My horrible right-wing past: Confessions of a one-time religious right icon

I was a religious fanatic appealing to political leaders. Today, the fanatics are the political leaders

By Frank Schaeffer | 24 December 2014

Frank Schaeffer, who wrote the memoir “Sex, Mom, & God,” broke with conservatism, and with evangelicalism, in the late 1980s. (Credit: YouTube / screengrab)

I am a white, privileged, well-off, 61-year-old former Republican religious right-wing activist who changed his mind about religion and politics long ago. The New York Times profiled my change of heart saying that to my former friends I’m considered a “traitorous prince” since my religious-right family was once thought of as “evangelical royalty.”

You see, only in the Mafia, the British Royal family and big time American religion is a nepotistic rise to power seen as normal. And I was good at it. And I hated it while hypocritically profiting from it — until, that is, in the mid-1980s, I quit. These days I describe myself as an atheist who believes in God.

Ironically I helped my father become famous in the religion sector. In the 1970s I directed and produced two film series featuring Dad with book companions that became evangelical bestsellers: “How Should We Then Live?” and “Whatever Happened to the Human Race?” By the time Dad and I completed two nationwide seminar tours launching those projects, I was being invited to speak at the biggest religious gatherings, including the Southern Baptist Convention and the annual meeting of the National Religious Broadcasters.

The leaders of the new religious right were gleefully betting on American failure. If secular, democratic, diverse and pluralistic America survived, then wouldn’t that prove that we were wrong about God only wanting to bless “Christian America?” If, for instance, crime went down dramatically in New York City, for any other reason than a reformation and revival, wouldn’t that make the prophets of doom look silly? And if the economy was booming without anyone repenting, what did that mean?

What began to bother me was that so many of our new “friends” on the religious right seemed to be rooting for one form of apocalypse or another. In the crudest form this was part of the evangelical fascination with the so-called end times. The worse things got, the sooner Jesus would come back. But there was another component. The worse everything got, the more it proved that America needed saving, by us! Plus, it was good for fundraising.

Some 30 years later, what we helped start — I am sorry! — continues. With the Republicans in control of the House and Senate the question arises — again — Where does the American far right find the energy to oppose everything and everyone again and again?

The short answer is that the American right is not about politics as most people understand it but about religious absolutes. As the New York Times noted on the single-minded desire to subvert President Obama’s overhaul of the broken immigration system, “And in their most audacious plans, Tea Party groups are preparing to recruit challengers to run against high-profile Republicans they accuse of betraying them — as they did when they toppled Eric Cantor, the former House majority leader.”

This zealous negativity has a long history. I was part of it as the nepotistic sidekick to my religious-right evangelist father. The 1970s Evangelical anti-abortion movement that Dad (Evangelical leader Francis Schaeffer), C. Everett Koop (who would be Ronald Reagan’s surgeon general) and I helped create seduced the Republican Party. We turned it into an extremist far-right party that is fundamentally anti-American. There would have been no Tea Party without the foundation we built.

The difference between now and then is that back then we were religious fanatics knocking on the doors of normal political leaders. Today the fanatics are the political leaders.

You can’t understand why the GOP was so successful in winning back both houses of congress in 2014, and wrecking most of what Obama has tried to do, unless you understand what we did back then.

You see, in the late 1960s Dad published the first of many best-selling evangelical books. When Dad toured evangelical colleges and churches all over North America, I often accompanied him while Mom and Dad — unbeknownst to them at the time — were gradually being elevated to Evangelical Protestant sainthood. This meant that a few years later when Dad took a “stand” on the issue of abortion, a powerful movement formed almost instantly, inspired by his leadership, and the evangelical-led “pro-life” movement (and the religious right) was born.

My father is still a hero to many religious right leaders, such as Dave Andrusko (editor of the National Right to Life News). In his review of two books on the history of the anti-abortion movement, Andrusko notes that the anti-abortion movement “attracted people by building on the foundation established by theologian Francis Schaeffer. It is difficult to exaggerate the importance of [Schaeffer’s] book “Whatever Happened to the Human Race?” and [the 1970s] twenty-city film and lecture tour [undertaken] to awaken the evangelical community.”

