The Believer and Social Ethics: More on the Ground Zero Mosque, Part 2

By all accounts, one of the shining examples of socio-political engagement by a Christian is the abolition struggle of William Wilberforce (1759-1833). While some have seen the excellent film Amazing Grace, others may be unfamiliar with this giant of a man. So a review of his life will probably be helpful.

Soon after being elected a member of Parliament in 1780, he was converted and joined the strict Clapham Sect—a group devoted to the promotion of evangelical ideals in the public square. His Christian convictions compelled him to use his considerable oratorical powers in opposition to the slave trade. In 1807, due largely to his untiring efforts, the emancipation of all English slaves was achieved. Shortly after this crowning achievement, Wilberforce died. His work was not merely political however. He helped found the Church Missionary Society and the British and Foreign Bible Society. He contributed to the charities of Hannah More which assisted the poor and provided schools and adult educational opportunities, among many other good works.

With such a legacy, Wilberforce seems to be the textbook example of a believer who got it right, who balanced internal religion with societal ethics, who can serve as a model of applied Christianity when it comes to our responsibility to the state. 

One of his most lasting legacies (outside the abolition of slavery in England) is his book Practical view of the prevailing religious system of professed Christians, in the higher and middle classes in this country, contrasted with real Christianity. This work helped spark the Second Great Awakening and its influence was felt throughout Europe and the United States. While the subject of A Practical View is an examination of true Christianity as opposed to mere religion, the last chapter is a discussion of the political impact of true Christianity upon a society. 

Wilberforce insists that “the state of Religion in a country at any given period … immediately becomes a question of great political importance….” (William Wilberforce. A Practical View of Christianity. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1996, 190. From this point on, page numbers will simply be listed in parenthesis.) 

This statement is based upon the reality that the “temporal well-being of political communities” is influenced to a great degree by the “general standard or tone of morals” that exist in that community. (190-191) In fact, Wilberforce considers this truth to be self-evident. It is “a fact which depends on such obvious and undeniable principles, and which is so forcibly inculcated by the history of all ages, that there can be no necessity for entering into a formal proof of its truth.” (190)

Wilberforce acknowledges that the morality of a given community may differ over time and across socio-economic situations. Still, this general tone regulates morality by inciting the populace to live up to that standard. The influence of this general moral standard also exerts pressure in the opposite direction, however, often punishing those who rise above it. This principle holds true regardless of the religion or irreligion of the populace.

Christians, Jews, Turks, Infidels, and Heretics, persons of ten thousand different sorts of passions and opinions, being members at the same time of the same community, and all conscious that they will be examined by this same standard, will regulate their conduct accordingly, and, with no great difference, will all adjust themselves to the required measure. (190)

Knowing that much good could come to society even through the general morality of a false religion, Wilberforce insisted that, without the regenerating work of the Holy Spirit, the only means for enforcing these moral codes is governmental sanctions. Therefore, it will not do to establish the “moral or practical precepts of Christianity, … [without] laying the grand foundation, of a sinner’s acceptance with God, or point out how the practical precepts of Christianity grow out of her peculiar doctrines, and are inseparably connected with them.” (198)

Indeed, it is a “fatal habit” to consider “Christian morals as distinct from Christian doctrines.” (205) Nor will it do to establish a state church for the promotion of moral behavior. “A system, if not supported by a real persuasion of its truth, will fall to the ground.” (210) In fact, this was Wilberforce’s main complaint in the book, namely that, while organized religion flourished true religion was vanishing. 

Instead, Wilberforce held that the key to political action was the evangelism of the populace. He held that the problem, while having great political importance, was not so much political as it was moral. If the moral climate of the country improved, so would the political and economic situation of that country. 

The increase of true believers on society has four results - according to Wilberforce - all of them having political consequences. First, as stated above, there is the general raising of the moral tone of society. This by itself tends to elevate the behavior of even those who do not believe. Second, civil strife would be considerably lessened since more members of the populace would see themselves as brothers and sisters rather than enemies. Third, the economic conflict between rich and poor would be eased by the church’s teaching to both. Fourth, Christians would, by the nature of civil society, be active in civil affairs, just as they are in other endeavors of life. Christians are to perform their duties, regardless of their calling, with faithfulness and skill as befits their Christian profession.

One might be tempted to dismiss Wilberforce’s political ideals as utopian and unrealistic if it were not for the enormous political change that he helped engineer. Yet to describe Wilberforce as “utopian” would be a gross misreading of his argument. Ever the realist, he acknowledged that Christianity has often been, and will most likely be again, persecuted. In fact, his prediction of the fate of Christianity has an ominously familiar ring to it!

[T]he time is fast approaching, when Christianity will be almost as openly disavowed in the language, as in fact it is already supposed to have disappeared from the conduct of men; when infidelity will be held to be the necessary appendage of a man of fashion, and to believe will be deemed the indication of a feeble mind and a contracted understanding.” (195-196)

Nevertheless, he contended that even persecution improves the state of society since “[p]ersecution generally tends to quicken the vigour and extend the prevalence of the opinions which she would eradicate. … Christianity especially has always thriven under persecution.” (192)

It is interesting to note the justification Wilberforce uses in regard to the civil and political duties of Christians. It is not political realities, civil rights, or social justice that motivates him, but fealty to Christ that incites participation in secular affairs. In fact, the true believer maintains a “comparative indifference to the things of this world.” Yet this “comparative indifference” to the world should not move the believer to inaction. Instead, the motivating principle of a believer is to “please God in all his thoughts, and words, and actions.” (202)

C. S. Lewis articulately sums up Wilberforce's argument like this:

Hope is one of the Theological virtues. This means that a continual looking forward to the eternal world is not (as some modern people think) a form of escapism or wishful thinking, but one of the things a Christian is meant to do. It does not mean that we are to leave the present world as it is. If you read history you will find that the Christians who did most for the present world were just those who thought most of the next. The Apostles themselves, who set on foot the conversion of the Roman Empire, the great men who built up the Middle Ages, the English Evangelicals who abolished the Slave Trade, all left their mark on Earth, precisely because their minds were occupied with Heaven. It is since Christians have largely ceased to think of the other world that they have become so ineffective in this. Aim at Heaven and you will get earth “thrown in”: aim at earth and you will get neither.

Application to the Ground Zero Mosque

So how does all this theory (including my previous post) apply to the believer's response to the Ground Zero Mosque? I see several points of application.

First, I agree that the church and the state should be kept separate. This being said, one doesn't need to lobby for an established church for the believer to be politically active.

Second, it is the duty of government to act as a minister of God to actively promote righteousness and restrain evil. This duty is irrespective of political expediencies, legal theories, or majority rule.

Third, I consider it undeniable that Islam, while promoting a general morality in some areas, is at it's heart a violent and destructive force that will bring strife upon any society eventually. (Please, please, please don't make me list all the terrorist acts that have occurred during my lifetime as proof of that point. The list is just too long.)

Fourth, when believers advocate for righteousness (biblically, not socially, defined) they are acting as salt and light, bring glory to God, and work for the good of the society in which they a sojourners and strangers.

Therefore, believers should participate in every legal avenue available to them to advocate for a righteous and just society, including the exclusion of dangerous and false religions. 

Postscript

As I've written this post (which has taken quite some time as I hope my research shows), I have recognized that I still don't have a fully fleshed out theology of social action. I realize that some of my reasoning needs work. But I hope my start in this area provides fertile ground for your own ideas of what applied Christianity looks like in the public sphere.