Evangelical royalty’s game of thrones

Frank Schaeffer has, as The Economist once put it, “made a career out of criticising his evangelical parents Francis and Edith Schaeffer.” While I and my people were not influenced by the Schaeffers, they’ve had a tremendous influence upon some of my favorite people (including GetReligion’s Douglas LeBlanc). They founded a Christian retreat center in Switzerland where many people transferred from fundamentalism to evangelicalism or to greater engagement with the culture, including secular culture. They are known for their apologetics and influence on a wide swath of people including everyone from Jesus People organizer Jack Sparks to musicians Larry Norman and Mark Heard. To say those parents were very well regarded among evangelicals, even by their evangelical critics, is an understatement.

Late in his ministry, Francis began to be greatly influenced by his son Frank (according to Frank and others), who got him more involved in political engagement. Frank became known for his demonization of political opponents. At that time, those opponents were political liberals. Now they’re political conservatives. He’s written extensively about his break with the Christian right and wrote a memoir about his parents just three years ago. Author and social critic Os Guinness reviewed it in Christianity Today Books & Culture, refuting its central claims, but also saying that “Frank’s portrayal of his mother is cruel and deeply dishonoring, monstrously ungrateful.”

I have a rather intractable bias against children of famous people writing tell-alls so I wouldn’t be the target audience of that type of memoir. But he’s out with another, titled “Sex, Mom, & God.” New York Times religion writer Mark Oppenheimer uses this latest memoir as a hook for “Son of Evangelical Royalty Turns His Back, and Tells the Tale.” Here’s how it begins:

In every line of work, there are family businesses. But no business is more defined by dynasties and nepotism than evangelical preaching. Lyman Beecher, Bob Jones, Billy Graham, Oral Roberts, Robert H. Schuller, Jim Bakker: all had sons who became ministers.

Interesting. I don’t actually regard the office of ministry as a business. But apart from that, is this really true? No line of work is more defined by dynasties and nepotism than evangelical preaching? I mean, yes, we’ve named six really well known dudes but as a percentage of preachers, I’m not sure it’s that impressive. When I think dynasties and nepotism, I think of the auto industry. Oil. Journalism. On the other hand, Guinness’ review of that previous memoir suggested nepotism was Schaeffer’s downfall and a major problem with many other evangelicals. It goes on:

It is never easy stepping into Dad’s shoes, of course. But when the family business is religion, it is especially perilous. That is one of the central laments, anyway, of “Sex, Mom, & God,” a new memoir by Frank Schaeffer. To secular Americans, the name Frank Schaeffer means nothing. But to millions of evangelical Christians, the Schaeffer name is royal, and Frank is the reluctant, wayward, traitorous prince. His crime is not financial profligacy, like some pastors’ sons, but turning his back on Christian conservatives.

I’m not entirely sure. I mean, every time I read someone talking about the younger Schaeffer’s “crime,” they’d say it’s neither financial profligacy nor turning his back on political Christianity. They might even oppose those things themselves. What they tend to say is that he’s an ungrateful son or that his work is “cruel, distorted, and self-serving,” that he manipulated his father, stuff like that.

I think an article that mentions the actual complaints of his critics and had Schaeffer respond to them would have been much more interesting.

Oppenheimer’s piece explains that this memoir focuses on how Schaeffer was disillusioned with his faith but faked it for financial gain. And that’s all very interesting. For instance:

“I had been home-schooled,” Mr. Schaeffer told me. “I had no education, no qualifications, and I was groomed to do this stuff. What was I going to do? If two lines are forming, and one has a $10,000 honorarium to go to a Christian Booksellers Association conference and keynote, and the other is to consider your doubts and get out with nothing else to do, what are you going to do?”

Two questions. In his previous memoir, he claimed his tutor had given him a “‘great books’ British university-level literature course.” Guinness, who had been the elder younger Schaeffer’s best man, had pointed out in his review that the younger Schaeffer had been a boarding school drop out and that his tutor would have been surprised by that characterization. But what changed in the last four years to result in such a drastic change in how that education was characterized?

But the other question I’d ask is whether there are still two lines forming, one with a $10,000 honorarium (to go to a different conference, of course) and one that requires you not to speak. Has something changed? What changed? Or are we seeing the same decision making? Schaeffer is getting quite a high profile — including multiple book deals, profiles in the New York Times, speaking opportunities and new recognition and what not — from his new religion. Is that relevant to the discussion? Why not ask?

I love Oppenheimer’s columns in part because they are so darned friendly. But sometimes that friendliness to one subject is unfriendly to another. If you’re profiling someone who’s speaking ill of folks not in a position to defend themselves, is friendliness the best or only posture? Maybe even just a couple of tougher questions?

Also, for a religion column, the profiled subject isn’t given a chance to tell us much about his religion. The article tells us that Schaeffer “opted out of evangelicalism” but we don’t learn what he now believes or adheres to. That’s what I’d be most interested in. That Economist piece tells us that Schaeffer is now conflicted about abortion but was speaking at a conference on alternative Christianity. He rather famously converted to Eastern Orthodoxy in the early 1990s. Is that where he remains?

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  • bob

    “He rather famously converted…”
    Yeah, and he flogged it pretty good for a few years. Now every chance in the press he seems to deny anything Orthodox might believe of teach, most notably on abortion. He “gets religion” better than most people. First he would rail away at evangelical ministries with a “name”, like the Billy Graham organization. But all he really has to sell is….His name, Schaeffer. Now his claim, or grasp, at fame is to defame his father and mother. Bizarre. It seems to be what plays best this week, “anti-establishment” always but he picks and defines what “establishment” means every time, From parents to government.

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie


    What does your comment have to do with journalism? Keep comments focused on media coverage, please.

  • David Neff

    The Guinness review appeared in Books & Culture.

  • Tess

    Guinness was not Francis Schaeffer’s best man as you assert. He was Frank Schaeffer’s best man.

