By Micah Danney • January 24, 2020
BOSTON — In one of his videos, Frank Schaeffer stands outside in a blue t-shirt speaking into his phone selfie-style. He’s stern and growing exasperated as he talks, as though he’s explaining something to two squabbling children who should have known how to avoid this conflict.
If you don’t know who he is, he looks like one more guy ranting about politics in his backyard on social media. To those who recognize his last name, he represents a family legacy that is at the core of the American culture war and political divide.
Abortion is the issue at the core of that legacy, and he wants every American to understand a few things about it and the societal standoff it is central to. But first he wants everyone to reevaluate their own entrenchments.
“Get it settled in your head, religious right fanatics, religious right believers and good evangelical sober, rational people who still voted for Trump: climate change is real, and to put yourself on the side of history that denies this makes it impossible for people on the left to take you seriously,” he says in the clip.
He excoriates President Trump as a lifelong conman who appeals to white nationalism, elected by conservative voters who feel rejected and disrespected by the left.
“And guess what, left wing,” he continues. “You have disrespected and rejected many conservative people. I’m not talking about the Koch brothers. I’m talking about ordinary people all over America who are trying to raise their families, who were raised one way and you’re asking them to jump into what they regard as an acid bath of social change.”
‘Life begins at conception’
Schaeffer is the son of Francis and Edith Schaeffer, founders of the L’Abri community in Switzerland in 1955. It was a hippie evangelical commune that many a young seeker passed through in subsequent years, and where Frank was raised according to what he calls the doctrine of fundamentalist Christianity.
Francis became a leading voice in the growing evangelical movement by arguing for a theological stance against abortion, which until then had been considered a Catholic issue.
His protégé son jumped into that fight with both feet, producing films financed by Richard DeVos, father-in-law to Education Secretary Betsy DeVos. He wrote books and made speaking appearances in service of the cause. Schaeffer was flying around on Jerry Falwell’s private jet, rubbing elbows with evangelical A-listers like Pat Robertson, Dr. James Dobson and Billy Graham.
During the 1980s, he could make more money off of a single book table after giving a seminar to 15,000 people than he now makes in a year, he claims.
Now 68, Schaeffer is three decades removed from that world. He has chronicled his split from his former colleagues and belief system in several memoirs. After his second, “Sex, Mom, & God,” a New York Times article described him as “the reluctant, wayward, traitorous prince” in the eyes of millions of evangelical Christians.
Sitting in a coffee shop in downtown Boston in November, Schaeffer skewered the religious conservative movement he once served. His politics are much more progressive across the board, he said. Yet on abortion, the issue so central to his father’s legacy and his own path through fame, fortune and influence, he is critical of the left.
His fellow progressives are overly simplistic about it, he said, and dangerously so. They underestimate the impact that Roe v. Wade had on those who disagree with it. That miscalculation has turned the impact into a shockwave that continues to drive seismic shifts in American politics, powering Republican politicians into positions they then use to legislate against just about every other cause important to Democrats.
“Essentially, [liberals] have not honestly dealt with the fact that they had upset an apple cart that has changed American history. They just want it to all go away,” Schaeffer said. “‘We’re not talking about it because it’s settled.’ Well it was never settled, and the poll numbers show that it is still not settled because it’s not just a bunch of old farts who are on the pro-life side. You have a whole younger generation of people coming up who aren’t even supporters of the Republicans.”
Twenty-five years ago, 56 percent of Americans identified as pro-choice and 33 percent as pro-life, according to Gallup. As of May 2019, pro-choicers have declined to 46 percent and the pro-life movement claims 49 percent of the population.
Schaeffer calls himself pro-choice but anti-Roe v. Wade. Life does begin at conception, he said, at least biologically. He sees the Democratic Party’s stance as “slavish and dogmatic,” and painfully neglectful of sincere moral outrage that smolders unabated on the other side of the issue. He pointed out that the Supreme Court’s decision in 1973 followed the legalization of abortion in a number of European countries, but it went further than all of them. That amounted to an “in your face” insult, added to a deep moral injury, felt by a huge number of Americans whose religious convictions are central to their lives.
“We’re going up to 23 weeks, we’re going to divide it into trimesters and say it’s all fine and this is just a blob of tissue,” Schaeffer said. Extending that logic so close to the moment of birth and putting it all under a mantra of choice was an invitation to righteous backlash.
By discounting such a large segment of the population’s concerns about the morality of the act, liberal dogma around abortion violates the central Christian principle of integration, Schaeffer said.
“We pretend that half our population doesn’t exist and we tell them to just deal with it,” he said.
Pro-choicers will never get pro-lifers to cross the bridge to their side, Schaeffer maintains, but a healthier relationship overall could start with a more honest national conversation about abortion procedures, as well as issues like the future of genomics. All of it has implications for how we regard life and how lives will be affected.
After the phone stopped ringing
Schaeffer’s departure from the religious right didn’t meet any resistance. That’s characteristic of the evangelical world, he says. If you diverge from their thinking, they act like you never existed. There were no confrontations, debates or earnest inquiries from the famous colleagues he left behind. The phone simply stopped ringing.
