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The most important Evangelical you've never heard of
October 29, 2007 12:58 AM   Subscribe

Christianity is not just a series of truths but Truth -- Truth about all of reality. And the holding to that Truth intellectually... brings forth not only certain personal results, but also governmental and legal results.
When the Religious Right cruised onto the cultural scene in the late 1970s, the road map was drawn by oddball Pennsylvanian Francis Schaeffer. Generally regarded as the first (perhaps only) Evangelical philosopher, Schaeffer's views on the fundamental clash between Christian and secular belief systems became the talking points for a generation of American Christians. The movement's trajectory, though, left many of Schaeffer's more nuanced beliefs by the wayside. His son's recent writings suggest that it didn't take long for the father of the Religious Right to regret what he'd birthed.
posted by verb (40 comments total) 16 users marked this as a favorite

 
What a coincidence! I regret what he birthed as well!

I'm just making unlikely allies left and right here!
posted by Pope Guilty at 1:04 AM on October 29, 2007 [2 favorites]


There's a recent NYT article on the movement of evangelicals away from the right wing. The Evangelical Crackup
It's a pretty great story, and includes this striking revelation from one 70-year-old father of the christian right: "When you mix religion with politics, you get politics."
posted by BinGregory at 1:31 AM on October 29, 2007 [1 favorite]


I second the recommendation of the NYT article; I grew up reading Schaeffer and watching (particpating in) the rise of the religious right. His ideas and the passion with which he articulated them laid the groundwork for the rise of dominionism and decades of Culture War rhetoric. It's strange, though, to look back at his work years later and note that he explicitly warned Christians of the dangers of alliances with political conservatives. "They're In It To Maintain Power And Prosperity, Not For Moral And Philosophical Reasons" was the jist of his argument.

Today, as the Republican party cracks along its corporate/religious fault lines and Christians get a case of the morning-afters, the warning looks pretty insightful.
posted by verb at 1:41 AM on October 29, 2007


Well, whoever would have though that there were sins other than homosexuality and abortion?

On the one hand I welcome as good news this newfound discovery of the concepts of critical thinking and cynical examination of the motives of preachers and preacher-like politicians by the 'flock', but on the other hand, I ask what are they going to do about all the damage they did?

The way I see it, these tools, the ordinary suburbanite Christian conservatives, have spent thirty years vigorously enabling very evil people to do very evil things. If they're not prepared to take personal responsibility for that, and take some significant active steps towards atonement, then we can and should conclude that their overtures to humanity are as hollow and self-serving as their prayers to their nonexistent god.

That is my expected conclusion already. Personally, I have no hope whatsoever of any recanting, let alone atonement, and expect Christian conservatism to end with a whimper as their leader caste all die off and/or are exposed as sexual and financial frauds. That's how almost every bad thing in human history has ended: the ones responsible die or are defeated, but the masses who supported them don't recant, they don't undo anything, they don't put in a lick of effort or an ounce of regret, they just shut up about it and pretend it wasn't them and over the next two generations, they quietly die off.
posted by aeschenkarnos at 2:16 AM on October 29, 2007 [15 favorites]


That's how almost every bad thing in human history has ended: the ones responsible die or are defeated, but the masses who supported them don't recant, they don't undo anything, they don't put in a lick of effort or an ounce of regret, they just shut up about it and pretend it wasn't them and over the next two generations, they quietly die off.

Godwin.
posted by Pope Guilty at 2:46 AM on October 29, 2007


Jesus didn't show.
posted by telstar at 2:48 AM on October 29, 2007


From the New Statesman: "The tragedy of Francis Schaeffer is that, at some deep inner level, he knew what he preached was a con. In 1967, he took his son Frank to Italy to share with him the art that he loved. "In theory, Dad was opposed to the 'humanism of the Renaissance' and was a champion of 'Northern European Reformation art', the works of the good Protestants. But in practice, it was the art of the Italian Renaissance that we spent much more time soaking up . . . In his 'Abri lectures, and later in his books, Dad would explain and even lament all this 'humanistic art' that placed 'man, not God, at the centre of the universe'. But when he was looking at the art with me, all we talked about was how beautiful it was, how remarkable." Standing before The Birth of Venus or Giotto's bell tower, Frank writes: "I saw Dad as he might have been, free of the crushing belief that God had 'called' him to save the world."