  • Dave

    Never having heard of the family Schaeffer until their politics cropped up on The Wild Hunt I know nothing of Frank’s faith today. It would indeed be interesting.

  • Jeff Sharlet

    Os Guinness is certainly as capable of self reinvention ad the best of them, but I don’t think he traveled back in time to be Francis’ best man.

    That’s a rookie mistake, Mollie, and one that’s beneath you. You wouldn’t have made it if you’d read the two memoirs you discuss, the first of which, at least, you badly mischaracterize based only on the word of Guinness, who has long had a personal conflict with Schaeffer.

    Slamming books you haven’t read in a serious forum isn’t a rookie mistake. You want to talk trash about, say, Franzen at a party? Godspeed. That’s just talk. But trashing a whole body of work by an author you haven’t read on a media criticism site? You owe Schaeffer an apology.

    Disclosures: I reviewed Frank’s first memoir for New Statesman. I thought Frank, a well-respected novelist, had written a very good book, a story that was meaningful regardless of whether you knew his parents’ work. (I did.) The person he’s hardest on, by far, is himself. At the same time, I came to like his parents as brilliant but flawed human beings through his depiction. It’s a tragic story, but not a cruel one. Frank and I subsequently became friends, and while we don’t always agree, I’ve never doubted the sincerity of his analysis. He deserves better than a hearsay hatchet job.

  • Jerry

    I don’t actually regard the office of ministry as a business.

    That’s a perfect assumption that should be tested in a well-written news story. How many ministers get so involved with the business of running a church that it takes over their lives. And how many get into the ministry because they feel a call versus from other motives?

    And it would also be interesting to know how many children follow in the footsteps of a minister parent compared to other walks of life. But it does seem like there’s quite a few high profile problems surrounding this area, so maybe the statement is more apparent than real?

  • http://www.beliefnet.com Rob

    It’s interesting that so much weight is given to Francis Shaeffer. I wonder if the average evangelical has even heard of him. C.S. Lewis he wasn’t.

    As for Franky, I didn’t get past the first page of his new tome — in which he makes quite the impression, referring in the opening paragraphs to having had sex with an ice sculpture.

    That was enough for me. I couldn’t imagine he had anything serious to say beyond that.

  • http://markoppenheimer.com Mark Oppenheimer

    As ever, good to be raked over on this website. Two thoughts:

    First off, like Jeff I do wonder whether any discussion of my piece is best written by someone familiar with Schaeffer’s books, mainly because they are tremendously forgiving to his parents. While I would certainly have a lot of questions to ask Schaeffer, given more space, why he is “cruel” to his parents would not be one of them — because he is not cruel to them.

    Second, specifically with respect to those who attack Schaeffer — Os Guiness, for example — I can see the point of view (Mollie’s, it seems) that tell-alls about one’s parents aren’t in good form. I don’t take that line, at least not absolutely, but I can sympathize with it. Nonetheless, if we are all /journalists/ here, then our primary concern has to be truth. If Frank Schaeffer is telling the truth (say what you will about the “if,” but let’s assume it for a moment), then whether or not he is “flogging” that truth for personal gain is really quite secondary, it seems. Our business is truth. That is what journalists do. So when people are being truthful, our first instinct should be gratitude — and only second questions about propriety.

    Of course there are exceptions. Not ALL needs to be told. But hey — Francis and Edith Schaeffer were (she is still alive) major public figures, and religiously and politically influential. They are the kind of people journalists require more information about. They are the kind of people we must approach with curiosity and skepticism — never, ever deference and awe.


  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt
  • Jeffrey

    I’d allso argue relying of Julia Duin’s swipe at Frank in the Economist isn’t fair either. She repeated the snide comment on her blog while not concealing her disdain for the event she was covering as a reporter. that disdain came through in the Economist.

    As for questioning the role family dynasties play in ministries, the Falwells, Grahams, Schullers, should speak for themselves. And that doesn’t touch on the family business that many African American ministries are.

  • http://www.jaydinitto.com Jay

    But no business is more defined by dynasties and nepotism than evangelical preaching.

    What a craven, sensationalist proposition by Oppenheimer. I’ve never seen nepotism as a “problem” with evangelical preachers but more of something to do with politics. That’s like pointing out my bloody nose while the guy next to me has a sucking chest wound. Bah.

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie


    Whether or not you personally believe that Frank’s treatment of his parents is or is not cruel, it is certainly true that many of his critics believe just that (and mistaken and untrue and on and on). So when you characterize their opposition as being solely political, that’s what my beef is.

    I don’t need to be a student of either Schaeffer to make that point.

    As for my bias against tell-alls of parents, that’s just a comment about why I’m not the market for these books, about propriety rather than journalism. But the complaints from the younger Schaeffer’s critics aren’t, again, that he should have hidden his parents’ faults so much as he is untruthful about what those faults are.

    Again, that’s what should be broached in a discussion of yet another memoir, no?

    If, as we agree, a journalist’s business is truth, I don’t see how you completely obscure those very long-standing complaints about the life’s work of the younger Schaeffer. If for no other reason, it would be certainly interesting to see how the younger Schaeffer defends himself against the rather serious charges that he’s invented facts or manipulated his descriptions of same.

    I myself have precisely no deference or awe for any of the Schaeffers, but I’d argue that at least a fraction of the skepticism applied to the parents should be applied to the memoirist profiting from his depictions of same.

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie


    I don’t think it’s fair to say that the line is “craven”.

    As I pointed out in the original post, evangelicals themselves discuss problems with nepotism in evangelical ministry.

    It was, to be sure, a huge problem with the Schaeffer’s themselves.

  • Marcus

    Frank Schaeffer’s insight are enlightening and as are the critiques of him. Considering reliable sources are firsthand accounts of events, Schaeffer brings a valid perspective to the political side of the ministry business. Obviously there’s big money at stake and nepotism is obvious, too. Here too we see the defensive side of reporting on the ministry business, circling the wagons. While convenient to point out what critics say about Frank Schaeffer, he can explain himself eloquently enough. Please link to what Schaeffer actually says if you want to critique him. No doubt he is publishing some dynamic articles, but his words speak for themselves.

