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 — that is to say, most Jews — viewed an increasingly assertive Christian right as its chief antagonist.
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 to public 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 the hands 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 corrupt 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 pervert, politics.
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 — the "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 army of 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 because the arguments he and his friends made spoke to the core of the faith of a people and its government.
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 Grace" as 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 as 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 action figures?
Yet for all of the hoopla from conservatives about its celebration of faith, "Amazing Grace's" greatest failing is that it shortchanges the pervasive influence of religion in Wilberforce's life. Though lip service is paid to his decision to do the work of God via politics, the theme is not developed enough to 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 secular sensibilities.
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 sumptuous 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 method in Slaughterhouse Five. But while being "spastic in time" may have worked for that fantasy, it fails here, especially since it must surely confuse even that small 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 civil rights to freedom for Soviet Jewry. Those non-Orthodox Jews who regularly speak of tikkun olam or a Divinely ordained mandate to "repair the world" are, ironically, most likely to fear evangelicals who revere the same tradition.
"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 of men 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.