Where will the new Wilberforce come from?

William Wilberforce

Over at Owen's blog, he gives an excellent call for Christians to consider public service as an opportunity for displaying the gospel in the world, much the way William Wilberforce did in England. Let me say outright that I agree almost entirely with Owen in this. However, it brought to mind this question; why isn't this already happening? Lots of Christians are interested in politics, we have lots of money and plenty of people in the culture who lean our direction... where are the Wilberforces?

My suggestion is that it may partly be a question of tactics. Here is my response (which I posted in the comments section) to Owen's call.


Thanks for this thoughtful article. It expresses well a great need and a helpful metaphor.

However, I think there are two major things that go along with this call.

First, the need for evangelicals to rethink how we educate young people in regards to politics. I think our paradigms are not well thought out, and as a result Christian interaction with politics tends toward the extremely simplistic and unhelpful. Christian teaching about politics tends to focus only on value issues, apologetics, and the like. We are taught to be so moralistic, as well as so vociferous in our denunciations of secular morality, that we have little opportunity to demonstrate the grace and hope that the gospel offers. How can we be excellent negotiators and policy makers when so much Christian thought is devoted to loud denunciations of the evils of the secular worldview? They simply stop listening to us.

I saw this clearly, because for nearly seven years I was absolutely committed to being one of those Christians who would change the political sphere. I studied carefully, debated thoughtfully, took non-paying internships, was introduced to the right people, and so on. However, I soon saw that politics is dominated by secular characters. These people may claim faith, but generally are pragmatic to the core. When they think of Christians, they think of a voting block, but not serious thinkers about civic policy and direction. As a result, they have little reason to support Christian involvement in positions of real power and responsibility, because they do not think them capable of serious engagement with the issues. In fact, the reality is that they basically ignore us and placate us with pro-life votes.

This leads to the other problem. Christian ethics are extremely hard to maintain in the ultra-pragmatic world of politics. Part of the reason that those Christians in politics seem to be “weak” ones is that you usually HAVE to be willing to sacrifice your principles for the sake of advancement to leadership and decision-making roles. Wilberforce had massive advantages in regards to his personal fortune, his location in society and history, the governmental structure, etc. Without those, it is an extremely rare Christian who can both advance politically and maintain his ethical stance consistently.

In my own life, I saw how often (even at the lowest levels of party politics) I was required to compromise to gain notice and influence. Don’t want to steal the other candidate’s signs? You’ll never help run a campaign. Won’t accept money from pornography producers, sweat shop runners, unethical businessmen? We’ll run the guy who will. Won’t vote yes on the bill your party leader supports but you don’t? You won’t be supported by the party, won’t get a leadership position, and will be relegated to a meaningless committee. Won’t do a dirty backroom deal? You’ll never accomplish landmark legislation that will give your resume the credibility it needs to take the next step.

One possible exception to these problems is the legal field. Christians have made some remarkable gains in legal practice and judgeships, often in alliance with conservative groups such as The Federalist Society. Advancement comes through consistency and high standards, which works in Christians’ favor. However, party politics is nigh-unto impossible to navigate without moral compromise, unless a person makes a name for himself outside of the party “system.”

It is this last that is the key. Rather than support parties and hope that solid Christians can penetrate party structures (a rarity), I believe we can be much more effective on the local level. We can look for people with the will and character to make God-honoring decisions, and then strongly support them for jobs like county commissioner, mayor, or attorney general. After that, they have the opportunity to gain enough name recognition to run for Governor… and it’s the governors who are in the best position to run for executive office.

Bobby Jindal

So, there’s no one Senator I can think of whom I would feel entirely comfortable with running for President (this last election being Exhibit A). However, there are several governors who, if not perfect, exhibit signs of being our best hope for mature, thoughtful , and ethical leadership; Bobby Jindal, Tim Pawlenty, Mike Huckabee, etc. (Palin hasn’t really convinced me that she is willing to forego the party line).

I guess what I’m saying is this… we Christians should probably focus less on supporting one party or making unholy alliances to focus on one issue, and focus more on using dollars and volunteerism to support individual candidates who show excellent moral character and an ability to create thoughtful and non-partisan policy. This, I think, will separate us from being characterized as a “voting block” and give far greater opportunity to use our civic engagement to point to the health and hope of the gospel.



Owen said...

An excellent post/comment, Ben. Really appreciate the stimulating dialogue. Very helpful. Hope you and Samantha and Isaiah are doing very well.

Steven Douglas said...

Hey Ben,

I have yet to answer your post on my blog, but I caught sight of this post adn had to keep reading. Here, you and I are on the same page. I also think we are often too simplistic, and I believe we need more committed Christians in the political, judicial, business, art, and media spheres. Sadly, it is hard to find committed Christians in the local church. I would sure love to talk to you about how to develop this in a systematic process.

Steve Douglas

Anonymous said...

The picture of Isaiah is cute. I wonder if he will be interested in politics.