FLORIDA, August 13, 2012 — Theology and politics are like drinking and driving. It might not hurt you today, but in the long run the combo is brutal.
Frank Schaeffer has come to understand this in a manner more profound than most of us could ever imagine. The son of famed Christian apologist Francis Schaeffer, he was raised in an environment of no-holds-barred religion and politics. Over time, however, he began to question the almost militant rigidity of what is today called the Religious Right.
After earnestly examining the tenets and suppositions of this movement, Frank concluded that its impact on our society is anything but positive. He has written much about the subject, attracting substantial praise and derision in the process.
During an extensive discussion with me, he shared his opinions regarding fundamentalism’s mass appeal, the future of the Republican Party, humanity’s enduring search for spiritual aid, and much more.
Joseph F. Cotto: Over the last several years, America has become far more secular. Nonetheless, fundamentalist Christianity has seen a considerable rise in popularity. Can this paradox be explained?
Frank Schaeffer: It seems to me that America has not become more secular. Rather the evangelical majority – and most statistics point to it being the single largest identifiable voting block – has been behaving in ways that mark its behavior as more secular. For instance, look at divorce statistics and you’ll discover the fact that in bastions of evangelical “conservatism” behavior does not match rhetoric.
Exacerbating the confusion between secular and the religious is the fact that American evangelicals maintain their persuasive force by portraying themselves as a minority in opposition to the rest of society. Call this the psychology of “victimhood.” The apparent “secularization” of religious arguments in the public sphere can be understood as part of a rhetorical strategy to be “with it.” In other words the strategy is to use secular “tools” like elements of pop culture in order to communicate a gospel message.
Thus evangelicals themselves have become part of the status quo and reduce their religious voice in favor of winning elections. For instance, in her excellent book “Making Chastity Sexy,” evangelical author Christine Gardner argues that by using the techniques of pop-culture in the sexual abstinence movement aimed at teenagers, the movement uses secular techniques in a way that undermines the ancient Christian virtue of asceticism and instead promotes a selfish message of making sexual experiences even better by waiting for marriage. This is an argument that plays into a secular ethos of individualism trumping sacrifice.
Cotto: One of the gravest concerns you have cited with modern Christianity is the rise of fundamentalism. How is radicalism poised to impact the Christian community during the years ahead?
Schaeffer: Fundamentalism as a religious movement doesn’t bother me. What bothers me is cruelty of one human being to another, be that the stoning to death of a woman who is accused of having been raped in a country like Pakistan, or the exclusion of gay Americans in the name of the gospel here. Of course it’s all a matter of degree, but there are plenty of fundamentalists, for instance my mother, Edith Schaeffer, who I write about in my book “Sex Mom And God,” who treat people with loving dignity no matter what labels are attached to them. In that sense you have to divide so-called fundamentalism into two camps: Those who practice what they preach to the exclusion of human feeling and empathy and thus are unduly harsh, and those who are, as I put it in my book about my mother, “better than their theology.”
But the real problem with fundamentalism today is that it is no longer fundamentalist in the sense that its primary concern seems to be more along the lines of conservative American politics than along the lines of the gospel. For instance, where does one find an argument for “American exceptionalism” in the gospel? And since when is “free enterprise” taught in Scripture? To some extent I happen to believe in both, but at least up till now have not confused that patriotic American belief – as the proud father of a US Marine by the way – with the Gospel call to humility, compassion and sacrifice.
Having come from a family that had a lot to do with the rise of the antiabortion movement, it’s clear to me that the cart, not the horse, is pulling the evangelical/fundamentalist movement forward now in the sense that politics has trumped other concerns.
Cotto: In your opinion, what is the appeal of fundamentalist Christianity? What draws people to it at such a speedy clip?
Schaeffer: The word “fundamentalist,” like any description of a religious body, is really a collection of gray areas, not black-and-white. I think the real answer here is simple, and that is we are spiritual beings. So what draws people to fundamentalist religion is no different than what draws people to all spiritual explanations of life. But when fundamentalist religion of any kind, be it Islamist or Christian, becomes snared in politics — whether that’s the Saudi Arabian royal family running both Mecca and their country, as well as proselytizing worldwide for hard-edged Wahhabist thinking, or whether that’s evangelicals getting behind the candidacy of a president — the picture becomes muddy.
Cotto: Whether they should be rooted in theism or politics, various ideologies often attract droves of willing participants searching for a universal truth of some kind. In the long run, what do you think that this does to any given society?
Schaeffer: In America this is complicated because we have Enlightenment as well as Christian roots and those Christian roots are divided between the sorts of “high church” Christians who populated parts of the South and the Puritans who settled the Bay State colony. It’s been a fight between these elements from our beginning. The real watershed was Roe v. Wade in 1973. Since that time America entered a period of culture war that has religious underpinnings spilling over into public life as I demonstrate in great detail in my book, “Sex, Mom and God.”
The Republican Party has become the creature of the religious right. So the religious right is no longer a fringe element knocking on the door of the powers that be; it is, for instance in today’s Congress, the “powers that be.”
Cotto: Over the last few decades, fundamentalist Christianity has come to play a huge role in the Republican Party. From your standpoint, what is the result of this?
Schaeffer: The real long term loser here is religion in general and evangelical Protestantism in particular. It’s a tactical mistake to hook one’s religious fortunes to any political party or leader, good or bad. Our family friend Billy Graham learned this a long time ago. He told me that after getting burned by being too closely associated with Richard Nixon, and he pulled back from such associations. Today evangelicals and fundamentalists are so deeply identified with a politics and rather extreme religious views combined with what is perceived as general intolerance that the upshot is that in the future it will be vastly harder to preach the Christian gospel in this culture.
The Republican Party seems primed to take a more libertarian direction. If this results in the Religious Right being marginalized, might a third party might form? Why has the GOP become so hardline? Does this have anything to do with Christian politics, or are other factors in play here? What can be done to achieve balance in our national dialogue?
In the second and final part of our discussion, Frank will answer all of these questions and tell us a bit about his life and career.
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