Insider: "The Christian Right is Aiming to Destroy All Things Public"
The following is an excerpt from Frank Schaeffer's new book, Sex, Mom, and God: How the Bible's Strange Take on Sex Led to Crazy Politics -- and How I Learned to Love Women (and Jesus) Anyway (Da Capo Press, 2011). Raised in Switzerland in l'Abri, a utopian community and spiritual school his evangelical parents founded, Schaeffer was restless and aware even at a young age that "my life was being defined by my parent's choices." Still, he took to "the family business" well, following his dad as he became one of the "best-known evangelical leaders in the U.S." on whirlwind speaking tours. While rubbing shoulders with Pat Robertson, James Dobson and Jerry Falwell, Schaeffer witnessed the birth of the Christian anti-abortion movement, and became an evangelical writer, speaker and star in his own right.
Ironically, at the very same time as Evangelicals like Dad and I were thrusting ourselves into bare-knuckle politics in the 1970s and 80s, we were also retreating to what amounted to virtual walled compounds. In other words we lashed out at “godless America” and demanded political change—say, the reintroduction of prayer into public schools—and yet also urged our followers to pull their own children out of the public schools and homeschool them. The rejection of public schools by Evangelical Protestants was a harbinger of virtual civil war carried on by other means. Protestants had once been the public schools’ most ardent defenders.
For instance, in the 1840s when Roman Catholics asked for tax relief for their private schools, Protestants said no and stood against anything they thought might undermine the public schools that they believed were the backbone of moral virtue, community spirit, and egalitarian good citizenship.
The Evangelical’s abandonment of the country they called home (while simultaneously demanding change in that society) went far beyond alternative schools or homeschooling. In the 1970s and 1980s thousands of Christian bookstores opened, countless new Evangelical radio programs flourished, and new TV stations went on the air. Even a “Christian Yellow Pages” (a guide to Evangelical tradesmen) was published advertising “Christcentered plumbers,” accountants, and the like who “honor Jesus.”
New Evangelical universities and even new law schools appeared, seemingly overnight, with a clearly defined mission to “take back” each and every profession—including law and politics—“for Christ.” For instance, Liberty University’s Law School was a dream come true for my old friend Jerry Falwell, who (when I was speaking at his school in 1983 to the entire student body for the second time) gleefully told me of his vision for Liberty’s programs: “Frank, we’re going to train a new generation of judges to change America!” This was the same Jerry Falwell who wrote in America Can Be Saved, “I hope I live to see the day when, as in the early days of our country, we won’t have any public schools.”
To the old-fashioned conservative mantra “Big government doesn’t work,” the newly radicalized Evangelicals (and their Roman Catholic and Mormon cobelligerents) added “The U.S. government is evil!” And the very same community—Protestant American Evangelicals—who had once been the bedrock supporters of public education, and voted for such moderate and reasonable men as President Dwight Eisenhower, became the enemies of not only the public schools but also of anything in the (nonmilitary) public sphere “run by the government.”
As they opened new institutions (proudly outside the mainstream), the Jesus Victims doing this “reclaiming” cast themselves in the role of persecuted exiles. What they never admitted was that they were self-banished from mainstream institutions, not only because the Evangelicals’ political views on social issues conflicted with most people’s views, but also because Evangelicals (and other conservative religionists) found themselves holding the short end of the intellectual stick. Science marched forth, demolishing fundamentalist “facts” with dispassionate argument. So science also became an enemy.
Rather than rethink their beliefs, conservative religionists decided to renounce secular higher education and denounce it as “elitist.” Thus, to be uninformed, even willfully and proudly stupid, came to be considered a Godly virtue. And since misery loves company, the Evangelicals’ quest, for instance when Evangelicals dominated the Texas textbook committees, was to strive to “balance” the teaching of evolution with creationism and damn the facts. In the minds of Evangelicals, they were recreating the Puritan’s self-exile from England by looking for a purer and better place, this time not a geographical “place” but a sanctuary within their minds (and in inward-looking schools and churches) undisturbed by facts.
Like the Puritans, the post-Roe Evangelicals (and many other conservative Christians) withdrew from the mainstream not because they were forced to but because the society around them was, in their view, fatally sinful and, worse, addicted to facts rather than to faith. And yet having “dropped out” (to use a 1960s phrase), the Evangelicals nevertheless kept on demanding that regarding “moral” and “family” matters the society they’d renounced nonetheless had to conform to their beliefs.
In the first decade of the twenty-first century the Evangelical and conservative Roman Catholic (and Mormon) outsider victim “approach” to public policy was perfected on a heretofore-undreamed of scale by Sarah Palin. She was the ultimate holier-than-thou Evangelical queen bee. What my mother had represented (in her unreconstructed fundamentalist heyday) to a chalet full of young gullible women and later to tens of thousands of readers, Palin became for tens of millions of alienated angry white lower-middleclass men and women convinced that an educated “elite” was out to get them.
Palin was first inflicted on the American public by Senator John McCain, who chose her as his running mate in the 2008 presidential election for only one reason: He needed to shore up flagging support from the Evangelical Republican antiabortion base. McCain wanted to prove that he was fully in line with the “social issues” agenda that Dad, Koop, and I had helped foist on our country over thirty years before. Palin lost the election for McCain but “won” her war for fame and fortune and self-appointed “prophetess” status.