How depressing. And "crushing belief" is a good term for Evangelicalism.
posted by Avenger at 3:36 AM on October 29, 2007 [3 favorites]


From Shaeffer's bio:

These students tutored Francis in the details of modern post-Christian thought, while he observed its impact on their lives. They had been taught that human beings were the mere product of time and chance in a materialistic world. This left many of them unable to find any basis for distinctions between right and wrong nor meaning in the normal activities of human life.

This is the kind of thing that drives me nuts, whether it's an argument for Evangelical Christianity or Fundy Islam or Catholicsim or Buddhism. A proponent of an ideology or religion draws to themselves a circle of teenagers who are experiencing the normal disconnect with larger society that many teens tend to experience, and they base their argument on the teens' insecurity. And then they say, "See the good we've done, giving these children direction?" But taking advantage of other humans at a point in their lives when they're most likely to cleave to a sheltering POV is no great feat; it's a useful ploy for expanding your number (even if it's only temporary.)
I know this is a part of what we are, I just rankle at reading about it as though it's some sort of singular acheivement.
posted by maryh at 3:40 AM on October 29, 2007 [4 favorites]


A proponent of an ideology or religion draws to themselves a circle of teenagers who are experiencing the normal disconnect with larger society that many teens tend to experience, and they base their argument on the teens' insecurity.

Thats a pretty good point, something that I hadn't considered before. It does seem that every generation has its own version of "CRISIS: Kids these days don't know what to believe! How will society survive?!? Film at 11!"

If only we could nurture that same sense of questioning and "disconnect" in older adults, the world might be a slightly better place.
posted by Avenger at 3:47 AM on October 29, 2007 [1 favorite]


I know this is a part of what we are, I just rankle at reading about it as though it's some sort of singular acheivement.
In the context of evangelical Christianity, it was. This isn't to say that I agree with his conclusions, but in the 1960s the number of serious Christian theologians who were hanging out with hippies in Europe, dialogging with them, and then communicating Christian theology to them, was rather small.

This is one of the reasons that Schaeffer doesn't get much attention in the world outside Evangelical-land, I think. He's profoundly influential in that he dragged a tiny bit of intellectual culture from "the big world outside" into the chapel itself. Regrettably, most of it was simply dissected and used to "understand The World Out There."
posted by verb at 3:50 AM on October 29, 2007


verb, I come from a Catholic background. During the 70's, there was a lot of progressive mainstream writing out there that was pretty much squashed by the conservative side of the 'dialogue' (in other words, there was to be no dialogue.) I'm assuming that that Evangelicals experienced the same crush. When new ideas or pop culture elements were introduced, they were filtered through the very narrow seive of belief, leaving all non-Christian ideology as silt in the mesh. It's hard for me to imagine that what made it's way through could have any real impact on opening up the views of the average believer. I'm guessing the 'purified' stuff did more damage, being divested of its other meanings but with the superficial pop cred serving as a come-on to non-members.
posted by maryh at 4:47 AM on October 29, 2007 [1 favorite]


Godwin.

Your mother.
posted by aeschenkarnos at 4:51 AM on October 29, 2007


The tragedy of Francis Schaeffer is that, at some deep inner level, he knew what he preached was a con.

Of course - he was too intelligent not to. No matter how elaborate the castle of argument Schaeffer built, it rests on sand. The foundation of Schaeffer's philosophy, as I understand the summaries presented here, are two assertions: (1) Schaeffer's particular version of Christian doctrine is right; (2) Schaeffer allows himself to believe only assertions logically consistent with Point 1 and with each other. But point 1 is not falsifiable, and point 2 would have the effect of bringing everything under the same umbrella of unfalsifiability as point 1. Although very eloquently put, Schaeffer's argument is just a fallacious appeal to authority where the authority is Schaeffer's argument itself. In the end, he believed what he believed because he wanted to; it was emotionally appealing to him. Since he can offer no other reason than emotional appeal to accept his philosophy, the reader is perfectly justified in rejecting it for the same reason.
posted by aeschenkarnos at 5:50 AM on October 29, 2007 [3 favorites]


My old show did an interview with Frank Schaeffer after I left that program in September. I don't know if I can link to it, however.
posted by parmanparman at 6:17 AM on October 29, 2007


Christianity is not just a series of truths...

