Frank Schaeffer, son of the late Francis Schaeffer was raised to follow in his father’s footsteps as a luminary of the Christian Right in the United States. He spent his early years in the rarefied world of L’Abri, the mission his parents founded in Switzerland in 1955. In the late 1970s, he helped found the “pro-life” movement in the US with his father and the late C. Everett Koop, who became Reagan’s Surgeon General. During the 1980s, he worked with R.J. Rushdoony, the father of Christian Reconstructionism or Dominionism.
Schaeffer became disillusioned with fundamentalism during the 1980s and ultimately renounced his former beliefs. Over the past several decades, he has worked to explain Reconstructionism to the secular public. In his new book, Sex, Mom and God: How the Bible’s Strange Take on Sex Led to Crazy Politics—and How I Learned to Love Women (and Jesus) Anyway, Schaeffer discusses the anti-feminist politics that came out of his family’s religion. A recent media firestorm casts doubt on the mere existence of Reconstructionism, but my recent talk with Schaeffer suggests reinforces the sense that the movement remains politically important.
KR: You frame this book around memories of your mother and show that she was “better than her theology.” Sarah Posner argues in Religion Dispatches that the media sometimes caricatures the Christian Right as a bunch of scary “demon-hunters,” but this is not consistent with the Dominionists I have known.
FS: I juxtapose my mother’s character with the Biblical literalism she espoused. I didn’t want to demonize the entire group, and mother shows that there are exceptions to the caricature. But I also wanted to combat the fundamentalist critique—that I pick and choose what I like in the Bible and disregard the rest. I wanted to show that they do this too. There are many Old Testament passages about restricting women’s rights during menstruation. My mother wasn’t teaching Bible studies on that—she’d would say, “Oh, well, that was then,” and pass over it.
Unless people are monsters like Rushdoony, [who advocated for the public executions of gay people, heretics and “unchaste women”], they must approach it this way. We all pick and choose what we like about the Bible—their problem is that they choose wrongly. They don’t follow the Bible literally. Of course not. In following my mother’s hypocrisy, a blessed hypocrisy that humanized her, I’m saying that all Christians except absolute extremists are doing the same thing.
Rushdoony was a monster, but apparently had lovely interpersonal skills.
This may sound odd, but Rushdoony was a very nice guy. He delivered his ideas with a smile but called for public hangings of gay people. He was polite, nice to have tea with. But he would have happily run American concentration camps.
How did your mother evolve over time?
She was raised in the regressive, nineteenth century theology of China Inland Mission. The distance between her upbringing and how she was when she raised me was as great as the distance between my fundamentalism and where I am now. My mom is not an uptight, prudish, judgmental person. Most people would experience her as secular—even enlightened—because that’s how she approaches what she cares about, like literature and art. She read my novel, Portofino, which satirizes evangelicalism. Instead of getting furious like her followers, she gave copies to friends. She kept her fundamentalist baggage in a separate compartment. There was never a dramatic change of heart. It’s just that she lived so differently from her theology. It gave me a choice: I could follow who she was, or I could follow her theology. I chose to follow who she was.
What about your father?
He should be credited here too. He wrote about ecology and the environment before it became fashionable. If you take out the books he wrote during the last eight years of his life and look at everything that came before—like Escape from Reason or On Philosophy— there’s nothing that brands him as right wing. He talks about philosophy, art, literature, culture. He quotes Dylan.
One of my first jobs involved doing lights for the Led Zeppelin Montreal Music Festival. I saw Jimmy Page reading a copy of Escape from Reason. He said Eric Clapton gave it to him and called it a “really cool book.” The early Francis Schaeffer and late Francis Schaeffer are two different people.
Dad just analyzed culture before becoming Jerry Falwell’s inspiration. If not for his later works, he would be remembered as a progressive. Not politically progressive, but because of what mattered to him: philosophy, art and culture, not politics. Later he doubled down on his fundamentalist roots. I pushed him to do that, and I’m sorry for it.
