Skip to main content

“Amazing Grace,” Wilberforce, & The New York Times

February 23rd, 2007 | 1 min read

By Elliot Ravenwood

As Andrew Selby has already noted, “Amazing Grace” looks to be a pretty good film. But as much as I look forward to seeing the film, it’s been much more entertaining to see how some members of the secular press have been tripping over themselves to find an angle from which to review a story about an Evangelical Christian who achieved one of the greatest social victories of the last 300 years.

A masterful exhibition of this media conundrum is the following New York Times review by Manohla Dargis: “The Imperfect Soul Who Helped Bring an End to the Slave Trade.” Despite Wilberforce’s unmatched commitments to abolition and social justice, Dargis simply can’t bring herself to actually pass positive judgment on the unequivocally evangelical Wilberforce, or the movie that tells his tale.

You can see this tension from the very first paragraph where Dargis writes: “He was an evangelical Christian and social conservative who rallied for animal rights and against trade unions, which makes him a tough nut to crack.”

Translation: “Wilberforce was “Bad Thing A and B”, yet did “Good Thing X and Y”; how can this be?”

(Watch for Dargis to contradict even this mixed compliment later in the article by alleging that Wilberforce, leader of the socially active Clapham Sect, played pawn to business interests by focusing attention on the slave trade and avoiding the cause of the poor.)

My question, though, is this: how has it happened that today, the combining of “committed Evangelical Christian” and “effective Social Activist” creates circuit overload for secular mental categories? Do we blame a prejudiced secular conceptualization of Evangelicals, content with the caricature that Christians must be hypocrites, half-wits, or both? Or do conservative Christians have some role in making it possible for such an assumption to develop?