Crazy for God: The Apostasy of Frank Schaeffer

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.

About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Broken Ring, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • Anne Cognito

    From the interview:

    JW: You write that you remember your dad screaming at your mother one Sunday. Obviously upset or enraged, he throws a potted ivy at her. Then he goes downstairs and preaches the gospel. Is this hypocritical?

    FS: I don’t think so, no more than some other L’Abri workers whom I won’t name who have had marital troubles, left their wives and still go around talking about the value of family. We are all flawed, and we all have things that we do differently. 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. Is it hypocritical for Billy Graham to go out and preach that you can have faith in Christ? I don’t think so. Human beings are only able to imagine and see what they can imagine and see. My dad was who he was. He did what he did. But I don’t believe the level of hypocrisy in his life was much different from anyone else.

    It’s okay to continue hypocritical practices, because that’s how it’s always been done? Yikes.

  • http://thechapel.wordpress.com the chaplain

    I think Franky nailed an important truth with this statement:

    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.

    I’ve had the same perception for a long time. This is why the War on Christmas never ends, why gays continue to be bashed, why abortion is still anathema – Christian leaders have to rally their people somehow. For some people, talk about eternal life is enough. Other people need something to focus on in this life. Moreover, people like to view themselves as crusaders or heroes. Cultural warfare is the ultimate self-esteem builder for people with frail egos, limited imaginations and too little courage to handle snakes and such.

  • Steve Bowen

    Lenny Bruce said “without polio Salk is a putz!”
    To have salvation we need to have something to be saved from so if we lived in a perfect world evangalists would be out of business. Of course they don’t want things to get better, but if they do, they’ll invent something else to get all riled up about.

  • Dutch

    Great article Ebon,

    I have been in many different denominations – the things observed by Frank Schaeffer, I observed, not only in fellow churchgoers’ private lives, but mine also.

    I have no need to read this book for I have seen it firsthand. Most any religion has a recent and ancient history of violence. A few years ago, while she lived in Europe, one of my daughters wrote me a lovely, heartwarming letter in which she said, you are my hero.” I wrote her back, and said, “be careful who you make to be your hero.”

    I am a stronger Christian than I could have imagined just a few years ago, but in some ways, I am still married to this carnal existence.

    Thanks for the article Ebon, Dutch

  • http://gretachristina.typepad.com/ Greta Christina

    “…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.’”

    For some reason, this is jumping out at me more than anything else.

    Can you imagine an astronomer refusing to even read about the Big Bang, because it upsets his steady-state theory and he finds that depressing? An evolutionary biologist refusing to read about possible new evidence for — or against — punctuated equilibrium?

    Of course I’m human. So of course I tend to embrace information that supports my beliefs, and ignore information that doesn’t. We all do, to some extent. And of course there are times when I decline to read something because I know I’ll find it depressing. But it’s pretty much always along the lines of, “I know about (horrible poverty, sweatshop labor, global warming, etc.) already, I don’t need to spend hours dragging myself through the horrible details.”

    It’s hard to imagine being that overt, that conscious, about rejecting the possiblity that I might be wrong, and refusing to even look at information that contradicts my beliefs. And it’s extra-hard to imagine overtly and consciously trying to convince others to do the same.

  • Samuel Skinner

    Reminds me of an incident during the Vietnam war. After May Lay one of the news stations did a survey and many people thought they shouldn’t have talked about it because it was upsetting.

  • MS

    “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.”

    Thanks for publishing this & it goes for Christians on the left as well. There are many Christians who believe the Church should not be in politics, should not be in the public schoolroom, should not be picketing clinics, should not be trying to pass laws, should not care about either the Democratic or Republican party, ad nauseum…

    If the Church would simply follow her charter, 95% of the problems between church-folk and non-church folk would evaporate immediately. Correct me if I speak out of turn, but no one seems to mind too much when the Gospel is preached decently–one can always ignore, choose not to believe, or write it off as a fairy tale. The problems start when Christians take over governments, go on crusades, etc…

    Sad, but apparently true.

  • Ric

    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.

    I noted this long ago myself. The Repubs had a monopoly on power for what, 14 years? If they really wanted to ban abortion and gay marriage, they would have. But they don’t want to. If these issues went away, people would be far more likely to see how the Repubs’ main agenda is to make the rich richer and the poor poorer, and they would start losing elections. No, they need to keep failing at these issues to keep rallying the gullible… er, faithful.

  • http://www.kellygorski.com Kelly Gorski

    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.

