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Patience with God: Taking on Atheists and Christian Fundamentalists: An Interview with Frank Schaeffer

By John W. Whitehead
November 02, 2009

“This book is a search for that ‘something’ to hold on to. I don’t know if my up-and-down, hot-then-cold-then-hot-again faith in God persists because I was conditioned by my parents to see everything in spiritual terms or if faith is a choice. Either way, whatever I believe or feel, or think I feel or think I believe, it’s at best flawed. Like most people, I’ve changed my mind about the so-called Big Questions and will again. Opinion is a snapshot in time.”—Frank Schaeffer, Patience with God

Frank Schaeffer has some big problems with fundamentalist Christians. But he also has big problems with the New Atheists. And despite the obvious differences in their ideology, it’s the same problem: mindsets that leave no room for questions, and even less for tolerance. And as Schaeffer argues, atheism has become a religion in itself.

Frank Schaeffer
Frank Schaeffer at home.
(Photo courtesy of The Boston Globe)

In Patience with God: Faith for People Who Don’t Like Religion (or Atheism) (Da Capo Press, 2009), Schaeffer offers a middle ground for those who find right-wing evangelists as distasteful as the uber-liberal lefties who mock them. As Schaeffer explains, there are many people—Republicans and Democrats—who are disgusted with the polarizing forces that exist in our nation, and who believe (or at least try to believe) in God. In fact, studies show that some 85% of Americans adhere to some form of religion.

The U.S. is emerging from the most religiously motivated administration in its history—which enabled the New Atheism to gain popularity and voice. In Patience with God, Schaeffer critically examines the goals and tactics of both Christian fundamentalism and New Atheism.

Schaeffer also offers a personal look at religion (and its intersection with politics), detailing Schaeffer’s own on-again, off-again relationship with God as he went from helping his father, Francis Schaeffer, found the Religious Right to joining the Greek Orthodox Church and voting for Barrack Obama. Along the way, we come to see that he, like so many Americans, could best be described as a member of the “Church of Hopeful Uncertainty.” Call it a spirituality for the rest of us.

I have known Frank Schaeffer for some 30 years now. And I worked with his father while they were constructing the Christian Right. I don’t always agree with Frank. But, as you will see from the interview that follows, Frank continues to be provocative and thought-provoking.

Frank Schaeffer is the author of the New York Times bestseller Keeping Faith and, most recently, the memoir Crazy for God. He has appeared on NPR, CNN, MSNBC and FOX News. A prolific blogger for the Huffington Post, he and his wife Genie, live in Massachusetts and have three children.

John W. Whitehead:  You have written that the Tea Party protesters, the Birthers, etc., that have gained so much attention have a lot of evangelicals in their ranks. Do you think that’s bad?  A lot of them probably are evangelicals.  I guess you would assume that, wouldn’t you?

Frank Schaeffer:  Yes. When I look at these movements, my main criticism of them is they are no longer fact based.  In other words, look at what’s happened to the Religious Right and the Right Wing. It just seems to me that you are dealing with a bunch of people now that are living on another planet. Obviously, everybody has the right to object about what a president does. But it is hard to credit people with either good motives or take them seriously when they are no longer dealing in fact.  Health care reform is an example. The rhetoric is all about death panels or that Obama is not born in America or that he is the Anti-Christ. It is very difficult to hear anything else they are saying and take it seriously.  This makes it easier to ascribe strange motives to them whether it’s racial or just simply paranoia.  Sarah Palin says very crazy things. People like her are not credible and the people who follow her are even less credible. My point is that the right wing in the U.S. has really lost credibility.

JWW: There is a lot of frustration across the country. There are some troubling things, for example, happening to evangelicals. The Rutherford Institute is involved in cases where a valedictorian, who is a Christian, mentions God in a graduation ceremony and school officials turn off her microphone. A high school woodwind ensemble can’t play an instrumental version of “Ave Maria” at graduation. It is cancelled because school officials feel it might offend someone. Their argument is that society is basically being wrested from them through the public schools. The fact is that the public schools are becoming totally secularized.  You can’t do anything in a public school that is religious.  Thus, there is a lot of frustration and some of it is fact based.

