Today marks the theatrical release of “Amazing Grace,” a film about leading British abolitionist William Wilberforce, whose efforts in Parliament led to Britain’s ban on slavery and the slave trade 200 years ago. The company that produced the movie has launched a campaign, called “The Amazing Change,” to raise awareness of modern-day slavery and human trafficking and to promote groups that fight against them, and religious groups from the National Association of Evangelicals to Sojourners have endorsed the movie and its anti-slavery message. The concern over human trafficking extends to many groups and activists normally focused on right-wing wedge issues, like Concerned Women for America the Heritage Foundation. Others, however – like Sam Brownback – seek to latch their own agenda to the coat-tails of the movie.
Brownback, struggling for recognition as a viable presidential candidate, has tried to link his candidacy to Wilberforce by linking the historical figure not just to Brownback’s work on trafficking and Darfur, but also to abortion and gay marriage, issues more politically marketable to the religious-right base he hopes to motivate: “If William Wilberforce were alive today, I believe he would be passionately fighting for the dignity of every human life everywhere, without regard to race, wealth, or status. He would also feel compelled to take up the vital cause of renewing the family and the culture,” the senator said in his announcement.
Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Oklahoma) went further afield from the issue of modern-day slavery, alluding to his own congressional campaign against pork-barrel spending:
Wilberforce’s focus on his “two great objects” of abolishing slavery and reforming the morals and manners of his day challenges me to discern the “great objects” of our times. There are many legitimate “great objects” in our day such as the rise of Islamic extremism, the disintegration of families, abortion, and the dominance of moral relativism. I’ve felt a particular calling to focus on the “great object” of preventing the bankruptcy of our republic because if we fail in that challenge, our efforts in all other areas will be undermined. For instance, our ideas about freedom and human dignity have relevance in large part because of our unparalleled economic power.
And Troy Newman, president of the militant anti-abortion group Operation Rescue, attempted to coin a new phrase. Criticizing a South Dakota legislator (and chair of SD Right to Life) who dropped his support for an abortion ban likely to be rejected by the Supreme Court and similar to one voters in the state rescinded last year, Newman said, “He’s no Wilberforce.”
While the equation of abortion and slavery is hardly new – George W. Bush famously alluded to it in his last presidential campaign – it seems even more tasteless in this context, where activists are seeking to change the subject from actual, modern-day slavery.