Saints and Politics

A sermon preached at St Paul’s Church Bantam, Connecticut, by Christopher L. Webber on November 7, 2010.

It’s All Saints Day again, and I say the same thing almost very year: it’s family reunion time. This is the time at the end of the year when we gather to remember those who went before and give God thanks for their witness. So it’s a time to tell stories; not to preach but to tell stories about members of the family so we can all remember the witnesses and examples that God has given us and give thanks for them and remember how they lived.

I’ve tried each year to find themes to explore: American saints, married saints, saints in times of chaos, saints who were healers, and so on. And I thought this year with the election just over it might be a time to talk about saints in politics. Now you may think that will be a short sermon but it won’t be. It will take time to make my point.

There’s an Oxford Book of Saints and it lists thousands of saints and it sorts them out by categories and lists the patron saints for farmers and doctors and lawyers and even for hopeless cases, but not for politicians; not one. And that’s unfortunate because if there’s any area of life where we need examples of holiness, politics is it.

There are examples of Christians in public life  in the Book of Common Prayer.  There are royal martyrs like Charles the First who died rather than renounce his faith, but he’d never have faced that choice if he’d been a more effective politician. There are recent examples like King Kamehameha of Hawaii and his wife, Queen Emma, who brought the Anglican Church, the Episcopal Church, to Hawaii The king built the Episcopal Cathedral in Honolulu himself and translated the Prayer Book.  So there are examples like that of faithfulness, and charity, and much good accomplished but  you don’t have to win an election to be a king or a queen.  So the question remains: can you be good, can you be a saint, and still win elections? Can you hold to your principles and still be effective? I’m setting a high standard but we’re talking about saints after all.

Usually I talk about several saints on this Sunday but today I have just one example to offer, only one, but one so striking it holds up an example for everyone else. The name is William Wilberforce and he served as an elected member of Parliament for over forty years in the nineteenth century. He fought some very close elections, but he held to his principles and he changed the world.

Saints are made, not born. Wilberforce grew up as the spoiled and lazy son of a wealthy merchant. He went to Oxford and wasted his time. When he graduated with no particular interests in life, it seemed as if parliament might be a good place for him. His father had money; and a pocket borough was always available; and you didn’t have to be smart or ambitious or principled to serve in the House of Commons. As Gilbert and Sullivan put it you “always voted at your party’s call and never thought of thinking for yourself at all.” I think you could name some people like that still. And that was Wilberforce – at first, until, four years later, he was converted. That is to say, he began to take seriously the faith into which he was baptized.

Once Wilberforce got serious about religion his first thought was that he ought to leave politics as a profession inconsistent with active faith. Most people of principle in his day got out of politics. But two men talked him out of quitting: one was his old college friend and future prime minister, William Pitt, who liked him too much to lose him. The other was John Newton, the reformed slave trader who also had been converted and become a priest of the Church of England and Newton told Wilberforce to stay where God had put him. “Who knows,” Newton said to Wilberforce, “whether the Lord has raised you up for the good of his church and for the good of the nation.”

So Wilberforce stayed in Parliament. He moved from his pocket borough to York, one of the biggest and most important constituencies in England and one demanding enormous commitments of time for his electors. He fought some hard and close elections and he won them all even though his principles and his constituents’ interests were sometimes quite opposite. And he took on one great cause: the end of the slave trade and the abolition of slavery. He gave his Iife to that objective and he did It. The slave trade was abolished in 1807 and slavery itself in 1833, one month after he died.

You read the life of William Wilberforce and you see that God did indeed raise up a man well fitted to God’s purpose. He was a small man, about 5 ft. 3″ slight of build and most of his life in poor health. There were rumors of his death 45 years before he died. But he had a style and a manner that charmed others. You couldn’t dislike him. You hear of his melodious voice and wonderful smile and sparkling conversation and not every politician has those gifts but it certainly helps.

Madame de Stael came from France to meet him. She said afterwards that she had always heard that Wilberforce was the most religious man in England but now she found he was also the wittiest, the best-loved, and the most admired. She went back to Paris and worked to support his cause in France.

