“Things have come to a pretty pass . . . when religion is allowed to invade public life.”
Lord Melbourne (1779 – 1841)
Okay, who was Lord Melbourne and why didn’t he want religion in politics?
His given name was William Lamb, born in 1779 to an aristocratic Whig family in London. As a young man, he knew such “romantic radicals” as Percy Shelley and Lord Byron. His wife took up a public affair with the “mad, bad and dangerous” Lord Byron (her description), the talk of Britain in 1812. His wife and father died in 1828, the same year William inherited the title, “2nd Viscount Melbourne.”
After 25 years as a backbencher in the House of Commons, Lord Melbourne served as Britain’s Prime Minister from 1834 to 1841. In 1836, after a blackmail attempt failed, he was accused of an affair with the socialite wife of a fellow politician. He survived the scandal but allegedly did not stop seeing the woman. In 1837, he became a political mentor for Queen Victoria when she first came to the throne at age 18.
As a politician, Lord Melbourne often opposed reform and usually sought the middle ground. Compromise was his hallmark. A champion of the status quo, his most famous dictum in politics was, “Why not leave it alone?” Perhaps his rocky and radical Romantic youth is what made him a die-hard moderate in politics.
By contrast, William Wilberforce (1759 – 1833) was a passionate and principled reformer. In Parliament, he led a campaign to end England’s slave trade that took a quarter century to complete with the Slave Trade Act of 1807. It took another quarter century to end legalized slavery itself with the Slave Abolition Act of 1833. Wilberforce died three days after his lifelong mission was accomplished. With few allies, he fought both public indifference and moneyed opposition to end slavery. Despite many set-backs over nearly fifty years, his determination and patience paid off.
It all started in 1785 when Wilberforce experienced a life-changing conversion to evangelical Christianity. As a new Christian, he questioned whether he should remain in public life. An evangelical Anglican rector named John Newton (author of “Amazing Grace”) encouraged him to remain. Wilberforce’s faith transformed his priorities and made him a political force to be reckoned with. First, his personal life was transformed. He began to spend less money on himself and more on others, including the needy and various mission and educational causes. In public life, he established the Society for the Suppression of Vice, created a free colony in Sierra Leone, West Africa, founded the Church Mission Society and worked to prevent cruelty to animals—all in addition to his ongoing fight to emancipate slaves. His Christian faith stood as the foundation for all this, making him a statesman-saint and a role model for putting faith into action in both the private and public arenas of his day.
It was during Wilberforce’s campaign against the slave trade that Lord Melbourne took to the floor of Parliament and said, “Things have come to a pretty pass . . . when religion is allowed to invade public life.”
Over 200 years later, author and Prison Ministry leader Chuck Colson offered his perspective on tLord Melbourne’s quote above, saying, “Thank God religion did invade public life, because it brought an end to slavery.”
Religion invaded public political life again over a century later with the work and words of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. (1929 – 1968). The “Lord Melbournes” of the 20th century again complained. They wondered what right do preachers have to participate in politics? Thankfully, King stepped up, although he paid dearly for it.
In Western politics on both sides of the pond today, there are many more Melbournes than Wilberforces. In America, there is no shortage of politicians, professors, pundits, preachers and thought leaders who frequently and loudly voice dismay over the invasion of religion into public life. This serves to protect many ongoing forms of corruption and injustice, like the ongoing erosion of the family, the dramatic rise in out-of-wedlock births, the institutionalization of abortion (including born-alive “abortions”) and the willful decomposition of marriage itself. The “moderate” Lord Melbournes of today relish the marginalization of faith from public life.
America’s founders made their conviction clear that politics needs religion a lot more than religion needs politics. They knew better than to legislate this relationship but they saw clearly the indispensable value of faith, freely expressed and practiced in public. Not all Christians are called into public life, but those who are stand on solid constitutional, moral and scriptural ground (which I plan to explore in a future blog post).
An invasion of faith and love into public life would be a “pretty pass” we can celebrate.