200 Years of Christianity, Politics, and Human Rights

Author Amy K. Hall Published on 08/28/2007

Pro-lifers are often accused of inappropriately trying to force their religious views on others when they say that an unborn child ought to have the same rights as a born child.

Not surprisingly, similar accusations were hurled at William Wilberforce as he argued in Parliament in the late 18th, early 19th century for an end to the slave trade. I found, in the preface to a new edition of Wilberforce’s book, A Practical View of Christianity, the following quotes of protest directed towards Wilberforce’s work in his day:

“Humanity is a private feeling, not a public principle to act upon.” —The Earl of Abingdon

“Things have come to a pretty pass when religion is allowed to invade public life.” —Lord Melbourne

We can see clearly now that Wilberforce was in the right to let his religion inform him in this matter. But back then, the cultural tide was against him, and things were not in the least clear to people because they were accustomed to the practice of slavery and had come to depend upon it as a way to improve their lives. Wilberforce’s peers scoffed because they recognized that the promotion of justice for the slaves was a political action based on a religious idea (i.e., we’re made in the image of God and are therefore all intrinsically valuable and worthy of protection), and so they deemed the position unworthy of a public lawmaker’s reasoning. But unfortunately for the slaves, when God is removed from public reasoning as the basis for rights, the value of each person must be determined according to arbitrary qualifications set by the popular opinion of the society. In this case, skin color seemed like a reasonable characteristic by which to grant and deny people rights, and so this is where their reasoning led them.

Everyone knew that the end of the slave trade would bring many complications to their society economically and socially, and not many were willing to risk the upheaval that a high value of all humanity (regardless of their characteristics) would bring. People didn’t like the thought then, and they don’t like it now. But understand that the reasoning that argued then for unshakable rights for people with dark skin is the same reasoning that argues now for rights for the unborn. Deny the second, and, philosophically, you leave everyone’s rights open for dismissal.