Clearly Wilberforce had the basic gifts a politician needs, but there are lots of charming people who serve their own ends or none. What made the difference was that Wilberforce used his gifts to serve God. A visitor to his home wrote about his “vivacious wit – so playful, yet so harmless – the glow of his affection… Above all (he wrote), his friends will never cease to remember the peculiar sunshine which he threw over a company by the influence of a mind perpetually turned to love and praise… As he walked about the house he was generally humming the tune of a hymn or psalm as if he could not contain his …feelings of thankfulness and devotion …” And maybe that sounds like someone too naive and trusting to be effective. But Wilberforce knew the real world. He sent instructions to his friends at a point in the anti-slavery struggle when he couldn’t be present himself. He told them to take care to present it on grounds of national advantage, not justice or humanity since that would be fatal.

He was a practical politician. He knew what worked. He knew how to compromise and settle for part of what he wanted. But he wrote to his son, “I wish you from my heart not to become a politician. I hope you will act on a far higher level and where the path blessed by God is clearer as well as more peaceable.” Politics was hard work. He loved the give and take and hated it at the same time. It was harder for him than for others because he had principles. He never spoke negatively of an opponent and never used patronage to reward his supporters.

Once another member of Parliament made him a promise and then broke it leaving Wilberforce looking like a hypocrite, but he never accused the other man. “What a lesson is it to a man,” he wrote, not to set his heart on low popularity . .”

But Wilberforce had a cause and that made it worthwhile. He never left England, never saw Africa or the West Indies. But his friends brought him reports and he saw the slave trade as holding in bondage and in blood one third of the habitable globe. The worst of it, he knew, was the so-called “middle passage,” the trans-Atlantic journey. A hundred thousand slaves a year were being exported from Africa, chained on narrow shelves for days on end. Two or three were maimed or killed for every one who came through alive. On one ship 340 died while only 200 survived. Wilberforce worked not only to end that horror but to make reparation. Wilberforce believed that England owed Africa schools and hospitals and churches and trade to rebuild and create new life in return for so much destruction.

It’s fascinating to hear the arguments that were made in defense of the slave trade because they sound so much like the arguments made today for such things as arms sales abroad. We need to keep the slave trade going, people said, because if we don’t sell slaves, other countries will, and besides, it makes a wonderful way to keep our navy strong in times of peace, and its good for the economy. I’m sure you’ve heard those arguments used in support of all kinds of questionable activity. We need to sell arms abroad even to dictators who use them against their own people because it keeps our technology up to date and creates jobs. But Wilberforce knew the slave trade was wrong in principle and that was all that mattered. His friend William Pitt blocked abolition for years for the sake of national unity. “I know it’s wrong,” he would say to Wilberforce but I have to wait. National unity is more important right now.”

So Pitt was Prime Minister and Wilberforce never was. But Wilberforce was said to be the conscience of England with “a personal moral authority … above any man living.” He changed the history of three continents. Prime Ministers asked his advice and consulted him as if he were one of the leaders because he decided every vote on principle and as a result his endorsement was worth its weight in gold. Of course, his opponents hated him not least because he made them look so bad. They slandered him at every opportunity, spread lies about him, said he only cared about Africans and not about England. The fact is he supported every effort to make life better everywhere. He was president, vice-president, or member of 67 committees or societies and worked to end the practice of sending little boys to sweep chimneys; he opposed child labor, and flogging in the army, and capital punishment except for the most serious crimes. He was a founder of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and the National Gallery. He worked for political rights for Roman Catholics in England, for toleration for the Waldensians in Italy and for protestants in the new republics of South America. And he made a difference.

I think Wilberforce is the evidence that you can be a Christian and an effective politician. Indeed his example encouraged others. When he entered Parliament there was no one of principle there; when he died there were many others. So why aren’t there more now? I think we should look at ourselves. We choose the politicians and they know what we want. But there are people with principles in our government, some right here in our area. I know of one legislator in Hartford who has voted against his party more than once on issues of principle and is still elected overwhelmingly. It;s also interesting that the legislature has voted to abolish the death penalty even though almost two-thirds of the voters are for it.  Whatever your views on that issue, it’s obvious that the legislators are acting in principle, not self-interest.

There ought to be more who do that.  And there could be, but it’s up to us. It’s our vote that rewards honesty or dis-honesty, truth or falsehoods. It’s up to us. We should look for people of principle when we decide our votes. We should support them by respecting faith and conscience when we see it, by voting the interests of others rather than our own, by seeking God’s will for God’s people rather than our own advantage. If we did, there might be more saints in politics and surely there need to be. The good news is that there have been people like William WIlberforce – and there could be again.

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