Ask any observer of American politics today to name the most influential figures of the religious right, and some familiar names are likely to come up – Pat Robertson, Tim LaHaye, James Dobson, John Hagee, Tony Perkins, Roy Moore, and others. But one name that’s not as likely to appear is Francis Schaeffer. That is a regrettable oversight, because even though Schaeffer died in 1982, he is possibly the one person most responsible for the existence of the religious right as we know it today.
Schaeffer was an evangelical Presbyterian theologian who lived in the 20th century. He wrote many books on apologetics, including The God Who Is There, Genesis in Space and Time (arguing for a creationist viewpoint), Escape from Reason, He Is There and He Is Not Silent, and many more. However, probably his three most influential books were A Christian Manifesto, How Should We Then Live? and Whatever Happened to the Human Race? (the latter two of which were also made into films by his son Frank). These highly influential works addressed political issues such as abortion, homosexuality and euthanasia, which up until that point had been largely ignored by Protestantism. They laid out what we would now recognize as the religious right positions on these issues, and urged Christian believers to get more involved in politics. Religious right leaders such as Tim LaHaye, Randall Terry of Operation Rescue, and others have publicly credited Schaeffer with laying the foundation for their movement.
As I said, Schaeffer died in 1982. But his son Frank is still around… and lately seems to have had a change of heart. He’s recently published a 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 (HT: The Wall of Separation). Although he’s still a Christian, he’s become bitterly disillusioned with the way religious conservatives have used their faith as a blunt instrument – and, if this memoir is to be believed, his late father held many of the same views.
Although I haven’t read the book yet, AU’s blog links to an interview with Frank Schaeffer discussing its content. Judging by these quotes, I’m going to have to get a copy:
The public image of the leaders of the religious right I met with so many times also contrasted with who they really were. In public, they maintained an image that was usually quite smooth. In private, they ranged from unreconstructed bigot reactionaries like Jerry Falwell, to Dr. Dobson, the most power-hungry and ambitious person I have ever met, to Billy Graham, a very weird man indeed who lived an oddly sheltered life in a celebrity/ministry cocoon, to Pat Robertson, who would have had a hard time finding work in any job where hearing voices is not a requirement.
I personally came to believe that a lot of the issues that were being latched onto by the Christian Right, whether it was the gay issue or abortion or other things, were actually being used for negative political purposes. They were used to structure a power base for people who then threw their weight around.
I begin to get the feeling that they don’t want things to get better. This is their shtick. This is the way they raise their money. This is how they maintain their central power base… The anti-Americanism was very clear to me in that there is a group of people whose best interests are served by failure, not by success, when it comes to what is happening in this country.
There are also some choice quotes for anyone who views Schaeffer himself as an idol:
Dad had a very strong temper. He and mother had a good marriage, in the sense that it lasted. They had a lot of affection for one another, and they were very dynamic. But there was also, as there are in a lot of human relationships, a very dark side. One of those dark sides came out when they were fighting. My father would yell and scream and throw things. Sometimes, it went beyond that.
as well as tidbits about other religious leaders whom he was acquainted with:
I talked about Billy Graham in the book. Growing up, I remember Dad talking to Billy Graham on a regular basis. Dad told me that Billy was always telling him that he was afraid to die.
I haven’t seen any prominent religious right figures respond to this book yet, which is hardly surprising. However, the Internet Monk‘s comment thread on the book offers a glimpse of what’s probably the dominant reaction in the evangelical community: a wish that, true or not, the book had never been written because reading it is depressing to them:
And yes, this can be very damaging.
I spent two years reading books and testimonies of former evangelicals who became Catholic or Orthodox. The effect was that I began to focus on all the bad things in the evangelical church. It got so bad that I went into a serious spiritual depression for more than a year.
…I will not be reading this book and I would warn others to tread very carefully when it comes to embracing this type of “honesty.”
This is a lovely example of the willful blindness that’s brought the religious right to grief in recent years. Even as the public rejects their agenda and their movement crumbles around them, they continue to pursue their pet political causes with relentless single-mindedness, uninterested in reading anything except whatever reinforces their existing prejudices. But as more and more people like Frank Schaeffer peel away, the religious right’s zealous devotion may well prove to be their undoing in the end.