FS: The truth of the matter is the stuff like that is legitimate and of course everybody has legitimate issues. Obviously the idea of separation of church and state has been driven to an extreme, especially in the kind of cases that you are citing. Those things do happen and that is equally crazy. But the fact of the matter is there are a lot of evangelical, fundamentalist Christians and people on the right in general who are living in La La Land. They are not looking at this country as it is. They are looking at it as they wish it would be. The fact of the matter is we are a secular, multi-cultural, pluralistic society now. Whatever our history was in terms of whether or not the country is or was Christian or agnostic or atheist, that is all water under the bridge. Many evangelical Christians somehow act as if they have more of a right to the public square than other people. This just doesn’t wash.  That is not where America is at.  Whether we like it or not, it is time for Christians and others to face the fact that we live in a multicultural, pluralistic society and that the day when evangelical Christians had some special claim to public discourse and pronouncement is gone. 

JWW: The people that we defend here at The Rutherford Institute are not asking for any special right. They are simply asking to be treated equally with everybody else in terms of their right to free speech.

FS: I am not disputing that. That is a good thing. I would agree with that exactly. I very much support what you do. I have always supported what The Rutherford Institute does. But I am talking about not so much specific cases as I am a mindset that is expressed by people like Sarah Palin. When she promotes “the real America”—the real America being small towns like I live in or this person or that person—it turns out the real America is an America that reflects the minority of people in this country today.  It is no more real or unreal than any other place.  Downtown Manhattan and New York City are real America, as well.  Downtown Pittsburgh is real America.  Miami is real America. We are a very diverse country. The idea that one segment of the population is somehow more moral or more American really boils down to promoting white middle and lower middle class evangelical and fundamentalist Christians who feel embattled and are acting as if we are in a civil war. We are not in a civil war.

Patience with God

JWW: In your book Patience With God, you point out that the New Atheists are just as dangerous as you consider fundamentalist Christians to be. Can you explain why?

FS: I would go even further and say that the New Atheists are fundamentalists.  They have just changed a few words and instead of trying to get everybody to believe in a certain theological idea, they are trying to enforce a kind of philosophical morality on the rest of the country. They actually argue that you are stupid if you believe in God.  There is a lot of mockery involved.  It is found in the tone of Bill Maher’s documentary film, Religulous. It is also shown in the tone of his TV show. What you are watching is the flip side of Pat Robertson or James Dobson. It is the same kind of intolerance towards diversity and people who disagree with you as you see from the Right.  In my book Patience with God, I make the argument that these two movements—religious fundamentalism and the New Atheism—are parallel movements. They come from the same lack of understanding of spirituality which involves celebrating paradox. It lacks mystery. We simply don’t have to answer every question.

JWW: The New Atheists enforce a dogma, much like religious fundamentalists.

FS: Basically, atheists like Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Bill Maher and others like them are building a movement of atheistic dogma that is every bit as intolerant as that from the right. In Patience with God, I argue that these are really part of the same movement.  It is a movement of intolerance that sees the whole country as being in a civil war where your side has to win in order for it to be a better place.  And I don’t feel that hopeful. I also don’t feel it’s true because I don’t think that that is how things work.

JWW: We don’t live in an “either or” universe.

FS: It isn’t an “either or” universe.  It is not a black or white universe.  And it is not a universe where everything has to be polarized.  I draw a parallel in Patience with God to the apparent contradiction in science between Einstein’s theory of general relativity where everything is predictable and quantum mechanics where things are not predictable—even if you have all the information. According to quantum mechanics, one subatomic particle can be in two places at once and these things coexist.  It doesn’t mean the universe is ending, but it does mean we may never be able to explain these things. The same applies to spirituality. So when I look at the New Atheists, what I see is a bunch of fundamentalists that remind me very much of the people I grew up with in the 1950s and 1960s, except they have changed the lingo a little bit.  In the case of Dawkins, they even sell little witnessing tools. He sells a little pin for atheists. You are supposed to wear it so you can have conversations with nonbelievers and, in this instance, religious believers who need to be converted to unbelief. They witness to them and add them to the mailing list.

