This is point of inquiry for Friday, November 6th, 2009. Jim Underdown, welcome to Point of Inquiry, I’m DJ Grothe the point of Inquiry’s, the radio show and the podcast of the Center for Inquiry, a think tank advancing reason, science and secular values in public affairs and at the grass roots level. My guest this week is Frank Schaefer. He’s a bestselling author of fiction and nonfiction alike. His novels include Portofino Saving Grandma Others. His nonfiction includes Keeping Faith and also the book he’s going to be talking with me about 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. Welcome to Point of Inquiry, Frank Schaefer.
B.J., it’s a real pleasure to be with you. I’m a fan of you and the show, and so thanks for having me on.
Well, thank you for saying that. Frank, you grew up as the son of really one of the most prominent leaders in the evangelical Christian movement. Francis Schaefer. He’s credited with really helping sparked the whole religious right through his really influential writings, his Christian manifesto. It’s kind of a response to all those humanist manifestos. He really laid the groundwork for folks like Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell, James Dobson, Tim LaHaye, all of those people. Right?
He did. You know, like everyone else, his life was a journey. And when I was a little boy, I grew up in Switzerland and a mission called the brief fellowship that he had started as an obscure fundamentalist Calvinist missionary who came over in 1947. And I was born there in 1952. But in the 60s, dad got well known within the evangelical subculture. And then after Roe v Wade in the early 70s, took a very strong position against abortion. And all of a sudden was catapulted partly because of my efforts at making a number of documentary movies. It took some of his ideas to a wider audience, into the whole culture war as it was developing then, and really became the first major evangelical leader of the anti-abortion movement. And that, of course, then melded into the whole religious right as it developed as a kind of an appendage of the Republican Party. Then finally took over the Republican Party.
Now, those are strong words, took over the Republican Party. Many people in the Republican Party disagree with that, but you certainly see it that way.
And when I say take over. I don’t mean necessarily in terms of the machinery of of the party, but I do mean philosophically that, for instance, most recently was illustrated very, very poignantly when you had John McCain, who had called the religious right agents of intolerance in 2000 and the last election cycle, nominated Sarah Palin for no other reason than he had to do something to get these folks to vote for him and get people like James Dobson to support him. And in fact, James Dobson, after he nominated Sarah Palin, who was a quote unquote, real Christian, and James Dobson view, unlike McCain, who he dismissed as kind of just a nominal Christian, whatever that means, he did endorse him. And so, you know, what you see is that the religious right that my father and I were involved with in the 70s and 80s then blossomed into actually one of political parties so that now in the United States, we really have the Democratic Party as a political party and then we have the Republicans, which are essentially in terms of their base and who they have to cater to the religious right. The left overs of the pro-life movement and so forth coalesced now into a group of people who, through folks like Dick Armey, who worked for the insurance industry, produces the footsoldiers to do everything from break up town hall meetings on health care reform, to be the folks who buy Sarah Palin’s books and throng her at her meetings and so forth. And so we were in on pinning of that. And as a child, I saw my father go from being this obscure pastor to, in my teen years, this well-known leader. And then in my 20s, I became his sidekick, which is very typical of the nepotistic kind of background that a lot of folks, you know, Franklin Graham following Billy Graham and so forth in the evangelical movement. And so, you know, after I left the movement in the mid 80s and changed professions, went into the movie business for a while and then began writing novels like Portofino and Fermat kind of gave me permission to write more for a secular audience. I finally came around and actually wrote a memoir, Crazy for God, about this childhood and about how the religious right formed and where it came from. And that kind of brings us a present in the sense that now, I guess you would say for someone who had started out as a member of the religious right, I perhaps would qualify if you were looking around tonight for the harshest critic of the religious right and even the Republican Party. You know, I would be someone in the top 10 candidates you might pick for a contest as far as who’s been roughest on these folks.
So you are a turncoat in a real sense on all of that, everything that you. Your father’s followers stood for. Has that been hard for you? I mean, has it been like everyone you’ve ever known and loved have shunned you? You know, you used to be close to them, but now your of the world.
Yeah. I mean, it is tough in a sense, because you test everything with certain shared by not just philosophically, but in terms of friendships and even sometimes family. Although in my case, all our family is now reconciled in terms of my sisters and my mom and so forth. Kind of used to the idea that, for instance, for the last four or five years, I’ve been writing for the Huffington Post and the Internet and these other sources and have been a big proponent of Barack Obama. But in the beginning, when my first novel, Portofino, came out, which is loosely autobiographical story about a little boy growing up in a Calvinist mission, you know, the fury was intense and I was dropped, as it were, like a hot potato for many friendships. I’d already walked away philosophically. But after that, essentially, I disappeared from those groups completely.
