In March of 2005, World Magazine editor Marvin Olasky asked, “Who’s the major figure behind the election and re-election of George W. Bush?” His answer? Francis Schaeffer. Olasky went on to argue that Schaeffer’s film, How Should We Then Live?, and book, A Christian Manifesto, helped push many evangelicals into political action, convincing them that if Christians did not get involved “Western civilization would go down the drain.”
Newsweek religion editor Kenneth Woodward meant pretty much the same thing when he referred to Schaeffer in 1982 as “The Guru of Fundamentalism.” Woodward coined that phrase in the wake of Schaeffer’s book A Christian Manifesto, which was a blueprint for Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority and other organizations that make up what we now call the Christian Right. Ironically, Schaeffer’s first coverage in a major news magazine came in 1960 when TIME did a brief article on him entitled “Mission to Intellectuals.” Many in the secular media might think it logical that Schaeffer was both “guru of fundamentalism” and “the major figure behind the election of George Bush.” But how could those be reconciled with Schaeffer as a missionary to intellectuals?
The answer lies in Schaeffer’s having been a complex individual with a wacky son. Schaeffer began his career in the 1930s as a fundamentalist pastor. His primary aims were to evangelize the lost and militantly defend orthodox Protestant theology. He spoke often of the need to separate from theological liberals, sinful culture, and even from more moderate Christians who would not separate. One of his mentors was fundamentalist firebrand Carl McIntire, one of the most irascible fundamentalists of the 20th century.
But a funny thing on the way to his mid-life. Schaeffer and his family moved to Europe as missionaries. There, he found Europeans not much impressed with American fundamentalist heresy hunting. Rather, the teenagers Schaeffer’s kids brought home wanted to know if Christianity made any sense intellectually. Schaeffer responded by breaking with his fundamentalist brethren back in the States and launching L’Abri, a community in the Swiss Alps where he and his wife Edith provided Christian hospitality to young people from Europe and eventually America. Their goal at L’Abri was to love and argue young people into the Kingdom of God. At first many of these young people were disillusioned countercultural types, proto-hippies in search of truth (or a good high) they could not find in modernity’s consumer culture. Overtime, however, as Schaeffer’s lectures were turned into books, L’Abri became a pilgrimage site for American evangelicals.
Schaeffer’s first three books made him an Christian celebrity. The God Who is There, Escape from Reason, and He is There and is not Silent became known collectively as the trilogy. In these Schaeffer provided a pop interpretation of western intellectual history, explaining in Jeremiad fashion how a Christian culture gave way to the secularism and despair that marked modern existential thought. More important than the details of his analysis was the fact that an evangelical was making such an argument at all. American evangelicalism in the fifties and sixties suffered from a fundamentalist hangover that included the very separatism Schaeffer had advocated back in his fundamentalist days. Schaeffer hit the Christian college lecture circuit arguing that rather than avoiding all things secular Christians should study ideas, films, works of art, and even rock n roll. They should be conversant in the ways of the world in order to present a compelling and coherent defense of the faith. This was exhilarating news for many evangelicals who had grown up being taught that the best way to witness for Christ was to avoid all things secular, especially dancing, drinking, and going to movies.
[For more on the cultural influences leading to this way of thinking, check out Jesus and Gin: Evangelicalism, The Roaring Twenties, and Today’s Culture Wars by Barry Hankins.]
Schaeffer’s career took another dramatic turn in 1974 when his twenty-two year-old son Franky talked him into making their first film, Whatever Happened to the Human Race?. Franky was an aspiring artist, and by his own admission an undisciplined, rambunctious, and spoiled zealot—“crazy for God,” as he puts it today. Franky’s view of himself is corroborated by those who lived at L’Abri. The film translated Schaeffer’s history of western decline into documentary form and was mildly successful. More important than the film itself was the shift in Schaeffer’s tone. Whereas previously he had couched his message in the form of Christian apologetics that would lead to successful evangelism, in the first film he began to identify the enemy of Christian civilization—“secular humanism.”
Moreover, Schaeffer began to call for the defeat of secular humanists, not their conversion. This message was amplified in the second film in the series. With Franky once again at the helm and future U.S. Surgeon General C. Everett Koop on board, the film did more than any single event to turn evangelicals toward a pro-life movement that had been almost exclusively Catholic.
Essentially, Franky pushed his father from cultural engagement to culture war. Now known as Frank instead of Franky, he acknowledges all this in his recent autobiography 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 final step in Francis Schaeffer’s transformation was A Christian Manifesto. The book was virtually authored by evangelical lawyer and activist John Whitehead and appeared just before Whitehead’s own The Second American Revolution. Together these two books played a major role in shaping the Christian Right.
Given all the above Schaeffer is remembered today as a major influence on Christian Right culture warriors as well as Christian scholars. The culture warriors like his later career, directed as it was by Franky. The scholars, by contrast, are inspired by Schaeffer’s L’Abri period and his triology.
To say there is tension between the world of Christian Right culture war and the world of Christian scholarship, particularly on Schaeffer’s legacy, is something of an understatement. Many Christian scholars still credit him with helping move American evangelicalism toward cultural engagement, especially intellectually. At the same time many of these Christian scholars, and many who lived at L’Abri before the first film, believe that Schaeffer’s later career as a culture warrior was an unfortunate to mistake. Many Christian Right activists, on the other hand, have little use for the scholarly world of ideas unless those ideas can be put in the service of defeating the forces Schaeffer identified as secular humanism.
[An expanded discussion of Schaeffer’s legacy can be found in Francis Schaeffer and the Shaping of Evangelical America by Barry Hankins.]
As is often the case with influential, complex people, Schaeffer’s legacy is contested. There is even a third group of evangelicals who were influenced by neither his intellectual work nor his Christian Right activism. Instead, they look to books such as The Mark of a Christian and cherish the model of L’Abri with its emphasis on Christian love and community. Whichever Schaefferite influence one claims, the argument here is that the diversity of his legacy, and the tension it arouses, makes Schaeffer second only to Billy Graham in terms of evangelical importance in the late 20th century.
Have you interacted with any of Schaeffer’s work? What is your impression of him? How would you describe Schaeffer’s legacy on the Christian movement?