My Interview with Religious Right Founder's Son, Frank Schaeffer
New York Times best selling author Frank Schaeffer is the son of the late Francis A. Schaeffer, considered to be the father of the Religious Right movement.
He has written of his life and experiences, travelling with his father, helping to 'spread the word' within the evangelical community, producing the series, How Should We Then Live?.
Mr. Schaeffer left the movement in the 1980s and began writing of his experiences and involvement in the movement, as he puts it “ …. in one way or another” , offering his assessment of what he believes went wrong with the direction and focus of the Religious Right.
His book, CRAZY FOR GOD: How I Grew Up As One of the Elect, Helped Found the Religious Right and Lived to Take All (or Almost All) of It Back, offers an insider's perspective and insight into a world of which Mr. Schaeffer was an integral part.
He has written for many publications including the Washington Post, USA Today, the Baltimore Sun and the Los Angeles Times.
Mr. Schaeffer's latest book, Patience with God, is due in stores in October 20.
1. Mr. Schaeffer, would you please share a little about your upbringing as a child?
Frank Schaeffer (FS): I grew up with a gift for verbal communication. Living in a household with a mother and father, Francis and Edith Schaeffer, who defended their theological ideas all day, lunch and dinner were often two or three hour long discussions. ‘Discussions’ is not really the right word since what happened was that a guest would ask a question and then Dad, Fidel Castro-like, would hold forth for several hours.
By the time I was nine or ten, I could mimic my parents and compose an articulate answer to almost any theological question. I had a flair for vocabulary that maybe only a dyslexic, raised with no TV, by a mother who read out loud, could acquire. Adults who talked to me told my parents that I was the most well spoken child they had ever met. What they did not know was that my verbal abilities were more like a circus trick. Professional proselytizers were raising me, sweet, sincere but preoccupied proselytizers.
On any given day, from the time I was about seven years on, you could have asked my parents where I was and they would have had no idea. They literally lost track of me, more or less forgot I existed, except at one specific time of the day.
At bedtime, Mom read me nineteenth and early twentieth century novels by people like Louisa May Alcott and Jean Stratton Porter. Mom also read Charles Dickens, C.S. Lewis, Sherlock Holmes stories, everything by P.G. Wodehouse and all of Mark Twain, with the exception of his ramblings about why he was an atheist and his speculation about how many tens of thousands of years an angel’s orgasm lasts. Mom read every book of the Bible to me so many times I still know more about ancient <?xml:namespace prefix = st1 />Israel than modern America.
2. How did your father, Francis A. Schaeffer, come to be a founder of what is called the so called Religious Right movement?
FS: When the film series I produced on history from an evangelical point of view, How Should We Then Live?, was complete, we launched it with a massive and well-promoted seminar tour sponsored by Gospel Films. We projected our movies from a giant arc projector we trucked all over America. My parents and I flew from city-to-city on the private plane hired by the president of Gospel Films, Billy Zeoli. The majority of events were held in civic arenas.
We were in fifteen cities, including a gig in Madison Square Garden. We spoke to over forty thousand people. They would show up for a whole day, watch each half hour episode in order. Then, we had discussions led by my father. Later in the tour, I sometimes led the discussions.
Our seminars were unique. The size of the crowds would not have been unusual for evangelistic crusades or Pentecostal 'charismatic' shindigs. However, in this case, evangelicals were coming to us to watch movies about art history and to hear Dad talk about philosophy. Each event got bigger as word of mouth spread. By the end of the tour, Dad was one of the most sought after and best known evangelical leaders in the United States.
What truly motivated people was the abortion issue. Because my dad took a stand on this ahead of any other well-known evangelical leader, he became the defacto 'father' of the emerging 'Religious Right'.
3. What were the core goals of the Religious Right?
FS: Americans have experienced many cycles of religiously inspired political fervor, from the Bay State Puritans’ mix of religion and law, to the various so-called Great Awakenings, to the evangelical-inspired and led anti-slavery movement, to prohibition and the church-based antiwar movements advocating isolationism in the 1930s and early 40s, and the religiously motivated parts of the anti-Vietnam War movement.
