Unless you are deeply involved in Evangelical Protestantism, you probably never heard of Francis August Schaeffer (1912-1984). But I hope to correct that oversight with this post because Schaeffer was one of the most influential Christian leaders of the twentieth century, shaping both evangelical Christianity and American politics.
Francis August Schaeffer was one of the major figures in the rise of the religious right in the United States and is credited with helping spark a return to political activism among Protestant evangelicals and fundamentalists in the late 1970s and early 1980s, especially in relation to the issue of abortion. Schaeffer called for a challenge to what he saw as the increasing influence of secular humanism and expressed his views in two works – A Christian Manifesto and Whatever Happened to the Human Race?
By the early 1980s, Republicans were laboring under the weight of a single-issue religious test for political heresy: abortion. It was in various meetings with Congressman Jack Kemp, Presidents Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush, when the unholy marriage between the Republican Party and the Evangelical Reconstructionist-infected “pro-life” religious community was gradually consummated. Schaeffer, his son Frank Schaeffer, and other evangelical leaders, such as Jerry Falwell met one on one or in groups with key members of the Republican leadership quite regularly to develop a “pro-life strategy” for rolling back 1973s Supreme Court Roe v. Wade decision.
And that strategy was simple: Republican leaders would affirm their anti-abortion commitment to evangelicals, and in turn the evangelicals would vote for them. And they did – by the tens of millions. Once Republicans controlled both houses of Congress and the presidency, Roe v. Wade could be reversed, either through a constitutional amendment and/or through the appointment of anti-abortion judges to the Supreme Court or, if need be, through civil disobedience and ultimately through violence, though this was only hinted at first.
In 2016, this strategy will become a reality unless concerned Americans wake up. In the mid-to-late 1980s, the issue was about taking away a woman’s right to choose. In 2015, the issues are about gay bashing, denying climate change, and the nakedly racist anti-immigrant movement threat due in part as a reaction to having a black president in the Oval Office. As I write this, Republicans now have a majority on the Supreme Court to back them up. They now control both Houses of Congress. All that remains is the Presidency.
No one seemed to notice (or mind) that the Republicans were not really doing anything about abortion other than talking about it to voters. And by the mid-to-late 1980s, the cause shifted: Evangelicals paid lip-service to stopping abortion, but the real issue was keeping Republicans in power and keeping evangelical leaders in the ego-stroking loop of having access to that power.
The volume and tone of the anti-government “debate” and the anger in reaction to the Obama presidency originated with the anti-abortion movement. To understand where that anger came from and who first gave voice to it and why it has a level of religious fervor to it, Francis August Schaeffer enters the picture. Consider a few provocative passages from his work, A Christian Manifesto.
Schaeffer published A Christian Manifesto in 1981. It was intended as a Christian answer to Karl Marx’s and Friedrich Engels’ The Communist Manifesto of 1848 and the American Humanist Association’s Humanist Manifesto documents of 1933 and 1973. Schaeffer’s diagnosis was that the decline of Western Civilization was due to society having become increasingly pluralistic, resulting in a shift “away from a world view that was at least vaguely Christian in people’s memory toward something completely different.” Schaeffer argued that there was a philosophical struggle between the people of God and the secular humanists.
In the following excerpts, bear in mind what took place in the so-called “health care debates” in 2009 over what came to be disparagingly known as “Obamacare” thirty years or so after this book was published and read by hundreds of thousands of evangelicals. The anti-health-care-reform rhetoric of “Death Panels!” “Government Takeover!” and “Obama is Hitler!” that the far right spewed in the policy debates of 2009 and beyond seemed to be ripped right from the pages of A Christian Manifesto. Note the ominous rhetorical shadow the book casts over an unenlightened and divided American landscape, a backdrop that produced the climate of hate that eventually spawned the murder of at least four abortion providers including Dr. Barnett Abba Slepian II and Dr. George Tiller, whose deaths made national headlines.
Here is a bit from A Christian Manifesto on how the government was “taking away” our country and turning it over to liberals, code-named in the book as “this total humanistic way of thinking”:
“The law, and especially the courts, is the vehicle to force this total humanistic way of thinking upon the entire population.”
“Simply put, the Declaration of Independence states that the people, if they find that their basic rights are being systematically attacked by the state, have a duty to try and change that government, and if they cannot do so, to abolish it.”
