To listen to some who claim to speak for American Jews, the greatest danger
facing our republic is the rise of a religiously based conservatism that
threatens to overturn the separation of church and state.
This has been a familiar argument for the last two decades as most liberal
Jews viewed an increasingly assertive Christian right as its chief
The source of much of this angst that has helped keep the majority of Jewish
votes securely in the pockets of liberal politicians has not been so much the
actual issues on which most Jews disagreed with conservative Christians.
Rather, the really scary thing for most Jews has been the fact that American
evangelicals were being propelled into the political arena by their religious
beliefs. After centuries of viewing religious Christians as the most
likely source of anti-Semitism, the Jewish community's intuitive reaction
expressions of Christianity was to view them as inherently dangerous.
Nothing, not even the fervent support for the State of Israel that
consistently comes from these same Christians, is enough to calm the fears
that the mixing of faith and politics engenders.
NO ABSTRACT VISION
Given the persistence of this debate, perhaps this is an apt moment to
re-examine the role of faith in democratic politics with a recently
released film as the starting point.
The movie is "Amazing Grace," which depicts the long struggle by English
parliamentarian William Wilberforce to end the British slave trade.
Arriving on the 200th anniversary of the House of Commons' vote to outlaw the
slave trade in 1807, the film tells of the triumph of Wilberforce and the
abolitionists. For 20 years, they persisted despite repeated defeats at
of a large and wealthy pro-slavery camp. This faction was funded by West
Indies sugar planters whose money enriched the British Empire, as well as
members of Parliament. But this film is not merely the history of a good
cause. It is primarily the tale of how religion can improve, rather than
Any telling of Wilberforce's story must come to grips with the fact that his
primary motivation wasn't an abstract vision of the injustice of slavery, but
one based almost entirely on his evangelical Christian faith.
The title of the film comes from the popular Christian hymn written by John
Newton, a former slave ship captain who repented and later mentored
Wilberforce. Newton penned the famous lines that spoke of how faith
"amazing grace" that Christianity conferred upon his troubled soul
had turned his life from one of bestial crime to service in the cause of
freedom. One need not embrace this faith to recognize and honor the good
wrought by this vision.
The anti-slavery forces prevailed because they were fueled by a spirit of
religious revival that spread, as historian Simon Schama has written, "an
righteousness" across the political landscape of Britain. Wilberforce
ultimately won (slavery was itself abolished throughout the British Empire
in 1833, shortly before Wilberforce's death at the age of 74) primarily
arguments he and his friends made spoke to the core of the faith of a
Many conservatives believe that this message is one for our own time, and
right-wing pundits have gone out of their way to both praise "Amazing
cinema and to urge Americans to take its example to heart.
Indeed, the filmmakers themselves have created a Web site
(theamazingchange.com) to promote their movie's values and to sensitize
viewers to the fact that
slavery still exists in SubSaharan Africa (primarily in Muslim countries like
Sudan), as well elsewhere in the form of the exploitation of women and
children. The site urges its viewers to emulate Wilberforce not only in
his saintly principles but as activists and to create their own "Clapham
Circles" (the name by which Wilberforce and his allies were known) to work
to better the world.
Though some would dismiss this as mere marketing, one wonders whether critics
would be happier if the film had a deal with MacDonald's for Wilberforce
Yet for all of the hoopla from conservatives about its celebration of
Amazing Grace's" greatest failing is that it shortchanges the pervasive
influence of religion in Wilberforce's life. Though lip service is paid to
decision to do the work of G-d via politics, the theme is not developed
make this as clear as it should be. Ioan Gruffudd's Wilberforce is driven to
do good, but his portrayal does little justice to the real person whose life
was a testament to the power of faith.
Given the obvious intent of the filmmakers to raise this issue, their failure
to follow through speaks volumes about their fear of turning off viewers with
That said, the film would probably have a much greater impact if its quality
matched its good intentions. Though blessed with a handsome cast and
costumes, filmmaker Michael Apted would have done better to have commissioned
a better script than the convoluted mess that spills onto the screen.
Though I suppose we must forgive it for its numerous conflations of
characters and events in order to simplify things, it fails the basic test of
maintaining a coherent narrative. The film travels back and forth throughout
Wilberforce's career with a flexibility that recalls Kurt Vonnegut's
Slaughterhouse Five. But while being "spastic in time" may have worked for
fantasy, it fails here, especially since it must surely confuse even that
percentage of the audience that may already know the history.
Stuffed with righteousness but lacking in power or sweep, the film careens
amiably along to its conclusion in the manner of a a flat-line historical
pageant or a mediocre "Masterpiece Theater" serial.
But its shortcomings as art should not divert us from Wilberforce's heroic
example and its influence on Christians and Jews today. The truth is, modern
Jewry has long embraced Wilberforce's faith-based activism on issues from
rights to freedom for Soviet Jewry. Those non-Orthodox Jews who regularly
of tikkun olam or a Divinely ordained mandate to "repair the world"
ironically, most likely to fear evangelicals who revere the same
"Amazing Grace" can, at the very least, remind us that a person whose faith
leads him or her to politics is actually more likely than not one who fights
to make society a better place. The spiritual light that opened the eyes
like John Newton and William Wilberforce may not be that of our own religion,
but it's one we should nevertheless honor. We should also understand that
many contemporary Christians, including those conservatives whom many of us
wrongly despise, are their spiritual descendants.
Rather than fear them, let us look to our own faith to seize every chance to
embrace a common spiritual mandate to banish the darkness that pervades a
still sinful world.