A bête noir of fundamentalist-phobics

EdithAndFrancisSchaefferAs a Salon Premium subscriber, I recently signed on for a free 12-month subscription to Reason. I had seen the magazine on occasion in public libraries, and the subscription has been rewarding enough that I’m likely to become a paying subscriber once the free year has expired.

Contributing editor Cathy Young is one of Reason‘s brighter lights, so when I saw a line in the September issue (not yet online) promoting her reflection on Jerry Falwell’s mixed legacy, I brightened in anticipation of a good contrarian reading on the man from Lynchburg. Then I hit one of those tidy factoids so fatuous that it derails an otherwise entertaining argument:

Francis Schaeffer, a fundamentalist champion of “dominion theology,” reportedly helped allay Falwell’s stated fears of tainting religion with politics. Schaeffer believed that Christians are called to rule America under the guidance of biblical law. His followers include the radical “Christian Reconstructionists” who would impose Old Testament law — requiring the stoning of homosexuals, for example — in America. In a 2005 report for the Southern Poverty Law Center, Bob Moser quotes former Falwell ghostwriter Mel White as saying that Schaeffer “convinced Jerry there was no biblical mandate against joining with ‘nonbelievers in a political cause.”

This came as news to me. As a younger man in the late 1970s and into the 1980s, I was drawn enough to Schaeffer’s writing to attend a regional premiere of his pro-life film series Whatever Happened to the Human Race? (which was picketed by pro-choice Unitarians); to use vacation time for several week-long summer conferences; and to spend two months at the Boston-area branch of L’Abri Fellowship, the study center he founded in Switzerland.

If any of these Schaefferite endeavors had sessions devoted to praising dominionism or stoning gay people, I must have been taking a nap. The only L’Abri conference reference to dominionism I could recall was a question from the audience, and it prompted criticism of dominionism’s proponents. I checked the index for the Complete Works of Francis Schaeffer. Nope: Not a single reference to dominionism or to its best-known proponent (and Schaeffer contemporary), R.J. Rushdoony.

On a similar note: Richard Land pointed out in a recent interview with the radio show Interfaith Voices that, despite Kevin Phillips’ belief that dominionists have hijacked the Southern Baptist Convention, he knows of only about six dominionist pastors in the SBC, and they are all seen as fringe-element kooks.

I found the report by Bob Moser that Young referred to, and it offered a bit more detail:

But Falwell, like other fundamentalists, worried about “tainting” his religious message by mixing it with politics.

The Rev. Mel White, an evangelical writer and filmmaker who ghostwrote Falwell’s autobiography, says Falwell was led to politics in part by Dr. Francis Schaeffer, a rebellious fundamentalist who had begun spreading the word about “dominion theology” and who many see as the father of the anti-abortion movement.

Dubbed the “Guru of Fundamentalists” by Newsweek in 1982, Schaeffer believed that Christians are called to rule the U.S. — and the world — using biblical law. That meant winning elections.

“Dr. Schaeffer,” says White, “convinced Jerry there was no biblical mandate against joining with ‘nonbelievers’ in a political cause.”

Schaeffer was admired by a radical group of fundamentalist thinkers called Christian Reconstructionists. Led by Orthodox Presbyterian minister R.J. Rushdoony, the Reconstructionists argued that the Second Coming couldn’t occur until the faithful established a “Biblical kingdom.”

Democracy, which Rushdoony called “the great love of the failures and cowards of life,” would be replaced by strict Old Testament law — meaning the death penalty for homosexuality, along with a host of other “abominations,” including heresy, astrology, and (for women only) “unchastity before marriage.”

Still, there’s nothing more here than Schaeffer’s convincing Falwell that there was no scandal in Christians working with non-Christians on shared political concerns, and his being admired — for whatever reason — by Reconstructionists.

Schaeffer affirmed the common Christian belief that Jesus is Lord of all creation. Nothing in his work suggests, however, that Christians therefore ought to establish a theocracy in the United States or any other nation, much less to gather stones to hurl at anyone. I’ve yet to see an argument to the contrary that amounts to anything more than feverish speculation built on a foundation of hearsay.

