Listen to my 2008 interview, “Pro-Life – And In Favor Of Keeping Abortion Legal,” from Fresh Air with Terry Gross.
Trump was told by evangelical pro-life leaders to pick a pro-life woman to overturn Roe v. Wade and American women’s access to legal abortion. Thus one of Trump’s Supreme Court front runners is Amy Coney Barrett, the anti-contraceptives far right Roman Catholic mother of 7 who is involved in an evangelical cult. Members are assigned a ‘handmaiden’ to confess to and this group was the inspiration for Atwood’s ‘The Handmaid’s Tale.’ Barrett was put on Trump’s list with the approval of an old family friend of mine, Franklin Graham. I know this because I’m in touch with one of his sisters who does not approve of Franklin’s Trump-boosting.
Barrett is being considered for many reasons, one is that I once was a greedy, power-hungry, nepotistic young sidekick to my famous evangelist father, Francis Schaeffer. In my twenties during the 1970s and 80s I helped Dad do his bit to turn the Republican Party into a mostly White evangelical party in favor of theocracy. That was before I fled my evangelical faith, turned left and liberal. That was before I decided that cooperation is a better strategy for survival than domination. That was before I embraced an entirely opposite set of answers to the question of how I wanted to be defined.
My family played a wretched leading role in the continuing oppression, denigration, and abuse of women. I am so very sorry. I’ve spent the last 30-plus years of my life trying to undo some of the harm I did. As the fight for the Supreme Court heats up I see my dad’s finger prints all over it with an assist from me.
Leaving my faith and family, my means of earning a living, and everything I’d been groomed to be and become was fraught. And it was public. In “Son of Evangelical Royalty Turns His Back, and Tells the Tale” (The New York Times, August 19, 2011), my soul-saving fall from grace was described like this:
In every line of work, there are family businesses. But no business is more defined by dynasties and nepotism than evangelical preaching…. It is never easy stepping into Dad’s shoes, of course. But when the family business is religion, it is especially perilous…. To secular Americans, the name Frank Schaeffer means nothing. But to millions of evangelical Christians, the Schaeffer name is royal, and Frank is the reluctant, wayward, traitorous prince. His crime is not financial profligacy, like some pastors’ sons, but turning his back on Christian conservatives…. In the 1970s, Mr. Schaeffer’s eccentric, relatively obscure family became wealthy and influential. Books like “The God Who Is There,” published in 1968, made his father a hero to American evangelicals … and in 1977, Frank, an amateur filmmaker, directed his father in a 10-part documentary, “How Should We Then Live?” …. Ryan Lizza recently wrote in The New Yorker that seeing “How Should We Then Live?” had a “profound influence” on the future presidential candidate Michele Bachmann…. The younger Mr. Schaeffer [also] wrote his own Christian polemics and, helped by the family name, became a well-paid speaker on the evangelical circuit…. [Frank] Schaeffer morphed into a versatile right-wing connector.
How the anti-abortion movement was launched
Dad and I were instrumental in launching the American evangelical component of the anti-abortion movement that made possible the bizarre pigs-do-have-wings, hell-did-freeze-over confluence of political, religious, and social interested parties that later created the Trump era. Trump’s election was possible because of a bizarre convergence of male supremacist ideology—entering into an unholy alliance with white evangelical “family values” voters driven to Trump by their fear about America being taken over by godless, militant secularists. The “abortion issue” was the catalyst used to energize Trump’s evangelical cohort, as Rolling Stone Magazine noted when it described my family’s abortion-related political influence in “False Idol—Why the Christian Right Worships Donald Trump,” by Alex Morris (December 2, 2019). According to Morris, “What … most compellingly, fold[ed] evangelicals into [a] voting bloc once and for all, was a 1979 movie series called Whatever Happened to the Human Race? …. the series ‘changed everything.’”
What changed everything was that before our film series, American evangelicals were not even part of the anti-abortion movement. No kidding. Many commentators today seem to assume that American evangelicals and their leaders were always anti-abortion. This is not the case. Evangelicals were uncaring about the issue, ambivalent or pro-choice.
Evangelical leaders were not “pro-life”
In the late 1970s and early 1980s, when my father and I were launching our anti-abortion film series Whatever Happened to the Human Race? we expected that other evangelical leaders would help promote it, just as they had earlier stepped up with our first series on art and culture, How Should We Then Live? They did not. We lost about $1.2 million on the series’ sixteen-city launch.