In terms of the political cycle involving evangelicals, as it has carried forward into the twenty first century, it was my father and I who were among the first to start telling American evangelicals that God wanted them involved in the political process. The Roe v. Wade decision regarding abortion gave Dad, (Dr. C. Everett) Koop and I our platform.
Abortion became the evangelical issue. Everything else in our 'culture wars' pales by comparison. The anger we stirred up at the grass roots was not feigned but heartfelt. At first, it was not about partisan politics. It had everything to do with genuine horror at the procedure of abortion. The reaction was emotional and sincere. The issue was deliberately co-opted by the Republican Party and initially ignored by the Democratic Party.
Directly and indirectly, our Whatever Happened To The Human Race? seminars helped launch the crisis pregnancy center movement. The centers offered a practical alternative to abortion. They also became bastions of pro-life political protest and activism.
The centers became places where ordinary Americans reached out with compassionate care to literally millions of women and babies of all races and economic conditions. As of 2007, there were more than 3,000 centers across America. They also brought a growing number of Hispanic Pentecostals and former Democratic Party Roman Catholics into the Republican Party.
The crisis centers galvanized hitherto apolitical evangelicals into political action. The centers also brought Black churches, which were often liberal on other issues, into close contact with culturally conservative White evangelicals and became places where local Republican action-committees informally organized.
If things had developed slightly differently, the crisis centers could have just as easily been bastions of the Democratic Party, or at least non-political. Abortion had been mostly a 'Catholic issue' just as Bishop Sheen had said. At first, most evangelical leaders, following Billy Graham’s lead, weren’t interested in 'going political'.
When Dad asked Billy why he wasn’t taking a stand on abortion, Billy answered that he had been burnt by getting too close to Nixon, and was never going to poke his head over the ramparts of the, 'I-only-preach-the-gospel' trench again. He said he didn’t want to be 'political'.
Other evangelical leaders were similarly nervous when our films first came out, just as Dad had been nervous when I fought with him while urging him to add an anti-Supreme Court pro-life message to the end of our first film series.
Our second seminar tour to launch, Whatever Happened To The Human Race?, lost almost one million dollars. The first tour had made twice that on book sales, tapes and film rentals. We had raised around one and a half million to make Whatever Happened To The Human Race?, and another million to promote it through the tour. We lost the money because we had moved from the comfortable subjects of art, culture and theology, with abortion only tacked on in the last episodes of How Should We Then Live?, to the uncomfortable 'life issues'.
At first, the evangelical media leaders, like the editors of Christianity Today, met, Whatever Happened To The Human Race?, with stony silence. And where several years before we had looked out over crowds of thousands, early on in the second tour we could barely fill the first row of seats in the same venues. Then, things began to change.
4. How did the goals of the movement change over time?
FS: The leaders of the new Religious Right were gleefully betting on American failure. If secular, democratic, diverse and pluralistic America survived, wouldn’t that prove that we were wrong about God only wanting to bless 'Christian America'? If, for instance, crime went down dramatically in New York City, for any other reason than a reformation and revival, wouldn’t that make the prophets of doom look silly? If the economy was booming without anyone repenting, what did that mean?
(Jerry) Falwell, (Pat) Robertson, (James) Dobson and others would later use their power in ways that would have made my father throw up. Dad could hardly have imagined how they would help facilitate the instantly corrupted power-crazy new generation of evangelical pubic figures like Ralph Reed, who took money from the casino industry, while allegedly playing both sides against the middle in events related to the Abramoff Washington lobbyist scandal.
