PBS has a new miniseries God In America that seeks to get “Inside the tumultuous 400-year history of the intersection of religion and public life in America.” Later, the series will look at the so-called “Religious Right” and none other than evangelicalism’s favorite self-appointed prodigal son Frank Schaeffer has an interview explaining how it all went wrong.
It is doleful to read, not because we might think he has lost his way or resents his upbringing, but because he is so self-referential. Consider the following question and answer:
Describe L’Abri for me.
... L’Abri itself was a tough place to grow up, because while my parents had this great open-home policy and terrific generosity toward other people, [they were] like so many very driven, very motivated, ambitious parents who are into high-powered careers.
I was being home-schooled, which meant sort of no school, because I was running around a bit forgotten. My parents were dealing with young adults and teens, and to be a child with everybody around you being older than you are, it was kind of different.
And then the discussions were all incredibly serious. I was into my 20s before I realized that not all kids grew up hearing discussions of who people like [Swiss Reformed theologian] Karl Barth were or other theologians, or parsing what [German Lutheran theologian and member of the German Resistance] Dietrich Bonhoeffer really meant in one of his books, or what had happened during the Enlightenment. ...
I couldn’t have named one [U.S.] state capital, but I could have told you all about the tribe of Dan and what had happened between Jacob and Esau. So talking about specialized knowledge [of] a fundamentalist childhood, essentially you live in a parallel universe of biblical, not just teaching but biblical geography, biblical names, places and all the rest of it.
When you mix into that that we were waiting daily for the return of Christ and the Rapture and would see any event in the Middle East in terms of Israel, or the establishment of the state of Israel as the beginning of the end of times and the fulfillment of prophecy, ... as a child, you just kind of accept all this.
At a certain point in your life, you look up and you say: “This is really weird! What on earth did my parents have in mind raising me in this environment? How about just baseball? How about collecting bottle caps? How about something a little less heavy than waiting for the apocalypse?”
You start saying, “If I feel a little strange and alienated and out of sorts with the rest of this world, maybe it has something to do with this background.” And of course when you look at other people, and you realize that you have so many people raised in fundamentalist backgrounds, you understand why they feel very alienated from the culture around them.
Whether they still believe what they believe or not, they were raised so differently in this alternative reality, sort of a non-fact-based reality, a faith-based reality, that it leaves you alienated from your culture, which is what I think a lot of the anger from the right comes from, a sense of alienation. ...
Notice how this is not so much a description of L’Abri, but a description of Schaeffer’s childhood, something that is described over and over again with each successive question (the word “childhood” comes up six times).
What is (always) interesting about Schaeffer’s account is the confused picture he gives of his father. On the one hand, he wants to build him up as a Tough-minded, compassionate man who would welcome anyone with open arms, and reject the baleful American fundamentalism that never took root in Europe. On the other hand, the elder Schaeffer is a narrow-minded conservative fool who got roped into the culture war over abortion. Schaeffer’s intellectual clout provided the foundational substance for the right-wing political agenda that co-opted his faith in the “Moral Majority” of Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson. In Frank’s words, his father was the “intellectual architect” of the religious right.
Who was it that roped the venerable Francis Schaeffer into this nefarious plot? Why none other than the prodigal son himself: Frank Schaeffer. After convincing his father to make a movie about the abortion issue, and after everyone in evangelicalism watched it and responded to its call to action (!), Frank Schaeffer looks back on himself as being a part of the cause of birthing Leviathan.
To be sure, there is a lot criticize in this analysis, and it is too bad that someone like Mark Noll or George Marsden was not interviewed to comment on the rise of the Religious Right. Maybe such revisionism would have been avoided. But the curious thing about Frank Schaeffer’s self-referential account is that he does not seem able to live with himself as the result of it. The gospel he seems to deny now is the only thing that could really bring him to a place of forgiveness and peace. Like everything else he has produced in the past five years this interview comes across as sad, resentful, and angry. The profile picture tells the story all in itself.
Perhaps in another world conservative Christianity would have been shaped into the welcoming atmosphere of his father’s L’Abri ministry. He would have been able to walk into a chalet just as he is and converse with others without hostility the problems and doubts that fester in the soul. But that cannot be. And no matter how many repentant HuffPo articles he writes, true atonement for his sins will never come.