  • Dave G.

    But no business is more defined by dynasties and nepotism than evangelical preaching.

    Obviously not a sports fan. One of those statements that says more about the individual making it, than it does the actual ‘facts’ it is supposed to convey.

  • Jeff Sharlet

    Mollie — the problem is that you don’t have grounds to describe the book as a “tell-all” given that you haven’t read it. It’s a pretty good rule of thumb to say you should read a book before you condemn it, or even try to describe it. It’s also a pretty good rule of thumb that people who weren’t there with Frank and his parents aren’t in a position to say whether or not his writing is accurate, regardless of their high or low opinion of the Schaeffers. There are plenty of lefties who’d bridle at Frank’s description of his father as a deeply cultured, curious, artistic, and empathetic man; “impossible!” they’d say. But they weren’t there.

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie


    Come on. These memoirs are marketed as tell-alls. That’s the whole point (and the point of the profile, obviously). What is a “tell-all” other than “a written account (as a biography) that contains revealing and often scandalous information.” (Merriam-Webster)

    I get that you and the other counter-evangelicals are extremely reliant on the younger Schaeffer’s work even as it’s contradicted by so very many who are familiar with the father’s life and work.

    You’ve traded on this yourself quite a bit. I get that. But please let’s not pretend that these memoirs aren’t sold on the basis of revealing supposedly scandalous details regarding the Schaeffers.

    That’s silly.

  • Julia

    One of the reasons for the Catholic Church’s rules on celibacy stem from problems with nepotism. I wouldn’t be surprised if that was behind the Orthodox world’s preference for celibate monks as bishops.

    When these nepotism disputes come up, I wonder why the media makes no connection to the practice of Catholics and Orthodox that are trying to avoid these problems.

  • http://friarsfires.blogspot.com Brett

    But no business is more defined by dynasties and nepotism than evangelical preaching.

    Am I mistaken in understanding that Mr. Oppenheimer works for a newspaper run by the the third generation of a family that has operated it since 1935?

  • Amy P

    “Am I mistaken in understanding that Mr. Oppenheimer works for a newspaper run by the the third generation of a family that has operated it since 1935?”

    That’s nothing–the New York Times has been run by the Ochs-Sulzberger family since the 1890s.

  • Jerry

    One question is sitting on my mind tapping on my brain for attention: is the title for this post derived from George R. R. Martin’s “Game of Thrones” fantasy book which is also on HBO?

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie


    Yes. I’m not the best at writing headlines, obviously, but there are a few story lines in that book which were brought to mind while reading this profile.

  • Sean P

    I don’t have a problem with the sons of ministers becoming themselves ministers if they are called to it. Church discipline, and the defrocking of unsuitable ministers can be done within churches that have set church governments, the problem may arise more in independent churches. It would be unscriptural for a minister not to be ordained because there father was ordained, and there are other scriptural tests that should be done to determine whether somebody should be in that position (as well as being an elder or a deacon). (1 Timothy 3:1 – 3:13)

    And the examples of “evangelical” nepotism use’s examples of preachers who I would hardly call evangelical anyways. It seems to generally arise in prosperity “gospel” types that wouldn’t care less if its nepotism.

  • http://davidarosenkoetter.wordpress.com David Rosenkoetter

    Yet, the problem in Frank Schaefer’s disclosure of his family is not so much neputism as it is an infomercial for his own experiences. There’s a thin line, both in reporting and daily conversation, between public disclosure for the sake of public solution/awareness and disclosure to “get it off one’s chest”.

    The first seeks to curb a societal or institutonal ill. (e.g. Dr. Martin Luther’s THE BABYLONIAN CAPTIVITY OF THE CHURCH, 1520) The second seeks to make an icon out of the author or the one who experienced the ill (e.g. Frank Schaefer’s writings heretofore discussed)

    I compare the tenor of Oppenheimer’s article to the statement’s Foxnews contributor, Geraldo Rivera, following the Anthony trial. Rivera was bent on promoting Jose Baez’s pot-trial perspective, thus further fueling public sentiment against those who declared the defendant “not guilty”.

    Mind I say so, but, Oppenheimer’s bias in report on Frank Shaefer’s perspective has the power and intent to persuade a target audience’s oppinion of activity in the Schaefer household. Openheimer’s article should prove worth studying on how to handle journalistic intent–whether or not we agree with it.

  • Harris

    Regarding nepotism: that’s not the word I would choose.

    As a matter of social organization, ministries can often resemble other entrepreneurial entities especially those family-run businesses. The question is less of “nepotism” than than of succession, and the transformation from the charismatic to the bureaucratic (to borrow from Weber). In one sense the issue is actually rather commonplace.

    The second perspective is simply the psychological. Again, one doesn’t need to read far — say as close as Julie Salmon’s biography of Wendy Wasserstein — to realize the burden of living in the shadow of a high-demand, highly successful parent.

    And for the details, I too was struck by the absence of any mention of Orthodox. Of course, what I really wanted was a shout out to Schaeffer’s son, the Marine. That essay ten years ago or so, still reverberates as a very smart piece of writing.

  • Elijah

    I would be very interested to know how evangelicals really feel about this whole topic of nepotism (call it what you will). Mr. Oppenheimer may exaggerate when he says “no business is more defined” by nepotism/dynasty than evangelical preaching, but I think he has a good point. An awful lot of that sort of thing goes on locally and globally.

    Speaking only for myself, I am frequently skeptical of the bona fides of the children (though I have been convinced by some). In any case, I can’t say I’ve ever viewed the childrens’ ministry the same way I viewed their fathers. Franklin Graham will never be Billy. I don’t think anyone would pay attention to Frank Schaeffer if it hadn’t been for dad. It remains to be seen if Ravi Zacharias’ kids have the same impact he has. It would be interesting to know how others view this.