Your family handed evangelical pamphlets to strangers when you were a kid.
That was different. It was about evangelism, not politics. It might have been silly or trite, but they just wanted people to believe in Jesus, not vote Republican or homeschool their kids.
In the book, you suggest that the Left had a role in provoking the culture wars.
Abortion is usually cast in moral terms—in the sense that you’re talking about the “rightness” or “wrongness” of it. The problem is that most of my discussion of abortion is not about the moral question. I focus on the tactics that led to legalization in 1973. I’m pro-choice. I believe that abortion should be legal. I believe in women’s rights. One of the main points of the book is to confront the misogyny that runs from the first chapter of the Bible to the last.
That said, having lived abroad and thought about this in other contexts, I think the tactics shaped today’s debate. Before Roe v. Wade and , abortion was controversial, but clinics weren’t bombed, doctors weren’t shot. After those rulings, the anti-abortion movement started framing their opponents as monsters who wanted to allow abortion up until the moment of a baby’s birth.
France achieved the same results as the US in terms of availability and choice, but framed the issue very differently, paying attention to public concerns about late term abortion. They centered the fact that these abortions arise from necessity, for health reasons. Sweden’s history is similar. These are progressive countries. No one would look at either and suggest that they lag behind the US on women’s rights.
But tactics are a different question. I feel strongly that, had Roe been framed differently, the US would have developed in much the way France and Sweden did, and it would be far less politicized. Think about the rhetoric of the “pro-life” movement: Sure, they complain about stem cell research and birth control, but what pictures do they flash? Where is the emotive discussion? It’s always the tiny percentage of later term abortions.
The two cases left unneeded baggage. I don’t mean to imply that this wouldn’t be controversial or a matter of debate—it always was. But I don’t know that a doctor at church would be shot.
You suggest that Reconstructionism is directly responsible for the way in which the Christian Right has taken up anti-feminist rhetoric. What about Calvinism?
Right, I think Rushdoony revived the Puritanism of John Winthrop and the early New England settlements, which goes back to Calvin’s Geneva. He didn’t write anything new.
Secular people of the 1930s and ‘40s—people like Bertrand Russell—thought religion would die out. They would be in shock that the US is engaged in a religiously motivated war on the world stage—and that it has two parties, one of which is completely dominated by the Christian Right.
Many have never heard of Rushdoony or my dad. Nevertheless, the debate has been framed by the Reconstructionist agenda. Most don’t want to hang, stone or burn people like Rushdoony did, but they do believe in doing away with the US Constitution and Bill of Rights and replacing it with theocracy.
Evangelical Christians attending Billy Graham crusades in the 1950s didn’t think this way. They wouldn’t say: “Unless you line up with our political platform, your salvation is in question, and you are not a real American.” Reformed fundamentalism isn’t new, but Reconstructionism repackaged it for a new generation.
How was it repackaged?
I talk about Robert George, the Princeton-based Roman Catholic ideologue who mentored Glenn Beck, as an example. He promotes disobeying the government when it tells us to do things we don’t want to do—like following state protocols to respect gay rights.
What Reconstructionism brought to the dialogue is the idea that things like gay rights are edicts handed down by non-democratic governments. Without the fervor of the Reconstructionists, you wouldn’t have the extremism that you have, say, in enclaves of the homeschool movement. And you wouldn’t have an evangelical culture in which this thinking is normal.
Rushdoony invented the evangelical homeschool movement. And then people like [Quiverfull-founder] Mary Pride, who I promoted, took it further. This idea that American society is completely depraved and lost and has to be reconstructed and reclaimed is Reconstructionist in origin. The extremism was not immediately denounced by moderate evangelicals, and Reconstructionism pulled the entire movement much further to the Right.
James Dobson of Focus on the Family was not always the extremist he is now.
You know, social movements are usually at their most extreme in the beginning—and become more rational over time. But the Reconstructionist venom just multiplies. It takes different forms, but the radical tone of Michele Bachmann, for instance, resonates with a lot of homeschoolers.
