Tuesday, 16 February 2016

"Crazy for God" by Frank Schaeffer

This is a memoir by Frank Schaeffer, the son of Dr Francis Schaeffer (1912-1984) - a man who will be remembered as one of the architects of the American Religious Right.  The subtitle of the book is "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".

The book is part-autobiography, part-anthropological report.  Frank begins by introducing us to his mother Edith, who comes across as a distinctly difficult character - a neurotic social and cultural snob who was burdened by a desperate desire to prove that being a religious nut was compatible with good breeding, table manners and Bach.  Father Francis, for his part, was a mass of contradictions.  A depressive, autistic loner who exercised a warm, charismatic charm over all comers; a literary intellectual who was prone to flying into violent rages; an extreme Bible fundamentalist who had a heartfelt love for secular art and philosophy; a boy from the back streets who became a mentor to presidents.  At one point, he even came close to converting Timothy Leary.  Frank writes:
Dad had one big idea: God has revealed himself to us through the Bible.  And he spent a lifetime trying to fit everything into that one idea, and explain away anything that didn't fit.
Francis was formed by the bitter theological battles of the 1920s and 30s, and hung onto his fundamentalist beliefs well into the era of microchips and space travel.  But he was quite different from most of the footsoldiers of the Religious Right that he helped to found.  He got caught up in the 60s hippy counterculture.  He denounced "plastic Christians" with their "petty bourgeois rules".  He agreed with the hippies' critique of middle-class capitalist culture; but he argued that the answer was not drugs and free love but Jesus Christ.  He helped to build a movement that became filled with people he would have hated.  In his own lifetime, he described men like Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell as "idiots" and "nuts" - just not in public.

Another oddity is that the Schaeffers didn't spend that much time on American soil.  Their base was their religious community at L'Abri in Switzerland, and Frank was sent to boarding schools in England.  The ethos at L'Abri was exclusivist.  The Schaffers grudgingly accepted that there were good Christians to be found elsewhere, but they despised the mainstream churches.  Before the 60s hit, they forbade drinking and dancing.  Yet there was also genuine compassion.  The Schaeffers made real sacrifices of time and money to serve their residents.  They denounced racism long before it became fashionable to do so.  They welcomed people who were mentally disturbed or handicapped.  They treated homosexuals kindly, by fundamentalist standards.  L'Abri represented the inherent contradictions of a family which wanted to turn an inherently narrow and restrictive creed into something benign and welcoming.

Francis didn't become famous until Frank was in his late teens.  By this time, Frank had got into painting and was hanging out with rock stars.  His next step was to get into the Christian film-making business.  Soon he was learning how to fundraise, making pitches to fundamentalist businessmen about "taking our country back" from the liberals and secularists.  He wrote several forgettable mass-market books.

The turning point in the Schaeffers' campaigning was the US Supreme Court's famous ruling on abortion in the case of Roe v Wade (1973).  Francis initially dismissed abortion as a "Catholic issue", but it soon became apparent that this was something which could be used to ignite the Evangelical grassroots - assisted by pro-choice activists whose hamfisted tactics seemed almost designed to alienate middle America.  As a cause, the abortion issue was both deeply divisive and deeply political.  It turned out to be a golden opportunity for the Republican Party to hoover up millions of Democrats.

Frank makes the good point that the mainstream media largely ignored the antics of him and his friends in the 1970s, with the result that a lot of people in high places got an unexpected shock when the Religious Right came roaring onto the national stage.  Liberal America was losing a battle it didn't even know was being fought.  The Schaeffers began to get into dangerous ground, flirting with the idea of mounting resistance to the US government through civil disobedience and worse.  They gave aid and comfort to the likes of "Theonomists" who wanted America to be governed under Old Testament law.  Strangely enough, the only Evangelical leader who seriously resisted the politicisation of the movement was Billy Graham, who had learned a hard lesson from his past association with Richard Nixon.

Frank came to realise that the stormtroops of the new Religious Right were not conservatives in any traditional sense of the word: they were "anti-American religious revolutionaries".  They were different from the old American Right of secular anti-socialists like Herbert Hoover and Barry Goldwater.  Falwell was a small-minded bigot; Robertson heard voices and saw visions; and James Dobson was "the most power-hungry and ambitious person I have ever met".  Frank noticed that they seemed to want American society to fail - and to fail apocalyptically.  Their worldview required it.  Hence, for example, their eerily satisfied reactions to 9/11.

But the Schaeffers kept their mouths shut.  They failed to denounce the dangerous theocratic politics that they had helped to create.  Francis himself hardened from his hippy days.  He banned his own son-in-law from teaching at L'Abri for holding liberal theological views.  As he approached his death in 1984, he began to realise that he had been fighting on the side of "lunatics"; but by then it was too late.  Frank had been changing too:
There were three kinds of evangelical leaders.  The dumb or idealistic ones who really believed.  The out-and-out charlatans.  And the smart ones who still believed - sort of - but knew that the evangelical world was shit, but who couldn't figure out any way to earn as good a living anywhere else.  I was turning into one of those, having started out in the idealistic category.
Frank argues that the ayatollahs of the Religious Right ultimately failed.  In their arrogance and stupidity, they ended up allowing themselves to be manipulated and used by politicians who cared more for their votes than their moral sensibilities.  They sold their souls to the Republicans - and for what?  For men like George W. Bush, "the "Christians'" president", who put the interests of the oil and auto industries above God's creation and inflicted carnage on the Christian minority in Iraq.

This is a unique and very honest book.  Frank is not necessarily a likeable narrator, and his prose was not always to this reviewer's taste.  But he has a story that nobody else has, and he manages to tell it well.