And I and I guess, honestly, most of my readers would be what you would call secular readers and who are moderate religious people.
I don’t think there are too many right wing evangelicals who have cracked a book of mine for the last 20 some years. You know, the only folks in that camp who read my books are probably people assigned by people like Christianity Today magazine or James Dobson or World magazine, these other right wing evangelical outlets to, as it were, quote unquote, answer me. But I don’t think your run of the mill evangelical is reading any of my books or probably thinks much or care as much about what I would say.
Jim Underdown that’s interesting to me. So you haven’t been like in an official way shunned because there’s been some reconciliation, at least in your family. Do you think you’re being dismissed as just, you know, someone who’s got burnt out or someone who was burned by religion? In other words, you’re admitting really that none of them are really taking you seriously. Is that because you are the enemy or just because they have some psychological reason for figuring out you’re no longer in their camp? What I’m really asking is you’re conceding the fact that you’re not really going to have much of a positive influence in that world.
Well, yes and no. I would I would differentiate between past leadership of my generation and the younger groups coming along. For instance, the other day, much to my surprise, I was invited to a well-known evangelical school here in the Northeast way left Gordon College. That’s an evangelical bastion along with Wheaton College and Bob Jones University in a number of others to do a couple talk in the form of an interview by one of the deans who is interested in my work. And it’s notable that, for instance, in the last election, exit polls showed that voters who were under 30 years of age, who define themselves as evangelicals and even some as conservatives, were voting for Barack Obama. So I think it’s a generational thing. And if you look at the traffic of the e-mail I get or you look at the responses on some of the Web sites like AlterNet, where I write my blogs, you will get quite a few folks who identify themselves as, for instance, progressive or young evangelicals who give me an at a boy and say, you know, go get them. And it’s about time someone said it. But if you get into the higher reaches of big institutions, for instance, Rick Warren’s church or James Dobson or Pat Robertson’s out or, you know, Christianity Today magazine, you’re not going to find many people there who want to give me the airtime or the space to say thanks, but that doesn’t mean it’s completely ineffectual. I think that, you know, when you see people scrambling around to talk about things on television shows, as Rick Warren does sometimes where he disavows divisiveness and disavowed some of the tactics of mutual hatred and exclusion, I don’t think that comes in a vacuum. And maybe maybe some of the folks like me. There are others, Richard, say to me in the National Association of Evangelicals that the vice president, who they threw out because of his pro gay marriage stance, you know, there are people like him and me who I think have a voice in the sense that a generation of Christian leaders who are aware that they’re going to lose the next generation. They make some effort to appear more reasonable.
So you’re having some impact among young evangelicals. You used the phrase evangelical progressive, right?
Is that an oxymoron?
But to give you an idea of what I’m talking about in my head, I get what you’re saying. In fact, some people, some fundamentalists would consider someone like Rick Warren, an evangelical progressive. He’s talking about world poverty and fighting AIDS, not about things like gays and guns. You know, his focuses more on the social justice sort of thing.
Yeah, I mean, you know that. The fact is, you know, folks who have read my memoir, Crazy for God and now perhaps have dug into this new book that’s just come out of my patients with God are going to find that, like everything else, the words progressive liberal fundamentalists to sort of on a sliding scale. And whether you’re very far to the right than somebody in the. Looks pretty progressive and so forth, but I would think in general, the evangelical leadership is very, very, very far to the right. You know, you see this in a glaring example in terms of their silence over certain issues. I’ll give you one example. There’s recently been use made of a psalm to put on a t shirt, some nine verse seat that calls for apparently either death or the removal of the president through prayer by saying that, you know, may his days be be short or numbered, depending on the translation. The next verse says, may his wife be a widow and his children fatherless. And so, you know, one would expect evangelical leaders who say they have a respect for the Bible, let alone talking about lover or tolerance to be up in arms, saying this is a complete misuse of scripture to currently even call for violence. But there’s there’s a deafening silence. And so I think folks like Rick Warren may be moderate compared to some of the past evangelical leaders. But when it comes to actually speaking up when it matters and might cost them, you don’t hear much of that. And I think the way evangelical leaders have been silent about so much evangelical hate speech against the president, whether it’s at these tea parties or other things, really points up the fact that they’re moral cowards when it comes to actually taking on their own side in areas that would lose them from donors and some members and so forth.