After 9/11, the public got a glimpse of the anti-American self-righteous venom that was always just under the surface of the evangelical right. Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell and others declared the attack on America was a punishment from God. After the war in Iraq began, some loony group of fundamentalists started picketing the funerals of killed soldiers and screaming at bereaved fathers and mothers that God was punishing 'faggot America'. What they shouted openly was what the leaders of the Religious Right were usually too smart to state so bluntly, but it is what they had always said in private.
What began to bother me was that so many of our new 'friends' on the Religious Right seemed to be rooting for one form of apocalypse or another. In the crudest form, this was part of the evangelical fascination with the so-called end times. The worse things got, the sooner Jesus would come back. But, there was another component. The worse everything got, the more it proved that America needed saving, by us!
Long before Ralph Reed and the other bottom-feeders came on the scene, Dad got sick of “these idiots”, as he often called people like Dobson, in private. Dad said, they were"plastic", “power-hungry” and “Way too right wing, really nuts!”. He believed, as he said, “They’re using our issue to build their empires”.
5. What influences helped to shape the movement?
FS: Evangelicals weren’t politicized, at least in the current meaning of the word, until after Roe v. Wade and after Dad, Koop and I stirred them up over the issue of abortion. More than thirty years after helping to launch the evangelical pro-life movement, I am filled with bitter regret for the resultant unintended consequences of the formation of the movement.
In 2000, we elected a president who claimed he believed God created the earth and who, as president, put car manufacturers and oil company’s interests ahead of caring for that creation. We elected a 'born-again' president, who said he lived by biblical ethics, who played the dirtiest political games possible, for instance, the filthy lies his people spread to derail Senator John McCain’s presidential primary bid. We elected a pro-life Republican Party that actually did nothing to care for the pregnant women and babies they said they were concerned. Rather, they were corrupted by power and took their sincere evangelical followers for granted, playing them for suckers.
The so-called evangelical leadership, Dobson, Robertson, Falwell and all the rest also played the pro-life community for suckers. While thousands of men and women in the crisis pregnancy movement gave of themselves with tremendous and sincere sacrifice, in order to help women and babies, their evangelical 'leaders' did little more than cash in on fundraising opportunities and stir the pot so that they could keep their followers motivated. That way, the evangelical leaders could represent themselves as power brokers to the politicians willing to kowtow to them.
To the extent that the Republican Party benefited from the pro-life movement, my efforts and those of my father contributed to making the Republican congressional majorities of the 1980s and 1990s possible. We also indirectly helped make the election of Reagan, Bush Sr., and Bush Jr. possible.
6. Your father is the author of Christian Manifesto, arguably considered almost as important, to the Religious Right, as the Bible. How did this book come to be?
FS: As things got more extreme, so did Dad's views. He began to fear nothing would change so, in that book, he called for using force as need be to overthrow the 'unjust' American government that favored abortion.
7. What would you say have been the best aspects of the movement? What have been the worst?
FS: The best aspects were caring for individuals with needs, say providing help for women. The worst was the abuse of religious power put to political ends.
8. When did you decide it was necessary for you to discuss your feelings regarding your role in helping to establish the Religious Right as a force and movement within America's political landscape?
FS: I have been talking about this since 1992 when I published my first novel Portofino, which takes a look at the fundamentalists in the context of a coming of age story. I've been writing about this, in one way or another, ever since. I believe my latest book, Patience With God, really lays out the best, complete look at all that has occurred.
9. You have recently expressed concern about the rhetoric and outrage you've seen on display at townhall meetings across the United States over this past summer, saying you believed some of the rage is influenced by or emanating from within the Religious Right. Would you please explain the connection you see in relationship to the Religious Right and events of this past summer, 2009?
FS: I recently addressed aspects of this in my article, Glenn Beck and the 9/12 Marchers: Subversives from Within, appearing at the Huffington Post:
Ordinary folks from Planet Earth may ask why the Republican Party, right-wing activists and members of the Religious Right seem so unreachable with mere facts let alone decency and decorum. (As the proud father of a US Marine who fought in Afghanistan, I'm particularly outraged that these people would exploit the 9/11 attacks after my son and others were prepared to give their lives in response to our enemies.)