And then there is this:
“There does come a time when force, even physical force, is appropriate. A true Christian in Hitler’s Germany and in the occupied countries should have defied the false and counterfeit state. This brings us to a current issue that is crucial for the future of the church in the United States, the issue of abortion. It is time we consciously realize that when any office commands what is contrary to God’s law it abrogates its authority. And our loyalty to the God who gave this law then requires that we make the appropriate response in that situation.”
Thank you, Francis Schaeffer for such inflammatory rhetoric! Is it any wonder that the evangelicals running the far-right Republican Party these days see themselves as the children of a revolution? Shutting down the government is nothing to these people. They see our government as the enemy, and now they are running it! As W. C. Fields would say in his euphemistic, near-profanity expletive – “Godfrey Daniels!”
Schaeffer’s son, Frank Schaeffer, initially supported his father’s ideas and his political program, but as early as the mid-1980s has distanced himself from many of those views and has even converted to the Eastern Orthodox Church, which is about as far as one can get from evangelical Protestantism! Schaeffer is considered to be a traitorous prince by many on the religious right, because, as he notes, he was considered as royalty because of his father. But Frank Schaeffer does not seem to care about any of that. His latest book, for instance is entitled Why I am an Atheist Who Believes in God: How to give love, create beauty and find peace. I highly recommend his book to all of my readers.
In a recent article, Frank Schaeffer wrote:
“The leaders of the new religious right were gleefully betting on American failure. If secular, democratic, diverse and pluralistic America survived, then wouldn’t that prove that we were wrong about God only wanting to bless “Christian America?” If, for instance, crime went down dramatically in New York City, for any other reason than a reformation and revival, wouldn’t that make the prophets of doom look silly? And if the economy was booming without anyone repenting, what did that mean?
“What began to bother me was that so many of our new “friends” on the religious right seemed to be rooting for one form of apocalypse or another. In the crudest form this was part of the evangelical fascination with the so-called end times. The worse things got, the sooner Jesus would come back. But there was another component. The worse everything got, the more it proved that America needed saving, by us! Plus, it was good for fundraising.
Schaeffer’s relatively brief piece makes clear the agenda that our country will be confronting in the new 114th Congress just sworn in this week, although to be completely fair, the Republican leaders of both the House and the Senate will also have to confront it.
So the question remains: Is this about the pessimistic zealotry that underlies the religious right?
This zealous negativity has a long history. The 1970s evangelical anti-abortion movement that Francis Schaeffer, C. Everett Koop (who would be President Ronald Reagan’s Surgeon General) and Frank Schaeffer helped create seduced the Republican Party. Almost single-handedly, they turned the Republican Party into an extremist far-right party that is fundamentally anti-American. There would have been no Tea Party without the foundation that Schaeffer and others built. The difference between now and then is that back then they were the religious fanatics knocking on the doors of normal political leaders. Today, the fanatics are the political leaders!
I know that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said in a recent interview, “I don’t want the American people to think that if they add a Republican president to a Republican Congress, that’s going to be a scary outcome.”
But it is scary. At least for me.
For starters, if you are like me and think that Steve King, Louie Gohmert, Michele Bachmann, Jim Inhofe, and Ted Cruz are the only “crazies” in the United States Congress, we need to think again. This year’s mid-term elections brought not only a rout of the Democrats but also a new standard for just who can be a national Republican these days. Here is a quick look at some of the new House and Senate conservatives most likely to rise to unintended prominence in the next two years. Consider these new names that will grace the halls of Congress:
Glenn Grothman, former Assistant Majority Leader of the Wisconsin Senate, who believes that days off from work are “a little ridiculous”; kindergarten program for 4-year-olds should be defunded; sex-education could turn kids gay; supports legalization of concealed carry; Planned Parenthood is racist; Martin Luther King, Jr. Day should not be a state employee holiday; anti-smoking campaigns do not work, and are no longer necessary; and Kwanzaa is a conspiracy;
Jody Hice, a Southern Baptist pastor and talk radio host who alleges that the gay community has a secret plot to recruit and to sodomize children; likens local law enforcement to “the Gestapo”; claims homosexuality causes shorter life spans and depression; insists that same-sex couples cannot raise healthy children; offers an extreme interpretation of the Constitution, claiming states can nullify (that is the operative word) federal laws and take up arms against the federal government if they consider a federal law unjust; and compares reproductive rights advocates to Nazis;
Bradley Mark Walker, a businessman and pastor who would impeach President Barack Obama if given the chance, and who believes the answer to undocumented immigrants is to start up a little war with Mexico;
Thomas Bryant “Tom” Cotton, former member of the United States House of Representatives, representing Arkansas’ 4th congressional district, who proposes that ISIS and Mexican drug cartels are teaming up to attack the United States across our border;
Ryan Zinke, a former Navy SEAL who told a Republican group that Hillary Clinton is Satan’s bride and is the “anti-Christ”; and finally,
Joni Kay (née Culver) Ernst, former member of the Iowa State Senate who backs a right-wing theory that Agenda 21 – a non-binding, voluntarily implemented action plan of the United Nations with regard to sustainable development – is a conspiracy by the United Nations to deprive individuals of property rights; suggests that states can somehow nullify (there is that word again) laws passed by the federal government; believes there were weapons of mass destruction found during the United States’ invasion of Iraq; holds a “makers vs. takers” view toward social welfare programs; claims she does not possess the scientific knowledge (no kidding!) to weigh in on whether humans are causing climate change; suggests that President Barack Obama should be impeached; expresses openness to privatizing Social Security; calls for abortion providers to be punished if a fetal personhood bill is passed; and opposes a federal minimum wage hike.
