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
by Frank Schaeffer.
New York: Carroll & Graf, 2007
417 pp, $26.00.
This is the first of a three-part discussion on the book Crazy for God by Frank Schaeffer.
Reviewed by Anne Eggebroten
Evangelical was a respectable term then, not yet soiled by collaboration with a still-to-be-invented “Religious Right.” As a junior in college, I heard Schaeffer lecture, impressed by his critique of modern culture and the sweep of history he commanded. I was proud to be his kind of Christian.
How fascinating now to go backstage with his son Frank and see the personal struggles of Francis and his wife Edith, to learn that Francis suffered from fierce rages and debilitating depression, that she was the spiritual Superwoman who kept him going.
Parts 1 and 2 of this book are delightful and hard to put down: one crazy anecdote after another, filled with humor and irony: the family trying to catch a local bus to leave for a week’s ski vacation, young Franky delighting in the freedom of neglect as his busy parents tend to the needs of visiting students, his sister Susan trying to provide haphazard homeschooling.
Most compelling, however, is Frank’s honesty in analyzing the family dynamics, as this passage shows:
“Mom’s spiritual pride, mixed with fierce spiritual ambition for her children, mixed with a willingness to be a doormat to her overbearing husband—as a further example of her piety and her ability to be the perfect wife for the Lord’s sake, while Dad was so far from perfect—left my sisters and me with a life-time of conflicted emotions” (p. 112).
In the same chapter (17), he reports resentment of his father after hearing his mother’s explanation for her repeated absences to travel with him on his lecture circuit: “…Dad wanted sex every night.”
Frank reflects on his father’s “temper and violent rage at my mother,” noting that L’Abri workers “must have heard the screaming, and some must have known there was abuse” (p. 101). Also surprising is the revelation of his father’s “year of doubt,” when he considered giving up the Christian faith.
Sections written by Frank’s sisters and others add to the family drama. In chapter 6, Debby writes of her mother, “She pursued her [Christian] objectives with determination, though bits of bodies all around her were lost to frostbite. The havoc she caused to all around her, as they were dragged in to help her meet self-imposed deadlines and goals, was phenomenal and scarring to me as a child” (p. 43).
Handed an eccentric childhood full of unusual experiences, Frank has plenty to write about and he does it well. There’s his struggle with polio, including attempts to receive faith healing from a young friend, and his mother’s theological analysis: “…Satan attacked us” in an attempt to prevent the founding of L’Abri (p. 28).
There are scenes of dazzling beauty: Frank sledding by starlight with friends down a snowy mountain near L’Abri (p. 221), the family walking by the sea on summer trips to Portofino, Italy (p. 81). Of his parents’continuing love for each other, Frank says, “They were happiest when farthest away from their missionary work…” (p. 99).
We meet other characters like Jane and Betty, “as much a couple as any of the married workers in L’Abri,” who welcome Franky into their home and nurture him in his parents’ absence (p. 56). Finally sent off to boarding school in England, Frank describes happy years there with a kind and progressive headmaster.
Francis Sr.’s insistence on interracial tolerance in the late 1950s and early 1960s is interesting; he told his children he would bless an interracial marriage if they chose that. Edith and Francis also accepted testimony from homosexual friends “that they had been born that way,” reports Frank: “not only did they believe them, but Dad defended them against people who would judge or exclude them” (p. 77).
Unmarried pregnant young women were also accepted into the L’Abri community without censure, including the visitor from California with whom a teenage Franky conceived a child. He now considers “our mistake” to have been one of the most significant and positive change points in his life (p. 404).
I was intrigued by the first half of Crazy for God, comparing the Schaeffers to my own dysfunctional family, but Part 3, titled “Turmoil” was troubling. Francis Sr. becomes famous with the film seriesHow Should We Then Live? (1976), directed by Frank, and at his son’s insistence speaks against the recent legalization of abortion in the U.S. in the last two episodes of that series.
“My antiabortion fervor was strictly personal,” writes Frank. “It had a name, Jessica, my little girl, proof that conception is good, even an unexpected teen conception” (p. 265).
Those two episodes attract the interest of Dr. C. Everett Koop, who enlists father and son to write another film series focusing on abortion, infanticide, and euthanasia, Whatever Happened to the Human Race? (1979). The Schaeffers increasingly sell their souls to men they don’t respect: Jerry Falwell, James Dobson, Pat Robertson. Frank summarizes the speeches they gave: “Abortion is murder; secular humanism is destroying us; turn back to our Christian foundation; vote Republican.”
