The Suppression of Sin in Evangelical Abolitionism: The Wilberforce Problem

William Wilberforce, the 19th-century evangelical politician who died 178 years ago today, seems like someone whose memory would be easy to celebrate. He was almost solely responsible for ending the slave trade and the eventual abolition of slavery in the British Empire, which helped bring about abolition in the United States as well. Then, as now, however, that noble cause wasn’t always as straightforward as one might hope.

Wilberforce’s politics, particularly his strident abolitionist positions, were motivated in large part by his evangelical beliefs. But these led him to hold other kinds of positions, too. As Adam Hochschild notes in his book Bury the Chains: Prophets and Rebels in the Fight to Free an Empires Slaves, chief among Wilberforce’s concerns was “the suppression of sin.” He encouraged King George III to issue a proclamation against vice, which included the prosecution of such offenses as “excessive drinking, blasphemy, profane swearing and cursing, lewdness, profanation of the Lords Day, and other dissolute, immoral, or disorderly practices.” And, for all his concern about imported slaves, he had little sympathy for the nascent labor movement at home.

Today, as the abolition of modern slavery has become a favorite cause among young evangelicals, Wilberforce has become something of a hero to them; thanks in no small part to a 2006 biopic, Amazing Grace. As the new abolitionism enters the evangelical mainstream, however, it’s clear that his sin-suppressing instincts remain alive and well. Slavery becomes conflated in evangelical rhetoric with more divisive matters of sexual morality, from pornography and prostitution to abortion. Thus, a cause that next to no one would oppose—the abolition of slavery—has become the subject of controversy and infighting. Some young Christian abolitionists have found that this is making their difficult-enough work even harder.

The Slave Trade Continues

The slave trade didn’t die with Wilberforce, any more than racism did with Martin Luther King Jr. Today there are more people subject to slavery than ever before. The State Department’s 2010 Trafficking in Persons report estimates that 12.3 million people worldwide are victims of forced labor, 56 percent of which are women and girls. A smaller, but still considerable number are victims of sex trafficking—essentially, forced prostitution.

With increasing frequency, reports of sex trafficking rings in major U.S. cities appear in the media. In major hubs like Houston and New York City, stories about charges and convictions of homegrown trafficking cells shed light on just how widespread domestic trafficking is. Just this week, the website of CNN Freedom Project (CNN’s own initiative to end modern slavery) reported that Mexican police have arrested more than 1,000 people in a city on the Texas border in connection with “human trafficking and sexual exploitation.”

According to Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn (whose book, Half the Sky, has become the definitive work detailing the horrors of modern slavery and other forms of oppression against women), several important developments in the last couple of decades have increased the spread of sexual slavery. These include the power vacuum and poverty resulting from the collapse of Communism, globalization, and the spread of AIDS. No longer out in the open, as in Wilberforce’s day, modern slavery is lawless and underground, which makes it even harder to stop.

Enter the Evangelicals

For some time, young evangelicals—typically those of a progressive bent who soured on the culture wars of their parents’ generation—have been among the most ardent abolitionists. In her definitive essay on the topic, “The Sexual Politics of the ‘New Abolitionism,’” Elizabeth Bernstein notices that, “some of the most prominent anti-trafficking activists in question do not identify with the Christian right at all, but rather describe themselves as Christian ‘moderates,’ and in some cases, even as Christian progressives.” She notes that these Christians “not only embrace the languages of women’s rights and social justice but have also taken deliberate steps to distinguish their work from the sexual politics of other conservative Christians.”

Soon, however, conservative Christian institutions became involved in the issue as well. In 2000, Congress passed the Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA), which came about through collaboration among some unlikely parties. Chuck Colson, evangelical leader and founder of Prison Fellowship, joined neo-conservative scholar Michael Horowitz and various feminist groups to lobby for the bill. In 2005, The Nation took a close look at the TVPA and referred to it as having a “split personality,” which Debbie Nathan, the author of the piece, attributed to “the split group that created it.”