Didn't Ted Stevens say that?
posted by bicyclefish at 6:58 AM on October 29, 2007


Francis Schaeffer was a major influence on getting Protestant evangelicals involved in social movements opposed to abortion. He even appeared in an anti-abortion movie with future surgeon general, C. Everett Koop, called Whatever Happened to the Human Race? Randall Terry has cited Schaeffer as a major influence on him, especially in inspiring him to form Operation Rescue. Some discussion of Francis Schaeffer's influence on the anti-abortion movement can be found here.
posted by jonp72 at 7:00 AM on October 29, 2007


I would be very interested in getting the '82 speech he gave as a recording. Reading it, there was a phrase, constantly repeated in the first third, but also towards the end, which really struck me:

"material or energy which has existed forever in some form, shaped into its present complex form only by pure chance"

A funny thing to repeat fourteen times, albeit changing the phrasing slightly on some repeats. I've heard it elsewhere, of course, but it's unwieldy.

I think Francis Schaeffer used it with the intent of hypnotizing his audience. Or whatever you want to call it. It has the right rhythm and that sort of tactic fits with the repeated barely disguised commands to believe him in the last third. Then he tips you off balance with "you have made a false god central", right before the prayer, with its conditional promise to make it all better. You're left in a self-critical rather than objectively critical state.

Is this just standard preaching lore? I mean, I'm just a British Jewish atheist, I'm don't really know how common this sort of speech is. In any case, I'm glad he can't do this anymore.
posted by topynate at 7:06 AM on October 29, 2007


By the way, my doctoral dissertation was about the anti-abortion movement. Schaeffer may be the "most important Evangelical you've never heard of," according to the title of this post. But in practice, I had to be very familiar with his work. When I interviewed Protestants active in the anti-abortion movement, mentioning Francis Schaeffer was a "secret handshake" that got me access to more people than I expected.
posted by jonp72 at 7:16 AM on October 29, 2007


While I've been an atheist since 18, I come from a pretty straightforward evangelical fundamentalist family - as in, my entire extended family and all of my friends / peers before I turned 18 were Biblical literalists. As was the curriculum of my elementary/junior high school. Until I was 14 I spent 6, sometimes 7, days every week inside a building that was both my church and school.

The church being in the middle of one of upstate New York's most affluent enclaves (Loudonville), the majority of those attending this church were wealthy conservative Republican professionals - attorneys, doctors, professors from local colleges and the like.

For many of those - and myself as a reasonably intelligent young man from that belief system - Francis Schaeffer was the key source for interpretation of the Bible in literal terms as applied to the modern world we found ourselves. When I was 15 and became familiar with 20th century philosophy (existentialism and Wittgenstein in particular) who did I turn to for answers? Francis Schaeffer.

For understanding that 'core' of wealthy conservatives who are genuine believers - those who literally steer the ship of the evangelical right through a mixture of power, genuine (and terrifying in light of their Biblical literalism) intellectual prowess, and most importantly self-righteousness - Schaeffer is perhaps THE most single important person to understand.

His influence is 'subtle' in that interpreting and promulgating his ideas (and filtering out the 'off-message' points as far as the non-religious right was concerned) for the masses was largely executed by Dobson and contemporaries; but modern fundamentalist Christianity cannot be successfully deconstructed without the man who was most directly its intellectual genesis.
posted by Ryvar at 7:18 AM on October 29, 2007 [1 favorite]


Another of Franky Shaeffer's (the son, not the father) literary products is the Wittenburg Door magazine, first published in 1971. Think of it as the Onion for Christians.
posted by scalefree at 7:21 AM on October 29, 2007 [1 favorite]


Finally, we get the Francis Schaeffer post. And for ill or for good, Schaeffer is crucial in transforming the evangelical wing of Christianity into some more like the Reformed wing -- intellectual and self-assured -- and introducing the idea that Christians should be willing to engage society instead of dismissing it.

Now, from that latter you get Operation Rescue, the growth of Dominionism, and the Religious Right's marriage to the GOP. But you also get Jubilee 2000, the protests against Darfur, and Barack Obama.

The marriage to the GOP may be over, but Christians will still use petition and the ballot box to address their core ideas, just not married to a single party.

I worry about those who suggest they shouldn't be allowed near politics. That's answering bigotry with bigotry. It feels good, but it's still hate.
posted by dw at 7:51 AM on October 29, 2007 [1 favorite]


verb, I come from a Catholic background. During the 70's, there was a lot of progressive mainstream writing out there that was pretty much squashed by the conservative side of the 'dialogue' (in other words, there was to be no dialogue.)

I grew up in the Catholic Church of the 1970s and 1980s, and I don't remember this. I remember a liberal clergy and a lot of crossing beliefs -- Operation Rescue sorts in the same pews as some hardcore liberals. We had a priest die in the mid-1980s of AIDS, and it was an open fact that he didn't get it from a blood transfusion.

