Britain to adopt also entailed the Royal Navy's violently apprehending slave ships on the Atlantic. Presumably, a strict pacifist would have favored only more gentle persuasion with the slave traffickers.

FOR GUTENSON, THE BUSH-WILBERFORCE comparison is objectionable for still another reason. After all, Wilberforce "used his resources to benefit those oppressed or otherwise on the margins of society. He argued for a better school system and for prison reform. The focus of his life was on making society better and on improving the lot of his fellows."

This, of course, stands in stark contrast with Bush, who has "has used his position of privilege to benefit himself and to benefit the wealthy, generally at the cost of those most on the margins of our society." Gutenson provided no supporting examples, his point being purportedly self-evident. Since federal social spending, which is how the evangelical left typically measures Christian compassion, has risen dramatically under Bush, it is a mystery what specifically Gutenson had in mind. Probably it is the Bush tax cuts. In the lore of the evangelical left, the biblical prophets of old all demanded high taxes from the Hebrew kings.

With Christian charity, Gutenson concluded by contrasting the sleeping habits of Bush with Wilberforce. The British reformer went to bed at night knowing he had ended the slave trade. The monster, Bush, sleeps with dreams of "hundreds of thousands killed in his war of choice and of the poor damaged to benefit the wealthy." Indeed, Bush is the "antithesis of William Wilberforce," Gutenson concluded, and any permitted comparison between the two is a "further testimony to the corruption of popular Christianity in the U.S." But then, in the eyes of the evangelical left, the U.S., including its Christianity, is perpetually and irredeemably corrupt, even without Bush or the religious right.

Comparing Bush to Wilberforce is indeed historically inexact, but not for the facile reasons that Gutenson offered. The abolitionist was a legislator, not a ruler. Bush might be more credibly likened to Wilberforce's friend, Prime Minister William Pitt, who launched a two-decade war with revolutionary France but would not last to see its conclusion at Waterloo.

Wilberforce, like the Savior he followed, had such noble qualities that all sects attempt to claim him as their own. However spurious these claims of kinship sometimes are, the eagerness to emulate the British abolitionist only further adds to his glory.

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About the Author

Mark Tooley is president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy in Washington, D.C. and author of Methodism and Politics in the Twentieth CenturyYou can follow him on Twitter @markdtooley.