You just use the phrase hate speech. And you’re speaking as someone who really was part of the Christian army. Right. And maybe there are other ways to frame it. But you ran with these folks. You spoke in front of Furlong’s of thousands of people. You were an evangelical or a fundamentalist leader. And now you’re talking about their use of hate speech, not just, you know, strong rhetoric, hate speech.
Right. Well, you know, when you start printing up bumper stickers with versus the cost of the president, it seems to me you’d have to be pretty obtuse to not see that some line had been crossed, just as when you’ve got folks carrying loaded assault weapons to presidential meetings, even if they’re outside them with signs saying that, you know, the tree of liberty has to be watered from time to time by the blood of tyrants, the implication being that Barack Obama is a tyrant. Remembering that Timothy McVeigh had that on his T-shirt day, he did the Oklahoma City bombing. You know, we’re a country of assassins and we have had too many political assassinations for anybody lately and sphere. Are you a threat? And when you put together, you know, Fox News, Glenn Beck, Sarah Palin talking about Barack Obama not being a real American, palling around with terrorists, that he’s going to introduce death panels, quite sadly, what this reminds me of is the kind of thing I talk about in my books, which is that we came up with some of that language. In other words, death panels, for instance, is a direct left from the stuff my father was writing in the 70s and 80s about where abortion would go, accusing America of turning into Nazi Germany. You know, we see pictures of Obama with a Hitler mustache on America or other kind of defacing graffiti. People calling him this and that. You know, we have this stuff. And, of course, it’s all very much to my regret.
Do you feel any sense of personal responsibility for any of that? You spoke that language before.
Oh, yeah, absolutely. I mean, you know, when I went up to Tiller was shot.
You’re talking about the doctor who performed late term abortions.
Right. The abortion provider, Dr. Tiller, when he was shot. You know, I looked at that situation and I said, well, you know, I didn’t pull the trigger, nor did anybody I know. But in terms of the rhetoric that eventually led to a movement that was so polarizing that it would gun down people in broad daylight because of a difference of opinion over abortion. We certainly played our part. When I say we, I don’t mean just me and my father, but also Dr. C. Everett Koop, who went on to be surgeon general, that coauthored the book with my dad. Whatever happened to the human race? The linchpin of the pro-life movement, others who we were working with and indeed the Republican Party who folded this end and made it an issue as if the country was divided by this moral litmus test into two camps that no, indeed, really are two enemy camps. And, you know, you’ve even got Sarah Palin saying that people don’t agree with her are not real Americans. Well, when you get into that language, you know, you’re looking at something entirely different than politics as usual.
I want to talk about that more, but I want to backtrack first. Muslim kind of mocked with your psychology for a while, growing up, being told by everyone that your family was so special. It was so ordained by God. I mean, everybody appeal to the authority of your father’s writings. I remember in Bible college, Francis Schaffer was where it’s at. Even if he wasn’t, you know, part of the denomination of the fringe call I was part of his writings had that kind of gravitas. They’re like the founding documents of Christian religious political extremism. Were you walking around really thinking that you were the son of the man bringing about God’s vision for the world?
No. You know, had folks who read my. A memoir we’ll find out are those who have read it, no. My dad was somebody who was very complicated and there were two sides to him. So the side that was abusive to my mother and was manic depressive and sometimes talked about suicide obviously was not the person that I was looking to for moral guidance on the big issues of the day. On the other hand, my father was a very sincere and honest person. And in comparison to a lot of the flakes who emerged in the religious right, flying around in their private chats and building their empires, you know, this is a guy don’t on a car worked on the side of his bed on a little tea tray sitting in a rocking chair, didn’t have a secretary, never flew first class. So, you know, when Jerry Falwell started sending a jet to fly us down to Lynchburg, to his church in college to do TV broadcasts, it was as much a shock to my father. I’m just material wealth. These guys were accruing in the name of God’s work that, you know, it began to turn him off, you know, to the point where he really began to believe that he was in bed with the wrong people. Not so much on politics, but just that these were opportunists. So, yes, I looked at that with great seriousness in what he was saying, although quality of the people we were working with and then the way I saw our movement going into a direction which is genuinely anti-American in that it wanted this country to fail much as Rush Limbaugh wants President Obama to fail to score some political points. Our whole religious right movement want America to fail to prove that if you weren’t a Christian nation by the late that they understood those words, then, you know, somehow God went bless and everything would go to hell in a hand cart. And you saw that come to the surface, most obviously, right after 9/11, when Robertson and Falwell both kind of said this is God’s vengeance on America for tolerating gays and abortion. And so that’s where you saw it. And basically, they look at these things in apocalyptic terms that the worse things get, the center price will come back. On one hand and then on the other hand, the kind of a revenge on the secular society that’s turned away from what they believe was the American Christian base. And so when these things began to dawn on me, as when I was a young man moved over to the States in 1980, I’d never lived here and raised in this swished mission when British boarding school came over here as a young married man living in the country, touring around with my dad. But the more I actually left here, I realized that I had actually been fed a party line. I had been deceived.