More recently, old-guard culture warrior Focus on the Family joined the effort. Under new president Jim Daly, they recently launched a website called “Rising Voice,” aimed at attracting young evangelicals to social issues like sex trafficking. According to Kelly Rosati, vice president of Community Outreach at Focus, the issue fits in with their organizational emphasis on the sanctity and dignity of all human life. And yet, back on their main website, conservative Christian sexual politics remain at the fore; astonishingly, the pages dedicated to sex trafficking are nested under the heading of pornography.

And, just a couple of weeks ago, an evangelical organization called The Family Leader, with which Focus on the Family is an “Associated Partner,” made headlines when Republican presidential candidate Michele Bachmann signed their Marriage Vow: A Declaration of Dependence Upon MARRIAGE and FAMiLY (emphases in original). The pledge features some typical evangelical talking points like marital fidelity, faithful constitutionalist judges, no redefinition of the institution of marriage, and welfare reform, as well as a call to reject shari’ah law. But nestled amongst this litany is a point that calls for protection of women and children from “human trafficking, sexual slavery, seduction into promiscuity, and all forms of pornography and prostitution, infanticide, abortion, and other types of coercion or stolen innocence.”

Modern-Day Wilberforces

Arwyn Jackson, director of operations for Amirah, a Boston-based organization that aims to provide “whole-person care for rescued survivors of human trafficking,” believes that tying sexual slavery to these issues is dangerous. “There is a connection between all these things,” she says, “but at the same time they are their own separate thing.”

Jackson identifies as Christian, though Amirah itself does not, and she says that her motivation to work against slavery is linked inextricably to her faith. “The value of human beings is that they are unique and beautiful creations in Gods image,” she says, “and anything at odds with the expression of that value is deprecating.”

Though Jackson has been fighting human trafficking for nearly a decade, many Christians have only recently become aware of the topic in the last couple of years. This is, in large part, due to attention to the issue from the evangelical media machine. A number of books have been published by Christian presses in recent years with titles like God in the Brothel: An Undercover Journey into Sex Trafficking and Rescue, The Slave Across the Street: A True Story of How an American Teen Survived the World of Human Trafficking, and Half the Church: Recapturing God’s Global Vision for Women. The latter, written by Carolyn Custis James, takes its title from Kristoff and WuDunn’s book. 

James is the founder of an organization called Synergy, which connects, equips, and mobilizes women to be “effective leaders for the gospel,” according to their website. She, like Arwyn Jackson and most Christian abolitionists reaching all the way back to Wilberforce’s day, sees this as a matter of respecting the value of people made in the image of God. Slavery “is a travesty compared to the way God wants this world to be,” James says. But she adds, “We’ve got to stop the trafficking, the prostitution, the pornography.” 

A House Divided

In nearly every conversation I have with Christians about sexual slavery, the issue of pornography comes up. They assume that bondage and consenting self-exposure are similarly an affront to what God has in mind for us. And there, the kinds of odd coalitions like what passed the Trafficking Victims Protection Act start to fall apart. At The Society Pages, an online social science project, sociologist Kari Lerum documents the furor over the approach evangelicals have taken in framing the new abolitionist movement. She cites Melissa Ditmore, who argues in the social-justice-oriented magazine New Internationalist that “too often anti-trafficking has become anti-sex work.”

Arwyn Jackson is amazed that the work she does has become so controversial. “It should be the most unifying subject of our time,” she says. But “it’s now becoming a divisive issue just because of where its being allocated or how it’s being communicated.”

She and the many other young evangelicals who have taken up Wilberforce’s abolitionist banner are discovering that lacing social action with a concern for “the suppression of sin” is miring their efforts in needless controversy and threatening much-needed coalitions. It is becoming a political tool among evangelical leaders. Jackson notes, “It’s being tied into interest group questionnaires that are now being sent to candidates,” she says, referencing the “MARRIAGE Vow.” It’s a quagmire. In the early days, when young Christians took up the fight against slavery, they did so without much attention, and thus support, from the evangelical establishment. Framing the issue in terms of sexual immorality garners more mainstream attention, but threatens much needed cooperation. 

For someone like Jackson, the prospect of anti-trafficking and aftercare efforts being sidetracked by infighting is unbearable. “Honestly,” she says with a momentary quiver in her voice, “That battle frightens me.”