Most evangelical leaders either didn’t care about Roe v. Wade (the 1973 US Supreme Court decision that the Constitution protects a woman’s liberty to choose to have an abortion) or were pro-choice. When we took our anti-abortion series out on a seminar tour, we found ourselves looking at rows and rows of empty seats in venues, like the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville and Madison Square Garden, which we’d filled only three or four years before, when launching our more innocuous art and culture series. And this was when Dad was at the height of his best-selling popularity.
When we sat down to present the “the issue” to our family friend, the famous evangelist Billy Graham (this was in Rochester, Minnesota, at the Mayo Clinic where he was undergoing tests at the same time Dad was there for cancer treatment), Billy refused to help out. He said, “This isn’t something I want to speak out on. I think it would harm my ability to preach Jesus’ love. This isn’t our issue; it’s a Catholic thing.”
Dr. W. A. Criswell, the two-term president of the Southern Baptist Convention, was at that time senior pastor of the First Baptist Church of Dallas, a post he held for fifty years. Criswell would not let us use his church as a venue to show our anti-abortion movies, though he and Dad were friends and Dad had been invited to speak there before. It should be noted that Criswell was an ultraconservative fundamentalist. He was the key leader in the late 1970s “Conservative Resurgence” within the Southern Baptist Convention and an ally of Dad’s in forcing Southern Baptist seminaries to fire professors who were “too liberal.” Yet Criswell told Dad and me that he didn’t believe the soul is present “until a baby draws a first breath.” Criswell cited biblical verses including “And the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul” (Genesis 2:7).
Billy Graham’s wife, Ruth, my mother’s close friend, agreed to help spread the word—up to a point. But Ruth didn’t see abortion as a political issue, let alone as a litmus test of faith. She said abortion should be legal and only signed on to join the national board of one of the first “crisis pregnancy” center groups (set to help pregnant women find alternatives to abortion). Ruth never would appear on our seminar film launch platforms, though Mom begged her to.
Forty years or so after Dad’s and my conversations with Billy Graham, begging him to say abortion was wrong, Trump-confidant Dr. Robert Jeffress (one of the later pastors of Dallas’s First Baptist) would have accused Graham of being a liberal baby-killer. By that time, not “taking a stand” on abortion was viewed as a denial of the Christian faith. Billy Graham’s far-right son, Franklin Graham, was a Trump promoter, mostly because Trump was reliably appointing anti-abortion judges by the hundreds to the courts, as he had pledged to do.
Late in 2019 the editor of Christianity Today magazine editorialized in favor of Trump’s removal by impeachment. In a letter signed by 177 evangelical leaders, including Liberty University’s Jerry Falwell Jr., First Baptist Dallas’ Pastor Robert Jeffress, and Samaritan’s Purse’s Cissie Graham Lynch, these evangelical leaders expressed fury at any Christian who would not go along with Trump’s pro-life stand. Their entire argument hinged on the assumption that evangelicals are—and always have been—pro-life. That is a lie. As my friend Randall Balmer (the Mandel Family Professor in the Arts and Sciences at Dartmouth College) noted in “The Real Origins of the Religious Right” (Politico, May 27, 2014):
The abortion myth quickly collapses under historical scrutiny. In fact, it wasn’t until 1979—a full six years after Roe—that evangelical leaders … seized on abortion…. When the Roe decision was handed down, W. A. Criswell … was pleased: “I have always felt that it was only after a child was born and had a life separate from its mother that it became an individual person,” he said, “and it has always, therefore, seemed to me that what is best for the mother and for the future should be allowed.”
It was only a year or so later that things started to change, after Dad got other evangelical leaders to agree to “speak out” on the abortion issue, including Moral Majority founder Jerry Falwell, Dr. James Dobson (founder of the radio show and ministry Focus on the Family), and televangelist Pat Robertson. They balked at first, but eventually all of these leaders came to see the abortion issue as a means to have access to power. It was a useful way to rile up voters into a fury of perpetual righteous indignation and then steer them into the Republican fold. Only after these and other leaders jumped onboard our “cause” did our film series start to rent and sell. Then we made up for our early financial losses—and then some.
The Republican Party decides it is anti-abortion
Soon after we showed the film series to Congressman Jack Kemp (who would later be HUD Secretary under Reagan and then a vice presidential candidate with Bob Dole), Jack hosted a meeting at the Republican Club in Washington, DC, to promote our cause. This too was a change: the Republican Party up to that point had not been led by anti-abortion fanatics. In fact Ronald Reagan was pro-choice and had legalized abortion in California, as Republican Nelson Rockefeller had done in New York.
