Frank Schaeffer, John Whitehead and Cal Thomas have repudiated the theocratic movement they once led. Hereâ€™s why.
Frank Schaeffer spent several years making a good living writing books promoting the Religious Rightâ€™s worldview and speaking before rapturous crowds of fundamentalist Christians.
Schaeffer, the son of evangelical guru Francis Schaeffer, was the closest thing to a rock star that politically conservative fundamentalism can offer. As the Religious Right soared in the 1980s, Schaeffer was there to ride the wave. Young, bright and charismatic, he could have founded his own Religious Right group or perhaps even launched a political career.
Twenty years have passed. What does Schaeffer think of the Religious Right today? He wouldnâ€™t touch it with the proverbial 10-foot pole — and the feeling is mutual. A spiritual and professional crisis brought Schaeffer to the understanding that the Religious Right has it all wrong.
â€œMy doubts really began when I realized that the people we were working with on the Religious Right were profoundly anti-American,â€ Schaeffer said in a recent interview. â€œI began to get the same vibe from them I got from my friends on the far left during the Vietnam War. They seemed to be rooting for North Vietnam. When I was working with the Religious Right, they seemed be rooting for the failure of America. Bad news was good news for them.â€
Schaeffer isnâ€™t the only ex-Religious Right activist having second thoughts these days. About 30 years ago, a young lawyer named John W. Whitehead worked alongside people like Jerry Falwell to help birth the Religious Right. Hoping to give the movement an intellectual grounding, Whitehead penned a series of books attacking the separation of church and state and demanding a government based on Christian fundamentalism.
Whiteheadâ€™s books — The Separation Illusion, The Second American Revolution and The Stealing of America — made him a popular figure in Religious Right circles. With the backing of Falwell and others, he helped found the Council for National Policy (CNP), a secretive and highly influential coalition of Religious Right groups. He also formed the Rutherford Institute, a legal group designed to promote conservative Christian causes.
Venturing into the farthest fringes of the Religious Right, Whitehead was for several years close to Rousas John Rushdoony, a leader of the Christian Reconstructionist movement that seeks to replace Americaâ€™s secular republic with a theocracy based on the Old Testamentâ€™s legal codes.
Whitehead repudiated theocracy years ago. Itâ€™s unlikely heâ€™d be welcome at a CNP meeting now.
â€œPolitics,â€ he said in a recent interview, â€œwould never even figure into Jesusâ€™ mind. He was a homeless person. He was like Gandhi. It wasnâ€™t in the picture. Christianity was not founded on politics. It was founded on helping the less fortunate …. Thatâ€™s how you impact culture.â€
Schaeffer and Whitehead are two high-profile Religious Right apostates, but they arenâ€™t the only ones. Even Cal Thomas, who once served as vice president of the late Jerry Falwellâ€™s Moral Majority, is critical of the Religious Right these days. Thomas in 2000 coauthored a book titled Blinded by Might: Why the Religious Right Canâ€™t Save America.
In a column written shortly after Falwellâ€™s death in May, Thomas opined, â€œThe flaw in the movement was the perception that the church had become an appendage to the Republican Party and one more special interest group to be pampered. If one examines the results of the Moral Majorityâ€™s agenda, little was accomplished in the political arena and much was lost in the spiritual realm, as many came to believe that to be a Christian meant you also must be â€˜convertedâ€™ to the Republican Party and adopt the GOP agenda and its tactics.â€
Whatâ€™s more, these critics arenâ€™t shy about speaking out. Schaeffer details his years in the Religious Right in his recently published book 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.
The tome is a frank tell-all loaded with broadsides against the Religious Right. Schaeffer does not hesitate to speak bluntly, as the following passages indicate:
â€¢ “What I slowly realized was that the religious-right leaders we were helping to gain power were not ‘conservatives’ at all, in the old sense of the word. They were anti-American religious revolutionaries.”
â€¢ “Pat Robertson would have had a hard time finding work in any job where hearing voices is not a requirement.”
â€¢ “Long before Ralph Reed and his ilk came on the scene, Dad got sick of ‘these idiots’ as he often called people like Dobson in private. They were ‘plastic,’ Dad said, and ‘power-hungry.'”
â€¢ “There were three kinds of evangelical leaders: The dumb or idealistic ones who really believed. The out-and-out charlatans. And the smart ones who still believed — sort of — but knew that the evangelical world was sh*t, but who couldn’t figure out any way to earn as good a living anywhere else.”
