Creating A Political Firestorm That Is Still Burning: An Interview with Frank Schaeffer
By John W. Whitehead
April 07, 2009
“You Republicans are the arsonists who burned down our national home. You combined the failed ideologies of the Religious Right, the so-called free market deregulation and the Neoconservative love of war to light a fire that has consumed America…. My parents (evangelical leaders Francis and Edith Schaeffer) and I were about as tight with—and useful to—the Republican Party as anyone. We played a big part creating the Religious Right.” —Frank Schaeffer, Open Letter to the Republican Traitors (From a Former Republican) (March 8, 2009)
In the fall of 1980, I received a phone call from Frank Schaeffer. He had heard about my legal efforts on behalf of Christians and wanted to know if I would work with him and his father, Francis Schaeffer. Francis Schaeffer at that time was the biggest name in evangelical circles, with a book (on the bestseller list) and video series entitled How Should We Then Live?—an examination of the cultural malaise affecting Western civilization with a call for Christian involvement at all levels of society.
Frank Schaefffer and John Whitehead, 1990
Frank and his father urged me to write a book, which I did. The thesis of my book was that a revolution had taken place, changing the way we look at people and restructuring our basic institutions and laws. The Second American Revolution, which was published in 1982 (with an introduction by Francis Schaeffer), went on to sell over 100,000 copies. And it spurred me to found The Rutherford Institute that same year.
I also served as the research assistant for Francis Schaeffer’s mega-bestseller, A Christian Manifesto (1981), providing material as well as drafting several portions of the book. A Christian Manifesto was a radical call for Christians to retake American society and restore freedom. But to Francis Schaeffer’s credit, he never called for a merging of religion and state. As he wrote in A Christian Manifesto, “There is no New Testament basis for linking of church and state.” And: “We must not confuse the Kingdom of God with our country. To say it another way: ‘We should not wrap Christianity in our national flag.’” However, even with these admonitions from the guru of the movement, Christian Right leaders unfortunately went on to do that very thing.
The Schaeffers had an amazing influence—an influence still felt today. I saw first-hand how Frank, often the instigator and agitator, and his father fueled those who would become the Christian Right. In fact, without the intellectual foundation laid by Francis Schaeffer, the entire movement would not have gotten off the ground—a movement that helped elect Ronald Reagan and would eventually lead to the presidency of George W. Bush.
During those early days of working alongside the Schaeffers, I came to know a number of leaders in the Christian socio-political movement. I stayed in the home of Christian Reconstructionist and father of the Christian Right R.J. Rushdoony. I rubbed shoulders with Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, James Dobson and Tim LaHaye, co-founder of the Moral Majority and co-author of the bestselling Left Behind novels, among others. Thus, I was present when Christianity in America was metastasizing into the political behemoth it is today. However, by the mid-1980s, because of the hypocrisy I had seen in the evangelical leadership, I began to recoil from the movement, as did Frank.
I have never met anyone with the energy of Frank Schaeffer or the in-your-face nerve he possessed. I know. We traveled together, and I acted as a legal advisor to both him and his father. Frank Schaeffer epitomized the radical in those days, wanting to overthrow the existing order. However, as Frank details in his book Crazy for God: How I Grew Up as One of the Elect, Helped Found the Religious Right, and Lived to Take All (or Almost All) of It Back (2007), he eventually came to realize that the Religious Right and the New Left were really two sides of the same coin.
Nearly three decades later, Frank is still a radical, only now his target is a Republican Party that, in his words, “has become a rabid money-worshiping insurgency (with racist overtones) of anti-American revolution seeking to undermine every single step our new president takes.”
Frank’s most recent books include the best-selling Keeping Faith: A Father-Son Story About Love and the United States Marine Corps (2003) about his son’s military service in Iraq. He also co-authored AWOL: The Unexcused Absence of America’s Upper Classes from Military Service—and How It Hurts Our Country (2006); co-authored How Free People Move Mountains: A Male Christian Conservative and a Female Jewish Liberal on a Quest for Common Purpose and Meaning (2003). His upcoming book is Patience With God: Faith for People Who Don’t Like Religion (or Atheism) (2009). Frank is also a prolific blogger.
