Because ACL seeks to influence politics, people often ask questions about whether it is appropriate for Christians to engage this space.

I was reflecting on this afresh this week as I was preparing to speak to students on the topic of political engagement at ACL’s inaugural Gap Week.

It is a big discussion and I don’t intend to go into all the ins and outs of it here.

But a large part of the answer to this question jumped out at me while I was reading an article in the current edition of The Economist.

The article was a review of a new book entitled The Empire of Necessity: Slavery, Freedom, and Deception in the New World by Greg Grandin, an American historian. It is about the brutal Atlantic slave trade.

Grandid explores the paradox of why slavery actually expanded after the Enlightenment’s  “age of reason”. That is a topic for another day.

What fascinated me was that The Economist, a noted secular publication which in 2000 predicted the end of Christianity (it has since recanted), takes Grandin to task for barely mentioning “the brave battlers against the gruesome slave business” who were predominantly Christians.

“Prominent among them were William Wilberforce and other evangelical Christians. Along with their Quaker allies, they led the campaign that persuaded Britain’s Parliament to abolish the slave trade in 1807,” The Economist writes.

It also points out that as a result, the might of the Royal Navy was deployed to patrol the Atlantic in order to enforce Parliament’s decision. These patrols continued until World War I.

So what about political engagement by Christians today?

Can persuasive political argument be brought to bear in favour of human rights for the unborn, the idea that wherever possible a child should have her or his mother and father, that a wealthy country like Australia should not cut but increase its overseas aid, that we can have a generous humanitarian intake of refugees, that commercial considerations be set aside in order to reduce poker machine harm?

All of these are important political debates today.  A Christian idea of justice is relevant to each.

If evangelical Christians could activate to change the economic and social mindsets of their day to bring down slavery, why can’t we seek to persuade public and political opinion in our day on issues that also seem intractable?

Just like today, political campaigning by Christians in the 18th and 19th century attracted often vicious ridicule. Wilberforce endured death threats and his friends risked their lives gathering evidence from the slave ports of England. They were scorned as “saints”.

There are some big political debates ahead in 2014 that would benefit from “brave battling” by people informed by a Christian idea of justice. This is a task for us all.