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  • http://www.mikehickerson.com Mike

    Is this misreprentation of Schaeffer’s theology and teaching a trend among secular media? Jeff Sharlet of Harper’s did something similar (Here is Alan Jacobs’ response to Sharlet at Books & Culture). Sharlet claimed L’Abri was a “madrasah” for fundamentalist Christians.

    Do we need to begin a campaign to protect Schaeffer’s legacy? I became a Christian as a junior English major, and Schaeffer was one of the first Christian authors I read deeply. Schaeffer’s books led me to take art and literature (both Christian and nonChristian) more seriously, to study the long history of Christians creating culture, and to love God with all of my mind through study, reason, and philosophy. I barely recognize the caricatures of Schaeffer I have read in recent media.

  • http://knapsack.blogspot.com Jeff

    ‘Scuse me, but calling Mel White an evangelical writer, with a straight face, in 2007? Try a Wikipedia or Google glance, and delve deeper if you want, but i’d want more sourcing than Mel White (think “Soulforce”) for such a claim.

  • http://flatlandsfriar.blogspot.com Brett

    Not to mention that these days, I believe Mel White might merit some identifiers in addition to “evangelical writer and filmmaker.”

  • http://flatlandsfriar.blogspot.com Brett

    Jeff was quicker than I.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    Once again we see the crucial word “fundamentalist” being redefined.

    I do not think I have ever met a single L’Abri vet who could be accurately labeled with that word. And I say that as someone who is not an admirer of Schaeffer.

  • http://fetremac.wordpress.com Scholaster

    There are major flaws in the reasoning (or use of evidence) in those articles.

    For example:

    [...] Schaeffer believed that Christians are called to rule the U.S. — and the world — using biblical law. That meant winning elections.

    “Dr. Schaeffer,” says White, “convinced Jerry there was no biblical mandate against joining with ‘nonbelievers’ in a political cause.”

    The latter paragraph does not at all support or illustrate the former. It suggests pluralistic democracy, not global domination.

    And both excerpts you have quoted are reading the opinions of people influenced by Schaeffer back into Schaeffer himself. Shoddy.

  • http://www.oursovereignjoy.blogspot.com Johnny T. Helms

    I have apparently lost my copy of Schaeffer’s Christian Manifesto, but if anyone else has it that would be an excellent resource to check to verify or disprove any suggestions on Schaeffer’s part in favor of an American theocracy.

  • Mr. Conservative

    Very poor writing/reasoning on the part of Mr. White. He must be employing the associative property of ad hominem attack, that is, if A(Rushdoony) admired B(Schaffer) then clearly B agrees with all the teachings of A and, moreover, B must have passed all those beliefs onto C (Jerry Falwell). Sorry, does not compute. Would White have ever reasoned that since members of the Black Panthers admired Martin Luther King, Jr. that King shared all their views on the use of violence to advance their cause–I doubt it.

  • Chip

    ‘Scuse me, but calling Mel White an evangelical writer, with a straight face, in 2007?

    Does he not still identify himself as an evangelical, or are you claiming that a person’s stance on homosexuality now is a part of the definition of evangelical?

    Very poor writing/reasoning on the part of Mr. White. He must be employing the associative property of ad hominem attack, that is, if A(Rushdoony) admired B(Schaffer) then clearly B agrees with all the teachings of A and, moreover, B must have passed all those beliefs onto C (Jerry Falwell).

    I assume you meant to say that the poor reasoning is on the part of Mooser, not White. Since I’m not a print subscriber to Reason I don’t know exactly what Mr. White says in Cathy Young’s article, but in Bob Mooser’s article, he says no such thing. The only quote from White says that Schaeffer convinced Falwell that it is okay for Christians to work with non-Christians on shared political concerns.

  • Martha

    “The only quote from White says that Schaeffer convinced Falwell that it is okay for Christians to work with non-Christians on shared political concerns.”