Frank Schaeffer took time out from his busy writing schedule to talk with me about the current state of our country.
John Whitehead: George W. Bush concentrated a massive amount of power in the presidency. I, along with other civil libertarians, am greatly concerned about the ramifications of this toolbox of power being passed onto the Obama. In fact, constitutional scholar Aziz Huq has said: “No one should assume that the end of the Bush presidency marks the end of the imperial presidency.” However, in your blogs you seem to be saying that no one should criticize Obama and that doing so amounts to being a traitor. Are you saying that the Republicans, because of their criticism of Obama, are traitors? Should civil libertarians criticize Obama if he doesn’t reverse the imperial presidency set up by George Bush? Historically, Americans have always assumed that they have a right to criticize their politicians.
Frank Schaeffer: What I am saying, first and foremost, is that in the context of being less than three months into Obama’s presidency, any criticism should be limited to constructive suggestions to help our president get us out of the mess we’re currently in. My viewpoint on the presidency of Barack Obama is tempered by the fact that our situation calls for extraordinary means, both from American citizens and the president and those in government. We are not in a position where we have the luxury of parsing either details or getting into long range discussions on everything from civil liberties to the direction of our economy until some fires are put out. Once those fires are put out, that is when everybody ought to speak up and voice their opinions.
JW: What fires are you talking about?
FS: Besides the economic situation, we need to address the moral situation of our country in terms of what has happened to education, to families, to children and to our standing in the world. Also, we have to think in terms of what we have to do to adjust psychologically to what I would consider to be a realistic emergency mode in which, unless President Obama provides some leadership, we are going to be in very deep trouble economically and in many other ways. So I would divide my comments into two parts. One would be a theoretical discussion of everything from economics to civil liberties, where I claim no expertise. The other is as a citizen who is defending his president in a time of emergency. To attack the president at this time borders on being unpatriotic, not in a political sense, but in a realistic sense. It is similar to attacking firemen who have come to put a fire out. At least wait and see if they can put the fire out. Then if people want to discuss whether there are too many people at the fire station or if they’re being paid too much or if they’re nice guys or if one of them is a fraud, that’s fine. But the time to do that is not while they are actually trying to extinguish a blaze that is going to consume your house. Are we in a situation as dire as I think we are? And if we are, what is the appropriate level of involvement by citizens? When I look at the Republican Party, for instance, in these blogs I’ve written, my criticism of them is not that they have not joined the Democratic Party where they don’t agree with everything. There is a time and place for everything. We are in the middle of a national emergency. It is a time when sensible people, whatever their politics, will all pull together and lay aside differences until we resolve certain problems.
JW: Thus, what you are saying is that we need to give Obama some time.
FS: Yes. All criticism of Obama has to be couched in understanding that we’ve come from eight years of a disastrous, failed presidency with George W. Bush. That’s what we have put on Obama’s plate. It is a genuine emergency created by the Republican Party. If we don’t start by admitting that, then no solution can be realistic and the Republicans should admit that. Evangelicals who voted for Republicans should admit it as well. It also needs to be recognized that we haven’t handed our new president a neutral presidency. Instead, he’s been given one that is already weighted in favor of failure because we have piled so much on the plate—the “we” being the citizens of the United States. We did it by electing George W. Bush twice and allowing him to run our country into the ground. These are not simply theoretical discussions. A lot of what I am saying is simply practical. That is, I’d like my home to have value. I want my grandchildren to go to decent schools. I would like to have a house that isn’t under water in 30 years. If we’re going to get there, Obama has to not only do proactively what presidents do, but he has to undo eight years of horrible policies, from torturing prisoners to unregulated banks and all the rest of it. When you add it up, this is no time to criticize the president.
JW: How much time do we give Obama? Some in the Left have been very critical of Obama’s civil liberties. Of course, the Right has jumped on his economic policies. How long do we give Obama?