JWW: So the New Atheism is a religion?

FS: Yes, and anybody who comes out of an evangelical or fundamentalist background has heard all this before.  They are selling no God in the same way that all the little witnessing tools and tricks the evangelicals have used to sell God that are tawdry and tasteless.  It is exactly the same stuff except it has just been dressed up as atheism.

JWW: The New Atheists have some dangerous ideas. They are extremely pro-war—especially against Islam.

FS: Christopher Hitchens is a good example of the New Atheists. That’s why I devote an entire chapter in my book about him. Hitchens started out as a socialist liberal and he has moved from that to being a warmonger. He was one of George W. Bush’s biggest supporters in going to war into Iraq. As far as he is concerned, we should attack all the Islamic countries. He talks in a way that makes Barry Goldwater look like a leftist.  Many of the New Atheists are incredibly anti-Islamic. This is very similar to some of the right-wing Christians.  Hitchens and right-wing Christians would all be looking at the same things and wanting the same solutions, which are military solutions to everything. 

JWW: In your book, you focus somewhat on Rick Warren. As you point out, Warren is one of the big stars of evangelicalism.  But I believe some people are going to wonder why you chose Rick Warren.  Why not Joel Osteen or some other prosperity preacher? What about some of the awful televangelists?
FS: I use Rick Warren as an example of something else actually.  I am not talking about Rick Warren specifically, although I talk about his book, The Purpose Driven Life.  I use Rick Warren in my book as an example of how much evangelical Christianity boils down to a series of personality cults. You have followers of Rick Warren.  You have followers of  Franklin Graham.  You have followers of Francis Schaeffer.  It isn’t that I am looking at these people and saying they are all illegitimate or wicked. I am just saying that Rick Warren is stuck acting the part of Rick Warren and keeping his empire going. If Rick Warren dies or is kicked out of his church or something bad happens to him, what happens to his congregation? If you follow the examples of other places, it will just all melt away or divide or dissipate because people are there for him. Just like people were following my own father.  Dad was a good man, but he was still part of a personality cult.  And so my criticism of Rick Warren is not a criticism of Rick Warren per se. Evangelical Christianity in America in general boils down to two things.  It is a huge commercial enterprise on one side. Thus, it is no accident that Rick Warren’s publisher Zondervan is owned by Rupert Murdoch and the Fox Corporation. On the other hand, it is a series of personality cults. Evangelical Christianity has come to represent in this country a vast commercial interest on one side combined with a series of personality cults. This is true whether it’s the local pastor or some mega-church or some big huge power church ministry.

JWW: You write this in Patience with God: “A Rick Warren, a C. S. Lewis and a Francis Schaeffer are the essence of Evangelical fundamentalist success.  But they also represent the Achilles heel of American Evangelism.”  Are you being critical of your father there?

FS: No.  It would be a weird reading to do that.  What I am saying is that all evangelical leaders, including my own family, are part of this series of personality cults.  Even the ones with integrity. Even good people.  I am not casting aspersions on their character.  I am just saying that is just the nature of the evangelical beast.  This is true whether it’s Rick Warren, Billy Graham or Francis Schaeffer or any of these guys. Whether you like them individually or not isn’t the point. 

JWW: In Patience with God, you write: “I can’t prove this but I think that any person who remains a ‘professional Christian’ in the evangelist/fundamentalist world for a lifetime, especially any pastor, risks becoming an atheist or a liar.  Such individuals put on an act of certainty. Sooner or later they become flakes faking it. Worse yet, some stop asking questions.  The very fact that a preacher can fool others when he or she has so many doubts makes the self-appointed mediator of faith the deepest cynic of all, if that is, he or she doesn’t embrace a paradox.”