Frank Schaeffer notes that the Republicans depended upon people like his father to rile up the base in order to achieve other goals – think about the ALEC (The American Legislative Exchange Council) agenda, for example. ALEC’s agenda includes rolling back civil rights, challenging government restrictions on polluters, infringing on workers’ rights, limiting government regulations of commerce, privatizing public services, and representing the interests of the corporations that make up its supporters. We see some of this agenda in state legislatures where the likes of the Koch Brothers use this approach to weaken regulation of business and the environment.
I have to admit that Frank Schaeffer paints a rather stark conclusion. He writes: “The Republicans are still depending upon that riling up: Mark my words, the subtext to the GOP assault on us in 2016 will be religious extremism – again. And now it has a racist twist. Look at the right’s reaction to the events in Ferguson. Look at the continuing anti-Obama ugliness far past mere political difference. For the Republicans, the next election won’t be about politics. It will be a holy war – again.”
I suspect that if one were to go digging, one might find signs of this “holy war,” which is basically a theocracy by any definition.
We have seen this “holy war” in Sarah Palin’s anointing. “Sarah is that standard God has raised up to stop the flood. She has the anointing. Back in the 1980s, I sensed that Israel’s little-known Benjamin Netanyahu was chosen by God for an important end-time role. I still believe that. I now have that same sense about Sarah Palin.” As best as I can discern, that text was originally written by Jim Bramlett, an author and former vice president with the Christian Broadcasting Network.
We have seen this “holy war” in the New Apostolic Reformation and the event they did several years ago to “anoint” Rick Perry – and remember, Perry is running again, and it looks as if Mike Huckabee might also run. The New Apostolic Reformation is a movement that seeks to establish a fourth house within Christendom, distinct from Catholicism, Protestant Christianity and the Latter Day Saint movement, largely associated with the Pentecostal and the Charismatic movements. Its fundamental difference from other movements is the belief that the lost offices of church governance, namely the offices of prophet and apostle need to be restored.
We have seen this “holy war” in the continuing perversion in how curriculum that pushes a particular view is being mandated through requiring curriculum that is a biased representation of our national history, and through the promotion of the work of David Barton, an evangelical Christian conservative political activist and author who endorses the view that it is a myth that the United States Constitution insists on separation of church and state. Barton is one of the foremost Christian revisionist historians who believes that the United States was founded as an explicitly Christian nation.
We see this “holy war” in false representations of our founding documents, attributing non-existent quotes to various founders, and the demonization of those whose religion differs, not merely on questions of abortion and gay rights, but on the very nature of Jesus of Nazareth himself.
But be mindful that there are those who will seek to claim Jesus for their own political purposes, and those purposes are alien to any honest reading of the Gospel accounts, which is perhaps why some of those who follow in the footsteps of Francis Schaeffer read those accounts very selectively, if at all.
As Frank Schaeffer, who helped to create this monster, reminds us: “the American right is not about politics as most people understand it, but about religious absolutes.”
But, I ask, whose religious absolutes? And I hate to sound ominous about this, but to ignore Schaeffer’s point is to put at peril all that we hold dear.