FS: Let’s look at other walks of life. I mean, how long do you give an author to write a decent book? More than a couple of months. You give somebody a couple of years. If you’re a marriage counselor, how long do you give a marriage to repair the damage of years of abuse? Years, not months.
JW: Obviously, Obama needs at least a year. If things remain as dismal as they are now, it is not going to work. Thus, we will need to speak up. The great dissenters such as Jesus, Gandhi and Martin Luther King spoke up. However, I do agree that people have jumped on him too soon. It is mainly for political reasons, it seems to me.
FS: That’s true, but the criticism of the Left is really foolish because they’re shooting themselves in the foot. The criticism from the Right borders on being unpatriotic because it is saying that our guy lost. So now we would rather fail, to quote Rush Limbaugh, and take everybody with us and be proved right. If you’re talking in practical terms, we ought to cut our new president some slack for at least a year. I would say probably two years or halfway through his term. If halfway through his term things are measurably better economically, if we are starting to see reform in our schools, if fewer of our soldiers are getting shot at abroad, if things are generally turning around when it comes to certain other measurable things such as the amount of carbon we are putting into the atmosphere and so on. If you see progress on these fronts, even if it is minimal, then Obama’s presidency is on the way to becoming a success. But right now, the level of criticism from the Republicans, who don’t seem to offer any positive solutions themselves, is literally immoral. It was the Republicans who got us in this fix in the first place. Rather than taking the blame, they’re trying to place blame for what is happening on the new president. The Left is living in La La Land because they should realize that we don’t have the luxury of second guessing the only bet we have, which is the guy sitting in the White House right now. We have to give him time.
JW: The problem may be bigger than the Obama administration. The problem may be bigger than any human being can handle. That is what people are missing. This monster that has been created by the various presidential administrations may be so large that expecting Obama to walk on water is not going to happen.
FS: I would say the problem may be bigger than the United States can solve as a country. In the meantime, however, Obama is the only life boat we have. If people have an alternative reality they can go to where there is a perfect president and a perfect Congress and lots of money in the bank, I would like to know where it’s at.
JW: You’ve criticized Rush Limbaugh and Ann Coulter. But do you really think Limbaugh or Coulter speaks for the Republican Party? What kind of impact do such people have?
FS: The fact that Limbaugh is even a serious contender, at least in the media, for having a voice within the Republican Party goes to show the bankrupt level to which the Religious Right and the neoconservatives have driven the Republicans. It is similar to Reverend Coughlin in the 1930s going after Franklin Roosevelt. It is just putrid hate. It is not anything constructive. What we have is kind of smart-alecky commentary from people such as Ann Coulter and Rush Limbaugh. But they have absolutely nothing positive to offer the country as an alternative. What they levy at us is a snarky, continuous, dripping faucet of criticism. If the Republicans continue to allow themselves to be identified with media entertainers like Coulter and Limbaugh, then you won’t see a Republican in the White House again in our lifetime, no matter what happens. Nobody could afford to have this level of sophomoric, childish criticism as the basis of the loyal opposition. It reminds me of a personal friend of my father, William F. Buckley. They weren’t close, but they liked and respected one another. Buckley would be horrified by just the level of rudeness of Limbaugh and Coulter. Conservatives used to be gentlemen. Conservatives used to be polite. Conservatives were identified with a tradition of reason, discourse and fairness. Conservatism today is like a bunch of brown shirts. They’re like marauders stirring up people to go smash windows. They don’t even have a feeling of being conservative anymore. They are not that kind of literate gentleman who used to be identified with the label “conservative.” Conservatives used to be accused of being square, stodgy and stay-at-home. Rush Limbaugh and Ann Coulter are bomb throwers, and they are not nice bomb throwers.
JW: Are you are saying that they are not true Conservatives?
FS: I don’t believe they are.
