Losing faith in the U.S. religious right

National Post, Canada/August 1, 2009

When American novelist Frank Schaeffer describes his formative years as "an unusual childhood," it is the height of understatement.

His stories of growing up in a cult-ish community in the Swiss Alps during the 1950s and '60s, and how he and his evangelical father came roaring back to the United States to light the match that created the American religious right, are strange enough.

Even the Biblical analogies are eerie: Modern prophets descending from mountains, spurred by the legalization of abortion, returning to the American promised land to rally the faithful against evil.

"[Our family was] famous but famous in a subculture. Unless you had been involved in a certain small slice of American culture, you probably never heard of me or my dad," he said.

"That's the way real history happens as opposed to the way one would imagine it happening," said Mr. Schaeffer, the prodigal son of the clan, who documented his family's strange odyssey 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.

As the book's title implies, something else happened: a reaction to the movement he helped build that is filled with such regret and self-loathing that 20 years later, he still feels the need to shout mea culpa whenever he gets the chance.

He feels ashamed he did not leave sooner than he did.

"It became very apparent that the people we were working with genuinely hated the United States," he said in an interview from his home near Boston. "They looked at America and said, 'We are going to overthrow the system as it now stands and turn this into a semi-theocratic, right-wing country' where Old Testament law, Biblical absolutes, would be applied.

"But I was this fiery young speaker. I would get paid $5,000 to $10,000 for speaking. What was I going to do, wash dishes?"

During the interview, Mr. Schaeffer spoke about his own trajectory from spoiled sex-obsessed son of "evangelical royalty," to the man who helped bring the Republican Party and conservative Christians together, including his association with the likes of Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell, men he came to despise.

He is quick to laugh and rather than bitterness, there is an almost "how the hell did this happen" wonder at it all.

So it was with his early years at the community called L'Abri, when his parents, Francis and Edith, would host hundreds of pilgrims who would come through each year to learn about the "true" Protestant faith. Many were wanderers and seekers, while others were connected to the most powerful people in America.

"[T]he Schaeffers were evangelical royalty," Mr. Schaeffer wrote in Crazy for God. "When I was growing up at L'Abri ... it was not unusual to find myself seated across the dining room table from Billy Graham's daughter or President Ford's son, even Timothy Leary.

"Only later did I realize that L'Abri attracted a weirdly eclectic group of people who otherwise would not have been caught dead in the same room. My childhood was, to say the least, unusual."

L'Abri was surprisingly liberal for an evangelical community in those days. Bob Dylan played on the stereo; his parents never judged anyone because of sexual orientation; and pregnant single women were frequent, welcome visitors.

His parents may have been mountain gurus, but their books were becoming the standard texts for American evangelicals. His father wrote more than 20 books with such titles as Genesis in Space and Time and The God Who is There. Between those books and the occasional lecture back in the States, the reclusive couple was connecting with evangelicals and their leaders in a profound way, Mr. Schaeffer explained.

Then came Roe vs. Wade, the U. S. Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion across the country, and things began to change dramatically for the Schaeffers.

Frank Schaeffer was newly married and a new father, and the idea of abortion on demand outraged him. He began to lobby his father to take a stand on the issue.

Back then, the words "religious" and "right" were as separate as church and state. Protestants thought of abortion as a Catholic issue -- and they did not care much for Catholics -- and evangelical pastors, even the big name stars, concerned themselves solely with winning souls for Christ.

"When Roe came along, in terms of evangelical leadership, my Dad and I were the only ones talking about it. Falwell was not involved in politics at all. Robertson was just getting going. Most of these people were following the Billy Graham mode: 'We're evangelists, we're preaching Jesus, we're not into politics.' Essentially, it was the example my dad set turning people towards these issues which then took on a political life because later they became part of the Republican Party platform."

Mr. Schaeffer said it was the Republicans, not the Democrats, who quickly realized they could organize evangelicals for their own benefit. They were good at fundraising, they had huge mailing lists and "nothing could raise funds so quickly as saving babies."

"Then the message was: To be a good Christian it is no longer enough to believe in Jesus, but you also have to want to save babies. And since the only people doing anything about this are the Republicans, to be a good Christian you have to vote Republican," Mr. Schaeffer said.

"Fast forward to the present. Once that model became something that worked, they looked for new issues, because you can't keep selling people the same used car. Now we've got to stand against gays, gay unions; for prayer in schools, and the public display of the Ten Commandments," he said. "The energy of the religious right suddenly became this thing looking for emotive issues that will replicate the fire the pro-life movement generated.... You had to keep feeding it red meat. And the red meat is always a dramatic issue of right and wrong.... So if George W. Bush doesn't believe in global warming, then we don't believe in it either."

Mr. Schaeffer believes the religious right hit its high-water mark with Mr. Bush and that the Republican Party has become a weakened political force--for now.

But he fears there's been a fanatical core of extremists left behind, such as the man accused of killing abortion doctor George Tiller in Kansas.

"I think the religious right is more dangerous, not less.... You have a very angry group of people. Armed and dangerous. And they have a certain element of desperation."

Mr. Schaeffer is no longer an evangelical. He joined a Greek Orthodox church where the emphasis is not on the sermons or the preachers, but on the mystical liturgy.

Despite his great disillusionment with the faithful, he said he never really thought of abandoning religion and God altogether because it has been bred into the bone from his years at L'Abri.

"The irony is, if I wanted to be an atheist, I'd pray to God and ask him to help me."

To see more documents/articles regarding this group/organization/subject click here.