The Lesson Of ‘Amazing Grace’

Dan Boylan
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Wednesday - March 21, 2007

The British-made feature film Amazing Grace is still running in a couple of theaters around town.

I wish that a lot of people would go see it.

Not because it’s well-acted (which it certainly is; Albert Finney’s two short scenes as a former slaver who repented and gave his life to Christ are alone worth the price of admission), nor because it’s beautifully shot (which is also true), nor because one of the most inspiring hymns ever written is performed thrice in the course of the film (which it is), but because it’s a terrific lesson in how a bill becomes a law.

In this case, it’s how a bill becomes a law in the British House of Commons, circa the end of the 18th century. The protagonist is William Wilberforce (1759-1833), Member of Parliament from Hull 1780; MP from Yorkshire 1784 to 1812.

Born to wealth, Wilberforce became a devout evangelical Christian and, with the support of a group clergy, evangelical and Quaker, devoted himself to the cause of abolishing the slave trade. Wilberforce became the parliamentary leader of the cause; and it appeared, as the century’s last decade grew old, that an act to do just that might make it through Parliament.

It was not to be.

Despite pamphleteering and propagandizing the length and breadth of England, Parliament balked. Worse, Sir William Pitt the Younger, Wilberforce’s good friend and the Prime Minister of England, deserted Wilberforce. Pitt argued that other issues took precedence: namely, defeating Napoleon.

In the movie, Wilberforce despairs, only to be saved by the love of a bounteously endowed young female disciple whom he marries and from whom he gains new inspiration for his cause. Finally, with peace restored and England safe, with an indirect stratagem adopted that would have the same effect as outright abolition of the slave trade, Wilberforce carries the day - almost two decades after first championing the slave trade’s demise.

So what’s the lesson here? It’s an important one, one that too often goes unlearned or is too easily forgotten.

It is very, very difficult - indeed, often impossible - for politicians to embrace significant reform, particularly if it involves ill treatment of a minority, if important people are going to lose money on the reform, or an ambitious politician’s future is endangered by espousing it.

Another example. In 1957 Senate Majority Leader Lyndon Baines Johnson ushered through Congress the first civil rights bill since Reconstruction following the Civil War.

To be sure, it wasn’t much of a civil rights bill.

But it was something.

Four years later, John F. Kennedy, a liberal darling, won the presidency. He introduced a broader, tougher civil rights bill. But like William Pitt the Younger, Kennedy considered other issues more pressing than minority rights: the Cold War, the economy, sending a man to the moon. So he allowed the civil rights bill to languish up on Capitol Hill.

Three factors made the 1964 civil rights bill and its sister 1965 bill law: Kennedy’s assassination and the Johnson succession to the presidency, the Herculean and relentless pressure from civil rights demonstrators in the South - most particularly the Rev. Martin Luther King, and the disastrous presidential candidacy of Republican Barry Goldwater in 1964.

Goldwater lost to Johnson that year by the biggest margin in history - and going down with him were a slew of conservative Republicans. The liberal congress that sat in Washington during the 1965 and 1966 sessions would pass the voting rights bill of 1965 plus Johnson’s Great Society Programs. Never since has such reform been possible.

In our current state Legislature, both death with dignity and civil union have been heard - briefly and in whispers. Neither measure, needless to say, passed either House. Nor will they, I would guess, in my lifetime.

Yet in the 1998 gubernatorial campaign I watched two fine public servants, Gov. Ben Cayetano and future Gov. Linda Lingle, practically gag on their own hypocrisy as they foreswore a belief in marriage between anyone save a man and a woman.

I don’t believe for a moment that either one of them cared a whit if two men in love or two women in love married. Both, however, cared mightily about their own desire to be re-elected - or furthering issues more important to them than gay marriage.

Like Pitt and Kennedy,they ignored their better instincts and turned a deaf ear to minority rights.

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