JW: As you’ve written in your book Crazy for God and in your blogs, you and your father created the Religious Right. I was there, as well. In fact, people were carrying my book, The Second American Revolution, around at political rallies. Almost 30 years later, do you regret the part you played?
FS: I look back on it all like somebody who finally sobered up after drinking all their life. They realize that when they were a drunk, they used their relationships, smashed their businesses and impoverished their families. But they finally got sober, went to Alcoholics Anonymous and mended their ways. So I look back with horror because the small part I played, and certainly the larger part my father played, and the part you played with me has brought us to this place. We lifted up a number of single-issue political things like abortion, and we opened up a floodgate of a moralistic style of grandstanding from the sidelines, which has made this country essentially ungovernable. It also unleashed a culture war. The Left bears responsibility as well for that because Roe v. Wade was very ill-conceived—a kind of “one-stop solution” to a contentious issue that essentially set everybody on their ear. So it works both ways. But for the part I played, I have nothing but regret.
JW: You’ve written that the Christian Right was anti-American. What do you mean by that?
FS: We set this negative tone, in that, for us, bad news about America was good news. This was true whether it was fund-raising or whether it was the call to be a Christian society. Our basic premise was that the only way America could function was as a biblically based Christian society. We live in a multicultural, pluralistic, multi-religion society ranging all the way from atheist Jews to Hindus to Muslims to Christians to Episcopalians who are liberal, to Unitarians to Fundamentalists. Essentially, that vision of America was one of our enemies. We didn’t want a multi-cultural, multi-ethnic society. What we wanted was a homogenous Christian country built somewhat along the lines of Calvin’s Geneva or the Puritan-based state colonies. That essentially put us at cross purposes with and made us hate America as it is. So the America we envisioned actually didn’t exist, and probably never did. Thus, we were the enemies of America as it is today. America is not a religious state. It is a pluralistic, secular culture built around certain religious principles, along with certain other philosophical principles. But it doesn’t belong to us or the evangelicals any more than it belongs to any other group.
JW: It was failed philosophy from the beginning.
FS: From the beginning. What we did was set our hand against the reality in the United States and essentially set up this alternative reality of Christian books, Christian TV, Christian radio, Christian magazines, Christian schools and the home school movement. All of these various things were basically telling the rest of the country, “We hate you. We don’t like the way you are. We think you are sinful. We think you are awful. We wash our hands of you. We are going to do our own thing. And if we have our way, we will elect people like us and put them in office, change the laws and run you guys out of town.” We were essentially anti-American revolutionaries. So, in a way, the title of your book, The Second American Revolution, had an unintended, or at least a subtle, context because there really was a second American revolution. We were trying to overthrow the status quo. And I don’t think that was sufficiently understood. It was a much more radical movement than people realized.
JW: It was an extremely radical movement aimed at overthrowing the existing order. That was the point.
FS: That was the point. People talk about the radicalism of the New Left in the 1960s and the early 1970s. Actually, we were much more radical because the New Left never had a broad base of popular support. It was a small group of people on campus, relatively speaking, and some agitators. Look at the size of Dobson’s Focus on the Family or the Moral Majority, for example, which you and I were involved with. We knew everybody, and we were working with and influencing those people. We were representing tens of millions of people who were both donors and camp followers. We were posing a serious challenge to the state as it exists—that is, we wanted to overthrow Supreme Court decisions. There was, in my opinion, a direct and logical line from the things we were saying to people and those who were bombing abortion clinics. There was a direct and logical line to the groups that are running around now harassing soldiers’ families at military funerals shouting “God hates America” and “die faggots.” We didn’t do that. We weren’t so crude. But we unleashed a form of radicalism from the Right that really bordered on a desire to overthrow the state as it was understood. My father actually took that step in his book A Christian Manifesto where he said something to the effect that unless we can bring about Christian change in a peaceful, democratic way through using the courts and civil society, there will come a day where we may have the same legitimate justification to take up arms against the state and use force. This is similar to what Oliver Cromwell did in opposing what he regarded as tyranny in Great Britain and what our revolutionary forefathers in America did. There comes a time when you can use force. Thus, we came right up to the line of actually advocating force.
