- - Thursday, June 4, 2015

“Americans understand religious freedom to mean different things,” says former Congressman Frank R. Wolf. “But most would agree that conscience rights figure prominently in the narrative of America’s founding. Historically, Americans and our corresponding institutions have recognized that conscience is not ultimately allegiant to the state, but to something, and for many people Someone, higher.”

But that shared understanding can no longer be assumed. The headlines, from here and abroad, reveal a shrinking space for dissent in the public square—especially when dissent is informed by religious faith or individual conscience. Religious freedom, freedom of conscience, has never been under greater assault.

It is against this backdrop that leaders in the faith, political, and academic communities launched the 21st Century Wilberforce Initiative. After traveling to more than 50 countries, founder and president Randel Everett felt the call to fight the erosion of religious freedom in America and combat religious persecution around the world. His friend Michael Horowitz, a recent recipient of the Chuck Colson Center’s Wilberforce Award, suggested William Wilberforce as an appropriate name and model for Everett’s new organization. And so the 21st Century Wilberforce Initiative was born.

William Wilberforce (1759-1833) was a British parliamentarian who championed the abolition of the trans-Atlantic slave trade. Abolition was the human rights issue of his day, just as religious freedom is the human rights issue of our time. During Wilberforce’s lifetime, the slave trade had become the backbone of the British economy, and even well-intentioned Christians were so accustomed to it that abolition must have seemed unimaginable. Yet Wilberforce was deeply influenced by two remarkable men of faith: John Newton, a penitent slave-ship captain who wrote “Amazing Grace,” and John Wesley, the pioneering Anglican evangelist. It was after meeting Newton and Wesley that William Wilberforce, and a group of like-minded friends, resolved to awaken the conscience of their country.

In our own time, Frank Wolf has been called the “conscience of Congress,” and has often said that the great men who influenced his thinking on human rights and religious freedom were Wilberforce, Charles Colson, and Ronald Reagan. So when Randel Everett resigned as pastor of his church to found the 21st Century Wilberforce Initiative, he asked Wolf to join him. Frank Wolf retired from Congress this past January and immediately joined the Initiative as Distinguished Senior Fellow. That same month, he was appointed to the first-ever chair in religious freedom at Baylor University.

The Wilberforce-Wolf comparison isn’t exact, but the similarities are striking. As Everett puts it, “Frank Wolf is the William Wilberforce of our day. He has the relationships and respect among faith-based groups that has allowed the Initiative to reach across sectarian lines of politics, religion, and ethnicity and work in collaboration with ministries and NGOs to clarify the essential role of religious freedom for our nation, and to fight on behalf of those who are deprived of it around the world.

“This is essentially the model of William Wilberforce, who created coalitions that worked together, in his lifetime, for the abolition of slavery,” Everett said.

As a member of Congress, Wolf was the author of the International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA), which incorporated our country’s first freedomreligious freedominto American foreign policy by creating the International Religious Freedom Office at the Department of State. IRFA also established a bipartisan, independent U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom to serve as watchdog on repressive regimes and truth-teller to the State Department.

Wolf was the author of legislation to create a special State Department envoy advocating for religious minorities in the Near East and South Central Asia. And long before the Arab Spring turned into an Arab Winter, he sounded the alarm about the worsening plight of religious minorities, especially the ancient Christian communities in Egypt and Iraq. Wolf also founded and served as co-chairman of the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission, a cross-party gathering of nearly 200 members of Congress who work together to raise awareness about international human rights.

In his time, William Wilberforce fought for human rights in Britain’s Parliament, and like Frank Wolf, brought together people of differing, even opposing, points of view. But Wilberforce did not operate in a vacuum: His fellow abolitionists labored in the public square to persuade Britons to question the morality of the slave trade. Books, plays, pamphlets, public debates, even coins, were produced to prod, and ultimately to awaken, Britain’s collective conscience.

Hannah More, the writer and philanthropist who worked closely with Wilberforce, wrote countless pamphlets and poems for the cause, including her famous poem “Slavery,” which describes in heartbreaking detail the separation of a female slave from her children. Wilberforce told Hannah More: “You know enough of life to be aware that in parliamentary measures of importance, more is to be done out of the House than in it.”

Frank Wolf is heeding Wilberforce’s advice, stepping away from Congress to further apply Wilberforce’s dynamic model education to raise awareness, policy engagement, and partnershipsto elevate America’s first freedom at home and abroad.

• Lou Ann Sabatier serves as Director of Strategic Communications for the 21st Century Wilberforce Initiative.

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