In fact we were telling a lie. Access to abortion was once accepted by conservative Christian evangelical Americans. Access to legal abortion has nothing to do with the so-called secularization of America and Roe v. Wade. In fact, “in the good old days” it used to be a sign of faith in God. In “Women Have Always Had Abortions” (New York Times, December 13, 2019) Lauren MacIvor Thompson, a historian at Georgia State University, points out that
Over the course of American history, women of all classes, races, ages and statuses have ended their pregnancies …. Our ignorance of this history, however, equips those in the anti-abortion movement with the power to create dangerous narratives. They peddle myths about the past where wayward women sought abortions out of desperation, pathetic victims of predatory abortionists. They wrongly argue that we have long thought about fetuses as people with rights. And they improperly frame Roe v. Wade as an anomaly, saying it liberalized a practice that Americans had always opposed. But the historical record shows a far different set of conclusions.
In the 17th and 18th centuries, abortion was legal under common law before “quickening,” or when the pregnant woman could feel the fetus move, beginning around 16 weeks…. Abortion in the early stages of a pregnancy was common and generally not considered immoral or murderous. Along with breastfeeding, abstinence, the use of the rhythm method, vaginal douching and the use of herbs like pennyroyal or savin, which were believed to stimulate menstruation, abortion was considered part of the universe of what we now call “birth control.” By the 1820s, abortion services and contraceptive devices were advertised in newspapers with coded language.
We screened three episodes of Whatever Happened to the Human Race? cut into a ninety-minute special. More than fifty Republican congressional representatives and about twenty senators were there, from Henry Hyde to Bob Dole. Dad and I spoke to those assembled and took questions. We were there for over four hours. No one left early.
The National Right to Life Committee purchased time to show our series on ABC’s Channel 7 in Washington, DC, in primetime. Judy Mann of the Washington Post took notice. The headline of her article was “No Matter How Moving, Show Still Propaganda” (January 2, 1981). The article began, “Score a resounding 10 points on the emotional Richter scale for the anti-abortion forces that have produced a film called Whatever Happened to the Human Race?”
Abortion and saving America from “those feminists” became reliable and perpetual fundraisers for evangelical leaders. By the early 1980s, not many Republicans dared to resist declaring themselves anti-abortion. And Reagan saw that Republicans could use abortion as a new “wedge issue.” This was a good way to forge heretofore indifferent white evangelical voters into a powerful anti-feminist voting bloc favoring “family values”—and thus also anti-Democratic Party. Abortion served another purpose too, as Professor Balmer notes: “evangelical leaders … seized on abortion not for moral reasons, but as a rallying-cry to deny President Jimmy Carter a second term. Why? Because the anti-abortion crusade was more palatable than the religious right’s real motive: protecting segregated schools” (“The Real Origins of the Religious Right,” Politico, May 27, 2014).
Trump as the evangelical messiah
Fast-forward to 2016: White American evangelical anti-abortion Christians enabled the blundering buffoonery, habitual cruelty, and vengeful lashing out of the malignant corruption known as Trump. They winked at the crass ego he displays like a badge of honor and ignored the fact he is obviously a lying charlatan—all because Trump, they believed, had been “raised up by God for such a time as this.” Trump, the Hefnerian playboy, cynically presented himself as a defender of religious liberties for the evangelical and conservative Roman Catholic faithful. He became the newly minted champion of the anti-abortion crusade.
Trump was faking his “pro-life” credentials in the same way Reagan had, but Trump most sincerely did share the evangelicals’ hatred of women’s rights. So evangelicals forgave him for a bit of “questionable personal behavior”—i.e., a couple of divorces, an alleged rape or two, and a lifetime of molesting women, money laundering for thugs, lying to just about everyone about everything, racism, and tax cheating.
Attorney General William Barr goes to bat for outright theocracy
How big is the mess Dad and I contributed to? Without the abortion issue looming, it’s hard to picture the evangelicals as Trump’s dedicated supporters. This support then became a cult and took on a life of its own. By late 2019, Trump’s Attorney General, William Barr, was busy trying to muddy the legal waters around the impeachment process against Trump. Almost forty years after Dad and I were on the road spreading our message, Barr was more or less quoting from my father’s and my work. He gave a speech at Notre Dame University warning voters that secular liberalism had unleashed “licentiousness—the unbridled pursuit of personal appetites at the expense of the common good.” There was a glaring absurdity in Barr’s statement, as Thomas B. Edsall, a media commentator and political journalism professor at Columbia University, pointed out: “How could Barr possibly fail to recognize that there is no better example of a man in unbridled pursuit of his own appetites than his boss?” (“Liberals Do Not Want to Destroy the Family,” New York Times, November 27, 2019).
