I Helped Start the Religious Right: Here's How We Tried to Undermine Secular America -- and Build a Theocracy
As someone who participated in the rise of the religious right in the 1970s and 1980s, I can tell you that you can’t understand the modern Republican Party and its hatred of government unless you understand the evangelical home-school movement. Nor can the Democrats hope to defeat the GOP in 2016 unless they grasp what I’ll be explaining here: religious war carried on by other means.
The Christian home-school movement drove the Evangelical school movement to the ever-harsher world-rejecting far right. The movement saw itself as separating from evil “secular” America. Therein lies the heart of the Tea Party, GOP and religious right’s paranoid view of the rest of us. And since my late father and evangelist Francis Schaeffer and I were instrumental in starting the religious right — I have since left the movement and recently wrote a book titled “Why I Am an Atheist who Believes in God: How to Give Love, Create Beauty and Find Peace“ – believe me when I tell you that the evangelical schools and home school movement were, by design, founded to undermine a secular and free vision of America and replace it by stealth with a form of theocracy.
This happened because Evangelical home-schoolers were demanding ever-greater levels of “separation” from what they regarded as the Evil Secular World. It wasn’t enough just to reject the public schools. How could the Christian parent be sure that even the Evangelical schools were sufficiently pure? And so the Christian schools radicalized in order to not appear to be “compromising” with the world in the eyes of increasingly frightened and angry parents. (My account here of the rise of the home school movement is not aimed at home-schooling, per se, but at parents who want to indoctrinate, rather than educate.)
The Evangelical home school movement was really founded by two people: Rousas Rushdoony, the extremist theologian, and Mary Pride, the “mother” of fundamentalist home-schoolers. I knew them both well.
Until Rushdoony, founder and late president of the Chalcedon Foundation, began writing in the 1960s, most American fundamentalists (including my parents) didn’t try to apply biblical laws about capital punishment for homosexuality to the United States. Even the most conservative Evangelicals said they were “New Testament Christians.” In other words, they believed that after the coming of Jesus, the harsher bits of the Bible had been (at least to some extent) transformed by the “New Covenant” of Jesus’ “Law of Love.”
By contrast, the leaders of Reconstructionism believed that Old Testament teachings—on everything from capital punishment for gays to the virtues of child beating—were still valid because they were the inerrant Word and Will of God and therefore should be enforced. Not only that, they said that biblical law should be imposed even on nonbelievers. This theology was the American version of the attempt in some Muslim countries to impose Shariah (Islamic law) on all citizens, Muslims and non-Muslims alike.
I was Pride’s agent and sold her first huge seller “The Way Home.” What, Pride asked, was the point of having all those children and then turning them over to secular public schools to be made into secular humanists and Jesus-hating pagans? The irony was that Pride preached a dogmatic, stay-at-home, follow-your man philosophy for other women while turning her lucrative home-schooling empire into a one-woman industry. And Pride’s successor in the Patriarchy Movement, the wealthy author/guru Nancy Leigh DeMoss, was also one of those do-as-I-say-not-as-I-do best-selling career women doing high-paid speaking gigs while encouraging other women to stay home and submit to their men.
Nancy Leigh DeMoss happened to be the daughter of a former friend of my mother’s, Nancy DeMoss, who was instrumental in my parents’ rise to Evangelical superstardom. Nancy DeMoss was also pivotal in the role of facilitator and financier when it came to seamlessly merging Reconstructionist ideology with the “respectable” mainstream Evangelical community. I worked closely with Nancy on several projects. She generously supported my various Schaeffer-related antiabortion movies, books and seminar tours. She also took “our” message much further on her own by underwriting a massive multimillion-dollar well-produced antiabortion TV and print media ad campaign inspired by our work.
Soon after the death of her wealthy husband, Arthur DeMoss, Nancy DeMoss had become my mother’s friend and an ardent Schaeffer follower. She also took over her late husband’s foundation as CEO. Besides underwriting several Schaeffer projects, Nancy contributed millions to Republican and other far right causes (including $70,000 to start Newt Gingrich’s political action committee, GOPAC). She also helped the Plymouth Rock Foundation, a Reconstructionist-aligned group.