    I am with Mollie absolutely on one thing: I hate the tell-all. Won’t ever buy another book by Christopher Buckley.

  • grumpy

    “I and my people” Bad writing style. Who are “my people”?

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie

    Who are “my people”?


  • Dale

    Jeff Sharlet wrote:

    It’s also a pretty good rule of thumb that people who weren’t there with Frank and his parents aren’t in a position to say whether or not his writing is accurate

    Unlike Mr. Sharlet, Os Guinness was there, and for an extended period of time; but we’re supposed to ignore Guinness’ account of things because he has a “personal conflict” with Schaeffer.

    Any discussion of Frank Schaeffer’s account of reality should deal with the man’s own use and abuse of words. There’s plenty of examples from both his evangelical and his anti-evangelical days, but I’ll take this recent transcript from The Rachel Maddow Show, addressing people who speculate that Obama is the Antichrist:

    But I think the larger point this brings up is that the mainstream—not just media, but culture—doesn‘t sufficiently take stock of the fact that within our culture, we have a subculture which is literally a fifth column of insanity, that is bred from birth through home school, Christian school, evangelical college, whatever, to reject facts as a matter of faith. And so, this substitute for authentic historic Christianity, and I may add as a little caveat here, I‘m a church-going Christian, really brings up the question: Can Christianity be rescued from Christians? And that‘s an open question.

    And when you see a bunch of people going around thinking that our president is the anti-Christ, you have to draw one of two conclusions. Either these are racists looking for any excuse to level the next accusation or they‘re beyond crazy? And I think beyond crazy is a better explanation.

    And that evangelical subculture has rotted the brain of the United States of America and we have a big slice of our population waiting for Jesus to come back. They look forward to Armageddon. Good news is bad news to them.

    When we talk about the “Left Behind” series of books that I talk about in my book “Crazy for God.” what we‘re talking about is a group of people that are resentful because they‘ve been left behind by modernity, by science, by education, by art, by literature. The rest of us are getting on with our lives. These people are standing on the hilltop waiting for the end.

    And this is a dangerous group of people to have as neighbors, and they‘re our national neighbors. And this is the source of all of these insanities that we see leveled at the president. One way or another they go back to this little evangelical subculture. It‘s a disaster.

    Gee, why would I ever question that his criticism of others may be unfair, cruel, distorted or self-serving?

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie


    Is that an actual transcript? Do you have a link?

    I’m not saying I question you but I guess I’m having an unbelievably difficult time buying that those words came from the guy who was so nicely profiled by the New York Times.

    Sounds more like a version of Pamela Geller or something.

  • Dale


    Here’s the link:


    Sorry, I should have included it in my first post.

  • Grumpy

    I didn’t write comment 28, though it appears with my name. How did that happen?

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie


    Looks like there are TWO GRUMPYs here! You better stake your claim.

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie

    Of course, he/she can be the lower-case grumpy if that works for you.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    I vote for grumby, the lesser…..

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    Or grumpy 2.0

  • http://reformedpastor.wordpress.com David Fischler

    Mollie wrote:

    I’m not saying I question you but I guess I’m having an unbelievably difficult time buying that those words came from the guy who was so nicely profiled by the New York Times.

    You need to get out more, Mollie. Frank Schaeffer has been doing his hatchet man shtick for a long time. Used to be it was for conservatives, now it’s for liberals. Here’s a column he wrote for the Huffington Post a couple of years ago. A few highlights:

    Had we [the Religious Right] succeeded America would be another version of Iran. Instead of people like James Dobson and Pat Robertson having become marginalized they’d be sitting in Washington advising whomever was the next Republican president. Instead of environmental protection and new mileage standards for cars there would be new anti-gay laws on the books….

    Picture America if Sarah Palin was president, both houses of Congress had a deep Republican majority, and the last 30 years of appointments to the Supreme Court had all been far right choices. Picture Fox News as the only TV news with access to the government, and the editors of the New York Times in jail for “treason.”…

    Picture the harshest Old Testament laws applied at home and the harshest neoconservative military policy abroad and that would be America if the Republicans had everything they wanted. We’d be in three wars now instead of two – Iraq, Afghanistan and Iran. It would be open season on domestic surveillance. Torture would be legal. Habeas Corpus would be a thing of the past. Women would be in prison for having had abortions. Gay men and women would be hounded and if they were murdered there would be leaders saying they had it coming. The CIA and FBI would be operating inside the USA to crush dissent. Blackwater (and other companies like it) would be taking over more and more military duties and operating internationally as a mercenary death squad….

    He’s a piece of work, ol’ Frankie is. The problem is not, as Oppenheimer writes, that he’s a “reluctant, wayward, traitorous prince.” It’s that he’s a vicious, mean-spirited hack who regularly portrays anyone who disagrees with his ideology du jour as wholly evil and stupid.

  • Grumpy

    Tell you what, I’ll switch to “Tmatt”. That will really screw things up!

  • Amy P

    “You need to get out more, Mollie. Frank Schaeffer has been doing his hatchet man shtick for a long time. Used to be it was for conservatives, now it’s for liberals.”

    I did a bit of googling for Frank Schaeffer pieces on the web, and David Fischler’s summary is quite fair. That is Schaeffer’s usual tone.

    By the way, on a less journalistic note, it occurs to me that almost everybody thinks that their own parents were really strict.

  • Ignominious

    (Editor’s note: Please see Ignominious’ later comment on the thread)

  • Jim F.

    Franky Schaeffer has more similarity to Marjoe Gortner (remember him?) than to his parents, who were the epitome of Christlike kindness and grace.

  • Amy P

    “When a reporter needs somebody to say something nasty about “right-wing evangelicals” or whomever, Frank is right at hand in the rolodex, the calculation being that since “he’s got the name and the inside dirt” he must therefore have some kind of special “street cred.””

    That sounds right.