Frank describes sinking “deeper into a mixture of self-loathing and despair,” but at this point his livelihood depends on the evangelical speaking circuit; he and his wife have three children. The self-deprecation of this part of the book is mixed with a remnant of pride for his part in the emergence of the “Religious Right” and for working with national leaders like President Ronald Reagan, who sends a warm personal note on the death of Francis Sr.
My sympathies were engaged again in Part 4 when Frank leaves the evangelical world and becomes penniless in Los Angeles, trying to get work in directing films. His journey back to normalcy begins with writing a loosely fictionalized story of his own life, the first of the Calvin Becker series.
All in all, I gained valuable insights into the evangelical world as well as into my own life by reading this book.
Anne Eggebroten is a founding member of EEWC and teaches Women & Religion at California State University, Northridge.
© 2008 Evangelical & Ecumenical Women’s Caucus volume 32 number 1 Spring (April-June) 2008
A Personal Response to a Provocative Memoir
by Sharon Gallagher.
This essay is the second of a three-part discussion, of the book Crazy for God by Frank Schaeffer.
In the early seventies, after graduating from college, I headed off with a friend to tour Europe. It was a time when large numbers of baby boomers were coming of age and wanted to see the world. They were searching for meaning and transcendence in a variety of ways—many used drugs, some went to Indian Ashrams, some joined cults. And, in my view, providence brought many to the L’Abri community in Switzerland. I was one of those students, and that visit changed my life.
Founded by Francis and Edith Schaeffer, L’Abri (French for “the Shelter”) welcomed pilgrims and seekers to learn about the Christian faith in an amazingly beautiful valley in the Swiss Alps. There, an international group of young travelers attended lectures followed by long discussions about existentialism, the Vietnam war, movies, books, art, and theology. All concerns were taken seriously.
At a time when many American Christians recoiled from countercultural types, L’Abri welcomed them. In fact, Francis became one of them, growing his hair and a goatee and abandoning his earlier missionary suits for his now famous mountain-climber’s knickers.
I’d grown up in a fundamentalist subculture in the “Christ against culture” mode where the larger culture was viewed with suspicion. At L’Abri the culture was engaged. It was a breath of fresh air to be with Christians who loved the things I loved—art, music, literature, and movies. (The film discussions inspired the many movie reviews I’ve written over the years.) Evening conversations were held over delicious candle-lit dinners, served on real china. One of Edith Schaeffer’s themes was that in addition to good theology, we all need beauty in our lives.
Being with these prayerful, thoughtful Christians gave me a taste for community that has shaped my life. Returning from Europe, instead of going to graduate school as planned, I headed to a Christian community in Berkeley, and never left.
Some of my first subversive thoughts about women’s roles came to me at L’Abri, but they weren’t inspired by the lectures. I stayed for awhile in the chalet of Debby and Udo Middelmann. Debby was one of the Schaeffers’ three daughters and a graduate of the University of Lausanne. Udo presided over the table conversations while Debby and other female helpers made supper. In the middle of one conversation Debby came out of the kitchen to put something on the table and, before rushing back into the kitchen, she made a brilliant comment that illuminated the whole discussion we were having. I remember thinking “She should be out here at the table with us—not stuck in the kitchen.”
I was also aware of a furtive figure occasionally seen tromping around in motorcycle boots with a scowl on his face, the Schaeffers’ only son, Franky. I’d heard that Franky had been expelled from boarding school and never finished high school. He’d gotten one of the young and lovely L’Abri students pregnant and they were newly married. Yet it seemed clear that despite his history, and all the gifted, spiritually mature L’Abri members (including his sisters), Franky was L’Abri’s heir apparent.
It is this Franky, now Frank, Schaeffer whose new book Crazy for God, we’re reviewing. If those of us visiting L’Abri found it liberating and life-transforming, for Franky, it was a place of pious expectations that he felt he could never fulfill.
Two prominent leaders of L’Abri , Os Guinness and Hans Rookmaaker, became friends of mine. So after buying Crazy for God I immediately looked in the index for their names. There were two brief references to Os Guinness and no mention of Hans Rookmaaker. Yet Frank spends many pages describing in great and lyrical detail the girls he had crushes on. This book is not “The L’Abri Story.” This is Frank’s book and his memories are those of a rebellious teenage boy, keenly interested in sex and resentful of his parents’ focus on their ministry.
In his early twenties Frank became an anti-abortion activist. Frank explains that his convictions came out of his deep love for his baby daughter. The idea that other babies conceived out of wedlock might be aborted outraged him.
His allies in this battle were C. Everett Koop, the pediatrician who later became Surgeon General under Ronald Reagan, and Francis Schaeffer, who was drawn into the battle reluctantly at his son’s insistence.
