Francis Schaeffer was a deep evangelical thinker whose mission was to save the West from itself one intellectual at a time. His son, Frank, took him mainstream bringing his father's work together with the agenda and ambitions of American fundamentalism. Together they helped create what we now know as the religious right.
That was then. Through a combination of what might be called religious and celebrity burn-out, raising a family and deep introspection, Frank Schaeffer says he has repented of nearly everything the American Religious Right stands for, even though he was for a time a major player in bringing critical elements together.
In an interview with Jeff Sharlet of the Revealer, Schaefer says that the success of much of the Religious Right today depends on the continuing failure of the government, of Israel, of the military and even of public education.
It’s one of the ironies of the Religious Right that came out of the 1960s and ’70s. Back then, the idea was that the Right was patriotic and that the Left was always suspect of being unpatriotic, critical of America, wanted to see the U.S. defeated. But by the mid-’70s, I started noticing a change: the rhetoric of the emerging religious Right was more fundamentally anti-American, always rooting for failure, than anything coming out of the Left. When you look back at it, the Left really wanted reform – whether it was about race, or foreign policy, or women’s rights. But the Right, since then, roots for real failure – to prove a philosophical and theological point. An analogy is the Religious Right’s support for Israel. On one level, right-wing fundamentalists are rooting for Israel. On another level, for their theology to be proven correct, Israel has to be destroyed, Jews killed. Which is almost literally the same idea for America when it comes to a Falwell or a Robertson. They slipped up and expressed those sentiments openly after 9/11, but that was only a dramatic example of what’s been said for years privately and sometimes not so privately.
The essence of their theology and their philosophy is that America was founded as a Christian country, in the most literal sense a theocracy, under a special blessing from God. The U.S. has a special destiny in the world, which is not only political but also theological. So where they root for American failure is when America departs from that supposed destiny. If America prospers and is blessed without adherence to biblical principles and out without a return to theocracy – in practice if not in form – if homosexuality can be practiced in the open and no thunderbolts hit, given their orthodox theology, America should lose its special place and enter into an irreversible decline. If not, American well-being disproves America’s special place in the divine order of things. It’s a situation of a test-case, of proof. If crime goes down in New York, or if test scores go up without prayer in schools, it casts doubt on all the theological claims of right wing fundamentalist Christianity.
Anyone who went to evangelical churches in the seventies and early eighties probably saw (at least once) a film series featuring Francis Schaeffer called "How Should We Then Live?" Frank produced these films based on his father's earlier writings, but turned them into a wide-ranging critique of American with a rigid anti-abortion spin largely absent in the books. The films were a whip-lash of condensed images and ideas meant to convey how quickly the world was going down the drain. For many evangelicals, it was an introduction and a validation of a way seeing the culture as doomed to failure. But it also further built a wall of separation between historic Christianity and mainline Protestantism and evangelicalism because the simplistic view of history left no room for debate, critique or choice.
Now that many followers of the ideologies of the Religious Right have moved from outsiders to insiders, they have become a new kind of political establishment whose purpose is to use the levers of power to make government and social institutions ineffective because they fundamentally believe that progress and reform is not only impossible but undesirable.
Where you see their real colors is in the absolute, steady drumbeat against public education. There would be no public schools if the Religious Right got its way. They don’t care if public schools are working or not, because remember, good news is bad news for them. They don’t want them to work. The same philosophy that gives us “No Child Left Behind,” that demands higher test scores, with one hand it gives and the other it takes away. It’s the same voices calling for vouchers so that parents can pick religious education for their children, so they can control everything their child learns until the child is 18. Another place I see this, when I began thinking about the military because I was writing a book about my son becoming a Marine, is in the all-volunteer army. The irony now is that the biggest defenders of the all-volunteer army come from the Right, not the Left. It’s the philosophy and orthodox theology of deconstructing government, of privatization at any cost. I was on a radio show with a right-wing host and I was talking about this, about the ways in which the draft had this strong democratic element, and how the Left now thinks about it in terms of, “Would we be in these wars if everybody had to serve?” And I was trying to talk about sacrifice, about a draft that would require everybody to sacrifice, and the host came back and said, “The rich already do sacrifice, they pay taxes.”
Frank Schaeffer's home page is here.
A review and a synopsis may be found here.