By the early 1980s the Republicans were laboring under the weight of a single-issue religious test for heresy: abortion. As I describe in my new book “Why I am an Atheist Who Believes in God: How to give love, create beauty and find peace” (and I hope offer an alternative to the harm we did), I was there — and/or Dad was.

We were leaders participating in various meetings with Congressman Jack Kemp, Presidents Ford, Reagan and Bush, Sr., when the unholy marriage between the Republican Party and the Evangelical Reconstructionist-infected “pro-life” community was gradually consummated. Dad and I — as did many other evangelical leaders like Jerry Falwell — met one on one or in groups with key members of the Republican leadership quite regularly to develop a “pro-life strategy” for rolling back Roe v. Wade. (Senator Jesse Helms named Dad as his favorite author when asked by the American Spectator magazine to name his favorite books.)

And that strategy was simple: Republican leaders would affirm their anti-abortion commitment to evangelicals, and in turn we’d vote for them — by the tens of millions. Once Republicans controlled both houses of Congress and the presidency, “we” would reverse Roe, through a constitutional amendment and/or through the appointment of anti-abortion judges to the Supreme Court or, if need be, through civil disobedience and even violence, though this was only hinted at at first. In 2016, the dream we had will become a reality unless America wakes up. The Republicans are poised to destroy women’s rights. They have a majority on the Court to back them up.

When evangelical and Republican leaders sat together, we discussed “the issue,” but we would soon move on to the practical particulars, such as “Will blue-collar Catholic voters join us now?” (They did.) Soon evangelical leaders were helping political leaders to send their message to the “pro-life community” that they — the Republican leaders — were on board.

For instance, I organized the 1984 publication of President Ronald Reagan’s anti-abortion book with Evangelical Bible publisher Thomas Nelson. Reagan’s book had first appeared as an essay in the Human Life Review (Spring 1983). I was friends with the Human Life Review founder and editor: brilliant Roman Catholic anti-abortion crusader Jim McFadden. He and I cooked up the presidential project over the phone.

The president’s book expressed his anti-abortion “views” as ghostwritten by McFadden in order to cement the Reagan “deal” with the anti-abortion movement. We called the book “Abortion and the Conscience of the Nation.” I suggested to Reagan’s people that two Schaeffer family friends — C. Everett Koop and Malcolm Muggeridge (a famous British writer/social critic and convert from far-left politics to rabid far-right Roman Catholicism with whom my father once led a huge pro-life demonstration in Hyde Park, London) — provide us with afterwords to “bulk out” an otherwise too brief book, which they did within a week or two after I called them.

Once they were “on board,” Republican leaders like Senator Jesse Helms and Congressmen Jack Kemp and Henry Hyde (to name but three whom I met with often, in Jack’s case in his home, where I stayed as a guest) worked closely with my father and me, and we (along with a lot of other religious leaders) began to deliver large blocs of voters. We even managed “our” voters for the Republican Party by incessantly reminding our followers of “the issue” through newsletters, TV and radio broadcasts. For instance, I worked closely with James Dobson in the early days of his “Focus on the Family” radio program, and I was on his show several times. He offered my “pro-life” book “A Time for Anger” as a fundraising fulfillment and distributed more than 150,000 copies. The book eventually sold over half a million copies.

No one seemed to notice (or mind) that the Republicans weren’t really doing anything about abortion other than talking about it to voters. And by the mid- to late 1980s the cause shifted: We Evangelicals paid lip-service to “stopping abortion,” but the real issue was keeping Republicans in power and keeping evangelical leaders in the ego-stroking loop of having access to power.

Fast-forward 30 years to the early 21st century: The messengers, leaders and day-to-day “issues” changed. For instance, we were into taking away a woman’s right to choose. Today it’s about gay bashing and denying climate change — and now the nakedly racist anti-immigrant movement threat is part of the reaction to the black man in the White House.

But the volume and tone of the anti-government “debate” and the anger in reaction to the Obama presidency originated with the anti-abortion movement. To understand where that anger came from and who first gave voice to it and why it has a level of religious fervor to it, consider a few prescient passages from my father’s immensely influential book (influential within the evangelical ghetto, that is) “A Christian Manifesto,” which was published in 1981.