Unmoored from the version of Christianity he was raised with, he began studying the historical church. He converted to Orthodox Christianity. His views on theology and eschatology have evolved; his desire for a belief system has been replaced by being comfortable with the uncertainty of not understanding the mysteries of the universe. Instead of trying to resolve paradox, he embraces it. He is an atheist who believes in God, as his 2014 book is titled.
He still goes to church on Sundays, in a Greek Orthodox sanctuary near his home outside Boston. He values the sense of community he finds there.
“This is where my 5-year-old granddaughter is best friends with a 98-year-old woman,” he said. “Where else is this gonna happen?”
To his critics, Schaeffer — or Franky, as many refer to him — is an embittered son who betrayed his family by airing his parents’ dirty laundry. In his first memoir, “Crazy for God,” published in 2007, he wrote that their faith “actually drove them crazy.”
Christianity Today published a review of the book by author Betty Smartt Carter, who remembered Schaeffer in his activist youth as “obnoxious and unkind.” But she related to his memoir and praised it, which “for all its embarrassing human revelations, ultimately honors the Schaeffers, as only a son’s story could.”
That generated some backlash, and the magazine commissioned a second review by Os Guinness, who lived with the family at L’Abri for several years. He criticized Schaeffer’s portrayal of his parents.
“For all his softening, the portrait he paints amounts to a death-dealing charge of hypocrisy and insincerity at the very heart of their life and work,” Guinness wrote.
Guinness accused Schaeffer of being the hollow one, having led his family’s political activism which he then renounced and found fault with them for. “Frank himself is where the con artistry came into the story,” he wrote.
Gregory Reynolds, a Presbyterian Orthodox pastor who also spent time at the family’s compound in Switzerland, published a review in which he described Schaeffer’s narrative as painfully cynical. Reynolds charged that Schaeffer’s criticisms were hypocritical, like the claim that the motivations of parents and other evangelical leaders became colored by how much they enjoyed their access to famous and influential people. Yet Schaeffer’s “name-dropping” throughout the book is evidence of that same sort of hubris, Reynolds argued.
He praised some aspects of the book but ultimately assailed Schaeffer’s embrace of uncertainty.
“For all of his new-found self-understanding, he is still angry, only now he is no longer young,” Reynolds wrote.
A movement’s evolution or devolution?
Schaeffer has increasingly engaged in political commentary since the 2016 election. He is looked to by secular people as an interpreter of the religious right who can explain its motivations and reasoning. He is a returning guest on AM Joy on MSNBC and continues to post short commentary videos on YouTube and other social media.
He plans to step up his political activity in the coming year once a Democratic candidate is selected. He maintains that for those who thought Trump’s first term was bad, a second would be catastrophic.
Schaeffer warns liberals and religious conservatives alike that support for Trump has evolved since his election into a “white supremacist Trump cult.” To him, it represents an alarming evolution of a religious movement he rejected because he saw it being poisoned by material greed, desire for power and self-serving theology.
As he sees it, one of that evolution’s most significant recent developments was the speech Attorney General William Barr gave at Notre Dame Law School in October. Barr, who is Catholic, spoke about the need to defend religious liberty and the country’s foundational Judeo-Christian values against attacks by “militant secularism.”
That’s huge, Schaeffer said, because Barr had represented the “compassionate conservatism” of the Bushes. The speech amounted to a public declaration of support for Trumpism by an old-guard Republican who is the nation’s top law enforcement official, according to Schaeffer, and whose sign-off is required to implement executive orders that mandate things like the separation of children from their parents at the Mexican border.
Schaeffer wants those who are opposed to Trump to recognize the threats he says are posed by the people who steer him. Their voting base cannot be negotiated with under the current leadership and must be defeated, he says. When secular friends inquire about religious support for Trump, he tells them that they’re bringing political questions to theological thinking, and that Trump has transformed evangelical Christianity into a new religion.
He is adamant that the evangelical movement as he knew it, and even as he rejected it, is dead. As the secular world keeps asking how evangelicals can support a person like Trump, he said, it’s missing the real question: how did Trump turn the movement into something so different than it was, with voters who initially held their noses to elect him becoming fervent supporters?
“He has mainstreamed the lunatic fringe of the evangelical movement and upheld their most delusional paranoid fantasy world to the point that he is the new King Cyrus,” Schaeffer said.
He cites foreign policy changes like moving the U.S. embassy in Israel to Jerusalem and recognizing the Golan Heights as Israeli territory as decisions of blind deference to Christian Zionists. He notes recent statements about impending mass violence by evangelical leaders like Ann Graham Lotz and Robert Jeffress.
Lotz wondered aloud on “The Jim Bakker Show” in November whether Trump’s withdrawal from Syria was a fulfillment of biblical prophecy. “They are now in northern Syria,” she said of Russian forces. “So I’m just wondering if it’s like a chessboard and if the pieces are being moved to set up maybe the last of the last days, but maybe also that Ezekiel 38 war that has yet to be.”
Jeffress made headlines in September when he predicted that if Trump were impeached and removed from office, there could be a “civil war-like fracture in this nation from which this country will never heal.”