JW: That effectively provided Ronald Reagan and the Republican Party with an ideology that would play well to evangelicals. This allowed the politicians to feed the movement that eventually became George W. Bush and a right-wing Christian populist movement. Do you agree?
FS: Absolutely. George Bush’s ascendancy to the White House is impossible to imagine, and even mathematically impossible to calculate, if you take the religious evangelical base out of the equation. He just doesn’t get elected. It is unimaginable that he would be in the White House if evangelical Christians had not put him there. They are the base that put him there. And if you look at what he did in office, you know, we finally had our man. The 30-year process that you and I started culminated in George W. Bush. This is what we had all been working for, and look where it turned out. In fact, the Reagan political establishment played to us.
JW: I remember being invited to meetings along with your father at the White House.
FS: We blessed the elite Reagan revolution, as it was called. We baptized these things. And we gave a theological twist to economic and political ideas that emerged. We did not urge people to vote for a candidate because he would be a good president. We urged people to vote for a candidate because he was right in the sense that his political philosophy somehow reflected the truth of Jesus Christ as Lord. I don’t believe we ever said those words, but that is how it came out. Therefore, we baptized the emerging right-wing political movement and all the rest of the things that have now gotten the country into a mess. None of what we saw with George W. Bush would have happened without the evangelical votes for president or any other office. We also helped to create a climate in which reasonable people could no longer sit down and discuss the issues of the day in a neutral way because we interjected a moral element into the debate—that is, our message was that if you love God, you will vote for Ronald Reagan and the Bushes. We gave it a theological spin, which gave us George W. Bush, who undid us because he was of mediocre intelligence and not fit to be president. But because Bush’s theology was “correct,” he got the evangelical vote. That’s the sad result of a single-issue politics and a single-issue theology carried to a logical conclusion.
JW: Politically, the Christian Right made big gains. However, at the end of the day, the Christian involvement in politics produced little in terms of definable positive results spiritually. For example, forty percent of births are now out of wedlock. The highest divorce rate is in the Bible belt. A recent survey found that the states with the highest conservative Christian population were the biggest Internet porn users. The fastest growing religious group in the United States is atheists, or non-believers. All denominations are losing people. Fewer and fewer people are going to church. The huge mistake was that a religion of great validity was identified with a political party. Also, after all is said and done, the average Christian cannot even articulate what they really believe. There is virtually no sense of apologetics taught to Christians anymore. Thus, in the end, the experiment from the actual spiritual nature of merging politics and religion was a failure.
FS: You put your finger on it when you said that we identified Christianity with a political movement to the point where the politics and the religion were confused. When you now use the term “Christian” to Americans, whether they are evangelicals or atheists, they immediately think of evangelical American Christianity. They don’t think of Byzantine Orthodox. They don’t think of Roman Catholicism. They don’t think of the historic church. They don’t think of liberal Christians. In other words, the first confusion is that the word Christian was equated with evangelical. What was the result? All Christianity and all its true claims and all its philosophy will be judged on the basis of what evangelicals do. What did evangelicals do? The word “evangelical” became synonymous with Republican. And then it became synonymous with right-wing Republican. Picture Christ. Christ is bearing the burden of being identified exclusively with evangelicals. And then evangelicals jump on his back carrying the burdens of the Republican Party. And the Republican Party is driven to the right by those very same evangelicals who bring their moralistic crusades on everything from gay rights to abortion to the table. When those things fail or they are hypocritically used, for example, as fundraising measures rather than actually doing something about the issue, they indulge in hatred or homophobic behavior. All of a sudden, Christ has the Republican Party, the evangelicals and their hatred and their failed policies on his back. Thus, who is going to be looking at Jesus Christ anymore as a religious figure or the Son of God or even as a prophet? What they are seeing is the Republican Party. And what they are seeing is economic failure. And what they are seeing is social programs that don’t work. And so essentially the cart not only flipped and drove the horse, the horse disappeared altogether. All that is left is this stalled cart of Republican right-wing failure.