As a former Religious Right leader, who was raised and home-schooled by my Evangelical-leader parents, Francis and Edith Schaeffer in the movement, let me explain just why the ordinary rules of decency don't apply to the Right these days.
Let me also answer this question: Who are these people?
Protecting Your Children From Satan
A big part of the answer to understanding the heightened climate of outright hate and fear of the "other" is the home school and Christian school movement. It is a modern incarnation of the anti-federal government ideology of earlier firebrands such as John Calhoun who was the 7th Vice President and a Southern politician in the 19th century. Calhoun embraced slavery, states' rights, limited government, and said that Americans should secede from the union if it went against their wishes. (See: "Calhoun Conservatism Raises Its Ugly Head" by Mike Lux in the Huffington Post Sept 11/09.)
In the early 1970s the evangelicals like my late father and James Dobson decided that the our society had fallen so far "away from God" and so far from "America's Christian history" that it was time to metaphorically decamp to not just another country but to another planet:. In other words virtually unnoticed by the media and mainstream political operatives, a big chunk of American society seceded from the union in all but name.
What they did is turn the white race-based in "Christian school" movement of the 1950s into a countercultural phenomena. As tens of thousands of new Christian schools opened, it was no longer just about "protecting" white kids from minorities and African-Americans. It was about protecting your children from Satan in other words the United States government's long reach through the public school system.
To protect your children from Satan -- in other words mainstream, open patriotic and pluralistic America -- you either kept them at home where mom and dad could teach the children right from wrong or sent them to a cloistered private evangelical/fundamentalist school. At home or in school you used curriculum prepared by the likes of James--beat-your-child-and-dare-to-discipline-Dobson, RJ-slavery-was-a-good-thing-Rushdoony, or many and other right-wing anti-American activists. That curriculum presented "secular America" as downright evil. Hating the USA became next to godliness.
The Anti-American Home Schoolers Come Of Age
We are now several generations into this experiment of holier-than-thou withdrawal from our American mainstream culture. If you wonder who it is that's both running and underwriting organizations such as the Family Research Council, Focus On The Family, Freedom Works and other organizers of the 9/12 March and who are the most faithful followers the likes of Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh or viewers of Fox News your answer is: it's the home school/Christian school generation of men and women now hitting their thirties and even forties who might as well have been raised on a different planet.
What are these home school and Christian school children taught? Here's a quote from one of the far right's le ading home school curricula creators:
The political question is this: By what biblical standard is the pagan to be granted the right to bring political sanctions against God's people? We recognize that unbelievers are not to vote in Church elections. Why should they be allowed to vote in civil elections in a covenanted Christian nation? Which judicial standards will they impose? By what other standard than the Bible?
(Gary North of Institute For Christian Economics)
The generation raised on the belief that the US government is illegitimate because it is trying to 'impose' non-biblical laws on people has hit the streets. These are the people who grew up 'indoctrinated' into an alternative reality. Today they are out there waving signs of Obama dressed as Hitler. They are buying weapons and ammunition. Some are in the growing and revived militia movement. They are Dick Armey's foot soldiers. People like Armey and Beck can count on the ignorance of their dupes. It's against their religion to read a real newspaper, watch anything but Fox or go to a real school.
Evangelical Red Guards
Over the last 30 years Evangelical fundamentalists have managed to do what Chairman Mao failed to do with his Red Guards: indoctrinate a whole generation of evangelical people 'to see their own society as the enemy' and act like subversives from within the culture. These people are as anti-American as Al- Qaeda. The "Christian Reconstruction" movement is working for theocracy. Reconstructionism (of which Gary North is one leader) says that the law given for the political and legal ordering of ancient Israel is intended for all people at all times.
Thank you, Mr. Schaeffer, for sharing your insight and your time.
Mr. Schaeffer’s website is FRANKSCHAEFFER.com.