We are now into the third and forth generations of this ideology. These people don’t get the news from places that other people do. Their news sources are so filtered through their worldview that these people radicalize the whole movement. I don’t want to be hyperbolic. I don’t think the sky is falling. But if you want to understand why any of these people are taken seriously in politics, you have to understand that they’re talking to an audience bred to hear their message.
Are you sure the sky isn’t falling? What about massive cuts to social spending?
We should be concerned. This history is the reason that Republicans are so opposed to anything public—public schools, transport, infrastructure, even Amtrak. They believe the government is illegitimate and question everything it does. They conflate government with Roe, and it plays right into corporate America’s interests. In privatizing everything, they give reign to corporate interests and diminish public space. Evangelicals were not friendly with Wall Street, but aligned with them because they distrusted the government.
Possibly, but what about the Cold War and popular hatred of Communism?
There are a lot of things at work here. I’m not saying Dominionism is the only thread, but it’s the one I understand best. Politicians don’t always follow through on the social promises they make, but education is cut. Fewer people have healthcare. The energy for all of this is not coming from the Koch brothers or Exxon Mobil. At the grassroots level, it’s about regular people who are homeschooling their kids to keep them away from the big bad secular culture.
Right, they literally believe they are avoiding government persecution.
When you have congressmen and senators in the pockets of corporate America who want to rally the troops, they don’t talk about giving subsidies to oil companies and deregulating Wall Street. They say, “Let’s not let the government take over our lives.” Well, the good folks back home hear is: they want “abortion on demand” and “will force us to teach evolution.”
So, how do you come back from where you started?
We had no idea what this would unleash. By the time dad was meeting with Reagan or Bush, Sr.—or when I met with Jack Kemp—we knew what we were doing. In the early 1970s, though, we were virtually lone voices on this. People loved dad’s cultural analysis, but no one cared about our pro-life stuff. Even Falwell wanted nothing to do with it. We thought we’d signed on to a losing proposition, that it would never become a mass movement. It wasn’t until political elites realized what they could gain from this that it took off.
What do you think of this tactic that left Christians are using—that is, reading Bible passages to shame conservative Christians who have taken up Ayn Rand’s ideology?
It doesn’t belong in public discourse—the last thing I would do is discuss which Bible verses we should live by. We need a totally different discussion, one that does not promote the Bible as a founding document and guide to good governance. Religion derails that conversation. We should be talking pragmatically about what works.
I don’t need a Bible verse to have a conscience. I just need my granddaughter to remind me that I need to do something about the future because I love her. It has nothing to do with anything Jesus said or didn’t say. The Bible doesn’t come first. Human experience does.
I agree, but wonder if that shaming still has a place.
Yes, but it’s a lot like the “family values” discussion. If senator commits adultery, it’s none of my business. But if a senator who’s been bashing everyone over the head for committing adultery commits adultery, it’s political hypocrisy and becomes my business. If religious and political leaders use the Bible to start wars, then it’s fair game. Christians can say: “There are other things in this book besides the bits you like, and they contradict everything you stand for, so stop talking about Christian morality.”
But is church-state separation blurred when this discussion becomes public?
It’s a dangerous game. If you start to debate these issues on their turf, you accept that the Bible is normative and agree to read it literally. We shouldn’t even be talking about it. There are other reasons for people to have health insurance than the Bible. What about having a country where people can be productive and live good lives? The debate has a theocratic impulse from the beginning.
But it has a lot political traction in the US.
Right, but there are things that are a lot more interesting in terms of formulating policy than Bronze Age mythology involving who got what field in the year of Jubilee. The debate between left and right Christianity takes the Bible way too seriously. We should be asking other questions. For instance, why does the Danish healthcare system work better than ours? We should be making fact-based, planet earth comparisons because these are what provide us with possible solutions that might mitigate the damage we’ve done.