Barr talked about “the campaign to destroy the traditional moral order [that] has brought with it immense suffering, wreckage and misery. And yet, the forces of secularism, ignoring these tragic results, press on with even greater militancy.” Barr’s lecture was part of a drive by social conservatives to renew the demonization of so-called secular humanist liberal elites, secularism, and socialism by religious right leaders in the 1970s and ’80s. This time around the counterattack against secularism was specific: It was directed at white nationalist evangelical and conservative Roman Catholic voters with the sole purpose to entice them to vote for Trump—again—in 2020. Barr was presenting Trump as Christians’ last best hope to be allowed to maintain their faith, their values, and their children’s lives, unmolested.
Barr is a right-wing ideologue first and only secondarily someone who swore to uphold the Constitution. In Barr’s moral framework it’s okay to lie and bully on behalf of his boss, a philandering, thrice-married adulterer and con-artist, and to help cover up the fact Trump has sought favors from a foreign country. That’s the only way to understand Barr’s giving the speech he delivered at Notre Dame University in October 2019. It was (at first) ignored by most of the mainstream media. Given my background, I called out Barr on the unconstitutionality of what he said in several lengthy video commentaries I posted the very day after his speech. You see, in Barr’s talk I was hearing echoes of my father’s 1970s and 1980s speeches. Barr accused “militant secularists” of an organized conspiracy and assault on religion: “Those who defy the [secular] creed risk a figurative burning at the stake—social, educational, and professional ostracism and exclusion waged through lawsuits and savage social media campaigns.” Barr added, “Militant secularists today do not have a ‘live and let live’ spirit; they are not content to leave religious people alone to practice their faith. Instead, they seem to take a delight in compelling people to violate their conscience.” Barr said secularists “have marshaled all the force of mass communications, popular culture, the entertainment industry, and academia in an unremitting assault on religion and traditional values.”
The spirit of Barr’s speech might have been ripped from Dad’s last book, A Christian Manifesto, which was published in 1983. Dad called for the overthrow of the United States government if it didn’t change its policy on legal abortion. He compared the American legalization of abortion to Hitler’s Germany and said that whatever would have been morally acceptable acts to stop Hitler’s rise to power would be legitimate actions to keep the US government from allowing the murder of babies if “democratic means” failed to reverse Roe v. Wade. This was Dad’s call to arms— what a few years later gun lobby NRA types and Trump dubbed “Second Amendment solutions.”
Ross Douthat defends my father in spat between NY Times and New Yorker
To this day some of Dad’s more respectable fans don’t want to admit that one of their intellectual heroes was calling for overthrowing the US government. As recently as 2011 one of Dad’s more influential followers was still trying to deny that he had called for violence. New York Times columnist Ross Douthat spent considerable energy writing “Misreading Francis Schaeffer” (New York Times blogs, August 31, 2001), rebutting the New Yorker piece by Ryan Lizza (mentioned above) that had just outed Dad’s radicalism. This outing was done in the context of Lizza reporting, in “Leap of Faith—the making of a Republican front-runner” (August 8, 2011), on the influence Dad’s work had had on Michelle Bachman’s decision to run for president. Douthat argued:
Schaeffer’s major contribution to American public life wasn’t any sort of sinister “dominionist” master plan, but rather a much more defensible blueprint for Christian political action: He argued that Christian values were under assault in contemporary American life, that the idea of secular “neutrality” was something of a sham, and that believers had an obligation to be 1) engaged with the culture rather than bunkered against it, and 2) engaged politically on issues (abortion, especially) where fundamental moral truths were at stake…. And the fact that Schaeffer influenced a prominent evangelical politician like Bachmann isn’t nearly as surprising, strange or scary as Lizza’s piece often makes it sound.
Answering Douthat’s critique, Lizza fired back in the August 30, 2011, New Yorker:
[W]hen Douthat writes about Francis Schaeffer, an important influence on the Presidential candidate [Michelle Bachmann] he misses the mark…. Schaeffer … saw an apocalyptic, zero-sum struggle between the Christian world view and what he called the “humanist” world view. In “A Christian Manifesto,” Schaeffer writes: “What we must understand is that the two world views really do bring forth with inevitable certainty not only personal differences, but total differences in regard to society, government, and law. There is no way to mix these two total world views. They are separate entities that cannot be synthesized.”… And later in “A Christian Manifesto,” he writes: “It is not too strong to say that we are at war, and there are no neutral parties in the struggle. One either confesses that God is the final authority, or one confesses that Caesar is Lord.”
