Wilberforce Be With You: The Christian Right Claims Amazing Grace


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Yesterday was the 200th anniversary of Britain’s abolition of slavery. But since Hollywood doesn’t release new titles on Thursday, it’s waiting until today to launch Amazing Grace, a new movie about 18th-century British abolitionist William Wilberforce. The flick, directed by Michael Apted (creator of the mesmerizing 7-Up documentary series) and produced by the studio that did The Chronicles of Narnia, is getting enthusiastic advance reviews. But nowhere is the film more highly anticipated than among conservative Christians, who see parallels between Wilberforce’s moral battle and their faith-based campaign against sex trafficking. But Wilberforce’s unlikely victory is also viewed as a metaphor for the Christian right’s struggle to remake the culture. Presidential hopeful Sam Brownback was dubbed a “Wilberforce Republican” by the Economist, and has eagerly accepted the title. And check out this email appeal I recently received from Ted Baehr, who runs MovieGuide, an evangelical movie review site:

One man, William Wilberforce, was used by God to abolish the slave trade in England and bring about a reformation of manners.

Imagine what you and I can do together to redeem the media and save our culture! […]

Because of Wilberforce’s willingness to serve the Lord, a Victorian society where women and children were safe and where the Church was addressing social evils in creative ways saved a nation that was quickly falling into rampant paganism.

[…] you can help us bring about a moral reform in our nation that will set the captives free from the bondage and slavery of corrupt media.

This is the chance for the Church in our era to address social evils in creative ways!

Wilberforce has officially been recruited as a culture warrior. (BTW, MovieGuide gives Amazing Grace four stars, though it warns viewers that it contains “female cleavage.”)

Of course, Wilberforce’s story doesn’t just resonate with religious conservatives. His against-the-odds struggle for social justice plucks liberal heartstrings as well—ours included. For a progressive interpretation of British abolitionism, see Mother Jones co-founder Adam Hochshild’s most recent book, Bury the Chains, which argues that the anti-slavery movement was “the first great human-rights campaign.” As Hochschild explained when I interviewed him:

In a time that feels politically grim, especially for anyone in the U.S. who cares about social justice, I hope people will take heart from a story of folks who started a campaign at a time when it looked even grimmer. The idea of ending slavery seemed totally utopian, crackpot, wildly too idealistic. But they succeeded. And they succeeded in 50 years, in the lifespan of some people […] They went through some very grim times, one of them being the long wartime period like the one we’re seeing now. Wartime is bad news for progressives, and it was the same thing [during the Napoleonic wars]. So I guess to the extent that it’s possible for a book like this to have any effect, I would just like to see it have the effect of making people working for justice today feel heartened and to know that any big struggle will always be a long one with many setbacks.

I don’t see anyone calling themselves “Wilberforce Democrats” any time soon, but that’s no reason to let the right lay exlcusive claim to the legacy of abolitionism, or even Amazing Grace. So take a break from your usual pagan film fare and see if it lives up to the hype. (And for you history buffs/Afropop fans, it’s your chance to see Youssou N’Dour’s silver screen debut as Olaudah Equiano.)

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