Taking a more nuanced view, Whitehead outlined his thinking last year in a slim volume published by the Rutherford Institute titled God Is A Four-Letter Word. In the book, Whitehead reminds readers that Jesus was not interested in the accumulation of political power.
â€œAlthough it is a valued and necessary part of the process in a democracy, the ballot box is not the answer to mankindâ€™s ills,â€ Whitehead writes. â€œAnd Christians who place their hope in a political answer to the worldâ€™s ills often become nothing more than another tool in the politicianâ€™s toolbox. Indeed, Jesus refused any type of involvement with political figures.â€
In a recent Liberty magazine article, Whitehead scored the Religious Right for making Christianity synonymous with â€œpartisan politics, anti-homosexual rhetoric, affluent megachurches, and moralistic finger-pointing.â€
This is quite a change for a man who once wrote, as Whitehead did in 1982, that the Supreme Court â€œrejected Judeo-Christian theism as the religion and foundation of the United Statesâ€ when it struck down religious qualifications for public office at the state level in 1961.
What happened? In interviews for this report, both Schaeffer and Whitehead described the factors that led them to move away from the Religious Right — the constant emphasis on far-right politics, the refusal of Religious Right leaders to examine issues like poverty and care of the needy and the crude attacks on the arts.
Both men also described personal spiritual journeys that led them to new paths. Schaeffer joined the Greek Orthodox Church. Whitehead speaks of embracing a Christianity that reflects Jesusâ€™ teaching about the need to serve those in need and work for peace. (Whitehead is a sharp critic of the Iraq War.) Schaeffer and Whitehead remain committed Christians, but both no longer think government is the proper agent to spread that message.
Nor are Schaeffer, Whitehead and Thomas calling for a complete political disengagement. Thomas, for example, is now a widely syndicated newspaper columnist and frequently takes conservative positions. But increasingly, he argues that moral persuasion, not the raw power of government, is the best way to change peopleâ€™s minds and attitudes.
Whitehead takes a similar view.
â€œReligion speaks to moral issues, not political issues,â€ he said. â€œThat was one thing that changed me. The more I read just the teachings of Jesus, as I isolated and read them over and over, I came to the conclusion that I should challenge Christians who talk about Jesus like he would sit in the White House with George Bush. I say, â€˜Hey, he fought every Roman. Everyone in leadership he fought. There was a reason they crucified him.â€™â€
Schaeffer echoed some of Whiteheadâ€™s concerns. Schaeffer added that he became disgusted with the attitude many Religious Right activists held of the United States — that it was a decadent, amoral society that deserved to collapse.
Schaeffer was raised in Europe. When he moved to America, he said, he quickly grew fond of the country.
â€œThe country I moved to seemed to be a good place, not hell bent,â€ he recalls. â€œWhen I realized that the Religious Right was rooting for American failure to prove their point, I began to really question what were we talking about. Once that process started, to put it bluntly, I decided I was on the wrong side.â€
Schaefferâ€™s conversion was all the more startling because for many years he made a comfortable living cranking out books bashing liberals and speaking at Religious Right gatherings before crowds of thousands.
In Crazy for God, Schaeffer talks about delivering what he calls â€œThe Speechâ€ hundreds of times before fundamentalist audiences. He describes it like this: â€œAbortion is murder; secular humanism is destroying us; turn back to our Christian foundation; vote Republican.â€
Schaeffer had other reasons for ditching the Religious Right. As a writer, artist and film maker, he grew disgusted over the Religious Rightâ€™s tendency to use the arts as a flashpoint for the culture wars, a point of view echoed by Whitehead, who enjoys â€˜60s music and is a film buff.
Working alongside Reconstructionists, the most hardcore faction of the Religious Right, also influenced Schaeffer and Whitehead — although perhaps not in the way Reconstructionist leaders expected.
â€œMy basic beef with the Reconstructionists is that they could never end a sentence with â€˜I donâ€™t knowâ€™ or â€˜Iâ€™m not sure.â€™ They always ended with â€˜This is how it is.â€™ That level of hubris runs counter to Christianity,â€ Schaeffer remarked.
