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Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Crazy for God by Frank Schaeffer

So I just finished reading the memoir of Frank Schaeffer, the son of the famous evangelical Francis Schaeffer. A couple of things. I came to the book with the conception that it was a repudiation of the religious right. Though this is true in some part, overall less than fifty pages of the book were devoted to the subject. Rather it is simply a memoir of the man's life. I must admit, I was a bit disappointed. Not by Schaeffer, or his story, or his writing, although he did, or his editors, misspell non-profit at one point. I was disappointed by the fact that I was really hoping for a juicy, American evangelists are batshit crazy, tell all. Schaeffer's experience with American Evangelicalism supports that notion, but again, it only consists of 50-60 pages of the book.
Schaeffer's ministry was called L'Abri and was located in Switzerland. It was austere, and for most of Frank Schaeffer's young adult life relatively poor. They didn't begin to really grow and make money until the 60s when royalties and backlash from the Free Love generation began lapping at their teat. Up until that point, it sounds like a perfectly cromulent place (ha!) Nestled in the alps, they went skiing during the winter, went to Portofino in Italy over the summer. Frank Schaeffer, from the time he was twelve to the day he got married, if I recall, about 20, spent the entire 8 years, not unlike most men, trying to get laid. Most of the girls he slept with were women of L'Abri, but he doesn't really focus on this salacious idea, save to admit that he had a much harder time trying to make it in the Swiss nightclub scene. Schaeffer was spent most of his time painting nudes, listening to rock music, and getting into trouble. Including nearly killing one of the parishioners at L'Abri in a sledding accident. The guy had a very normal life, with the exception that A) his parents spent more time working on the ministry than they did on the kids B) he had almost no formal education, being dyslexic, and having absentee parents, he was kicked out of schools, until he finally ran away and went home. That said, his father was a cultural historian, not by profession, but certainly by professed love, and made his way on a Christian film about the art of the Renaissance.
I won't bother really to describe the abuse. It was mentioned frankly, but not dwelled upon, and since none of it was sexual abuse, I think at the time, it would have been considered fairly standard fare.
Let's skip to the 50 pages of pure red meat. Franky Schaeffer, with his contemporaries, Pat Robertson, and a few others almost created the Religious right. I make this point now, because it dovetails with the two books I've recently started, Rick Perlstein's Nixonland, and Frank Rich's The Greatest Story Ever Sold. Nixonland starts with the "end of the Right" with the death knell of Barry Goldwater's campaign. Frank Rich starts with the rise to power of the Bush administration. Crazy for God, takes it from the angle of a fledgling movement that grew over the course of a few decades--principally on the 60s-90s. That's another disappointment, though Schaeffer discusses Bush periodically, and his parents involvement with the Bushes, the topic is never really given serious consideration. Moreover, since Schaeffer left the movement in the 90s, he really didn't have much to add to what most people consider the height of the religious right. That said, it's a memoir. It does what it purports to do, talk about the man's life.
The ministry at L'Abri began to grow in leaps in bounds after his parents started publishing in the States. The disenfranchisement of the 60s seems to have driven people to excess, in one direction or the other. Schaeffer suggests that it was the freelove itself that drove the people to the ministry. That people saw the excess of the left and grew disgusted by it. I think the reason was a fair bit more complex than that, though I certainly couldn't contest the contrary nature of the spiritual enlistment. With all this new inflow of an extremely diverse body, many of whom were artists, layabouts, and other transitory people, and not simply religious soul seekers, Schaeffer got one of them pregnant. His wife, Genie was one such, who was just a backpacker passing through who happened to fall in love with the bad boy preacher's son. I should say this very clearly, the religion preached by L'Abri at the time of the 60s was very liberal in nature. Though it still sought Jesus Christ as Savior, it appreciated art of all flavor, did not discriminate against homosexuals, and generally kept itself to the goal of convincing seekers that God could exist meaningfully in even a modern life. On the whole, it doesn't sound like a bad place, and I would have loved to sit and have a chat on philosophy with Francis Schaeffer.
When Schaeffer got Genie pregnant he was at a really young age, as was she. I'm guessing because I don't have the book in front of me, but I think he was 20, and she was probably about the same age, maybe a year or two older. Almost immediately after his daughter was born he was won over by the miracle of his own daughter, and immediately began to heat up on the subject of abortion. His father had avoided the issue. At the time, the 60s, evangelical Christians saw abortion as a Catholic issue. And evangelicals, being fairly exclusive, didn't care to discuss it. Francis' son was the person who enlisted him on the project of making the pro-life movement a political thing. Frank Schaeffer, with the help of another religious fundraiser/figurehead, Bobby Zeoli, produced two movies with the beneficent Frank Schaeffer discussing, among other things, abortion. Than they sold it to the Americans. It took a while to gain steam.
One point that Schaeffer makes that I find interesting, but erroneous, is that the ACLU and other liberal, pro-choice organizations made Schaeffer's job a lot easier. According to Schaeffer, pro-choice forces had made abortion an almost romantic, or "in" option, a sort of "abortion-chic." This meant that that they could generate a lot of outrage, and the outrage in turn generated outrage from the left that provided the evangelists an "us against them" vector. Though I am certainly not old enough to really contest this (this movement was built in the 70s and 80s) and my worldly experience in the 80s was fairly limited, I cannot ever believe that abortion was taken lightly by a majority, or even a plurality of American women. Abortion is an awful thing, and it scars all involved, (though 90% the woman whose body it is) in many ways.
Regardless, that was the kickstart of the religious right in this country. Before they were voting for born again Christian presidents, before they were weighing in on foreign policy, or prayers in the public schools, or creationism,or the ID movement (Both Francis and Frank Schaeffer's were proponents of theories of evolution-despite a lack of formal education) there was abortion. And this is what I'll end this post on.
Liberals who are kicking the downed Republican party in the ribs, are being ridiculously shortsighted. This is a party that fights best when the chips are down. And they win by appealing to the base, not the center. Because their vision is moving the center closer to the base. And for the past decade they succeeded at that admirably. So beware abortion, liberals. Obama is looking at choosing a new Supreme Court Justice, and this could well prove the pivot point in the fortunes of the Republicans. That Justice must support Roe v. Wade. But if he/she does, that gives the Republethugs automatic poll points. After all, when it comes to the semantics of Pro-Life v. Pro-Choice, how can we EVER win? If I had to choose between veggie burgers and hamburgers, I'd be bummed if I had to eat a veggie burger, but I could live with it. Living without life? Rhetorically, a liberals best/only answer to that is the rhetorical flair of Patrick Henry, "Give me liberty, or give me death."
Finally, I have very eagerly started both New Left books, I have long been a fan of both Rich and Pearlstein, and I already have a bunch to comment on.

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