In the high levels of the leadership you had Ratzinger going after the liberation theologists and other things that didn't fit with the quasi-Opus Dei line of thought he seems to embrace. But on the ground level, your mileage did vary.
posted by dw at 8:06 AM on October 29, 2007


When I was 15 and became familiar with 20th century philosophy (existentialism and Wittgenstein in particular) who did I turn to for answers? Francis Schaeffer.
Ryvar, that description sounds a lot like my own experience. Much of the criticism of Schaeffer that I've read boils down to the fact that he was not really any kind of independent thinker -- he didn't break any new ground or grapple with problems in a new and novel way. He was the bridge between the Evangelical world and broader culture during a really pivotal time, more than anything else -- a gatekeeper.

That's one of the reasons that I find the poignant comments from his son about the love of art and philosophy so interesting and sad. Ted Haggard railed against homosexuality while visiting gay hookers, Francis Schaeffer put the crosshairs on postmodernism while soaking it up. I wonder how much of that was a deep need to 'beat' something that was very, very compelling and important to him personally but seemed incompatible with orthodox faith.
posted by verb at 8:31 AM on October 29, 2007


I didn't know the Door was from Schaeffer's son!
posted by shakespeherian at 8:37 AM on October 29, 2007


That's how almost every bad thing in human history has ended: the ones responsible die or are defeated, but the masses who supported them don't recant, they don't undo anything, they don't put in a lick of effort or an ounce of regret, they just shut up about it and pretend it wasn't them and over the next two generations, they quietly die off.

You should read up on the post-WWII German psyche. German collective guilt is a fascinating thing.
posted by dw at 8:46 AM on October 29, 2007


He was the bridge between the Evangelical world and broader culture during a really pivotal time, more than anything else -- a gatekeeper.

I wonder, though, what would have happened if there were no Schaeffer. Would someone else have risen to replace him? Would Dominionism been even more intermeshed with the militia movement -- and would we have really seen homegrown terrorism in the 1980s and 1990s? Reagan still would have won in 1980 and 1984, but would 1994 -- and the six years of Gingrich that follow -- have not happened?

And would abortion have become an idea that is polarized by party at all?

Thing is, I've heard a lot of Christians over the last 20 years fret about exactly what that Wichita pastor said, that religion plus politics equals politics. That thought has always been there. It's too bad we had to go through five years of Dubya before the rank-and-file started waking up to the reality.

But civil rights plus politics equals politics, too. You see that in the stalling out of the Civil Rights movement in the mid-70s forward. Environmentalism plus politics equals politics.
posted by dw at 8:59 AM on October 29, 2007


Oh absolutely. It's the new catch phrase: x plus politics equals politics. There's nothing it doesn't fit.
posted by BinGregory at 9:09 AM on October 29, 2007 [2 favorites]


I wonder, though, what would have happened if there were no Schaeffer. Would someone else have risen to replace him? Would Dominionism been even more intermeshed with the militia movement -- and would we have really seen homegrown terrorism in the 1980s and 1990s?
It's this sort of question that will drive traffic to my philosophy crossover fanfic site.
posted by verb at 9:24 AM on October 29, 2007


Sounds more like Harry Turtledove meets Tim LaHaye.
posted by dw at 9:40 AM on October 29, 2007


I didn't know the Door was from Schaeffer's son!

He may not have been a founder but I know he contributed to it back when I read a few issues in the mid/late 80s.
posted by scalefree at 9:40 AM on October 29, 2007


I wonder, though, what would have happened if there were no Schaeffer. Would someone else have risen to replace him? Would Dominionism been even more intermeshed with the militia movement -- and would we have really seen homegrown terrorism in the 1980s and 1990s?

Does the name "Timothy McVeigh" mean anything to you?
posted by nasreddin at 9:40 AM on October 29, 2007


Does the name "Timothy McVeigh" mean anything to you?
Imagine, though, a world where the Christian Right never crystallized as a coherent and effective political force, never merged with economic/business conservatives and the Republican party.

Back in the Clinton days, the rhetoric was ratcheted up through the roof bout UN takeovers of the country and the ATF turning us into compliant sheep and so on. During the 90's, the entire genre of Christian Rapture Novels revolved around the idea of a cell of faithful believers fighting against an evil, satanic government...

The militia movement, and its uneasy interaction with the federal government, could've easily become the primary outlet for a particular philosophical and theological package. Scheaffers' book A Christian Manifesto even includes a chapter exploring -- hypothetically, of course -- what lines must be crossed for a faithful populace to consider a government 'no longer legitimate' and deserving of revolution.
posted by verb at 9:50 AM on October 29, 2007


Does the name "Timothy McVeigh" mean anything to you?