If Christians were to lose this “war” over world views, the consequences would be catastrophic…. Either Christians defeated the humanists and reinstated “God’s written Law” as the “base” in America or we would lose our democracy…. I was accurate, in writing that Schaeffer called “for the violent overthrow of the government if Roe v. Wade isn’t reversed.”
Christian Reconstructionism—the American “Taliban”
Barr was not an anomaly in the Trump administration. By the time Barr gave his speech, evangelicals had one of their very own—Mike Pence—sitting at the president’s elbow. And Trump was surrounded by other fundamentalist advisers with direct access to the Oval Office. Trump was delivering on their agenda. He was promoting conservative anti-abortion judges at a record pace, shaping American foreign policy along evangelical lines when it came to his Israel policies, and defending evangelicals’ anti-gay “religious liberty” demands for the right to discriminate against the LGBTQ community. When Barr invoked “religious freedom,” it was code for religious privilege and an argument for the right of conservative evangelicals and authoritarian Roman Catholics to discriminate against those of whom they disapprove.
Wittingly or unwittingly, Barr and Dad’s views were shaped by the 1960s and 1970s Theonomist movement, or Christian Reconstructionism. This movement was led by Dad’s friend Rousas Rushdoony. No one outside evangelical circles, except a few ideologically driven commentators like Ross Douthat, seem to have heard of my old friend “Rush” (I spent a few days at his compound in the late 1970s). But his influence directly or indirectly shaped the views of many leaders like Franklin Graham and Mike Pence, whom many Americans have heard of. In his defense of Dad in the New York Times, Douthat wrote:
Overall, the casual reader who knows little or nothing about Schaeffer (i.e., most New Yorker readers) would come away from Lizza’s piece with the sense that the L’Abri founder’s worldview was almost indistinguishable from the genuinely theocratic views of a more marginal figure like the Christian Reconstructionist guru R.J. Rushdoony. (Lizza subtly conflates the two later in the piece, when he notes that while Bachmann attended law school at Oral Roberts University, the law review “published essays by Schaeffer and Rousas John Rushdoony, a prominent Dominionist who has called for a pure Christian theocracy in which Old Testament law—execution for adulterers and homosexuals, for example—would be instituted.”) This is simply wrong: Rushdoony’s interpretation of the American founding may have had some influence on Schaeffer, but the latter explicitly repudiated the broader reconstructionist worldview, dismissing it as bad theology and bad politics alike.
The Theonomists, otherwise known as Dominionists or Christian Reconstructionists believed in taking “dominion” over society and the world and then “reconstructing” it modeled on biblical Law. They (like Barr) believed in “restoring American” by eliminating “secular humanism.” They wanted to make America into a modern-day version of Geneva during Calvin’s Reformation instead of a democracy. They were an evangelical version of the Taliban. They were anti-tax, anti-government, gold-hoarding, gun-toting libertarians and were working to replace American law with Old Testament biblical fiat. Rushdoony was also a racist, pro-slavery, anti-abortion, anti-public education, and anti-gay bigot and a leader of the home school movement designed to groom new indoctrinated followers. In Rushdoony’s America as in Calvin’s Geneva, women pregnant out of wedlock were to be drowned along with their unborn babies, and of course gay men were to be killed and heretics burnt.
In the 1970s the Dominionists released a steady stream of anti-feminist position papers, books, and magazines and held conferences all over the country. Their national following included Howard Ahmanson, heir of the Home Savings bank fortune, who bankrolled Rushdoony and would later bankroll the Intelligent Design movement as well as some of my father’s and his associates’ anti-abortion projects. Dad regarded Rushdoony as “too extreme” but said, “I like some of what Rush says, until he starts saying slavery was okay and part of God’s plan and we need to hang gay men.” When Trump once joked that Mike Pence “wants to hang gay people,” he was unwittingly confirming that Pence was a Dominionist.
Amy Coney Barrett is William Barr in a skirt. Barrett could have been quoting Barr when she said in a speech at Notre Dame a ‘legal career is but a means to an end … and that end is building the Kingdom of God.” She is a pro-life theocratic fanatic who given the chance would help turn America into a Christian version of Iran. She did not come out of thin air. My family helped pave the way for this moment of extremism. The very fact she was even considered by Trump makes me feel ashamed.