he buzz surrounding the new film Lincoln might be a positive sign that the public is interested in both history and heroism. With all the negativity in the world — especially for those of us who closely follow politics — it is refreshing to know that great leaders do exist. Politics can be petty, frustrating, and thankless. We are, perhaps, thirsty for real-life stories of courageous people who have made a difference.
Of course, most Americans are familiar with uplifting biographies of men like Washington and Jefferson and Churchill. And 2011's The Iron Lady, about Britain's Margaret Thatcher, added to the canon of mostly-positive portrayals of great 20th-century leaders.
But history is full of figures who can inspire — many of whom you've never heard of, even if they have been hailed on the big screen. Indeed, some of my favorites are quite obscure. So without further ado, some of the greatest political thinkers and leaders whom you've never heard of — but can rent a movie about (or at least read a book about):
1. William Wilberforce: Americans who are flocking to see Lincoln would do well to rent a movie about one of his heroes, British Parliamentarian William Wilberforce.
The film Amazing Grace (and the Eric Metaxas book by the same name) tells the story of how, after a religious awakening, Wilberforce contemplated leaving politics. But John Newton — a repentant former slave ship captain who penned the famous hymn "Amazing Grace" — persuaded him that he could make a greater difference by remaining in politics.
Wilberforce went on to devote the next 20 years of his life to leading the charge to ban the British slave trade. He then turned his attention to banning slavery in British colonies, a goal that was accomplished just three days before his death in 1833.
Anti-abortion conservatives see themselves as modern-day Wilberforces — standing on the right side of history against an evil practice. Liberals can also find much to like about him. Aside from being an abolitionist, Wilberforce was what we might call an animal rights activist, helping found what became the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. If you ever doubted that politics could be used as a force for good, Wilberforce should serve as an example that it can. I quite literally named my child after him: Becket Wilberforce Lewis.
2. Thomas Becket: The recent controversy over the HHS mandate and religious liberty got me thinking of Becket. Like Wilberforce, Becket transformed himself from a lover of pleasure to man with a larger purpose. (For Wilberforce, the purpose was abolishing slavery. For Becket, it was defending religious liberty against the crown.)
Once known for carousing with Henry II, the king helped install Becket as Archbishop of Canterbury, presuming he would do the king's bidding. Instead, Becket transformed into a devout cleric, dedicated to defending the church against the crown.
For this, believing they had the imprimatur of the king, four knights murdered Becket inside Canterbury Cathedral, thus guaranteeing he would be remembered as a saint and a martyr.
There is a play about Becket, which I have not seen, but which reportedly includes historical inaccuracies. There is a 1964 film co-starring Richard Burton and Peter O'Toole titled Becket which I have seen, but which probably doesn't do justice to the story (perhaps it's a generational thing?)
But regardless, you should learn about Becket. Again, I quite literally named my child after him: Becket Wilberforce Lewis.
3. Dietrich Bonhoeffer: One of my favorite books of the past few years is the aforementioned Eric Metaxas' biography Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy. The subtitle almost says it all. Unlike many of the German religious leaders, this Lutheran pastor publicly stood up to Adolf Hitler. He also aided the Valkyrie plot to kill Hitler, helped smuggle Jews out of Germany, and ultimately perished in a German concentration camp, just days before Germany surrendered.
Metaxas deserves much credit for popularizing Bonhoeffer, and introducing him to a new generation in desperate need of heroes. Read the book.
(Note: My first two children, Burke and Becket, have names that start with a "B." Could there be a Bonhoeffer Lewis in the future?)
These are just a few of the historical figures who inspire me. Thankfully, there are plenty of others out there — some who have caught the public's attention and some who have not.
Maybe you're not a Wilberforce kind of guy. But really, take a couple hours to learn about his story — especially if it means turning off Here Comes Honey Boo Boo.
THE WEEK'S AUDIOPHILE PODCASTS: LISTEN SMARTER
- Why China's Communist Party is headed for collapse
- Why Texas Republicans may want to cool the anti-Obama land-grab talk
- He said he was leaving. She ignored him.
- 31 TV shows to watch in 2014
- Why the poor's investment of choice is so alarming
- How to make perfect fried rice in 6 easy steps
- Why atheism doesn't have the upper hand over religion
- Obama doesn't have a manhood problem — but conservatives certainly do
- Why we need a maximum wage
- Why Mindy Kaling — not Lena Dunham — is the body positive icon of the moment
Subscribe to the Week