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Cultural Elites | The Next Unreached People Group
Does God want us to change the world? And if so, how? If you’re in a hurry, let me cut to the chase: a)
– and b)
by doing what the Clapham Circle did: proving their faith through works, mostly among the poor and powerless, and working among the rich and powerful
. There’s a little more to it, but if you must run, there’s the nuance-free answer which, like a sack lunch, you may take with you.
If you can stay, I’ll begin by telling you about the night talkshow host Dick Cavett and I went to see Mickey Rooney perform. This is not a joke. Before the show I got to meet Mickey, along with the photographer Richard Avedon. It was a trip. But the point of this is what happened later that evening, in a Park Avenue bistro, where Cavett and I bumped into a Catholic priest friend of mine. Suddenly, as though it had been eating at him for years, Cavett asked the priest where the Golden Rule came from. The priest, knowing Cavett to be brilliant and well-educated, reached way back and came up with the actual Hebrew passage from the Old Testament, which Jesus would have been referring to when he so famously spoke it in the New Testament. But that’s not what Cavett was after. He didn’t know Jesus had given us the Golden Rule. That’s what he was asking! It was an odd moment watching the priest and the pundit missing each other, and realizing that my favorite smartguy didn’t know what most American fifth-graders know. Why? Because for the last fifty years he had been living among the intellectual and cultural elites of Manhattan – folks like Woody Allen and Susan Sontag and Pauline Kael, people so secular when compared to the rest of the country that they wouldn’t have known it was Jesus either. And if they had, they wouldn’t have brought it up at George Plimpton’s cocktail party or at Paloma Picasso’s opening.
What does this have to do with changing the world? Everything. Because, for good or for ill, it is the cultural elites who determine much of what goes on in the rest of the culture, who can set the tone and content of the cultural conversation. They can determine what we sneer at and what we
at. Not that they are trying to do this. It’s just the way things are. They tend to have the tv pulpits and the Conde Nast photo spreads. And the folks in Topeka who watch them… don’t. You’ve heard of trickle-down economics? Let me introduce you to trickle-down culture.
This is nothing new. Two hundred years ago, when the great reformer and abolitionist William Wilberforce was alive, the situation was the same. In fact, it was worse. In our own country today, secularism is still generally confined to the cultural elites, who are few in number and mostly live in a few metropolitan areas. But the overwhelming percentage of Americans across the country – 84 percent by a recent Gallup poll – self-identify as Christians, with about half of them “serious” about their faith. So most of us still remember where the Golden Rule came from. Though the tide is rising, we have not yet been completely swamped by secularism.
But in Wilberforce’s England, they had. The secularism of the elites had over the course of the 18th century quite overrun the country, and though most people still went to church, almost no one really believed the Bible or the basic tenets of the faith. Most of the clergy didn’t believe it themselves, and from their pulpits were chirrupping mainly about Enlightenment deism and rationalism, and “preaching” a tepid status-quo moralism. And the culture, having drawn back from anything resembling a robust Christian faith, was suffering terribly. The elites set the extraordinarily low cultural standards, being as hedonistic and selfish as anything we can imagine outside Versailles; they gave nothing to the poor and did nothing to help them. As far as they were concerned, the poor deserved to be poor, and they deserved to be rich. End of discussion. The effect of this was incalculable, and throughout the whole of the 18th century extreme poverty and social chaos held sway, complete with public displays of animal cruelty, epidemic alcoholism among all classes, and every other kind of social horror. One contemporary statistic paints the grim picture: 25 percent of all single women in London were prostitutes. Their average age was sixteen.
Still, despite these longest of odds Wilberforce and his devout friends – what we today call the Clapham Circle – somehow succeeded in radically changing the cultural conversation and climate over a few decades. By Wilberforce’s death in 1833, they had managed to bring a Christian worldview into the cultural mainstream for the first time in modern history. To say that it was miraculous is merely to know the details. And they did it, as we have said, by showing their faith through works, and by moving principally in culturally elite circles, as we shall see. But first some background.
WILBERFORCE AND THE CLAPHAM CIRCLE
“They changed the world!” It’s a phrase we’ve heard so often that it’s lost all meaning, as anything does when worn down by overhandling to the bald nub of cliché. But if anyone ever changed the world, Wilberforce and the Clapham Circle did. Wilberforce is, of course, most famous for leading the Parliamentary battle to end the slave trade in the British Empire. That alone was an utterly heroic effort of twenty years, culminating in the great victory of 1807, whose bicentennial we celebrate this year. But what few know is that what Wilberforce and the Clapham Circle accomplished went far beyond that historic triumph of 1807. For one thing, Wilberforce’s efforts led to the British abolition of slavery itself 26 years later, and inspired the abolitionist cause across Europe and in the United States, too. Years later, Lincoln and Frederick Douglas hailed him as their hero.
But more amazing, and harder to fathom, was that far beyond abolition, Wilberforce and his friends had a monumental impact on the wider British culture, and on the world beyond Britain, because they succeeded not only in ending the slave trade and slavery, but in changing the entire mindset of the culture. What had been an effectively pagan worldview, where slavery and the abuse of human beings was accepted as inevitable and normative, became an effectively biblical worldview, in which human beings were seen as created in the image of God. The idea that one should love one’s neighbor was brought into the cultural mainstream for the first time in history, and the world has never been the same.
What began as a war against the slave trade became a war against every other social ill: from the treatment of prisoners, to child labor, to caring for orphans, to epidemic alcoholism, to prostitution, to illiteracy among the poor, to public spectacles of animal cruelty, and everything in between. When Wilberforce began his career in Parliament, the idea of helping the poor was virtually unheard of, but a few decades later he and his friends had effectively launched the Victorian era, a time when helping the poor and fighting social injustice were the cultural norm, as they are today. By the time he died in 1833, Wilberforce’s goal “to make goodness fashionable” had succeeded beyond anything he could have dreamt. The fashion leapt across the Atlantic, too, and just as in Britain, societies to do good bloomed across America and have flourished ever since. To do: Change the world.
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