I and my friends went to see the movie “Amazing Grace” the other night. It’s a movie on the life of William Wilberforce, the Christian political activist who is largely responsible for ending the English slave-trade in the 19th century. It was a very good movie! Now, in my book Myth of a Christian Nation, I argue that Christians should take great care to separate their faith from their politics. So some people have wondered how Wilberforce fits into your paradigm? Doesn’t the good he accomplished refute my strong separation of the Kingdom of God from the kingdom of the world? This question is especially important in light of the fact that many conservative evangelical leaders (e.g. Chuck Colson) use Wilberforce’s example to rally Christians around a particular way of voting.
Let me start by saying that I think Wilberforce was one of the greatest human beings, and certainly one of the greatest politicians, who ever lived. And I don’t believe there’s any conflict whatsoever between his passionate involvement in politics and my challenge to keep one’s allegiance to the Kingdom of God distinct from politics. I’ll say two things.
First, I have never said 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 have I ever said 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 every 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 a polis, 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 the evil 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 this (and there are a million), good and decent people in a pluralistic culture 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 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 descent people we are to confront evils). Still less is the Kingdom call 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.