â€œTo me, faith and doubt are interchangeable,â€ he added. â€œYou live with that. When you reject pluralism and embrace the philosophy of the Reconstructionists, youâ€™ve said, â€˜Freedom scares me. I have to be right, and even though logically my life is too short to say I know anything, Iâ€™ll say I do. When I donâ€™t have an answer for someone, Iâ€™ll shout them down.â€™ The writer and artist in me rebels against that.â€
Up-close encounters with Reconstructionists rattled both Schaeffer and Whitehead. In Crazy for God, Schaeffer writes about a meeting with Reconstructionist author Gary North, Whitehead and others to talk about ways to secure funding for the Rutherford Institute. Schaeffer had brought his father, which turned out to be a mistake. North refused to stay on task and kept launching into harangues about the need to hoard gold and build bomb shelters to survive a coming Soviet attack and economic collapse.
â€œDad seemed lost in a depressed daze,â€ Schaeffer wrote about that day. â€œHe had recently been saying privately that the evangelical world was more or less being led by lunatics, psychopaths, and extremists, and agreeing with me that if â€˜our sideâ€™ ever won, America would be in deep trouble.â€
Asked about that raucous meeting today, Whitehead is able to chuckle.
â€œI remember Frank and I went back a couple of times, drank a bottle of wine in the room and just howled,â€ Whitehead recalls.
A similar meeting with TV preacher Pat Robertson was also less than successful. Robertson began claiming he had killed a snake in his garage that morning and had been seeing more snakes all day. He told Whitehead they were a sign from God on the need to be as subtle as a serpent, a biblical reference from the Book of Genesis.
â€œI was sitting there with a group of people, his followers, and they were just ooh-ing and aah-ing like this great wisdom was coming out of his mouth,â€ Whitehead recalled. â€œFrank was rolling his eyes and looking at me, and his dad was there. His father, Francis Schaeffer, couldnâ€™t get what was going on there.â€
Over the years, Whitehead has also come to appreciate Americaâ€™s religious pluralism. Last year, he sided with Americans United when the group went to bat for Roberta Stewart, a Nevada Wiccan who was denied the right to put a Wiccan symbol on the government-issued grave marker of her late husband, who died in combat in Afghanistan.
â€œPluralism is the way to keep society free,â€ he said. â€œGo back to history — the Puritans of New England who killed witches. Do I think that could happen again? Yeah. I would be very fearful if fundamentalist Christians took over the government. Iâ€™d be very concerned because first of all, Iâ€™d be shunned. Second, I might be on the list of guys they eliminate first.â€
These days, both Whitehead and Schaeffer know they are persona non grata among the Religious Right. (A similar thing happened to Thomas, who lost speaking engagements after Blinded by Might was published.) Whitehead said Focus on the Familyâ€™s Citizen magazine will report on some of his cases but will not mention the Rutherford Institute in print.
Schaeffer has also been shunned and notes attacks on him in the fundamentalist wing of the blogosphere. A writer on one right-wing blog accused him of having â€œmajor emotional and spiritual problems.â€ Another said of Schaeffer, â€œIf I could proffer just a few words of counsel to Schaeffer, they would be the encouragement to Just. Go. Away.â€
But Schaeffer sees an upside: Since publication of Crazy for God, he has been contacted by hundreds of people, including many evangelicals, who say his story resonates with them.
â€œThat really has floored me,â€ Schaeffer said.
What lies ahead for the Religious Right apostates? Both Schaeffer and Whitehead say they will continue to speak out. Schaeffer has found success as the author of secular fiction, and Whitehead keeps busy running the Rutherford Institute.
Surveying the political landscape, the two diverge a bit. Whitehead believes the Religious Right is losing power and says the movement wonâ€™t be as influential in the next administration.
Schaeffer is not so sure. He said that he does not believe the Religious Right is losing power or that weâ€™ve entered a â€œpost-Religious Right America,â€ as some have asserted. He has noticed a positive sign: a new willingness among many evangelicals and religious people to distance themselves from the Religious Right.
â€œI donâ€™t think the obituary is right,â€ Schaeffer said. â€œI donâ€™t think the movement is on the way out, but when it comes to individuals, there are a lot of people who say these guys do not speak for me. The report of the death of the Religious Right has been greatly exaggerated, but at the individual level there is a growing spirit of disillusionment. If someone left this country 15 years ago and came back and looked at it now, theyâ€™d have to admit something has changed.â€
Rob Boston is associate editor for Church and State Magazine.