Schaeffer’s warning to reasonable people who identify as evangelical, particularly young people, is that the label has been co-opted by people whose theology or attitudes on matters of conscience they may not share. He’s been beating that drum for years now. “I want to introduce younger evangelicals to the idea that they have to recalibrate their loyalty,” he told Religion News Service in 2014. “They can live by the Bible or live by Jesus. They can’t do both.”
His stance has hardened and become urgent since Trump’s election. Only repentance can save evangelicalism, he says. There are some, like his three sisters, who are trying to keep the flame of thoughtful evangelicalism alive, but the moderates are outnumbered and out-zealed by those who have incrementally accepted changes that would have been anathema to the movement before 2016 — things like taking children from their parents at the border and Trump’s public criticisms of the military command, he says.
Schaeffer sees evangelicalism’s theological pillar of the soul being lost or saved as the foundation for its political mutations; a rigid idea that can extrapolate to practically any atrocity. If the lost are destined to burn forever, is it so bad if they burn now?
“There’s a harshness there that explains why you can see a child crying in a cage for her mother, but hey, she’s on that other side of the fence,” he said.
It’s the reason he has serious concerns that the Trump administration could use nuclear weapons. If the President can hypothetically shoot someone in the middle of Fifth Avenue and not lose a single voter, Schaeffer argues, his supporters can’t be expected to serve as any check on his aggressive impulses.
“I think if he nuked Tehran tomorrow morning, he wouldn’t lose one vote from the evangelical cult,” he said. “They would all see it as God’s will, God’s providence, and hey, it had to be done.”
To Schaeffer, the scariest person on the Christian right is Ralph Reed, founder of the Faith and Freedom Coalition and a member of the Trump campaign’s religious advisory board during the 2016 election. He’s smart and strategic, working mostly behind the scenes in pursuit of political influence and policy changes.
“He’s me if I didn’t get out,” Schaeffer said.
Reed encourages Christians to reelect Trump in a book due out in April, “For God and Country: The Christian case for Trump.” It was originally titled “Render to God and Trump,” Politico reported, an invocation of Matthew 22:21, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s.”
Schaeffer’s voice on the subject has long been one of clarity for Brian McLaren, who grew up in the Plymouth Brethren, a strict fundamentalist evangelical sect. He said that Francis Schaeffer helped him navigate through problems he had with that group’s doctrine, but McLaren was dismayed when the elder Schaeffer took a rightward political turn.
When McLaren discovered Frank’s early writings that parodied the evangelical activism world, he felt validated in his own misgivings by an insider. He called Schaeffer a “preeminent ranter against the kind of cheesiness of popular evangelical culture way back then.” McLaren reached out to compliment Schaeffer’s writing and the men struck up a friendship.
“To me he represents a passionate, sagely voice that I hope a younger generation — a younger generation of evangelicals especially — will discover,” McLaren said.
Vic Sizemore, a fiction writer in Virginia, was inspired to pursue his craft by Schaeffer’s critique of the arts in Christianity and evangelicalism in particular. Sizemore was raised in a strict Baptist household. His father was a pastor. As a young man in the early 1990s, he discovered Francis Schaeffer’s “A Christian Manifesto,” in which he called on Christians to change the course of history.
That inspired Sizemore to get involved in the burgeoning religious right political scene. He became disillusioned with it, though, and found the younger Schaeffer’s 1990 book “Sham Pearls for Real Swine.” Schaeffer lamented a lack of culture in the evangelical movement he was splitting from. Sizemore related to his criticisms of theology that didn’t value aesthetic beauty unless it was created to proselytize the faith.
“He was articulating a lot of things that I felt but just hadn’t been able to put into words yet,” Sizemore said.
Schaeffer draws a hard line for young people who identify as evangelical and share his progressive ideals. They lack the intellectual integrity and courage to reject the label because, he says, they’ll lose access to that community and the income streams it offers. That’s how the evangelical world works, Schaeffer says. They’ll invite an atheist to a debate sooner than one of their own who challenges their platform.
“They don’t bring in somebody who’s close enough to actually know where the bodies are buried,” he said.
He urges young evangelicals to flee their association with the term like it were a ship headed for the rocks.
“You’ve got to re-identify yourself and get out,” he said.
Schaeffer’s political activity on the left has involved behind-the-scenes work like meeting with candidates running in the midterms. Once the Democratic primary is over he plans to ramp up his campaigning and be more public. Part of that will involve speaking to groups of young people. He wants them to understand what his experiences taught him about the religious right’s motivations and aims. He hopes he can inspire some fence-sitters to vote this election.
He also wants to introduce more people to his style of taking a position, especially when it feels messy.
“You can believe that abortion is a horrible and violent and sad procedure and still be ardently pro-choice,” he said. “How does that all work? It doesn’t, because we are semi-evolved primates with this weird thing that we’ve developed called empathy. It does not fit with our older-brain animal instincts. Excuse me, folks, we’re still working it out.”
Micah Danney is a Poynter-Koch fellow and a reporter and associate editor for Religion Unplugged.
This article was updated on 1/27/20