How old were you then?
I was in my early 20s at that point when I first began to think these things. I got out completely out of the movement in 85 and cut all traces with my political connections. By about 1990. So it’s a process. But it started with this sense that the image we had of the US was a false one. It was not a country that was dammed and it was not a country full of secularists who hated God. And those Christians who disagree agree with us. For instance, some politics were not evil people. And I actually like this country. I didn’t want to see it fail. And then there was the esthetic side of just being involved with people who just turned out to be so dumb. I mean, really bad taste, bad everything going to a Christian Booksellers Association convention where the Religious Broadcasters Convention is sort of like a a religious version of the very worst crap that, say, the Disney Corporation would combine with, you know, some outfit in Las Vegas. This is just commercialism run rampant and not even with good pace.
So there was impressive anti intellectual ism, kind of a dumbing down of your even your father’s high minded or more intellectual version of evangelicalism.
Yes, absolutely. And I’ll give you an example. You know, when we did his book, how should we then live along with the accompanying film series we had? We had the film crew in the in the academy in Florence doing Shot of Michelangelo’s David with Dad standing there. We had a Dolly track set up so we could go around the statue and show the perspective and the size of the statue and so forth and all that and get stock footage from NBC with its general.
But now, because our distributor was saying, oh, we can this can never be shown in a church. And my father was just flabbergasted. The anti art, anti intellectual, just plain dumbness. You know, the white Middle-Class American boyish Wazir’s, you would have called it in the 1960s and early 70s. But it’s a good word for this Stenehjem because, you know, my father was not anti art. He enjoyed music. He enjoyed art. He had art books all over place.
In that sense, he was a humanist. He was.
Yeah, absolutely. And, you know, as I said, my father’s personality was actually better than his theology. He was a better person. What he said he believed in that, according to the book, is strict. Calvinism was actually not what he lived by. You know, before you got into the political part of the religious right, you know, dad, with much more known for his cultural analysis, he was for any political statement. In his later books in the last years of his life, after he got involved in the pro-life movement, the anti-abortion crusade that followed, did his work suddenly turn into a political polemic, Jim Underdown? Before that, you know, you could have found him lecturing about what Bob Dylan’s lyrics meant or on Salvador Dali or Picasso’s life, or leading a tour of the museums in Florence with a bunch of students who wanted to understand the Renaissance. And if he had been there, it would have been pretty good. I mean, he knew what he was talking about. So in a way, there’s a kind of a double tragedy of my dad’s life in that he is remembered as the father of the religious right that actually represents a fraction of his lifetime output. And the best of what he did.
So so what went wrong there, Frank? Why didn’t he continue with the literary and artistic interests? Why did he become. How did he become the father of the religious right?
Well, a lot of that is my fault. My ambition as a young man to be in the film business, to show up on a chart somewhere, to make some money all rolled into one, you know, coalesced into one thing. And that was that when Dad started taking me out on the road with him to speak with him in this kind of nepotistic sidekick form, I was a pretty good speaker and got a following of my own, began to turn from evangelical books out, you know, quick off the top of my head. Stuff that, you know, I look back on and shudder now. There it is. And unfortunately, our family name was kind of evangelical royalty at the time. So, you know, I was able to march in and do stuff in my 20s that, you know, in the real world you’d have to build through a lifetime unless you happen to hit a hit one out of the park as a rock star. So it was a time of heady ambition. It was a time when the proximity to power and access to power was, you know, like a drug. You know, I can remember sitting in Jack Kemp’s home showing him our films. He then went on to be Bob Dole’s vice presidential candidate. I can remember dad going to the Reagan White House, the Ford White House, the Bush White House. I can remember Barbara Bush coming to our home dinner. You know, Billy Graham would come and visit my father in terms of evangelical leadership. And everybody from there on down.
But if it was your ambition, it doesn’t sound like it was your father’s ambition. Are you saying you just got the ball rolling and he was swept along?
