Frank Schaeffer didn’t have to write Crazy For God. At least, financially, it wasn’t necessary. He’s become a successful novelist and essayist in his own right since he made his “escape”. The book feels like not so much a “tell-all” as a personal confession, and a painful one at that. But… it explains so much.
“… 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”
Frank Schaeffer is the son of the famous evangelical theologian Francis Schaeffer. Together they produced two best-selling documentary film series, spoke all over the country, wrote piles of books and articles, and lent their intellectual respectability to the conservative evangelical movement, the anti-abortion issue within it, and the Republican Party that merged with it. This, I knew vaguely, and remembered being influenced by their films and books.
Schaeffer had been a dyslexic kid who never did well in school. He had polio at a young age and spent most of his childhood recovering. But though formal education didn’t do much for him, the L’Abri community brought some of the world’s brightest lights to his family’s table, and he spent a good part of his childhood knocking around Italy with his father, who would have been happier as an art historian than as an evangelical leader.
I hadn’t a clue from watching his powerfully-made documentaries, or basking in the certitude of the books, how the Schaeffer universe really worked, or what spiritual compromises had to be made to bring Bishop Sheen, Billy Graham, Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell, Pat Buchanan and other, now-powerful denizens of the Religious right under a single tent with little-known hucksters and organizers of the Dominionist movement like Billy Zeoli and Ralph Reed. Or how they were all exploited by, and in turn exploited, rising politicians like Ronald Reagan and the Bushes. That was all behind the scenes.
(You just have to read Schaeffer’s description of Bush Jr. for yourself; I won’t spoil it for you.)
Even more hidden were Frank Schaeffer’s doubts. He just sort of dropped off the edge of the world there for a while, and it never occurred to me to wonder why. He found himself driving the movement by whose winds so many of us were sailing, but at the same time feeling that it was devouring his soul.
“The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit: a broken and a contrite heart, O God, thou wilt not despise.”
…and if there was ever a broken spirit writing today, it’s Frank Schaeffer. His attempt to find peace after being at the center of a movement that he came to suffer only with nausea is a story that opens a whole room in the range of human contrition.
The trouble is, he can’t take it all back. The films are made and still popular in evangelical circles, the politicians elevated, the televangelists wealthy, and the country divided. Christianity is divided, in perhaps a more fundamental way than anytime since the Reformation.
Schaeffer disavows any notion that he has the only way to tell the story. There’s even a deeply surprising ending – perhaps the only possible approximation of a happy one, given what he experienced and how he perceived his own failures.
The hardest confession isn’t where he hit rock bottom, but how long he stayed in the movement after the very sight of Pat Robertson and James Dobson or Billy Graham began to sicken him. The moment when he realizes that he doesn’t know how to do anything else, and is trapped, is no occasion for schadenfreude. Instead, it makes you wonder if your neighborhood pastor could be in a similar trap, pacing to and fro looking for the exit.
Schaeffer made reference to “the small hypocrisies that make life bearable” and that phrase has been in my mind. If there is a lesson in the book, it may be that complete philosophical consistency, which is to say purity and absolutism, leads inevitably to complete hypocrisy.
I remember that time, and I remember L’Abri and the Schaeffers being a big deal. He doesn’t paint many villains. There are so many, touching perspectives on the goodness in his community, and how good they were to him and his wife, and how they would have been divorced fifty times if not for the genuine love that surrounded them. As I read the book, I kept thinking of my friends who should also read it. Anyone devoted to the “pro-choice” movement, and the “pro-life” movement should read it. Any atheist and any conservative Christian, or any Liberal Christian. Anyone who remembers that time in history… and anyone who does not.
Because it explains so much.