Don’t Wilberforce’s achievements refute your stance on the separation of faith and politics?

Question: William Wilberforce was a Christian whose passionate involvement in politics almost single-handedly brought an end to the slave trade in 19th century England. Don’t his achievements show the importance of Christians being involved in politics, thus refuting your contention that Christian’s should keep their faith and values separate from politics?

Answer: First, while I stand by my contention that the Christian faith and political involvement must always be kept very distinct from one another, I would never claim that Christians should not be involved in politics. I believe they should be involved in any way, and to any extent, they feel God leads them.

Nor would I ever say that Christians should check their “faith and values” at the door when they get involved in the political process. Such a suggestion is ludicrous because everything a person does manifests his or her “faith and values” (even if one is an atheist). I simply maintain that no one should label their particular way of being involved in politics the “Christian” way.

What Wilberforce did was absolutely wonderful, but it wasn’t distinctly Christian. Any good and decent person should be against slavery. Wilberforce simply made it his life mission to inform Parliament and the general populace about the horrific realities of the slave trade, a reality to which most had been blinded. And he did it while appealing to broadly shared values in the society he had leadership within in order to motivate people to bring about needed change. This is simply good politics.

So Wilberforce is a great example of the good that a passionate, wise, courageous, and smart person can do in politics. But we misrepresent Wilberforce when we use him to show that there’s a unique Christian way of voting or running a political office.

Second, it’s important that we distinguish between issues of good verses evil, on the one hand, and ambiguous issues that divide the polis (society), on the other. I’m aware that this distinction is not always perfectly clear-cut, but it must suffice for now. Slave trading, sex trafficking and the AIDS epidemic are examples of the first. In these cases, evil people, or evils in nature, are brutally dehumanizing other people. Here the challenge is to inform people of what’s going on while appealing to their common human decency to confront these evils head-on.

Most political issues, however, are not of this sort. They rather fall into the second camp. What economic plan will best take care of the poor? Should the government decide what the status and rights of an unborn child is or should this be the mother’s decision? What should be done about illegal immigration? On issues such as these (and there are a million), good and decent people in pluralistic cultures can and do disagree.

Now, regarding issues of good verses evil, decent people will be united against the evil once they are informed. The task, in this case, is the one Wilberforce faced. One needs to disseminate credible information to motivate good people to confront the issue. If, however, the issue is one about which decent people disagree, even when all the information is on the table, the political challenge is to build consensus by appealing to values shared by all parties while calling for compromise (a word many Christian hate, but which is absolutely essential when decent people can’t agree).

What we need to see is that, in either case, there is no uniquely Christian stance one can take – which is why I encourage people to never slap the label “Christian” on their political opinions. If the issue is a matter of good verses evil, then it will be obvious to good people what should be done (once they’re informed), and appealing to distinctly Christian teachings isn’t necessary (or helpful). If, however, the issue is a matter about which good people disagree, then appealing to distinctly Christian teachings will certainly not be helpful, for the simple reason that the society as a whole isn’t Christian. In other words, the criteria politics should appeal to is human decency, not distinctly Christian teaching.

This is what Wilberforce appealed to as he sought to enlighten his English brothers and sisters about the slave trade. And it is what made him a (all-too-rare) noble and wise politician. But it isn’t what made him a follower of Jesus. As a decent human being, he could and should have done all that he did even if he was an atheist.

So, in conclusion, the unique call of the Kingdom is not about how we confront obvious evils (though, of course, as decent people we are to confront evils). And the Kingdom call is even less about how we resolve ambiguous social issues, something Jesus himself never got involved in. The unique call of the Kingdom is about our individual and corporate willingness to sacrifice ourselves for all people, at all times, including our enemies.

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