    I really wonder how important Frank Schaeffer was with regard to the formation of the US Christian right. Francis Schaeffer was obviously important, and Frank was important to his father, but I wonder how important Frank Schaeffer really was. He was in Switzerland, for heaven’s sake, and he was 12 years old when Phyllis Schafly was self-publishing A Choice, Not an Echo and having it distributed during Goldwater’s campaign. I’m personally from a old-line John Bircher/Goldwater/Reagan family that is definitely religious right, and based on my family history, I suspect Frank Schaeffer of having been pretty late to the party.

  • Jeff Sharlet

    1. EXCUSE ME? Did you just call me a “counter-evangelical”? How do you possibly justify that? That is disgraceful, dishonest, and insulting, not to mention ill-informed. Were I to play the same game, I’d have to call you an “anti-Semite.” But that’d be BS. I find it revolting and grotesque to have to defend myself, but I’m not going to let that slide. I’ve published evangelicals many times over the years, praised the work of evangelicals, spoken for evangelical organizations, helped evangelicals get published, and collaborated journalistically with evangelicals. The hero of my last book, C STREET, was a self-declared conservative fundamentalist. Am I critical of the Family? Absolutely. Ted Haggard? Sure. But it’s some serious yellow journalism to conflate criticism of political leaders with “counter-evangelicalism.” That is bigoted, disgraceful, and lousy journalism. I’m using strong language because you’ve jumped the shark. It is one thing to argue with my work; it’s another to call me a bigot. I suppose you’ll say that “counter-evangelical” doesn’t mean that. Baloney. Unless you’re comfortable being called a “counter-Jew.”

    2. Are you really going to maintain that because a book is marketed as something, you’re entitled to declare on it without reading it? Is that the kind of journalism you do? I’d love to see the NYT Book Review under your editorship. Heck, Harper put Barbara Ehrenreich calling my book The Family “brilliant” on the cover. So, by your standards of journalism, you are obliged to declare my book brilliant. That’s about as likely as you reading my work before you trash it and me personally. I can’t believe you and your colleagues at Get Religion are seriously going to defend trashing a book you haven’t read.

    3. And on the subject of marketing… I’m looking at CRAZY FOR GOD right now. The cover is a very warm photo of Francis holding baby Frank. The back features a blurb from the literary novelist Andre Dubus III and a blurb from Booklist declaring that the book offers of Frank’s encounters with Pat Robertson and James Dobson — public, political men.

    4. I decided to scan my shelves for some other “tell-alls,” according to your standards, books in which the authors reveal difficult parts of their relationships with their religious parents. I look forward to the Get Religion attacks on The Last Days, an elegant and powerful memoir by Charles Marsh, director of the Project on Lived Theology at UVA; Blood Done Sign My Name, by Duke’s Tim Tyson, son and grandson of preachers; Vows, Peter Manseau’s beautiful and acclaimed account of growing up the son of a Catholic priest and a former nun; All Souls, Michael Patrick McDonald’s scathing account of growing up desperately poor in Catholic Southie; Darcey Steinke’s Easter Everywhere, the sweet, spare, and sometimes bitter account of growing up the daughter of a Lutheran pastor, a book the writing of which brought her back to faith.

    Don’t worry if you haven’t read them, Mollie. Clearly that’s not part of your journalistic “process.”

  • Jeff Sharlet

    Dale: I did not say you should ignore Guinness’ account. In fact, I corresponded with Guinness over it, have read several of Guinness’ books, and requested an interview with Guinness (he didn’t respond).

    I said that a journalist and a media critic should not disparage a book she hasn’t read based on the analysis of subject of the book with a very well-known personal conflict with the author. And while we’re at it, Christianity Today showed some very poor ethics in assigning it to Guinness. You don’t assign a book to be reviewed by one of its subjects, no matter how bad you suspect the book may be. CT could have made a far more powerful critique by assigning it to a scholar of evangelicalism without personal connections to the author.

    As for Frank Schaeffer’s comments on TV, I didn’t address them because I haven’t seen them. I try to limit myself to analysis of work I’ve actually engaged with. I’ve read and reviewed Schaeffer’s elegaic and lovely memoir, Crazy for God, read and enjoyed his gently satirical novel Portofino, and blurbed (AFTER I reviewed Crazy for God) his co-authored book, “How Free People Move Mountains: A Male Christian Conservative and a Female Jewish Liberal on a Quest for Common Purpose and Meaning.” I was joined in blurbing that book by some other prominent “counter-evangelicals,” as Mollie describes us: the longtime conservative thinker John Whitehead of the Rutherford Institute, and Rich Cizik, former VP of the National Association of Evangelicals.

    Clearly, Mollie is on to us — I’ve joined forces with Frank, Whitehead, and the National Association of Evangelicals in a grand conspiracy to undermine… evangelicals.

  • http://friarsfires.blogspot.com Brett

    I’m remembering why I stopped reading The Revealer back in ’05 or so…

  • EscondidoSurfer

    “One of the reasons for the Catholic Church’s rules on celibacy stem from problems with nepotism. I wouldn’t be surprised if that was behind the Orthodox world’s preference for celibate monks as bishops.

    When these nepotism disputes come up, I wonder why the media makes no connection to the practice of Catholics and Orthodox that are trying to avoid these problems.”

    An interesting observation. Had not heard that before. Thanks.

  • Ignominious

    Mollie, if my comment above at #41 was “edited” because it’s not in line with GR policies, then I had rather it had been elided altogether. Because with the way it has been “edited” now, it rather diffuses away the essense of the point I was trying to make. And I don’t see how #41 contained any more “invective” that what some others have posted here (e.g. #38 which calls Schaeffer a “vicious, mean-spirited hack”). And even a reporter like Julia Duin, in one article that I read of hers, has taken note of Frank Schaeffer’s track record of self-promotion using his name. And many others besides myself have also noted that a big portion of Schaeffer’s “fame,” if it can be called that, largely rests on his facility at persistently denigrating his parents. I don’t think this is disputable. This is what the man is all about; this is the public persona that he has cultivated.