JW: They gave away their spirituality for a bowlful of political porridge.
FS: Yes, and that bowlful of political porridge lasted exactly from when you and I got into this in the 1970s to getting rid of George Bush and finally moving to Barack Obama. It is the end of the era. And now Obama has been handed such a mess by us and others that he may not be able to fix it. I am optimistic for him personally because I believe that he is a good leader. But that doesn’t mean that these problems are not insurmountable.
JW: Is the Christian Right dead? James Dobson is stepping down. I don’t see anybody else out there who can spearhead the Christian Right. The movement is rather depleted right now. But does that mean they’re dead?
FS: I think the Christian Right is dead in the sense that it is no longer the single great force to be reckoned with. Although the Christian Right has died, the rotting body has now infected the Republican Party to the point where they can’t function without the hatred and the fear. The Christian Right might be dead, but they have taken the Republican Party with them. All you have are figures like Rush Limbaugh and Ann Coulter. And all they have left is a kind of reactionary bitterness.
JW: Ann Coulter claims to be a Christian.
FS: With friends like her, you don’t need enemies. If she is the image of Christianity, then the problem evangelicals are going to have is that in any conversation they have with anyone, they will have to spend the first two-thirds of it trying to tell people who they are not.
JW: Do you feel any remorse for being partly responsible for the Christian Right and all that has followed?
FS: Remorse isn’t the word I would use. Maybe I would use the word regret. If I do have regret, it is for two things. I have regret for the politics, but I also have regret on the spiritual side for the simplistic vision of Christianity that we painted where everything is black and white, saved and lost, and which forgets that one is on a spiritual journey. To claim at any point on that journey that you have enough knowledge to want to force other people to do what you believe is right is arrogant and self-defeating. You always have to admit at any point in the journey that (a) you could be wrong and (b) that you are going to continue down that path and that you cannot claim at any point the mantle of absolute truth and then start applying that to public policy. It is a wrong theology and an intolerant theology that regards everyone who is not cast in a certain mold of theological correctness as an outsider—as the “other” and therefore the enemy. When you divide the world into me and the people who agree with me and everyone else, I think you really have a problem, especially when you are trying to work within a pluralistic or democratic culture. So for me personally, what I regret is what I believe was a truly misguided theology that was absolutist and intolerant that led to an even worse politics that was utterly misguided and has been measurably a failure.
JW: Are you optimistic or pessimistic about the future?
FS: I am optimistic. People may think I am foolish for this, but I believe that ideas do have consequences. I believe that if the Obama administration is given the time on the political front and if enough people who are religious and/or atheist or agnostic on the spiritual front take our losses whether they are financial, moral, educational, environmental or whatever and use this moment as a teachable moment of learning some humility where we all have to work with each other as Americans and people in this civilization of ours, then we may just pull it out. It won’t be forever because all civilizations rise and fall, but maybe this isn’t the ultimate catastrophe. Maybe we can pull out of this, but it is going to take two things. It is going to take the humility of people who will set aside ideology and work for a common good on one hand, whether they are atheists or whether they are Christians. And on the other hand, it is going to take a loyalty to our new administration and to those officials that are working to try to pull us out of this nosedive. We need to give them time to see what they can do. We also need to give them the public support necessary to do the job. If those two things can exist for a few years, we may just begin to turn this around. One of the things I like about Barack Obama is that he brings a spiritual quality to his work and beliefs. In some of his speeches, he talks about not only what his faith means to him but how he is trying to balance public policy against his religious faith to see how these things can work together. This is a very thoughtful and intelligent man. If we cut him some slack and give him some room and let him do his job and support him, we have a shot. I don’t know what the percentages are, but I certainly think we have a chance for a better future.
DISCLAIMER: THE VIEWS AND OPINIONS EXPRESSED IN OLDSPEAK ARE NOT NECESSARILY THOSE OF THE RUTHERFORD INSTITUTE.