Francis and Frank soon found themselves strategizing with other leaders of the Religious Right, who as Francis commented “are not our sort of people” (p. 297). Here is how Frank characterizes some of them:
“In private, they ranged from unreconstructed bigot reactionaries like Jerry Falwell, to Dr. Dobson, the most power-hungry and ambitious person I have ever met . . . to Pat Robertson, who would have a hard time finding work in any job where hearing voices is not a requirement” (p. 315).
Frank now regrets much of his involvement with the Religious Right. It’s rare (and impressive) for a public figure to repent of much of his life’s work, to be so brutally candid about his own failures and shortcomings. But Frank’s revelations about his family’s imperfections made me uneasy. They seem like a betrayal—even public figures have a right to privacy. There’s also a persistent tone of mockery about his parents’ faith and work that’s disturbing. It’s the voice of the angry adolescent still struggling to define himself as different, in fact superior, to his family. In contrast, when Frank describes his own wife and children there is a different voice—he sounds like a grown-up.
Frank says that he is still “pro-life” but he defines the term more broadly now. He recently came out in support of Barack Obama saying, “When I listen to Obama speak (and to his remarkable wife, Michelle) what I hear is a world view that actually nurtures life. . . . A leader who believes in hope, the future, trying to save our planet and providing a just and good life for everyone is someone who is actually pro-life.” (From Frank Schaeffer’s blog on The Huffington Post website, Feb. 7, 2008.)
Frank is clearly still a man in process and I wish him well on his journey. I will also always be grateful for Francis and Edith Schaeffer and the other members of the L’Abri community who made such an impact on my own pilgrimage.
Sharon Gallagher is the editor of Radix magazine, the Associate Director of New College Berkeley, and the author of Finding Faith: Life-Changing Encounters with Christ(Berkeley, CA: PageMill Press, 2001).
© 2008 Evangelical & Ecumenical Women’s Caucus volume 32 number 1 Spring (April-June) 2008
Crazy about Abortion
by Anne Eggebroten.
This essay concludes the three-part discussion which began with Anne Eggebroten’s review of the book Crazy for God by Frank Schaeffer.
How did opposition to abortion become an issue around which Christian exclusivists—committed to avoiding contact with a sinful political world—could be persuaded to join together with Catholics and other formerly shunned groups to form a political coalition that became known as “the Religious Right”?
Frank Schaeffer gives his answer to this question in Part 3 of Crazy for God, and not surprisingly, he and his father are presented as the key players: “…it was my father and I who were amongst the first to start telling American evangelicals that God wanted them involved in the political process. And it was the Roe v. Wade decision that gave Dad, Koop, and me our platform” (p. 289).
Frank’s marriage (now in its 38th year) began with premarital sex and the crisis of an unplanned pregnancy, resolved by marriage and the loving support of the senior Schaeffers and the entire L’Abri community.
In 1973 when the Supreme Court legalized abortion in the United States, 21-year-old Frank’s instinctive reaction was defensive: “I knew that ‘unwanted’ can become very wanted indeed” (p. 266). As a child he had pressed his ear “against a series of fat lovely bellies of my sisters, various unwed mothers (who were guests), and several L’Abri workers… listening to all those unborn babies’ hearts beating.” He also had “a natural empathy for outsiders” (including unwanted embryos and fetuses) based on his own experience with polio and dyslexia and on having close friends with cerebral palsy. “There was nothing intellectual, let alone religious, about my visceral opposition to abortion,” he writes.
Not surprisingly, he felt that what had worked for him and his girlfriend/wife should work for everyone else with an unplanned pregnancy.
In 1972 Billy Zeoli, president of Gospel Films, had visited Francis Schaeffer in Switzerland and in talking with Frank had proposed that Francis Sr. should make a documentary series to answer Kenneth Clark’s BBC-produced series, Civilization, which the Schaeffers viewed as a secular humanist survey of the triumph of reason. (Francis Schaeffer had written Escape from Reason, a cultural analysis and defense of Christianity, in 1968).
Francis Sr. and his wife, Edith—“very critical of the fund-raising methods of the Billy Grahams, Billy Zeolis, and other high-powered evangelicals”—were reluctant to enter the public arena with a well-financed 13-part documentary. “His work, Dad felt, would lose its meaning if he ‘sold out’” (p. 257). But sell out he did, partly “to reach a lost generation” and partly to give his son work as director in filming of the series. When the Roe v. Wade decision was handed down on January 22, 1973, the series was already in production.
