Frank Schaeffer: The RealClearReligion Interview

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Frank "Franky" Schaeffer is the son of the late Christian apologist and pro-life activist Francis Schaeffer. He has not followed in his father's footsteps, to put it mildly. In a series of novels, articles and memoirs, Schaeffer has written out at some length his objections to the modern Religious Right. He spoke with me last week about hell, the Bible, President Obama, and why he regards Mormons and evangelicals as estranged cousins.

RealClearReligion: One of your most recent articles is titled: "Jesus Could Be Their Candidate and the Republicans Would Still Lose." Why don't you tell us what you really think is going on in this election?

Frank Schaeffer: I think there's a lot going on. On the surface, it is a competition as usual between two big political parties, but I think below the surface there are other things happening. One, evangelicals are having to get used to the idea that they're going to help elect a heretic (from their point of view) if Mitt Romney is elected. I think you have a racial question that will not go away. And another thing is that in the first election cycle with Barack Obama you didn't have the Tea Party as it is today. So in a way you have a referendum on the rightward tilt of the Republican Party post-Barack Obama's first victory. I think that's a subtext that might get ignored, but I think there are a lot of people who want to see this election also in terms of bringing the balance back to the center for the Republican Party.

A big part of this election is a watershed where independent voters, moderate Republicans, and certainly most Democrats are going to be able to send some sort of a message to the Republican Party and I can't imagine a more loud and clear message if Barack Obama wins. Here we have a country that has not really pulled out of the recession, we have a country that is still mired in a global war, we have a black President with all the racial overtones, and yet if [Obama] gets reelected with all those problems, I think it sends a message to the Republican Party that goes far beyond an election.

RCR: Is any criticism of the President racist?

FS: No. There are a lot of people on the Left who criticized him who would be pretty unassailable on the issue of race. Some of the most vitriolic comments to my pieces have come from the Left. I've even been banned from some publications because I've stuck with Obama. I could be wrong about that, but the fact is that the Left has as much vitriol as the Right when it comes to Barack Obama.

I don't think it's all race by any means, but I think it would be a mistake to discount some of the passion that has been directed at [Obama]. For instance, the birthers, the questions on whether he is a Muslim, these are things that I think reasonable people would not be bringing up if there wasn't something else going on.

RCR: That's certainly not the mainstream.

FS: Right. But there's always that segment.

RCR: Does the Religious Right have a racist segment?

FS: Absolutely.

RCR: Even with the election of Fred Luter, Jr. to the Southern Baptist Convention?

FS: Yes, I still believe so. If you look at, for instance people I knew very well, Jerry Falwell admittedly took a journey from a segregationist point of view that he then changed his mind and said he was wrong. I don't think that everyone who comes from that background took that journey. Racist folks are still there. This is the real world and it's just the way it's going to be for a long time in this country.

RCR: Why do evangelicals have such a problem with Mormons?

FS: I think it is a defensive mechanism from a point of view of insecurity. The difference between the Roman Catholic Church and all evangelical denominations is the Roman Catholics know who they are. They have a history. Whereas, evangelicalism is a self-invented form of Christianity that has cut itself off from the history of the Church and the tradition of the Church. Therefore, it's basically like siblings fighting.

The Roman Catholics know who they are. I happen to go to a Greek Orthodox church; we know who we are. A protestant denomination doesn't know who it is, or if it does and the youth pastor splits and starts a new church, there's nothing to say, "You can't do this." The chaos within Protestantism -- the multiplicity of denominations, seminaries, infighting, different points of view of the Scripture -- any kind of new interpretation which deviates from what they regard as their version of orthodoxy is a tremendous threat because there's nothing to appeal to except personal opinion.

RCR: Evangelicals are then competing with Mormons for converts?

FS: They're competing with Mormons for coverts, competing with Mormons for legitimacy, and what's more, Mormonism is an American phenomenon that comes precariously close to being exactly what most evangelicalism is: self-invented religion which comes out of 19th and 18th century revivals which doesn't even tie back to Protestant history in Europe. It's like having somebody at a family reunion and you don't want to admit it, but this guy is my cousin.

Mormons really bug evangelicals because, guess what? When evangelicals look in the mirror, they're not too many steps removed from where Mormonism came from. Evangelicalism has a lot more to do with North American revivalism than it does with classic Protestantism. I think the proximity is too close and it makes evangelicals uncomfortable.

RCR: Will evangelicals be able to put the sibling rivalry on hold come November 6th?

FS: I think a lot of them will because it's a question of the lesser of two evils. However, if the evangelical vote comes out weaker than expected, then I think two things are going on: one is the rivalry with Mormonism and the other is a generational divide. There are a lot of evangelicals under 30 who don't see some of the social issues with the clarity that their parents did. And so, some of those will peel off and vote for Obama as some did in the last election. I think there will be some evangelicals who just shake their head and stay home. For them, it's a toss-up between the Mormon and the Muslim.

RCR: In Crazy for God: How I Grew Up as One of the Elect, Helped Found the Religious Right, and Lived to Take All (or Almost All) of It Back you describe evangelicalism as "not so much a religion as a serious of fast-moving personality cults." Would the Joel Osteens, Mark Driscolls, and Rob Bells be prominent examples?