Yeah, but that's one of a few isolated incidents. I'm talking about Operation Rescue being more like the Red Army Brigade or Hizbollah -- an open, intensive insurrection movement with zero regard for civilian casualties. Instead of one kook like Eric Rudolph running amok, a hundred of them.

And McVeigh, honestly, wasn't a Christian separatist. He ran in white separatist circles.
posted by dw at 9:53 AM on October 29, 2007


dw, I'm fairly bitter about my experiences with Christian fundamentalism, but even at my most cynical I can't see that happening. Relatively very few Christians manage to get beyond "Thou shalt not kill" without government mandate (war), or for those who insist ONLY on New Covenant, "Do unto others". The exception of war seems to fall under the party line established in the B.C. founding of Israel (we can kill God's enemies in governmentally-sanctioned wars).
posted by Ryvar at 10:43 AM on October 29, 2007


There are convincing if not conclusive stories of McVeigh's trips to Elohim City, which was certainly close enough to him both physically & philosophically.

In any event it'll be interesting to watch whether Christian extremism can gain traction under a Democratic president. Their whole narrative got thrown out of whack by Bush's GWoT but it could easily come back under a Clinton II or Obama regime.
posted by scalefree at 11:00 AM on October 29, 2007


dw, I'm fairly bitter about my experiences with Christian fundamentalism, but even at my most cynical I can't see that happening.

I was around the fundamentalist circles in the early 90s in Colorado. There was a lot of sympathy for the militia movement in evangelicals and fundamentalists, but it was constrained by the idea that the Religious Right would gain power and make all of this irrelevant. Oklahoma City ended the sympathy.

1990-1995 was the height of the "our values are under attack" phase of the culture war. It's interesting how you see parallels between the culture war and the Iraq War -- the hesitant gains of the early 1990s offset by the detente of the Clinton years, then the invasion in 2003/2004, followed by the reality that they'd seized control of a country they couldn't govern, and now the infighting within the victorious forces about whether to pull out or stay the course, all while they take heavier losses every day they're still in this mess.

There are convincing if not conclusive stories of McVeigh's trips to Elohim City, which was certainly close enough to him both physically & philosophically.

The community gained national attention for its supposed ties to members of the Silent Brotherhood in the 1980s and with convicted Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh in the 1990s, although the link has been dismissed by the FBI.

I'd heard the stories about Richard Snell being involved with the OKC bombing, but it's all a bunch of rumors and third-hand info.

In any event it'll be interesting to watch whether Christian extremism can gain traction under a Democratic president. Their whole narrative got thrown out of whack by Bush's GWoT but it could easily come back under a Clinton II or Obama regime.

I don't think it will, honestly. A lot of us saw this day coming -- that the Christian Right was going to find itself tied to the GOP bandwagon going off the cliff, and only those who stayed away from politics weren't going to look like Wile E. Coyote falling to his doom.

But the church isn't going anywhere. I think people forget that the Civil Rights Movement started out of black churches. Even during an era before the rise of the Religious Right, religion was directly involved in politics. The players will change, the issues will change, but the church will still be here. Even when the USSR and China purged their churches, the churches remained. Religious experience is unkillable.
posted by dw at 12:48 PM on October 29, 2007 [1 favorite]


My old show did an interview with Frank Schaeffer after I left that program in September. I don't know if I can link to it, however.

I'm pretty sure Mathowie is not going to ban you for posting a good link. An interview would be a great link.
posted by five fresh fish at 6:19 PM on October 29, 2007


Religion as a means for individuals to contribute to the greater good through works of charity and kindness, plus a means to experience group membership and the faith kick — awesome. If it's making people happier and helping them treat others better, that's simply great. Go to it, religionists!

But the extremist evangels are taking it way beyond that. They're using it as a tool to deny non-believers' freedoms. Worse, they're also using it to deliver military and economic punishment of other nations.

Although I suppose the truest believers figure they're not to blame: "god" got Bush elected, "god" told Bush to go to war, "god" is delivering punishment unto the sinning USA.

God, I wish people were as concerned about the local extremists as they are the mid-East extremists.
posted by five fresh fish at 6:33 PM on October 29, 2007


Really interesting points, verb and dw. Sorry for my drive-by snark.
posted by nasreddin at 10:11 AM on October 30, 2007


Another Frank Schaeffer interview came out in the past couple of days.
posted by dw at 8:03 PM on November 2, 2007


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