    But let me try to rephrase the point I was trying to make about journalism: which is its persistent superficiality, and its obsession with its limited set of celebritydom, and how it affords way more fame than deserved to some people who really would have never earned it otherwise with any kind of worthwhile accomplishments. What exactly has Schaeffer accomplished that makes him so important, besides writing a few novels (how many people read them?) and mouthing off about politics? Is Schaeffer that big an expert regarding everything “evangelical”? Along with Amy P above (#43), I think I have good reason to suspect that Schaeffer has overblown the importance of his historical role. But the problem with journalists nowdays is that they tend, it seems, to accept all of Schaeffer’s spiel at face value. Come on. Let’s get real. Schaeffer has done nothing substantical to deserve the level of attention he garners. If he didn’t have the name, who would pay him any attention? That he gets this much, gets back on television again and again, is as good example as any which demonstrates the kind of tendentious dreck that much of journalism has become nowdays.

  • bob

    I agree with Ignominious when he says Frank get noticed because of the name. He of course is horrified if anyone uses a name for their own ends in christian circles. Frank gets noticed the way Ron Reagan does, and has every bit as much worthwhile to say compared to his father. The press loves offspring who condemn parents; look at Bing Crosby’s son’s “memoir”. They all have in common one important ingredient: they lack the guts to do it while the old man is alive. It doesn’t have to be a religious theme for the formula to work. the first such author would be Ham, wouldn’t it?

  • Mark Baddeley

    #44 Jeff Sharlett

    1. “counter-evangelical” – I had no idea who you were until I read this thread, but having spent half an hour checking on the web, that seems to be a fair appellation to describe that part of your work that touches on evangelicalism, and particularly its impact on politics. You portray evangelicalism (yes, not every evangelical) as a threat to democracy when it is involved in politics. It is not a neutral description – but neither is your own description of yourself on this matter ‘neutral’. But both would seem to be ‘fair comment’.

    And ‘counter-evangelical’ being equal to ‘counter-Jew’ could only be an exact analogy if ‘Jew’ did not have a large ethnic dimension to it. ‘counter-atheist’, ‘counter-Democrat’, ‘counter-Marxist’, ‘counter-secularist’ would all be better analogies to flush out whether Mollie’s label is truly accusing you of bigotry. Like evangelicalism, they are all intellectual, religious, and/or practicing positions with no necessary ethnic dimension. Do you think a ‘counter-atheist’ or a ‘counter-Democrat’ would necessarily be a bigot?

    2. Your criticism of the use of the phrase ‘tell-all’ seems obtuse. That is the kind of genre of this book, and one should be able to take the blurb’s description as a reasonably reliable description of what kind of genre a book falls into. Comparing that to a reviewer saying something is ‘brilliant’ is apples and oranges.

    Molly doesn’t need to read the book to raise some questions, or even just to discuss, the journalistic issues involved in a piece related to that book. No doubt it would help. But GetReligion isn’t supposed to be a website about the content of journalistic articles on religion, but about the journalistic issues involved on reporting on them.

    If Molly’s article was about the book, your criticism would be fair, but as it is it is off-base. She flagged her ignorance, drew on other voices to indicate that Franky’s take on things is highly controverted, and used that to raise some journalistic questions about the article. That seems fairly reasonable for what GetReligion is doing.

  • David P.

    Wait, Jeff’s rants are because someone called “Crazy for God” a tell-all without reading it? Where does this nonsense come from? Should I distrust any writer who calls “Mommie Dearest” a tell-all without reading the book? Should I ask them beforehand? Or should one watch the movie before being allowed to refer to it as such?

    Googling the phrases show plenty of people who have read the book, reviewed it, and call it as such – including a writer at Daily Kos. Is his assessment of the book invalid as well?

    “If Molly’s article was about the book, your criticism would be fair, but as it is it is off-base.”

    This does seem to be a point that Jeff is willfully missing. This is the silliness you expect on prime-time cable, not in a serious discussion of the coverage of news.

  • http://www.christineascheller.wordpress.com Christine A. Scheller

    In a glowing review of Jeff Sharlet’s The Family, USC’s Diane Winston called the book a must-read for every journalist, but also said Sharlet is “neither balanced nor objective” and that he is “not afraid to be offensive.”

    (Here’s the link for context:


    It’s kind of funny then to see him getting riled up over a not very controversial take on Frank Schaeffer’s work and Oppenheimer’s incomplete profile of him.

    I don’t need to read Sharlet’s books to know that he is biased against politically conservative Christians. Reading his articles is enough. Same goes for Schaeffer.

    By Sharlet’s logic re. reputable news outlets not assigning biased writers to write about those subjects whom they are biased against, neither he nor Schaeffer should be writing about conservative evangelicals at all. Deeming a few of us worthy doesn’t erase the hate.

  • http://www.christineascheller.wordpress.com Christine A. Scheller

    Deeming a few of us evangelicals worthy is what I meant to say. I don’t consider myself conservative, though Sharlet and Schaeffer, et.al. might.

  • mer

    Maybe it’s because a memoir and a tell-all are not the same things. It would be useful to ask ourselves what the dividing line between those two things are, and whether we can talk about our families in a memoir without it being a tell-all. But then again, Jeff is willfully naive if he expects any contributing member of GR to turn their media critique toward themselves; every time I’ve seen a comment criticize an article on GR, the poster has been dismissed with sarcasm and disrespect, as is the case here. It’s unprofessional and hypocritical, but that’s the nature of the site.

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie


    A tell-all is a memoir with revealing or scandalous information. If Schaeffer’s memoirs don’t qualify, than I doubt the term has any meaning.

    Having said that, your comment that all critiques of GR articles are met with sarcasm and disrespect is obviously untrue. Certainly my colleagues humbly correct themselves when needed. And not only have I corrected myself regularly on this site, I did it on this post. Twice. Not all critiques are convincing. But when they are, I aim to be quick to correct.