Within a year Francis and Frank were arguing over whether to mention abortion in How Should We Then Live? Frank eventually won, and the last two episodes were changed to focus on the abortion issue, “which was presented as the prime example of the erosion of the values that had once made the West great” (p. 261). When the series and book came out in 1976, its plea for political activism reached a large audience, partly because of the Schaeffers’ 18-city promotional tour in the U.S. Then Dr. C. Everett Koop, a pro-life activist and Calvinist evangelical, flew to Switzerland to persuade the Schaeffers to do another series, even more politically focused, Whatever Happened to the Human Race? (1979).
Enter Fulton J. Sheen, Roman Catholic archbishop and writer, who had also won fame earlier as a religious television personality. Having seen the abortion section of How Shall We Then Live, and having heard of the new documentary being planned, Sheen invited Frank Schaeffer to his Park Avenue apartment “to strategize on ways to advance the pro-life cause”( p. 283). Never mind that for years Francis Sr. had been denouncing Billy Graham “for compromising by inviting a Roman Catholic bishop to join him on the platform of his 1957 crusade.”
“Abortion is perceived as a Catholic issue,” purred Sheen. “I want you to help me change that. The unborn need more friends.” Sheen blessed Frank with the sign of the cross, and the Schaeffers fell in line, taking money from the Knights of Columbus for the production of Whatever Happened to the Human Race?
By November 1979, the second series was out and attracting the attention of Jack Kemp, congressman and later Secretary of HUD under Ronald Reagan. “He immediately saw the possibilities for the Republican Party,” reports Frank (p. 285). The National Right to Life Committee paid to show a 90-minute portion of the series on ABC. In 1982 Reagan nominated Koop as his Surgeon General, and Frank appeared on Christian Broadcasting’s The 700 Club to raise support during Koop’s confirmation hearings.
But most evangelical leaders, including Billy Graham, resisted “going political.”
“At first the evangelical media leaders, like the editors of Christianity Today, met Whatever Happened to the Human Race? with stony silence,” recalls Frank (p. 291). But the Schaeffers’ grassroots support, plus vocal opposition from Planned Parenthood, the National Organization for Women (NOW), and the National Abortion Rights Action League (NARAL) finally energized the evangelical subculture into forming what has come to be known as the Religious Right, centering its mission around the issue of abortion.
Another Explanation for the Emergence of the Religious Right
Randall Balmer, an evangelical and professor of American religious history at Barnard College, tells the story differently, not even mentioning the Schaeffers, in Thy Kingdom Come: How the Religious Right Distorts the Faith and Threatens America —An Evangelical’s Lament (Basic Books, 2006).
His central question is, “Why did the Religious Right choose abortion as its defining issue as it consolidated its power in the 1980s? It seems an odd choice, especially for people who pride themselves on biblical literalism, given the paucity of biblical references to the issue” (p. 5). For example, why not make opposition to divorce the defining issue? He notes that choosing opposition to reproductive choice as their special issue required religious conservatives to “maneuver around the repeated New Testament denunciations of divorce.”
After interviewing major evangelical leaders and theologians, Balmer concludes that abortion was recognized as a convenient and powerful tool for effecting the goal of unifying diverse religious groups into a political coalition. “Selective literalism” became the means of persuading evangelicals that abortion was a biblical issue. “The Religious Right simply ignored or explained away Jesus’ admonitions about divorce and focused instead on a political issue that had traction at the time, even though the biblical arguments were weak, and at the very least, contested” (p. 8). Likewise, biblical proscriptions against usury and Paul’s warning against women praying or prophesying with their heads uncovered were ignored.
Balmer finds eight articles in Christianity Today in the 1970s against the rising rate of divorce among evangelicals, but in the 1980s “those denunciations ceased almost entirely as evangelical condemnations shifted to other, more elusive targets: abortion and, eventually, homosexuality” (p. 10). The presidency of Ronald Reagan, a divorced and remarried man, was one factor in evangelicals overlooking Scripture.
Balmer documents the construction in the 1980s of an “abortion myth,”namely, that evangelical leaders entered the political arena and mobilized as the Religious Right in direct response to Roe v. Wade (p.11). After research, Balmer concludes that only Catholic groups and Christianity Today complained about Roe in 1973. In fact, a comment in the Baptist Press praised the Roe decision, and W. A. Criswell, former president of the Southern Baptist Convention, expressed approval of the ruling. In 1971, the Southern Baptist Convention had called for legislation to permit abortion “under such conditions as rape, incest, clear evidence of severe fetal deformity, and carefully ascertained evidence of the likelihood of damage to the emotional, mental, and physical health of the mother” (p. 12).
