Take the instance of William Wilberforce, the wealthy and religious Minister of Parliament and the principle character in the movie Amazing Grace. Wilberforce mounted a decades-long campaign to end the slave trade in the United Kingdom, roughly 1789 until 1807, when the slave trade was effectively ended by a legislative sleight of hand. A month after his death in 1833, all slaves in the British Empire were emancipated by the Slavery Abolition Act.
All noble stuff, and Wilberforce’s remains rest in an honored place in Westminster Abbey as a result. His contributions have also warranted the Wilberforce, a 102-foot Doric column topped by Wilberforce’s statute in Queen’s Gardens in London.
It is not only Wilberforce’s doggedness that earned him his place in the British pantheon, but, let’s be honest, his Christian-guided morality. (FYI: In his day, Wilberforce was considered an evangelical.)
Because we’re talking about slavery here, one of humanity’s most odious sins, it’s easy even in modern pluralistic times for people outside the Christian tradition to see Amazing Grace and be moved. The movie works.
But like all people, Wilberforce was more complicated than the man carved in stone. He wrote in his diary, “God Almighty has set me two great objects, the suppression of the Slave Trade and the reformation of manners.” By manners he was referring to what he saw as a rising tide of vice and immorality (there’s that word again).
Along with the Archbishop of Canterbury and other religious officials, Wilberforce pressed King George III to issue his Proclamation for the Discouragement of Vice in 1787. By 1802 this became the Society for the Suppression of Vice, which fined and/or imprisoned many people, including free speech campaigners and secular reformers like the firebrand Thomas Paine.
Strictly speaking, Amazing Grace is not a bio-pic and so none of this turns up in the movie, but it does illustrate what makes moderns so uncomfortable with Christianity and with evangelical Christians in particular. In 2007 imprisoning people for free speech violations seems pretty retrograde.
What’s the modern world to make of people who not only seek to change the world for the better, but to change the individual for the better?
Here’s how one pop-culture icon is reacting. The 400th episode of The Simpsons tackles the subject of the Parents Television Council… called Online Christian Soldiers… which it decries for, “keeping the world safe from the horror of free expression” after one of the characters cuts loose a four-letter word on television.
And it’s not just pop culture on the attack. Right now Richard Dawkins, the eminent evolutionary biologist, Christopher Hitchens, and other evangelical atheists are laying the wood to Christians and other theists.
I have it on good authority from Catholic scholars…who always know their stuff on this account… that the logical case against God is stronger than the one for Him. In large measure that’s because the answers to the “why is there evil?’ questions are so unsatisfying. [Although to me, the question of 'why there is good?' is much more challenging. Even that old atheist Jean Paul Sartre never could never mount a meaningful response to that question.]
Christians… who still think in terms of right and wrong… and pluralists are talking past each other. But understanding starts with seeing people as they really are, not as you’ve categorized them.
Christians believe in positive change. But not only do they believe it, they work on it. It was Christian’s sense of morality that led to the end not only of chattel slavery, but debtor’s prisons, and child labor.
Even today, for every NGO working to improve life in the Third World, there are five Christian organizations, many of which have been on the ground longer.
Here’s my review of Amazing Grace: If you’re a Christian, go see it to witness your heritage. To non-Christians and pluralists I say, go see Amazing Grace to get a fuller picture of the power of Christianity to spark the good in men’s souls.