I think what happened is, is that dad wanted to help me out. But the once he got into this, it did become his ambition for a while. And I think that he he was a willing participant. But I basically was acting at that point as his agent Jim Underdown, his coauthor, as his producer on his documentaries, as his as his kind of PR all rolled into one. Right. And I was the one he was sending out to meet with people to raise funds. I was meeting with Rich Davos, who founded the Amway Corporation, having a meeting with the Hunt Brothers corner, the silver market. I was meeting with all these folks with lots of dollars who were underwriting what was the emerging religious right, for instance, Howard Ahmanson, who gave us several big checks, who then went on and singlehandedly funded the entire creationist movement.
Wow. It’s an amazing history. I want to focus, though, on secular humanism, this big bugaboo, your dad. He was like the initial and really the biggest opponent of secular humanism. I want to get into that real quick. First, define secular humanism for me.
I’m not sure I can. I mean, I think it was sort of media slash evangelical term, but I guess the way he meant it. I don’t know if this is my definition, but the way Dad meant it was this idea that somehow you put faith in mankind and faith in human beings ability to transcend their problems absent any spiritual revelation from God coming from the outside, and that the words that all we have is who we are and what we can make. And he would trace that thinking back into the renaissance in Italy and then beyond that, into the Enlightenment in France, and felt that that had completely taken over and eventually obliterated the Christian influence in Western culture.
Right. And you listened to some evangelical leaders. They trace it all the way back, what, to Satan in the Garden of Eden or something, you know?
Right. And also, you know, if you’re really on the far right of the evangelical movement to, you know, what they would call the great whore of Babylon, which came in Roman Catholic and Eastern Church and so forth. But in my dad’s case, it was a pretty intellectual view of things and his definition of humanism. And I think many humanists definition would have been similar. He just thought it was a bad thing and they would have thought it was a good, actually. To be fair to my dad, he would have thought it was a mixed bag. They would have said it was completely good. Jim Underdown.
Right. Now, before we get into the kind of critiques you have of the war, your Christianity that you got out of. Tell me what it was like growing up with secular humanism, like public enemy number one. You know, in your father’s book, The Christian Manifesto, that was as contre to the Humanist Manifesto. Right. So at dinner, conversations are kind of running with your father and all these evangelical superstars, as it were. Were you, like, afraid of the secular humanist agenda, reading your father’s writings that it kind of appears that, you know, everybody was.
Yeah. I mean, afraid, perhaps, but more suspicious. And I think the big point here is that it divided the world and the human race very conveniently into a day. And you and me, there was very little we about this and very little humility, kind of a hubris that we get the answers and everybody else gone off track. And if they would believe, as we did, you know, they could be saved. But I think that the the rap on secular humanism from my father was that it couldn’t work. And so this led to a weird situation. I’ll just give you one little example. For instance, if you look at the crime statistics in New York City, from his point of view, they shouldn’t have gone down without a reformation and revival. They’re dead.
And if you look at the economy, it should have failed a long time ago when the Christian doctrines that he said undergird the American democratic experiment were watered down, quote unquote, with secular humanist ideas. The problem was that, you know, as you looked at successful Western cultures, for instance, secular cultures in Western Europe beat France or church attendance is way down, or England or Germany Jim Underdown lowest rates of belief, but highest rates of social well-being, welfare in the Scandinavian countries and so forth.
None of this should have worked. And so, you know, my father’s problem and I think the continuing problem for evangelical Christians is that when you try to find evidence of the fact that human beings can’t function without a without a strong Calvinist or Christian base of some sort. It just doesn’t. There were generations into a secularization of a culture that from their late should have disintegrated in absolute chaos years ago. So I think the tension came where you had this philosophical idea. But the fact of the matter was when you looked at Western culture, it played out in a kind of a contradictory sense. And I saw this very much in my father’s life. I mean, where was he hanging around during our summer vacations? Italy. Where were we? We were in the gallery in Florence looking at human start. That was moving steadily away from the kind of iconic Byzantine imagery that the Ranna’s arts rebelled against and was becoming more and more not just human, but more and more realistic and at the same time more more venal. You know, the king’s mistress is suddenly posing as the Virgin Mary, etc., etc. It’s all about, you know, but at Charlie’s birth of Venus Primavera Spring, you know, this humanist manifesto carved in marble, which is Michelangelo’s David Stand in the big piazza there in Florence. And so everything my father loved most about the art of the Renaissance was exactly the same stuff that on philosophical terms, he was speaking against it, somehow deluding and watering down this Christian base that could only save Western culture. And so there was a real tension there.