    Having no dog in this fight, since I know nothing about Mr. Schaeffer (Reverend? Professor?), it seems to me that that is the one piece of actual ‘what he said’ in the article.

    It’s a fairly big jump from ‘it’s okay to work with those not of your denomination on a common cause’ to ‘”The Handmaid’s Tale” is not a novel, it’s a blueprint’. I would like to see the intervening steps, if any.

  • Stephen A.

    I second Jeff’s comment.

    And the Bob Moser report actually says: “The Rev. Mel White (see also A Thorn in Their Side), an evangelical writer and filmmaker who ghostwrote Falwell’s autobiography”

    That A Thorn in Their Side link is to a gushingly positive SPLC “Intel Report” on White.

    Wikipedia is a good source for some background on White: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mel_White

  • Chip

    There is nothing on Wikipedia to dispute that White is an evangelical. The short bio on his organization’s website indicates that he still considers himself an evangelical. Unless you are going to start adding to the definition of “evangelical,” then I’ve seen no reason to say that he is not an evangelical.

  • Erik

    My impression has long been that those who invoke “dominion theology” in arguments against conservative Christians often have no idea what Dominionism is and what its tenets are. Nor do they understand how most conservative Christians would oppose Dominionism as vehemently as they would Liberation Theology. Some would even say they share the same heretical root in modernism.

    As for Mel White being an evangelical, one can indeed question whether the hermeneutics necessary for reinterpreting Scriptural teachings on homosexuality is compatible with evangelicalism. To simply label him an “evangelical writer” is misleading. At best he is a dissenting voice in a very narrow subsection of evangelicalism. “Progressive evangelical” might be better, but that, too, is a loaded description. Young was dipping into some perilous waters there.

  • rw

    There is at least some blessing in articles like this one, as well as Jeff Sharlet’s articles that continually misunderstand contemporary Evangelical culture. Up until recently, Francis Schaffer has been off the radar for those whose political and theological bent is toward attacking Evangelicals.

    Karen Armstrong’s book “The Battle for God” comes to mind. Armstrong spends several hundred pages equivocating violent extremist groups in Judaism and Islam with American Fundamantalism(=Evangelicalism). No where does she mention Francis Schaeffer. Billy Graham even gets short shrift. But Falwell and Robertson get lots of references. (But she does manage to squeeze in one incendiary quote from Franky Schaeffer.)

    It nice to see folks like this finally looking beyond Falwell and Robertson. Raising Schaeffer’s spectre naturally brings his ideas into the debate – and we have Schaeffer’s literature to quote from when it comes time to dispute their assertions. If those who see Evangelicalism as a sinister force on the American political scene start to do some honest investigation, they may not always like what they see. However, people like Schaeffer and the majority of Evangelicals may not seem they the bogeymen (& women) they are making them out to be.

  • rw

    Also…Is it just me, or does that photo sort of look like a younger Hillary Clinton trying to convince Francis Schaeffer that she is a deeply spiritual person that can be trusted with his vote?

  • rw

    Apologies to Edith

    /I’ll stop now

  • Jeff Sharlet

    You know, I wondered if I’d gotten Schaeffer wrong. Then I get an email from Franky Schaeffer, telling me I’d understood his father as few had. Then Frank sent me his new book, “Crazy for God: How I Helped Build the Christian Right and Ruin America.” Don’t misunderstand — Frank loved his dad and reveres his memory. But he’s not kidding himself about how he and his father let themselves be used, and, according to his memoir, neither did his dad. Would that his present-day disciples be so perceptive.

    They might at least look up “madrassah.” It’s not a slur. Try Roy Mottahedeh’s masterful “The Mantle of a the Prophet,” about the education of an Iranian ayotollah, for a good introduction to madrassah education.

    Last, not least — those who want to read Alan Jacobs initial response to my story — factually inaccurate and blatantly, if inadvertently, bigoted — might do well to follow up on the discussion — and apology — Jacobs subsequently published.

  • http://www.getreligion.org/?p=2 Douglas LeBlanc

    Here is a link to the public discussion between Jeff and Alan Jacobs.