When Nancy’s daughter (the aforementioned Nancy Leigh DeMoss) took Pride’s ideas to a bigger audience than Pride could have imagined, she was just taking the next logical step begun by her mother. Like my sisters and I, the DeMoss siblings found themselves in their parents’ orbit. The DeMoss children became co-workers in the “cause,” much as I filled that role in my family. Nancy’s other daughter, Deborah, worked for Sen. Jesse Helms. Nancy’s son Mark worked for Jerry Falwell before founding the DeMoss Group, a P.R. firm used by the likes of Billy Graham’s son Franklin. But unlike the Schaeffers, the DeMoss clan had tens of millions of dollars with which to back its pet far-right schemes, one of which would be the Quiverfull Movement– a group dedicated to early marriage and huge families.
To plumb the depths of the tortured “reasoning” behind the Roman Catholic version of the anti-contraceptive Quiverfull Movement (they preach young marriage and huge families and wives’ obedience to husbands), consider the writing of Roman Catholic philosopher Elizabeth Anscombe. She’s a hero to today’s leading conservative Roman Catholics. She wrote passionately in defense of the papal prohibition of contraception:
In considering an action, we need always to judge several things about ourselves. First: is the sort of act we contemplate doing something that it’s all right to do? Second: are our further or surrounding intentions all right? Third: is the spirit in which we do it all right? Contraceptive intercourse fails on the first count; and to intend such an act is not to intend a marriage act at all, whether or no we’re married. An act of ordinary intercourse in marriage at an infertile time, though, is a perfectly ordinary act of married intercourse, and it will be bad, if it is bad, only on the second or third counts. If contraceptive intercourse is permissible, then what objection could there be after all to mutual masturbation, or copulation in vase indebito, sodomy, buggery (I should perhaps remark that I am using a legal term here—not indulging in bad language), when normal copulation is impossible or inadvisable (or in any case, according to taste)? It can’t be the mere pattern of bodily behavior in which the stimulation is procured that makes all the difference!
But if such things are all right, it becomes perfectly impossible to see anything wrong with homosexual intercourse, for example. If you are defending contraception, you will have rejected Christian tradition. It’s this that makes the division between straightforward fornication or adultery and the wickedness of the sins against nature and of contraceptive intercourse. Hence contraceptive intercourse within marriage is a graver offence against chastity than is straightforward fornication or adultery.
Here is how far right instigator and personal best friend of Antonin Scalia Robert George of Princeton (described by the New York Times as one of the most powerful ultra-conservative instigators in America) lauded this insane “argument” in his gushing Anscombe obituary:
In 1968, when much of the rest of the Catholic intellectual world reacted with shock and anger to Pope Paul VI’s reaffirmation of Catholic teaching regarding the immorality of contraception, the Geach-Anscombe family toasted the announcement with champagne. Her defense of the teaching in the essay “Contraception and Chastity” is an all-too-rare example of rigorous philosophical argumentation on matters of sexual ethics. Catholics who demand the liberalization of their Church’s teachings have yet to come to terms with Anscombe’s arguments.
Another far-right Roman Catholic ideologue (and also an academic) even wrote a book calling on Christians, Jews and Muslims to join together in a jihad against the secular West. In “Ecumenical Jihad: Ecumenism and the Culture War” a former friend of mine, Peter Kreeft (a professor of philosophy at Boston College), called for “ecumenical jihad.” ”Ecumenical Jihad” was dedicated to Richard John Neuhaus, the late Roman Catholic convert priest, and to the late Charles Colson (who later teamed up with George to author the “Manhattan Declaration”). Neuhaus and I often talked on the phone when he was about to launch his far-fight First Things journal. Neuhaus asked me to contribute articles, which I did. According to what Neuhaus told me, First Things was supposed to be the pro-life version of Norman Podhoretz’s Commentary. “To fill a gap,” as Neuhaus put it to me.