    Oh, you mean like how people are now going to protest Heath Ledger’s funeral? Seriously. Faith-based indoctrination doesn’t make a person want to “jump, jive, and wail”–no matter what one sees on TV.

  • Stacey Melissa

    Looks like a bombshell I shall have to look into reading. Thanks for pointing out this new book to us, Adam!

  • LindaJoy

    I don’t know about reading this book because the author states that all religions are not equal, and the more they move away from the teachings of Jesus, the less important they become. This may be a bombshell against the religious right, but it’s point of view is written by someone who still holds that Christian arrogance as one of his core beliefs.

  • Yoyo

    It is sad to me that he still feels the need to be a christian even as he acknowledges the damage his faith has caused.

    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 stood out to me also. Does this mean they really wouldnt be happy with turning the US into a theocracy?

  • http://www.daylightatheism.org/ Ebonmuse

    I’m sure that if the religious right’s leaders had the opportunity to remake this country into a theocracy where their will was absolute law, they’d jump at the chance. But they don’t have that opportunity, and in the meantime they still have to support themselves. If they taught that all was well and things were going great for Christians, they wouldn’t be able to sustain the level of donations and support they expect. They have to keep their followers on the pitch of fear and hysteria to ensure the unquestioning loyalty that keeps their operation in business.

  • Steve Bowen

    Ebon
    Off topic I know but followed Kelly Gorsky’s link from his comment above and saw this comment by Theistscientist

    However, craven cowardice(redundancy intentional) is bad for the gene pool, and your friend ebonmuse banned me because he was losing a debate with me.

    Doesn’t sound like you. Whats the story behind this?

  • KShep

    Adam:

    I’m sure that if the religious right’s leaders had the opportunity to remake this country into a theocracy where their will was absolute law, they’d jump at the chance.

    I’m not entirely sure I agree with this. Those leaders know full well how much cash pours in whenever they are able to manufacture some crisis or another, and they like that money. You yourself posted recently about the Prosperity Gospel. It HAS to have occurred to them at some point that if their agenda is realized, they’re out of a job.

    I guess I just think that it takes an incredible amount of arrogance and selfishness to reach the level of power these idiots have achieved, and those aren’t characteristics you would usually associate with someone who is truly, deeply concerned about the well being of his fellow man.

    A megalomaniac is still just a megalomaniac, doesn’t matter whether he’s using brute force or manipulation to gain and maintain power.

  • http://deleted MisterDomino

    Yoyo:

    //It is sad to me that he still feels the need to be a christian even as he acknowledges the damage his faith has caused.//

    It can be difficult for many people to make the jump from full-faith religious patron to atheist just like that. I don’t expect his experience to be some kind of “revelation” that turns him on to atheism.

    Quite the contrary, this is exactly what shouldn’t happen. He should be allowed to take a long, hard look at his religious faith and decide rationally whether or not the benefits outweigh the negative consequences. If he still decides to remain Christian, that’s his choice, but given his acute experience with religious bigotry and hypocrisy, I doubt that he would reach this conclusion unless he needs a crutch to support him emotionally.

  • lpetrich

    Even if the fundie theocrats took over, they could still manufacture crises to their heart’s content, like the sins of their followers or the machinations of enemies abroad.

    Joseph Stalin had done that, ordering massive purges of the Party and the military; he claimed that enemies of the people were everywhere, plotting to kill Soviet leaders, sabotage the economy, and sell out the Soviet Union. It’s like he looked under his bed each night to see if there were any counterrevolutionaries there.

    And given what Stalin had done to many of the Old Bolshevik leaders, making them confess to evil crimes that they had never committed, I can imagine the successors of the first fundie theocrats doing that to them.

  • DamienSansBlog

    Off topic I know but followed Kelly Gorsky’s link from his comment above and saw this comment by Theistscientist…

    I remember this. Find the story here: http://www.daylightatheism.org/2008/01/the-portable-atheist.html

  • Brock

    Thanks for the review, Adam. I read the first few chapters last night at the bookstore, bought the book, and am about halfway through it. I was a fan of the late Francis Schaeffer when I was a Christian, and this book reminds me why that was, also why I’m glad to be out of it. One stylistic note: for a professional writer, Mr Schaeffer certainly has a poor grasp of English grammar, especially how pronouns change in the objective case. Probably one of the benefits of homeschooling!