FS: I say this is true, that is, “if” they don’t “embrace a paradox.”  In other words, the weakness of fundamentalism is being certain about everything in terms of always having the right rule regulation, doctrine, Bible verse or whatever. It’s true that level of certainty wavers. As I write in Patience with God, I get literally dozens of emails from people who are pastors or former pastors who have either lost their faith or have doubts or left their groups. This is precisely because they just couldn’t maintain this front of always being certain about everything, having to have answers and having people scrutinizing their lives and wanting them to be better than other people. At a certain point, this facade begins to crack.  If evangelical leaders embrace paradox—that is, if they are willing to say, “I don’t know, I don’t have all the answers,” “I have questions myself,” “I have doubts,”  “I have weaknesses,” “I fall down once in a while”—that is one thing. Then they have a shot at maintaining their faith. Pastors and religious leaders are like any other human being. They are going to have doubts. Thus, when they put up a front of certainty, their lives become a lie because they know they don’t believe all the time. They know they have doubts. They know they are not consistent. They know they have questions, and at a certain point, that front will crack. When it does, you either have to honestly admit who you are and back off a little bit or you become a liar and maintain a front. That is why there are so many of these people who live a lie for a while, then get caught. Look at all the scandals that have plagued evangelism.

JWW: You can’t be certain about faith. That is why it is called faith.

FS: Yes. Exactly. 

JWW: You write that how we receive God’s love is the issue.  It’s not about correct ideas, let alone correct rule-keeping.

FS: I believe that to be true. No one has the information to have completely correct ideas about anything whether it’s doctrine or geography. It doesn’t matter what the subject is. We all have mixed motives. You really have to look at how someone is living their lives and the content of their character. You can’t depend on correct ideas—not just for salvation or for anything else in life.  It goes much deeper than that. 

JWW: Do you think that what has happened to the church in this country is they have become hierarchical dogmatic institutions and not spiritual institutions?

FS: What happened to the church in America is really simple.  They have become victims of their own success.  They are like patriarchal figures that never get questioned. You are either in their good graces or you are out.  If you are in one of these ministries, if you start questioning either the doctrine or the person running it, you are soon going to be out on your ear. This aspect of personality cults has become an illness.  It is not a commitment to the spirituality and to the truth. It is a commitment to these different individuals who run these big ministries. I am not just talking about the televangelists.  This includes big churches and small churches. It comes down to loyal adherence to an individual who is leading you, going to this person’s Bible study or this church. The idea often is married to not just the profit motive but the entertainment industry where you have to constantly be amusing people to keep them coming every Sunday. You have a very vicious circle. Christian community has not just become part of the culture. It is leading the culture into becoming more and more what Neil Postman writes about in his book Amusing Ourselves to Death, which I discuss at the beginning of Patience with God. I quote Postman in the prologue, noting that his prophecy has come true. It has come true for evangelical Christian circles just as much as it has come true for the rest of the culture.  We are amusing ourselves to death and the trivialization of Christianity is not unique to Christianity.  It is the same as the trivialization of everything in our entertainment-oriented culture.

JWW: The New Testament says “God is Love.” In Patience with God, you discuss how Jesus practiced the law of love with the woman taken in adultery. 

FS: I end my book with the story of Christ and the woman taken in adultery. I do it for a good reason. When you are trying to follow Christ, which I am as a Christian, that means following Christ’s example in the ways he treated people.  And the way he treated the woman who was taken in adultery who showed faithlessness was to give her faithfulness. He not only gave her another chance but his example broke and superseded the Old Testament law which was incredibly harsh in this instance. Christ essentially set a higher example. The hope of spirituality in Christianity is not standing in judgment of the culture in trying to castigate or in trying to convince everyone to have correct ideas.  The hope is really in following the actual example of Jesus Christ. I end with that story of the woman taken in adultery, because I think that story is a very good example of how we should not judge others. The point being that spirituality is much more about how we live and how we love people and care for them than it is about correct ideas. You can never know enough to have a 100% correct idea about anything, because there is always more to learn. What we can do is follow Christ’s actual example of how we should treat people. Thus, receiving and giving love to me is the ultimate revelation of God’s presence in our lives.