Public Square & Theology 101

Wilberforce: A Model for Influencing Culture, Morals, and Values

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Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports…reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principles. 

– George Washington, Washington’s Farewell Address (1796).

How can Christians work to influence culture? Virtue plays a key role in the great culture-building and reforming project God has given to his people.

Religious Faith & Society

The American Founders understood the importance of virtue for a healthy, thriving society. Washington addressed it in his farewell address, but he was not alone in his views. Dr. Daniel Dreisbach, a professor in the Department of Justice, Law, and Society at American University, explains that,

…the Founders looked to religion and morality informed by religious faith to provide the internal moral compass that would prompt citizens to behave in a disciplined manner and thereby promote social order and responsibility. 

IFWE’s visitor scholar Jay Richards echoes this thought in his book Indivisible, when he writes,

The American Founders knew that a sound government needed a virtuous citizenry. George Washington insisted that we distinguish between “the spirit of liberty from that of licentiousness, cherishing the first, avoiding the last. 

Declining Morals & Values

Today, however, there appears to be a loss of virtue and religion even within the church.

  • The Pew Research Center reports that 59% of evangelicals believe that dealing with moral decline should be a top priority of the president and congress.
  • A recent study by the Pew Forum revealed that one in five adults in America consider themselves “religiously unaffiliated.”

What caused this change? Why are morality and values now seen as unimportant or irrelevant?

One reason is the withdrawal of Christians from the marketplace, the public square, and our mission to restore culture overall.

We have distorted our view of vocation, so that the sacred and secular parts of our lives have been severed. We no longer see the connection between how our faith, our morals, and our values matter to our everyday life. As Tim Keller writes,

We do not know how to equip people to think about the implications of the gospel for art, business, government, journalism, entertainment, and scholarship. 

We also have a limited view of the gospel, reducing it from a grand, four-chapter story to an individualistic, two-chapter story that causes us to focus on us, but not our culture. Richards writes about what we need to realize instead:

…the gospel isn’t just about evangelism; it’s about being salt and light and leaven throughout the whole of culture. God came to reconcile not just our souls, but everything to himself. 

Christians can bring about cultural change, but it’s helpful to have an example for us to model and give us encouragement.

Wilberforce: A Model for Influencing Culture

William Wilberforce is a great example of a Christian who understood his calling, and persevered in it throughout years of failure. Wilberforce believed in the importance of morals and values for upholding society. As an English politician, he considered it his calling to end the slave trade in Britain. His story is chronicled in the movie Amazing Grace, which the Foundation for Economic Education (FEE) is giving away with a companion study guide.

While pursuing his calling, Wilberforce faced, as FEE’s president Lawrence Reed describes,

…every obstacle imaginable, including ill-health, death threats, and defeats almost too numerous to count. But they changed the conscience of a nation and ended a terrible evil.

Richards also offers a succinct summary of Wilberforce’s impact:

The British statesman William Wilberforce linked public witness and personal holiness with two life causes: the abolition of slavery and the “reformation of manners” (that is, moral behavior). Those weren’t unrelated interests. Wilberforce understood the link between policy and personal conduct, and used his position as a political elite for good. Whether you are in a position to influence millions, like Wilberforce, or just two people, you can make a difference.

We need Wilberforces in every area of society if we are to restore morality and virtue to our culture once again. We need Christians who are committed to pursuing their callings: first their primary call to Christ, and then their secondary callings to work, church, family, and community.

As Anne Bradley wrote yesterday, it is because of Jesus Christ that we have hope of redemption and long-term restoration. Let us be bold in this hope as we seek to bring about renewal in our culture.

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