By interviewing Paul Weyrich, a long-term conservative activist, and others, Balmer learned that in fact the Religious Right first coalesced around the Internal Revenue Service’s attempt “to revoke the tax-exempt status of Bob Jones University in 1975 because the school’s regulations forbade interracial dating”(p.14). (In fact, Bob Jones University had only recently begun even admitting African American students who had applied.) The IRS attempt to deny tax-exempt status to segregated private schools “represented an assault on the evangelical subculture, something that raised an alarm among many evangelical leaders, who mobilized against it” (p. 15).
In Balmer’s words, “Weyrich saw the evangelical discontent over the Bob Jones case as the opening he was looking for to start a new conservative movement using evangelicals as foot soldiers”(p.15). Weyrich, a veteran of Barry Goldwater’s 1964 campaign for president, “had been trying for years to energize evangelical voters over school prayer, abortion and the proposed equal rights amendment to the Constitution” but had failed. The revoking of the tax status of Bob Jones University seemed to promise a new opportunity.
Weyrich described to Balmer a meeting to mobilize evangelical leaders for Bob Jones University in the late 1970s, followed by a conference call to discuss strategy.
During that phone call “someone suggested that they had the makings of a broader political movement… and asked what other issues they might address. Several callers made suggestions, and then, according to Weyrich, a voice on the end of one of the lines said, ‘How about abortion?’”
“And that,” concludes Balmer, “is how abortion was cobbled into the political agenda of the Religious Right.” (p. 16).
This conference call occurred in the late 1970s, perhaps in 1979 after Whatever Happened to the Human Race had come out, certainly after How Should We Then Live? It’s quite possible that the Schaeffers’ films had created the climate in which evangelicals could consider adopting the abortion issue as a tool for mobilizing a coalition. Nevertheless, in the early 1980s, Weyrich still found many evangelical leaders reluctant to take up the abortion cause (p.15). Many considered Roe v. Wade as one more reason for Christians to choose isolationism, not political involvement.
Balmer reports that Clinton’s election and reelection in 1992 and 1996 stalled the Religious Right: “…they could no longer count on stoking antiabortion sentiments to raise funds, so they needed another issue to energize their base…. After casting about, the Religious Right came up with a new foil, an enemy right here among us: homosexuals” (p. 24).
Again, conservative evangelical leaders could combine conviction with political opportunity, getting referenda on the ballot in key states during the 2004 election to insure a high turnout of conservative voters. In fact, “Issues surrounding homosexuality have emerged as a kind of litmus test for these evangelicals” (p. 28).
“Not only have leaders of the Religious Right betrayed scripture,” laments Balmer, “but they have shamelessly manipulated important issues—gay rights, abortion—for partisan purposes, all the while ignoring Jesus’ teaching on other matters” (p. 32).
His concluding observation: although the Republican/Religious Right coalition gained control of the House in 1995, the Presidency in 2001, and the Senate in 2003, they made no serious attempt actually to outlaw abortion, their stated goal. Of course not: right-wing members of the Republican Party need the abortion issue to live on, energizing their base and turning out voters.
Sociologist William Martin agrees with Balmer, having asked Ed Dobson of the Moral Majority, “How much of the Religious Right’s social agenda has actually been accomplished since 1980?” Dobson’s answer: “Very little, other than that they have become points of discussion in every election…”(With God on Our Side: The Rise of the Religious Right in America, PBS series, Broadway Press, 1997, p. 236).
Frank Schaeffer now shares this analysis of the Religious Right’s having been manipulated to keep the Republican Party in power, and he regrets the role he played in the rise of that coalition. Nevertheless, he continues to enjoy the celebrity he and his family acquired, writing on political issues such as the war in Iraq for the Huffington Post as one of its featured bloggers (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/). Schaeffer’s views on abortion have changed with time. Though still regarding a situation that results in an abortion as a tragedy, he writes, “I no longer think that it should always be illegal” (p. 345).
How should we then live? “In a society that is willing to struggle with these balancing acts,” he writes (p. 353). “What I don’t want to live in is a culture that makes sweeping and dismissive secular or religious ‘theological’ one-size-fits-all decisions that oversimplify complex issues.”
Anne Eggebroten (who also wrote the overview of Frank Schaeffer’s Crazy for God for Part 1 of this feature) is the editor of Abortion: My Choice, God’s Grace: Christian Women Tell Their Stories (Pasadena, CA: New Paradigm, 1994). She continues to write and speak from a moderate position on the abortion issue.
© 2008 Evangelical & Ecumenical Women’s Caucus volume 32 number 1 Spring (April-June) 2008