  • melxiopp

    Mollie was critiquing a journalism piece about an author, she was not critiquing the author who was profiled, or his works. That’s a big, important difference that too many seem to be missing.

  • Mark Baddeley

    Re: 54

    every time I’ve seen a comment criticize an article on GR, the poster has been dismissed with sarcasm and disrespect, as is the case here.

    Then you’ve either read very, very few comment threads here, or have some problems with your memory. An hour or so of reading in the archives can find examples of the posters taking on board nuances to their positions, and criticisms of their posts. They do it far less than some people would want, but I’d suggest that that is because a lot of the criticisms offered come from people who are fundamentally offside with what the site is doing, and aren’t so much criticisms as a fundamental rejection of what they are trying to do.

    A good example being:

    It’s unprofessional and hypocritical, but that’s the nature of the site.

    If that’s how your opinion on the site as a whole it is no surprise that you judge dissents from criticisms as being done with ‘sarcasm and disrespect’. One might suggest something along the lines of pots and kettles. Talking about someone as being “willfully naive” if they think anyone will listen to criticism, and saying that the whole site is ‘unprofessional and hypocritical’ are hardly models of balance, respect, and judiciousness.

  • J.W. Cox

    Mr. Oppenheimer’s article isn’t about Mr. Schaeffer’s book so much as about a rather obvious cliche, which he’s adopted uncritically from Mr. Schaeffer himself: evangelical empire builders, the disillusioned son who turns his back on the money-grubbing extremist hypocrites, and who then courageously “tells the tale,” igniting a firestorm of defensive vitriol from “Christian conservatives.”

    How often have we seen this cliched set of presuppositions and assumptions played out in reporting about religion and religious figures?

    The more closely one reads Mr. Oppenheimer’s article, the less there is to it, other than an echo chamber for Frank Schaeffer’s comments. It’s not a review of Mr. Schaeffer’s new book; it doesn’t qualify as a “profile” of the author, because Mr. Oppenheimer simply stitches together information from one source, Mr. Schaeffer. It’s not an investigative piece about its subject or about his parents. So..what *is* the article about?

    Mr. Oppenheimer in his comments on this thread says that for journalists “our business of truth.” Yet his article doesn’t in fact make any attempt to ascertain the truth. And the comments in the thread don’t do that either: they seem to assume that “truth” is served by uncritically setting Mr. Schaeffer’s account against a set of religious stereotypes.

    Mr. Oppenheimer writes: “They [people like Edith and Francis Schaeffer] are the kind of people we must approach with curiosity and skepticism — never, ever deference and awe.” Yet, on the basis of his article, he is curiously incurious and un-skepitcal in his approach to, and writing about, Frank Schaeffer.

  • Dale

    Jeff Sharlet wrote:

    Were I to play the same game, I’d have to call you an “anti-Semite.”

    Sorry, Jeff, but I haven’t seen any pieces by Mollie that purport to expose a conspiracy among Jews to undermine American democracy. When Mollie writes something like The Family: The Secret Zionism at the Heart of American Power, with a jacket designed to look like a torah cover, or C Street: the Zionist Threat to American Democracy, I might see a point. Otherwise, you’re blowing smoke.

    I did not say you should ignore Guinness’ account.

    I stand corrected. You attempted to discredit his account by referring to a “personal conflict” between Guinness and Schaeffer. I don’t see much of a difference.

    Christianity Today showed some very poor ethics in assigning it to Guinness. You don’t assign a book to be reviewed by one of its subjects, no matter how bad you suspect the book may be.

    How do you reconcile this assertion with your previous comment:

    . It’s also a pretty good rule of thumb that people who weren’t there with Frank and his parents aren’t in a position to say whether or not his writing is accurate, regardless of their high or low opinion of the Schaeffers.

    So, Christianity Today erred in assigning someone to review Schaeffer’s book who has first-hand knowledge as to its factual content. Instead, they should have assigned someone who isn’t “in a position to say whether or not his writing is accurate”. I’m confused.

    CT could have made a far more powerful critique by assigning it to a scholar of evangelicalism without personal connections to the author.

    Books and Culture (not CT) initially published a review of Schaeffer’s book by Betty Smartt Carter– which Frank Schaeffer has posted on his own website. Books and Culture then additionally published Guinness’ response to the book. I don’t see any lack of journalistic ethics there.

    As for Frank Schaeffer’s comments on TV, I didn’t address them because I haven’t seen them.

    Well, now you have seen them. Address them, particularly as to why a reader should take anyone who engages in such rhetorical bomb-throwing as a credible source of information about American evangelicals.

  • Jeff Sharlet

    I love the way GR writers can discover — with a whole “half hour” of InterTube “research” — a writer’s secret agenda. I don’t know why we even publish books anymore! Every writer can simply sign up for a label and sell that, instead.

    That said, the discovery that I write from a left perspective isn’t a secret — it’s in my books. It puts me in a place that’s critical of a lot of POLITICAL evangelical LEADERSHIP. I’m clear about that, and clear, too, that religion writers need to draw distinctions between the pulpit and the pews. I’m sure I’ve been less than perfect at doing so at times, but that’s my goal, and to accuse me of a secret agenda is just bad journalism — akin to calling every conservative evangelical in politics a “dominionist,” a term I’ve argued is very, very limited, to the consternation of some of my liberal friends.

    Mollie writes from a conservative perspective — that’s fine, too. It’s all more than fine, in fact — we need more writers acknowledging where they’re coming from. And media types: Anderson Cooper should acknowledge that his show is centrist-liberal. GR commenters should stop pretending that they’re saints of neutrality. Then we can have an honest discussion.

    In that spirit, I’m backing off my “counter-evangelical” complaint. I’m not persuaded that it carries with it no taint of bigotry — seems another way of saying anti-Christian, another charge a certain kind of political writer lobs at anyone who offends THEIR faith, even other Christians. But, well, my wife, who read this, said it may seem to do that, but give the other writer the benefit of the doubt. Ok.