I’d like to let our listeners know that you can get a copy of Crazy for God. How I Grew Up as one of the elect helped found the religious right and lived to take all or most all of it back through our website point of inquiry, dawg, one of the most interesting reads I’ve had in a very long time, Frank. So if you were all wound up against secular humanism back then and you you just recounted these paradoxes in your father’s being railed up against it, even as he appreciated the turning away of the godly in Renaissance humanism and more to the things of man or humankind. Well, now you’re not wound up against secular humanism. You’ve kind of developed these big pointed critiques against fundamentalism. You see some pretty strong language on shows like Rachel Maddow, others, in other words. Right now, you see the religious right as the real threat.
Yeah. The difference being the religious right is a real threat.
When you have people on the right who essentially have denounced their own country as being beyond the pale and who are actively working to see, for instance, right now our elected president and the Congress fail to do things like revise the healthcare system so more Americans have access to healthcare and they’re doing this supposedly in the name of Christianity. That is a threat. It’s a threat to the well-being of the country and individuals who live in it. When you take that a step further and you realize this whole subculture, that through homeschooling Christian schools and all these other things has essentially been raised as if you’re on a different planet, starting with a whole different set of facts that they believe to be true. The Earth is 6000 years old. Dinosaurs roamed the earth along with human beings. You know, creationism will win out. The whole purpose of history is that Jesus can come back and obliterate the middle. And gloriously return and save the few ELAC. You know, these folks are marching to the tune of a very, very different drummer. And it has genuine effects. You know, when you look at George W. Bush, big reason we were at war in Iraq is because he was born again president and believed that he was somehow fulfilling bits and pieces of prophecy and destiny by going to war.
Well, sir, you are not one of these more moderate religious thinkers who says, sure, there are fundamentalists, but to each his own. You’re saying this fundamentalism is you’re almost saying what they say about secular humanist. You’re saying this fundamentalism is anti-American. It’s against American values of pluralism and working together and kind of solving our problems. They are not rooting for America.
Yeah. I believe in furtherance. It is an even deeper irony. And that is if you studied the Puritans rather than just, you know, taking the scuttlebutt at face value, you realize one of the things the Puritans believed in and strongly held to be true, in fact, threw people out of their community who didn’t hold to this was a form of socialism. They believed in public spaces. You know, what do you think all those greens in New England are that were common property for people to graze their cattle? What was the meetinghouse that you got punished if you didn’t attend the meetings to decide what you were doing in your town? Public support. You know what? We’re all these agencies. They started for the relief of the poor. You know, Winthrop and all these people were all about work today, the evangelical kind of post and Rand vision of Christianity.
Jim Underdown, which is a paradox because she was a great atheist person on the far right.
Right, exactly. And and yet you have Christians who are running around who, to put it in a nutshell, think that torture ought to be legal. But reforming health care so more Americans have access to good health and well-being is somehow socialist or communist. This is just an insane reversal of values, not just of humanist values, but even what, for instance, the Puritan forefathers. They love to pay lip service to but actually know nothing about would have held would have held up as important. And so, you know, you’ve got a double whammy here. You have you have an evangelical right wing community that doesn’t even know its own history.
You’re saying it’s even anti Christian?
Oh, yeah. I think it’s profoundly anti Christian. And they think you see that look in Christian terms. I don’t want to keep circling around a one example, but it’s a good one in evangelical Christian terms in terms of the kind of thing my great grandparents and my parents would have held to be true missionary stock. Going way back, the use of a Bible verses an inflammatory prayer against the president. Wishing for his death would be no joke. They would have termed this blasphemy. They would have excommunicated anybody from the congregation who did something like that. And so would have Puritan Jim Underdown. Now it’s all reduced to a level of a kind of a sneering, anti-democratic, anti progressive movement that doesn’t really care anything at all about the Bible or what it says. It just sees that as more cannon fodder for culture wars. And so we’re not even talking about Christianity at this point.
We’re talking about an American type of neo fascist movement that reaches for any tool, the Tandi, including the Bible, when it suits their purposes. And when you look at who’s behind all this, it’s not a conspiracy, footsoldiers, that people are sort of tired lump and troops that come out of the movement that they helped spawn on one hand and then take the armies of this world who are working for corporate insurance interests, on the other hand, who simply use these people, talk about things like death panels while knowing full well that that’s barefaced lie and work an agenda when they’re basically just reworking the the lingo that we devised for the anti-abortion movement and turning it to whatever comes next. You know, the thing that always defines these folks is never what they’re for but who they’re against. So one time it’s against abortion providers and other times it’s against gay Americans. Another time it’s against health care reform. Another time it’s against immigration Jim Underdown.
But it’s all using a kind of evangelical or fundamentalist religious fervor as motivation.
