Is There a Wilberforce Out There?

Is There a Wilberforce Out There? November 5, 2008

obamaI in no way style myself a political pundit, and for good reason.  If you’re interested in coverage of the historic election of Barack Obama as president, check out the New York Times’s front-page article.   Justin Taylor is soliciting feedback from some fine Christian thinkers; I would encourage you to read Randy Alcorn’s hope-filled piece, and I loved Eric Redmond’s essay on voting pro-life as an African-American.  Al Mohler has some characteristically incisive and strong words on how Christians should proceed from here.

All of these commentators have helpful words for Christians.  I have little else to contribute.  I would say, though, that this election reminded me of the need for politically minded Christians.  I’m not talking about bloggers and book-readers.  I’m thinking specifically of bright young Christian people who will go to good colleges, get political experience, work their way through the system, and run for office.  Once elected, they will withstand the temptations of secular public life and stand as a force for righteousness and justice.

Don’t get me wrong.  I see no lasting future for politics.  One day, this process will end.  Then, we’ll have a one-party system for sure, a righteous reign that never ends, that never causes weeping, that never breaks a home, that never oppresses people of color, that never kills an innocent.  Until that day, the church, not the political system or the social justice world, is the repository of hope in this world.  The church bears the evangel, the gospel, and this is the only hope of any person.  Many of us would do well to invest far less in things that fade, including politics, and far more in things that last, including the local church and the ministry of the gospel.

But we cannot turn our back on this world, can we?  We must channel our energy into our local churches, and live “missionally,” and do all we can to send missionaries to the lost.  These are our first priorities as believers, whether in vocational ministry or not.  Beyond these things, though, we should encourage the development of young Christian political talent.  We should do so not to pass silly laws or to puff ourselves up, but to work for the spread of righteousness and justice in this darkened place.

Let us give priority, then, to raising up Christ-centered believers who live and work for the spread of the faith, whether from the home, the corner office, the academy, or the ministry.  But let us also seek to raise up a generation of evangelical politicians who spread the faith, yes, but who also work with great diligence in state, national, and global politics.  We can over-spiritualize our movement.  We live in this world, after all.  People suffer in this world.  Babies get murdered in this world.  Marriages crumble in this world.  Sex trafficking happens in this world.  How important, then, that we nurture a small movement of Christians who are gifted in the political realm.  We would not seek to exalt these people, but neither would we teach them that their calling has small significance.  It certainly does not.  We would teach them that they have a great responsibility, and that as congresspeople and judges and lobbyists and political appointees they must work to spread justice and righteousness, to defend the oppressed, to loose the captive, to share the faith from their unique position in the world.

Is there a Wilberforce out there, a person whom God may use to do something titanic like overturn Roe v. Wade or end sex-trafficking?  Are there bright young Christians who are not called to the ministry but who can use their gifts in the political realm in service to Christ?  Do we sometimes teach young Christians that only lesser believers enter the political realm?  We must not.  We must celebrate the ministry, but we must also recognize that many–most–are not called to it, and that there is a tremendous need in America and many other countries for courageous Christian statesmanship.  Politicians can be self-serving, and politics cannot inaugurate the salvation of the world, but so too can a righteous person accomplish tremendous good in the public square.  We must not forget this, and we must not fail to teach it to our children.

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  • Amen Owen.

    This post reminded me of a book that I am reading on recommendation from one of the youth in my church called–Do Hard Things–by Alex and Brett Harris.

    Anyway, I agree, we need young people willing to take on hard problems and do things that are out of their comfort-zone for the good of the kingdom and the glory of God!

  • Owen,

    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 thing that is the key for me. 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.

    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.

  • Al

    Very interesting, and I think, Helpful comments.

  • Owen,

    Great appeal. I am with you. I’ll be linking to this.


  • owenstrachan

    Ben–thanks for your thoughts. I worked in DC as well and knew many Christians in government. I’m not sure all sectors of government require as much compromise as you suggest, but I do think that you’re quite right that DC and other political environs require a high level of character. Perhaps this problem could be addressed by local churches that really do stay close to their politically involved members, rather than celebrating them, elevating them, and leaving them alone.

    The problem is bigger than that, of course, but I wonder if there isn’t hope for the future. I do think you’re right, though, that we can by no means enter with blind idealism into the political realm. It is a morass, to be sure, though one that we can hopefully use to advance goodness and justice and mercy.

    Zach–thanks very much for the link. Much appreciated, bro.

    Drew and Al–thanks for the words. Drew, I want to read their book, as it sounds great.