Making Goodness Fashionable
By Mark Rodgers and Bill Wichterman
Published in Creating the Better Hour: Lessons from William Wilberforce (ed. Chuck Stetson, Stroud & Hall, 2007)
Much has been made of the William Wilberforce’s effort to abolish the slave trade, what he referred to as one of his Great Objects. His work to abolish the slave trade and ultimately slavery transformed Western Civilization, and rightly has been recorded as one of the great crusades of modern times. But his lesser known second Great Object, the reformation of manners (or, in modern language, the reformation of morals) was inextricably linked to his first, and in many ways, made possible the demise of slavery. For a nation to countenance the destruction of an entire industry that served to enrich the Empire meant that money and selfish ends must be subjugated to the common good – a common good that transcends place and time.
The Culture: Upstream from Politics
As men who have each spent almost 20 years working as policy advisors in the United States Congress, we are committed to making just laws. We are passionate about the process and the aims of politics. We are deeply involved in the day-to-day business of lawmaking, and we each feel a strong calling to the political realm as a means of improving our nation. Yet we recognize that politics is not sufficient to bring about justice and promote liberty. We write this not because we are discouraged with the political process. To the contrary, we believe that national politics is portrayed in the media far too negatively. In our experience, most people in policy-making, on the Left and the Right, are chiefly motivated by a desire for just and compassionate policies.
Still, many important “Great Objects” cannot be pursued through political and policy activity alone. Indeed, many of our policy objectives will only be achieved by a prior or concurrent change in the cultural norms which shape the political realm. Legislation is never created in a vacuum, but in a “cultural context” in which people’s beliefs and worldviews have largely already been shaped at a foundational level. Surveys consistently show that opinions are molded by one’s family, religion, education and by the news media. But more dominant now than ever, especially for those growing up in the “infotainment age,” is the role of entertainment. The culture-creating sector that manufactures fine art, fashion, movies, television shows, console games, graphic novels, extreme sports, streaming video shorts and pop music is not just consequential to our post-Baby Boomer generations, but as our most influential export to the world at-large.
In short, the culture, both broadly and narrowly defined, is upstream from politics. Politics is more about reflecting the beliefs forged in other more powerful “gatekeeping” institutions. Though we may trace our history by political events – Jacksonian Democracy, Jim Crow laws, the New Deal, the Great Society, the Civil Rights Movement, Roe v. Wade, etc. – it was the culture of the time that made each development possible, for good or for ill.
Wilberforce’s two Great Objects reflected this understanding. As a Member of Parliament, he sought to change the laws of the nation. But he leveraged his work in the political sphere by seeking to renew the culture of his times, to shape hearts and minds through other institutions, both as a means to an end and as an end in itself. The success of his efforts is a model for us as we seek to fashion just laws and renew American culture. Examining how Wilberforce changed England will help guide today’s reformers in their efforts to create a better society.