FS: Absolutely. If you take out the personality cult from evangelicalism, you have a couple little neighborhood churches left, but all the movement would be collapsed. I'll put it this way: if these were not personality cults, why do churches cease to grow when the hot pastor leaves? Look, my priest could leave tomorrow morning and everybody would still show up because we aren't there for him. No one is saying, "My priest is such a good teacher and that's why I go to church." You go to church for the liturgy, to be a part of the community, and for the sacraments.

By basically taking the sacraments out of the Christian experience, all evangelicals have left is the Bible study. Essentially, there's no heart to the thing. It can't be anything other than a series of personality cults.

RCR: Why are Protestants so attracted to the Bible?

FS: I think coming out of the reformed Protestant tradition of Calvinism, the Bible became a magic book -- a simple solution to a lot of complexity. So, if you're looking for written instruction, here it is. When all you have left is a text, Christianity comes very close to Islam because Islam has always been about the book, the Koran. Whereas, Christianity has always been about tradition. The question in classical Christianity has not been "What do you believe?" It has been: "Who are you?" Protestantism is all about "Do you believe correctly?" Whereas, the traditional Christian view has always been "Who are you following?" and "What is the content of your character?"

RCR: Some Protestants say that if you don't believe correctly, they are certain of your eternal damnation. How can they be so certain?

FS: The Hell culture in evangelicalism has always been used as this big stick. Roman Catholics would say there's no way to know if anybody is actually in Hell. The problem with evangelicals is not that they talk about Hell, but that it's used as a stick to drive people in the right direction.

RCR: This was your childhood.

FS: Yes, although my father had a more intellectual approach. I think my parents were much better in their theology and I base that on the fact that the way they treated individuals was much more open and humane. In terms of my own journey, I've gone away from that kind of hard and fast theological spin given to everything -- much more questioning, more agnostic, not trying to confuse certainty with hope.

That's where a lot of the Protestants show their insecurity. They've got to be absolutely certain about everything because they're standing on such thin ice. The idea of approaching life as a more open book and doing the best you can along the way just doesn't exist within the Protestant fold. It's all chapter and verse certainty. You get none of the wrestling with issues that you do for instance with the monastic traditions of Roman Catholicism.

RCR: Is this "chapter and verse certainty" the reason why you left the faith of your father?

FS: It's a process. It's not like one day I woke up and changed my mind. I cannot believe in a simple, by-the-book approach to life. I also don't think the politics coming from the Religious Right is true.

RCR: What specifically isn't true?

FS: I don't think simplistic ideas about who gay people are work. Politicizing so much about who people are is so far removed from the traditional witness of the Church.

RCR: When did you begin to realize this?

FS: After my dad died, I started asking myself the question, "Do I really want to spend the rest of my life in this?" It began almost as an aesthetic question: "Do I really want to be a part of something where I have nothing in common with these people? Why is it that the people I like best and admire all have different politics?" It was just a step-by-step process from there that took 10 to 15 years to work out.

RCR: Os Guinness has attributed your conversion to you being "spoiled" as a child.

FS: Well, obviously I don't agree with him. I talk about Os in the book and I've never seen any magazine ever get anybody to review something when the book is partly about them. That was strange. Also, I think the evangelical establishment -- absent a Vatican, or Bishops, or any kind of Apostolic succession -- felt threatened.

RCR: Ultimately, you don't agree that your conversion was some sort of emotional reaction to your upbringing?

FS: No, I don't think so. If you look at the steps of this: I was with my dad, I left, I went into the movie business and made four crappy movies, hours of documentaries, I wrote novels, and then 20 years later I wrote the memoir. If I had left in anger and at age 30 wrote a memoir saying, "Here's why I slammed the door," that's one thing. But this was a memoir a guy wrote in his mid-fifties looking back over his life. It's not like I walked out and wanted to settle scores. The trail was very cold when I decided to do some writing about it.

RCR: What prompted you to finally write about your family?

FS: I got so many folks who were reading my fiction and saying "This reads like it's based on your family. What's the real story here?" Then, the rise of the Religious Right has become very destructive and I wanted to do my bit to set my little piece of the record straight. I had a Rip Van Winkle experience -- I left the evangelical community and didn't look back. I thought when Crazy for God came out that it would all be like Os Guinness. I thought there would be Hell to pay.

But what really surprised me was not Os's review; instead I received mostly positive reactions that continue to this day. So, what changed my mind a little about the evangelical community is to see so many folks, in response to my book, ask some real questions. There's an openness there that certainly wasn't around when I walked away.

RCR: And so, your real beef with the Religious Right is that politics changed evangelicalism.

FS: Oh, very much. For instance, when we were in politics on the pro-life side, we wanted to save babies. Then the guys who came over the hill turn out to be corporate America. They're saying, "We don't really care about this saving babies business; we just want Republicans to win because they've got our back." A flip happened. Like the old frog being boiled and doesn't notice as the temperature is being turned up, look at the agenda of the Religious Right and the Tea Party today and look at where they overlap.

Since when was evangelical Christianity about Ayn Rand's philosophy? Since when was it about corporate America and lowering taxes for billionaires? All of a sudden the evangelical agenda is about maintaining capitalism. Isn't that odd? Where did that come from? What does any of that have to do with the pro-life movement or even gay marriage? Nothing. Because the pro-life movement was coopted by the Right and folded in, evangelicalism has been tremendously weakened because it has bought in to an entire right-wing package. It has not done religion any good in this country.

Nicholas G. Hahn III is the editor of RealClearReligion. Follow him on Twitter @NGHahn3.

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