As you read these excerpts, bear in mind what would take place in the “health care debates” over what came to be disparaged as “Obamacare” 30 years or so after my father’s book was read by hundreds of thousands of evangelicals. Anti-health-care-reform rhetoric — ”Death Panels!” “Government Takeover!” “Obama is Hitler!” — that the far right spewed in the policy debates of 2009 and beyond seemed to be ripped from the pages of Dad’s and my writings. Note the ominous rhetorical shadow Dad’s book cast over a benighted and divided American future, a future that produced the climate of hate that eventually spawned the murder of abortion providers such as Dr. George Tiller in Wichita in 2009. Here’s a bit from Dad’s writing on how the government was “taking away” our country and turning it over to liberals, codenamed by Dad as “this total humanistic way of thinking”:

The law, and especially the courts, is the vehicle to force this total humanistic way of thinking upon the entire population.

And this:

Simply put, the Declaration of Independence states that the people, if they find that their basic rights are being systematically attacked by the state, have a duty to try and change that government, and if they cannot do so, to abolish it.

Then this:

There does come a time when force, even physical force, is appropriate. A true Christian in Hitler’s Germany and in the occupied countries should have defied the false and counterfeit state. This brings us to a current issue that is crucial for the future of the church in the United States, the issue of abortion. It is time we consciously realize that when any office commands what is contrary to God’s law it abrogates its authority. And our loyalty to the God who gave this law then requires that we make the appropriate response in that situation.

In other words, Dad’s followers were told that (1) force is a legitimate weapon to use against an evil government; (2) America was like Hitler’s Germany — because of legal abortion and of the forcing of “humanism” on the population — and thus intrinsically evil; and (3) whatever would have been the “appropriate response” to stop Hitler was now appropriate to do here in America to stop our government, which Dad had just branded a “counterfeit state.”

Is it any wonder that the (mostly) evangelicals running the far-right Republican Party these days see themselves as the children of a revolution? This is ISIS minus the beheadings, but the vibe is the same. Shutting down the government was nothing to these people. They see our government as the enemy, and they are running it.

As I said, in the 1970s we were outsiders asking for change. The change came and now people as demented as I was are running the show.

Dad’s books sailed under the radar of the major media, which weren’t paying much attention to religious books despite the powerful influence they were having on the direction of American politics. “Manifesto” sold more than 1 million copies in evangelical bookstores.

Dad and I were rewarded by the Republican leadership — admittedly before some of Dad’s fans were killing doctors but after we were spreading anti-government and anti-American venom — for our “stand.” By the end of the 1970s the Republicans depended on agitators (or “prophetic voices”) like us to energize their rank and file.

They still do.

Mark my words, the subtext to the GOP assault on us in 2016 will be religious extremism — again. And now it has a racist twist. Look at the right’s reaction to the events in Ferguson. Look at the continuing anti-Obama ugliness far past mere political difference. For the Republicans the next election won’t be about politics. it will be a holy war — again.

Reprinted with permission from the author.

Frank Schaeffer is a New York Times bestselling author of more than a dozen books. He has been a frequent guest on the Rachel Maddow Show on NBC, has appeared on Oprah, been interviewed by Terri Gross on NPR’s Fresh Air and appeared on the Today Show, BBC News and many other media outlets. He is a much sought after speaker and has lectured at a wide range of venues from Harvard’s Kennedy School to the Hammer Museum/UCLA, Princeton University, Riverside Church Cathedral, DePaul University and the Kansas City Public Library.

Frank Schaeffer: How to Stop Being a Fundamentalist Evangelical Christian

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  1. While this is an interesting and deeply-disturbing story, how much credence can I put in the person who's willing to say, "These days I describe myself as an atheist who believes in God". That's an oxymoron. You're either an atheist. Or you believe in god. You can't be both.
    Are Americans so afraid of actually stating "I see no evidence for the existence of a god" that they're actually willing to make 'liferaft' statements like Shaeffer's. Or has he – as do so many others – completely misunderstand what 'atheist' means?
    And if so, how much else does he misunderstand?
    Don't get me wrong … I'm always hugely relieved to see someone let go of 'god mythology' and Republicanism. I just scratch my head when something so – pardon the unintentional pun – fundamental seems so poorly understood.

