If you read George Washington’s Farewell Address and take seriously his view that religion likely is necessary to maintain our Republic are you a “Christianist” or a “dominionist?” These devil-words are vague enough to be hard to refute, but seem to mean that one wishes American law to be related to Christian ethics.

My suggestion is you are in the American historic mainstream, but this is obvious enough in Washington and the Founders that critics of Christians in politics need a new foe. Washington is a hard target to make “un-American.”

Francis Schaeffer seems to be the target of choice. He has two important characteristics that make him ideal as a “devil figure.” He wrote a great deal, but wrote as a middlebrow intellectual. As a result, there will be plenty of text in which to find problems while simultaneously allowing a good bit of “sniffing” about “simplifications” he made.

Of course, given stereotypes of Evangelicals in certain communities it is easy to inflate Schaeffer’s importance. Evidently we were all in a dark night of anti-intellectualism and Schaeffer made it “o.k.” to look at art and be smart. As a result, we took him too seriously and took in all his errors as well.

This would be amusing, if it were not harmful. Of course, it ignores centuries of Evangelical college education in America. Biola University, fully a college by the time of Schaeffer, and Wheaton College, a fine liberal arts school in the same period, evidently do not exist for critics.

Fact is that Schaeffer, as a middle-brow intellectual, received a mixed reaction from those schools even at the time. He was appreciated, but criticized where he over simplified. His advocacy of conservation, charity, and social activism for life were helpful, but even in my Christian high school (where his books were used and films shown), he was not taken uncritically. After all, our church history class was using a dense book (Cairns if memory serves) and we knew how breezy his view of history could be.

Schaeffer had a mixed relationship with them.

In short, Schaeffer was for some a good first step to college and for a present few still an inspiration, but for most Evangelicals I knew at most a first-step and (somewhat sadly) little read today. By the time my wife got to Wheaton, for example, she spent more time thinking about the ideas of her professor’s there.

Schaeffer had very pronounced theological views and had a history of heresy hunting. He worried all his career about Evangelical colleges and seminaries secularizing, often with good reason.

As he aged, he wrote some fairly intemperate things. His “Christian Manifesto” was taken in my community as being a call to political involvement and potential civil disobedience. It probably inspired sit-ins at abortion clinics, but I knew nobody that took it is a cry for revolution.

The most you can say about the reaction to the book at the time was that it started a soul-searching discussion. Most Evangelicals thought Schaeffer was right, but rejected the need for civil disobedience.

I suppose weak minded souls who had not read Schaeffer in context (see his famous tract condemning unloving Christians) might have seen a call for revolution, but I never met one. In any case, Schaeffer by that time was a man whose influence was in decline, because (for good and bad) he never built a lasting institution and had no successor.

Evangelical colleges and seminaries remained the center of Evangelical thought. Philosophers like Dallas Willard or J.P. Moreland were more influential in budding Evangelical intellectuals, though perhaps not in the mind of Michelle Bachmann.

Bachmann is no more typical as an Evangelical than she is typical in Congress.

Sadly, many on the left first hear of Schaeffer through his son, Frank. Charity forbids saying much of Frank, who is a member of my church, but I saw him speak in both his Evangelical and Orthodox permutations.

My father said, “There goes the angry young man when he is left only with anger.”

He criticized Evangelicals for bad art . . . and this was well received by Evangelicals, but he never seemed to want to do good art himself. He would get a standing ovation from Evangelicals paying to hear him for not wanting to hear bad news, but then not go on to do good work. When his jeremiads were heard, he had nothing left to say.

I did not know a single person who heard him who did not worry about his stability.

He moved to Orthodoxy where he became somewhat infamous for hyper-Orthodoxy and attacking other Christians immoderately. One older Orthodox person I knew said on hearing him: “He is Orthodox, but is he Christian?”

His present career seems to be inflating his Dad’s influence in “creating” the religious right (as if Abraham Lincoln did not use Evangelical votes to be elected!) and attacking folk like Pat Robertson or Jerry Falwell.

Frank Schaeffer seems into right-wing conspiracy theories now. He has not changed much and deserves only pity and prayers. I warn friends on the left that he will probably turn on you when done with this period of his life.

In any case, most Evangelicals favor small government and the Constitution. They wish to see traditional Judeo-Christian morality reflected in law, but in a way that allows a maximum of liberty. That this makes some people afraid of theocracy proves how little real there is about which to worry in our prosperous and fine nation.

Show 0 comments