    But I’ll bow out of this wonderfully civil exchange with the observation that the book I’m talking about — I’ve been careful not to address that which I haven’t read — does not include the blurb “tell-all.” That’s a slam from a critic. To insist on trashing the book on that basis would be similar to someone declaring Francis’ “Christian Manifesto” a fascist manifesto without having read it. Some critics of Francis do that, and I’ve always argued with them, because A) it’s not fascist; and B) you’d know that if you read it. Good or bad, tell-all or memoir, you need to read a book before you criticize it. Even, to be fair, Mommie Dearest. You don’t have to do this if you’re shooting the breeze with friends, but if you’re a media critic calling for better standards, if you’re a journalist writing about something — can’t we all agree that a little research is in order? More than a “half hour” on the web, as one commenter boasts of?

  • Elijah

    “Good or bad, tell-all or memoir, you need to read a book before you criticize it.”

    I don’t think so. There are plenty of books that very good reviewers skimmed, never finished, or simply dismissed as claptrap from the get-go. Larry King – widely praised as an interviewer – almost never read the books that were frequently the impetus for his interviews. This is rather common in most forms of media.

    “Tell-all” is certainly a generalization, but so what? And since when is a generalization liek that tantamount to “trashing”?

  • http://www.christineascheller.wordpress.com Christine A. Scheller

    Jeff Sharlet,

    I happen to agree with you about transparency vs. faux neutrality. In fact, I had that quote from Diane Winston handy because I grabbed it from an old post on my blog called “Down with Vanilla Journalism.”

    Prior to your last comment, however, you were sounding pretty hysterical on this topic.

  • Bob Smietana

    Jeff Sharlet is tough but fair when it comes to evangelicals. He writes with a point of view that is sometimes critical. But he also reports the he’ll out of stories. He went to the Billy Graham Center and read all the archives of the Family before writing his book. He lived with members of the Family. He went to Uganda to report on antigay legislation there. You may not like his conclusions – I often disagree with Jeff. But his work is based on reporting and taking Evangelicals seriously.

  • rw

    Hey Mollie,

    Are you sure “your people” weren’t influenced by Francis Schaeffer. IIRC, you are a member of the LCMS, which brought in Francis Schaeffer for consultation during the big inerrancy debates of yesteryear. You seem to be saying the LCMS is completely distinct from evangelicalism. However, there is lots of overlap with LCMS doctrine and public engagement, and the loose definition of what makes a group or individual “evangelical.”

    Power, Politics and the Missouri Synod recalls how Francis Schaeffer was brought in as a big gun in the battle over historical criticism/biblical inerracy at Concordia Seminary. Schaeffer is quoted as telling conservative LCMS leaders “Let us find ways to show the world that while we maintain our distinctiveness we are brothers in Christ. This we must do in the face of liberal theologies.” (page 113 – paraphrased)

    I would love to hear more from you about general evangelicalism and what places the LCMS outside of it. (In contrast to the ideas on the topic by Gene Edward Veith).

  • melxiopp

    Not sure what you’re going to get RW, many in the LCMS contend they aren’t rightly to be called Protestants.

    This is regardless of the fact that the term Protestant derives from the Latin protestarimeaning ‘publicly declare/protest’ which refers to the letter of protestation by Lutheran princes against the decision of the Diet of Speyer in 1529, which reaffirmed the edict of the Diet of Worms in 1521, banning Martin Luther’s 95 theses of protest against some beliefs and practices of the early 16th century Catholic Church.

    Of course, the term Protestant itself was not initially applied to the reformers themselves or their typical lay followers, but it has long since been used to describe all groups protesting Roman Catholic orthodoxy. (cf. http://fwd4.me/09pY)

    Such preferences in labeling are symptoms of the way in which different religious groups seek to differentiate themselves in the ‘marketplace’. Protestant, in the US context, has become too equated with non-Lutheran theology and norms for it to be useful to Lutherans – regardless of historical facts and etymology. I would contend that drawing as sharp a line as possible between confessional Lutheranism and other Protestant ‘camps (whether evangelical or mainline) is an example of the same kind of positioning.

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie


    That’s really interesting, even if the Seminex battles predate my life. I simply meant that if you asked confessional Lutherans to name their top 100 influencers, he wouldn’t appear on the list. I didn’t mean that the faculty of a seminary didn’t know who he was or hadn’t spoken to him.

    Evangelical is a tough word — as previous notes on this thread can attest to — and in some senses it actually means Lutheran. Still, in most American contexts, it’s not a word that brings to mind the sacramental, liturgical, confessional, clerical focus of Lutheranism.

    It’s also true, however, that generic American evangelicalism has had a significant effect on the LCMS so that’s worth pointing out, too. And not in the Schaeffer being brought in to speak to faculty or administrators part but, rather, in the pop culture way that popular books (including his, I’m sure) are read or the latest trend is visited upon the larger church. That certainly is a reality and one that would also merit looking into. And Veith is great at studying these things and writing on them, to be sure.

    As for Protestant, I have heard some Lutherans complain about the term. Mostly because the Protestant Reformation is not precisely the same as the Lutheran movement. But it’s not a common complaint. Basically the distinction there, as i understand it, has something to do with difference between being those who actively wanted to set up a separate church body from those who wanted to reform the Catholic Church.

    melxiopp’s point on marketing is important, however, and worth considering and certainly it’s hard to define the difference between, say, confessional Lutheranism and a particular denomination such as the LCMS (which may or may not have confessional Lutheran elements).

  • rw

    Thanks Mollie – it seems that the LCMS occupies that place between theological conservatives that include evangelicals and those best described as “confessional,” etc. I think Gene Veith once called this and similar Lutheran groups “confessional evangelicals” or some such.

    As always, I enjoy writing style in your posts. Keep up the great work!