    • Not everyone is as black-and-white as you are. As Schaeffer mentions in the video above, "How to Stop Being a Fundamentalist Evangelical", some days he believes in a Creative power that gave rise to our consciousness, and some days he does not. He wishes to capture the ambiguity and uncertainty many people feel. I count myself fortunate to have a consistent (but non-fundamentalist) belief in God; but I know others who (like falling in or out of love) fall in and out of faith.

      • Faith and religion are 2 different things. One can have faith is anything , not necessarily a god. Religion is a set of rules and regulations made to control believers in a certain version of a god.

    • Don't make Schaeffer's explanation complicated as to his meaning of being "an atheist who believes in God". What seems to be an oxymoron is not. It's rather simply stated by Ann Lamott “The opposite of faith is not doubt, it’s certainty.” Evangelical Christianity has alienated those with doubt by their certainty. They have built the box in which God lives and in rejecting those who don't enter the box have caused people of faith to find solace in their own search for God. Many Evangelical Christians will be surprised in eternity when they recognize the box God built included many they rejected.

    • Theist is a person who believes in GOD. Atheist is a person who does not. No mention of religion, faith or what ever else can be put in there. It is very simple. To say that I am an atheist who believes in god is the same as saying I am a dog lover who does not like dogs.

  2. "Only a small minority of authors over-write themselves. Most of the good and the tolerable ones do not write enough." (quote from Arnold Bennett) … In my opinion, Frank Schaeffer should write more frequently.

    • Anything Frank Schaeffer does in the future should go to reversing the sad, sick tidal wave of power abuse and religious delusion he helped unleash.
      He and his father crippled this nation, badly. Thanks to Frank and his oh so deluded father, we don’t have equality. Eligible candidates who happen to secular dare not run for office.
      In my world, Frank might be in prison and at least on parole.

      ‘Spirituality’ is an airy worthless term. Most of the tingles we get that we might call ‘spiritual-based’, is actually internal pharmacy-based; essentially the same drug-induced feelings we get at a large political rally or a sports event, cheering with the masses.
      It is time for US, collectively, to get real.

  3. I spent over 20 years going to evangelical churches. My husband is a born-again, Bible-thumping evangelical. For the sake of my marriage I tried to swallow all of it; I REALLY tried. But I simply could not. I hated the misogyny, the veiled racism, the polarization of the issues, the requirement to “fall in line” with the preacher’s thinking and voting, the denigration of education, literacy and intellectualism. The older you get, the clearer it becomes that you cannot live a lie: it will kill you. So now I am open about it: I am an agnostic deist. I am a spiritual person; I am in awe of the beautiful and powerful things around us. But it is not in my comfort zone to dictate to others what they must believe. And seriously, this “end of days” crap annoys the snot outta me. I wanna say “Look — if you’re in such a hurry to go, go play on the freeway.” But of course, they aren’t in a hurry to go; they are just mouthing the platitudes delivered in smothering quantities by their rabid leaders.
    I would love to share this on Facebook, but all my relations, my husband and many of my friends would be offended. See, these are not bad people; they are misguided and poorly informed. They tend to deify or at least canonize their leaders, even the ones who get caught with hookers, sent to prison for fraud or get outted as gay. And there is no discussing issues with these folks. So, just imagine my home life. Opposites don’t attract; that’s a lie. It’s no fun.

    • Annette, I feel for you. Fortunately, my husband is a confirmed liberal. Most of my family is either evangelical or right wingers. My parents were always what I called conservative Democrats who never understood why anyone except the rich would vote for Republicans. Although Mom was easily influenced by her friends and neighbors, she never stopped voting for Democrats. While I try to keep in touch for family reasons, since both of my parents are gone, I feel no need for actual visits. You’re right that discussion is out because they always manage to twist things. If one of their politicians is caught doing wrong, even the most conservative relatives tell me, “All politicians do this. They all cheat.”


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