Podhoretz, who at first was friendly with Neuhaus, told me he broke with him over his “extremist anti-American views,” as Podhoretz put it. This was just after Neuhaus had started describing the U.S. government as an illegitimate “regime.” As the Washington Post noted:
In an essay he wrote for First Things, [Neuhaus] likened the legal right to abortion to state-sponsored murder under the Nazi regime. “Law, as it is presently made by the judiciary, has declared its independence from morality,” he wrote. “America is not and, please God, will never become Nazi Germany, but it is only blind hubris that denies it can happen here and, in peculiarly American ways, may be happening here.” The polemical rhetoric offended many Jewish conservatives in particular and threatened to shatter the bonds that had united them.<el>Father Neuhaus played a central role in forging an alliance between evangelicalProtestants and Catholics and in bringing conservative Christians into the Republican conservative coalition in the 1980s and 1990s.
The groups Kreeft, Colson and Neuhaus had in mind to “bring together” in an ecumenical jihad were alienated Evangelicals, Orthodox Jews and conservative Roman Catholics, to which Kreeft added Muslims (not that any actually signed on to his program as far as I know). These groups did not share each other’s theology, but had a deeper link: anger at the “victimhood” imposed on them by modernity.
Kreeft and Neuhaus were calling abortion murder. Thus, the logic of their argument was that of my father’s, too: The U.S. government was enabling murder and was thus disparaged as a “regime,” even a “counterfeit state,” that needed to be overthrown. George and Colson and the others who wrote and then signed the “Manhattan Declaration” (like Kreeft) also called for fundamentalists to unite if need be for civil disobedience to stop the U.S. government from doing its worst—in other words, to pass laws that did not comply with their religious “values.”
So if the U.S. government legalizes gay marriage and thus “compels” all Americans (including church groups) to recognize gay men and women’s civil rights, the government need no longer be obeyed when those laws affect religious people who disagree with them. The “Manhattan Declaration” called believers to “not comply.” And just as Neuhaus dismissed the U.S. government as a “regime”—and my father did the same when saying the government was a “counterfeit state”—George and his co-signers also used dismissive and demeaning language about the U.S. government.
The “Manhattan Declaration” called laws with which its signers disagreed “edicts,” thereby conjuring up images of dictators handing down oppressive rules, rather than legitimately elected democratic bodies passing legislation. In other words, when the right loses in the democratic process, “other means,” like civil disobedience, are encouraged. In fact, George, who authored the “declaration,” then headed up the group that successfully won on the Hobby Lobby case and also won the Evangelical Wheaton College suit to allow them to not cover contraception for women.
Neoconservative intellectuals like Neuhaus helped set the stage for the Quiverfull and Patriarchy movements. They gave a gloss of intellectual respectability to what was nothing more than a theocratic, far right wish list. “Thinkers” like Neuhaus contributed to what I’ll call the ideological background noise accompanying the rise of post-Roe demagogy.
Ironically, at the very same time as Evangelicals like Dad, Mary Pride and I were thrusting ourselves into bare-knuckle politics, 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 home-school 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 home-schooling. 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 “Christ-centered 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.”
Recently, Gordon College asked President Obama to exempt them from laws protecting gay civil rights. To understand why the old-fashioned conservative mantra “Big government doesn’t work,” the newly radicalized Evangelicals (and their Roman Catholic co-belligerents) 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.”
In the minds of Evangelicals, they were re-creating 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 21st 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. 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-middle-class men and women convinced that an educated “elite” was out to get them.
Palin was first inflicted on the American public by Sen. John McCain, who chose her as his running mate in the 2008 presidential election for at least one big 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 foisted on our country more than 30 years before. Palin lost the election for McCain but “won” her war for fame and fortune.
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.
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.
In the scorched-earth post-Roe era of the “healthcare 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, healthcare, 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 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 super wealthy, 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 21st century, people were still out in the rain holding an “Abortion Is Murder!” sign in Peoria and/or standing in line all night in a 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 Corp., Exxon and Halliburton who were laughing. As for the likes of the Quiverfull people — the Koch brothers weren’t having babies or not educating their daughters … but they found the religious right useful.
And that is what the Koch brothers know and most Americans don’t: the religious right have been useful pawns. And that is why there is a Republican majority in both houses of government: They have tapped into the energy of the religious right and their hatred of “sinful” America exemplified by the paranoia of the home-schoolers. Taken together the GOP and the religious right are still fighting a religious war against their own country.