Absolutely. It is using evangelical fervor as motivation and also some well-meaning evangelicals who were just swept along Jim Underdown. No, no better. But it’s it’s progressed so far away from anything that could be remotely related to Christianity in terms of the way historically it presented itself. You know, it’s unimaginable. Christianity and Christians made not only huge mistakes, but have done terrible things, but at least they were known. I mean, here’s the ultimate irony in the health care debate, for instance. The one thing the church did usually get rate century after century was struggling hospitals and serving serving indigent people. You know, there are no orphanages and no hospitals, no foundling hospitals, no places for unwed mothers, etc. If it hadn’t been thousands of years, literally, of tradition going back in the earlier reaches of monastic Christianity. Well, you know, eighteen hundred years ago that believe that this was the way you showed the love of Christ for people. That was one of the things they got. Right. And now you have. Generation of American evangelicals who have turned their hand, of all things, against health care reform, it’s just ironic beyond belief.
There’s so much more to talk about. I want your take on the new atheists. I want to talk about your new book, Patients Foregone. We’ll have to have another conversation going forward. I want to finish up just by touching on a couple other quick things. You mentioned Dick Armey a couple times. And I don’t know if you mean to imply this, but I’m hearing anyway that some of the people who foment this fervor among the believing evangelical foot soldiers set might not themselves really by at all. There in other words, they’re using religion to motivate a political base, I think, of Ralph Reed approaching. And Ron, a number of years ago with his Christian political consulting firm and saying, hey, give me 300 or 400 thousand dollars and I’ll mobilize Christian footsoldiers to advocate for what? Well, not saving souls, but for energy deregulation. Right. Nothing to do with the Bible as I read it. Or Jesus out of the Gospels. Right. So some folks are using this evangelical fervor to advance seemingly unrelated political aims. Hazard a guess for me. Do you think some of these leaders are themselves evangelical or are they just cold, calculating political operators?
Well, you know, who knows from the outside? But it would appear to me. Look, I know Dick Armey back in the day, one of my sons actually interned for Hamida when he was in Congress briefly. But, you know, when it gets to Ralph Reed, I mean, look at look at that. You mentioned one example. Here’s another one, Ralph. Ralph Reed gets hired by one casino lobbyist to lobby against another casino’s interest in Congress. And he does it by rallying Christians against gambling, not against gambling of everybody against gambling for the casino builders. He wasn’t getting paid by signing in.
Pretty obvious where he’s coming right now.
And that was part of the Abramoff scandal. And Ralph Reed got caught with his little fingers in the cookie jar. So, you know, when it comes to baby face, Ralph, you know, there’s no question who he is and what he was all about for a long, long time. And Dick Armey. I knew Dick back in the day. Dick doesn’t even pretend to be an evangelical. He could care less about this stuff. He you know, he’s a free market and ran capitalism to the hilt. What he wants to do is use whatever comes to hand bludgeon the U.S. government into submission. And he hates the idea of government power, quote unquote, intrusion into anything and will use any means possible. So if it’s pro-life, it’s fine. You know, if it’s brownshirts, fine, he doesn’t care. And basically, there’s a whole political class, more on the neo conservatives that, you know, is certainly not evangelical completely scoffs of the evangelical unwashed mob as they would look at them.
Right. In fact, many new conservatives would consider themselves secular. Absolute not religious folks, but who see the need for religion to advance political and, you know, to pick up on somebody else’s phrase to them.
These are the useful idiots. And then there are the. Then there are the evangelical leaders who, whatever their sincerity was in the day, people, for instance, like Pat Robertson or more to the point, James Dobson, have built empires based on their political affiliation and access power and aren’t about to roll over for anybody. And at this point, it has nothing to do with Christianity to them and has everything else to do with access to power and maintaining and maintaining their control over other people’s life, which is which is a big rush for folks, whether it’s, you know, one psychologist who’s sitting there telling people what to do or somebody with a radio show like that, like James Dobson, telling millions of people how to raise their children and why, when they should spank them and what they should do. And getting all this mail back and donations and people saying, you know, I’m following you. And that’s a that’s a rush.
So, Frank, what’s the way forward from here? You’re you’re an ex Christian extremist. Maybe not the way you want to frame it, but it’s not like you’ve become a rabid anti religionists just because you’re no longer in that camp anymore. You’re something of a moderate religionless. We’ll talk about that in our next conversation, I hope. Do you think that there’s reason to be optimistic that the moderately religious like yourself can talk to the religious extremists, kind of talk them down off the edge, you know, quell the extremism, bring them back into the fold of civil discourse, all that stuff. Folks like Sam Harris, others suggest that that is a complete fool’s errand. And what instead needs to happen is a kind of serious full throttle culture war against the extremists.