She presented herself as called by God and thus cast in the Old Testament mold of Queen Esther, one chosen by God to save her people. Palin perfected the Jesus Victim “art” of Evangelical self banishment and then took victimhood to new levels of success by cashing in on white lower-middle-class resentment of America’s elites. She might as well have run under the slogan “I’m as dumb as you are!”
Palin made a fortune by simultaneously proclaiming her Evangelical faith, denouncing Liberals, and claiming that she would help the good God fearing folks out there “take back” their country. This “Esther” lacked seriousness. But born-again insiders knew that the “wisdom of men” wasn’t the point. Why should the new Queen Esther bother to actually finish her work governing Alaska? God had chosen her to confound the wise! So she became a media star and quit as governor of Alaska. Then she battled “Them”—the “lamestream media” (as she labeled any media outlets outside of the Far Right subculture)—in the name of standing up for “Real Americans.” Palin used the alternative communication network that had its roots deeply embedded in those pioneering 1970s and 1980s Evangelical TV shows and radio shows that I used to be on just about every other day. She did this to avoid being questioned by people who didn’t agree with her. By not actually governing or doing the job she’d been elected by Alaskans to do, and by using the alternative media networks as an “outsider”—all the while reacting to and demanding attention from the actual (theoretically hated) media—Palin also made buckets of money.
And the greatest irony was that many women in the Evangelical/ Roman Catholic/Quiverfull movements were cheering for Palin as a defender of “traditional family values.” Yet Palin was the least- “submissive” female imaginable. She misused her children as stage props and reduced her husband to the role of “helpmeet”; indeed, he became the perfect example of a good biblical wife.
Speaking of “good biblical wives,” in the Palin era the Evangelical Right still liked to pay lip-service to the Puritan community as an ideal to “get back to.” Yet the post-Roe Evangelicals ignored the Puritans’ actual ideas about government’s biblically mandated role.
The Puritans’ theology of government was formed in the context of an embrace of all Christians’ duty to enhance the public good. This was exemplified by such unquestioned well-established concepts as the “king’s highway,” a common road system protected by the crown (government) and a common law that applied to all.
One’s common duty to others was accepted as the essential message of Christian civilization. Public spaces were defended by government in the early New England settlements, just as they had been in England.
What’s so curious is that in this religion-inflicted country of ours, the same Evangelicals, conservative Roman Catholics, and others who had been running around post-Roe insisting that America had a “Christian foundation” and demanding a “return to our heritage” (and/or more recently trashing health care reform as “communist”) ignored the fact that one historic contribution of Christianity was a commitment to strong central government. For instance, this included church support for state-funded, or state-church-funded, charities, including hospitals, as early as the fourth century.
Government was seen as part of God’s Plan for creating social justice and defending the common good. Christians were once culture-forming and culture-embracing people. Even the humanism preached by the supposedly “anti-Christian” Enlightenment thinkers of the eighteenth century was, in fact, a Deist/Christian “heresy,” with a value system espousing human dignity borrowed wholesale from the Sermon on the Mount.
In the scorched-earth post-Roe era of the “health care reform debates” of 2009 and beyond, Evangelicals seemed to believe that Jesus commanded that all hospitals (and everything else) should be run by corporations for profit, just because corporations weren’t the evil government. The Right even decided that it was “normal” for the state to hand over its age-old public and patriotic duties to private companies—even for military operations (“contractors”), prisons, health care, public transport, and all the rest.
The Religious Right/Far Right et al. favored private “facts,” too. They claimed that global warming wasn’t real. They asserted this because scientists (those same agents of Satan who insisted that evolution was real) were the ones who said human actions were changing the climate. Worse, the government said so, too!
“Global warming is a left-wing plot to take away our freedom!”
“Amtrak must make a profit!”
Even the word “infrastructure” lost its respectability when government had a hand in maintaining roads, bridges, and trains. In denial of the West’s civic-minded, government-supporting heritage, Evangelicals (and the rest of the Right) wound up defending private oil companies but not God’s creation, private cars instead of public transport, private insurance conglomerates rather than government care of individuals.
The price for the Religious Right’s wholesale idolatry of private everything was that Christ’s reputation was tied to a cynical union-busting political party owned by billionaires. It only remained for a Far Right Republican- appointed majority on the Supreme Court to rule in 2010 that unlimited corporate money could pour into political campaigns— anonymously—in a way that clearly favored corporate America and the superwealthy, who were now the only entities served by the Republican Party.
The Evangelical foot soldiers never realized that the logic of their “stand” against government had played into the hands of people who never cared about human lives beyond the fact that people could be sold products. By the twenty-first century, Ma and Pa No-name were still out in the rain holding an “Abortion is Murder!” sign in Peoria and/or standing in line all night in some godforsaken mall in Kansas City to buy a book by Sarah Palin and have it signed. But it was the denizens of the corner offices at Goldman Sachs, the News Corporation, Koch Industries, Exxon, and Halliburton who were laughing.
Excerpted with permission from the publisher and author -- all rights reserved -- Sex, Mom, and God: How the Bible's Strange Take on Sex Led to Crazy Politics -- and How I Learned to Love Women (and Jesus) Anyway by Frank Schaeffer (Da Capo Press, 2011).