  • Ken Bird

    There is a bigger principle at play here. You can take something that is good and misuse it. There is a lot to be said for the teachings of Jesus. The problem is that many of those who claim to follow him don’t live by his teachings, or worse live contrary to his teachings and then try to impose their way on everyone. People are then turned off, on the basis of these shenanigans
    History teaches us that whenever religion and politics have got into bed together the results have been a disaster. It doesn’t matter what the religion is. The result is intolerance and repression.
    In the Middle Ages it was the “Christian” church and we call it the dark ages. But lest the atheists become too cocky, let me remind them of what happened in the Soviet Union when the religion of atheism and the state got together. Quite a repressive regime. Likewise Pol Pot in Cambodia is another sorry story for that faith.
    Belief systems are there to be internalised and lived out, not imposed on otheres. If we all do that it will soon be obvious which ones work and which ones don’t.

  • DamienSansBlog

    Oh, all right, I’ll say it first:

    ATHEISM IS NOT A FAITH.

    To be fair, however, it is a mindset or worldview — a “meme”, if you like — and one of the foundational “memes” comprising Marxism, which was the social structure (or “memeplex”) that Stalin and Pol Pot…claimed for their own. Whether they were True Scotsmen or not, as far as Marxism goes, is debatable.

    And I’m sure we’ll be debating it.

  • http://www.daylightatheism.org/ Ebonmuse

    Not in this thread we won’t. ;)

  • Ken Bird

    Whether they were True Scotsmen or not, as far as Marxism goes, is debatable. The same argument has to be applied to those to whom Franky is reacting to. Their actions have been well documented in this column. There is no denying that there have been some dreadful things done by people over the millenia “in God’s name”. The question is whether their actions truthfully represented the position they claimed to follow.

    Damien, I hate to disagree with you. Atheism is a faith. Its main tenet is that there is no God. Quite a dogmatic faith statement. The ones I have met were even evangelistic in their attempts to propagate their faith.

    They are quite separate from the agnostic who takes the position that he is not sure

  • Mrnaglfar

    Ken,

    Atheism is a faith. Its main tenet is that there is no God.

    If that is it’s main tenet, what are it’s other tenets?

    Also, what part of that statement does not lay on evidence (i.e. what reason should an atheist have to believe in god)?

  • http://nesoo.wordpress.com/ Nes

    Damien, I hate to disagree with you. Atheism is a faith. Its main tenet is that there is no God.

    Assuming that you don’t believe in them, then I suppose that you take it entirely on faith that there are no leprechauns?

  • OMGF

    Mr. Bird,

    There is a bigger principle at play here. You can take something that is good and misuse it. There is a lot to be said for the teachings of Jesus. The problem is that many of those who claim to follow him don’t live by his teachings, or worse live contrary to his teachings and then try to impose their way on everyone. People are then turned off, on the basis of these shenanigans

    See Ebon’s post on Jesus’s teachings for one. Two, you are making the mistake of thinking that religion is inherently good, therefore anything done that is seen as not good must be a misapplication of religion. This is, however, begging the question.

    Belief systems are there to be internalised and lived out, not imposed on otheres.

    And the only way to do that would be to have a government that is truly neutral by staying out of it completely. Of course, you may think that that is pushing atheism?

    Atheism is a faith. Its main tenet is that there is no God.

    No, atheism is simply the realization that no theist has ever provided sufficient (read any) evidence for the fanciful notion of there being a god or multiple gods.

    They are quite separate from the agnostic who takes the position that he is not sure

    No, the agnostic says that we can not know for sure either way.

  • Susan

    As an adult child of a Southern Baptist minister, I can tell you that I relate very well to Frank’s story. It is like living in a fishbowl. They have support groups and protective laws for children growing up in celebrity… maybe the same should apply to preacher’s families. And the fact that Frank’s father got angry and threw a plant and then preached? Believe me, its hypocrasy for anyone to think that their pastor or favorite religious leader is perfect by any stretch of the imagination. Which is part of the point of the story! We all need to STOP judging other people’s actions or beliefs by our own and instead look into our own imperfections… the only ones we can truly do anything about. Forcing people to live by one religious dogma does NOT belong in any free society. Fundamentalist Christianity is no less dangerous than the Taliban, no matter how Bible believing they claim to be. Both the extreme left and the extreme right are wrong. The answers are somewhere in the middle, where people take the time to listen to those who are different from themselves.

  • Virginia

    I spent two years reading books and testimonies of former evangelicals who became Catholic or Orthodox. Contrary to the InternetMonk’s reaction, the effect was that I began to notice something is NOT RIGHT about the evangelical church, the Christianity teaching — I did not go into a serious spiritual depression because I did not attempt to suppress my doubts or to fight it, I went long that path, and then I discovered: reasoning, rational thinking, logic and I give up Christianity


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