Yeah, I think, you know, Sam Harris was a young man when he wrote his book saying that. And I think in 20 years when he’s my age, you’ll look back on that and say, wow, I wish I had a chance to buy that one again, just like I look back on my evangelical screeds. A little bit of ha when it gets to people like Hitchens and Dawkins, who seem more or less the same thing. I think they have less of an excuse.
The fact is, I don’t see it that way. When when I look at Islam, for instance, I don’t see an enormous threat. What I see as is the same thing is when I look at Christianity and I realized that we spun the Ku Klux Klan and other things like that. That’s fine. All these people. So, yes, I am hopeful, but I’m not hopeful about moderate religion winning out. What I’m hopeful is that reasonable people are gradually going to evolve to a better place. When I when I look at all these people like Sam Harris and and Richard Dawkins and then James Dobson on the Christian side, to me, they all have a similar flavor. And that is that they are not only extreme in their views, but their absolutes. And I think my answer to absolutism is very simple and it’s not philosophical. It’s not scientific. It’s just common sense. First of all, we’re a young, evolving species. We’ve been here and I blank since we were single celled creatures in the mud. And what do we know? We know we had the idea of cosmology as sort of a joke.
Yeah. By the way, I love that you say that those are fighting words themselves for many evangelicals.
Right. And the fact is, look, you know, none of us live long enough to know anything. We hope we learn a little. We read a few books and then we die. And the human race has been here in a blink. And so whether it’s whether it’s Harris or whether it’s James Dobson drawing grand conclusions about the nature of fundamental, absolute truth and what it takes to change this is that I think they’re deluded. What I think is a better bet is that human beings are evolving and that things are better now than they were in the past. And they think that’s something that we can hang on to. I mean, just look at the history of Christian religion. There are far less antisemite now than there used to be.
A look at what’s happening in the world. We’re finally aware of global warming and our responsibility to do something. And, you know, even the Chinese who are beginning to make hopeful noises about this. I’m not a wild eyed optimist, but I don’t think it depends on religion and I don’t think it depends on science. I think it depends on this race between the evolution of the human species and its own self-destruction. And so when I says that, you know, all bad things happened because of religion or when religious people say that all bad things such as the Gulag and the Holocaust happened because of secular racism or humanism, I think they’re both completely crazy. I think bad things happen to the human species is a young, evolving, aggressive group of primates who who would tear each other’s faces off at the drop of a hat and have been doing so gradually, becoming civilized. That’s partly what religion and philosophy and science have helped to do. And that, you know, if people aren’t killing them, killing each other in the name of Jesus or a superior race as happened in the Holocaust, then they’d be killing themselves for some other reason. Then the problem is just that we are very rapacious, greedy, hard, difficult creatures and evolution in the overall sense, including ethical evolution and moral evolution in terms they think is the answer. And it takes time. Moral and ethical evolution takes time. And so, you know, I don’t place hope in talking religious people into doing anything or secular people in believing anything. What I please hope in is the human relationships we develop. What’s important to us as individuals, the kind of things that actually help us grow toward each other rather than away from each other. And that’s where I fault the new atheist movement, not for its Athie ism, but for its tone, just as they felt the religious right. And I think they’re both dangerous because we don’t need more culture war. What we need now is people who, for instance, in the spirit of Barack Obama, who I think is a great man and a terrific leader, call for folks not only to work together, but to quit demonizing the other as somehow, you know, not just wrong in their opinions, but evil, you know, slime, terrible. And this is not a positive direction. And I think we can’t get away from it because whether it’s most Islamic people, whether it’s most people who find themselves Christians, whether it’s most people who define themselves as atheists or humanists or agnostics or what have you, you know, they’re living their lives just like everybody else. They want to take care of their families. They have self-interest at heart. They also have a certain amount of charity. They’re also disposed a certain amount of altruism. And the good parts of religion, the good parts of humanism, good parts of it. He hasn’t worked for it. And and so I don’t think the choice is between, you know, Dawkins or or Limbaugh. I don’t think the choice is between Pat Robertson or Sam Harris. I think there are better choices. And most folks live in that realm of the better choice, just by the virtue of the fact that they’re sensible in the choices they make.
You open up so many other things. I can’t wait to continue talking about Jim Underdown. Thank you so much for joining me on Point of Inquiry. Frank Schaefer.
Hey, my pleasure. And B.J., thanks again. It was really an honor to be with you guys.
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