Sunday, July 24, 2011

Frank Schaeffer continues to overcompensate for his role in forming the Religious Right

I read Crazy for God and mostly enjoyed as a page turner but since that book got published Frank seems determined to present a story in which he is so different from his old man that he can make a cottage industry out of debunking everything conservative Protestant. Trouble is that some of us actually read the mediocrity that was Addicted to Mediocrity. Schaeffer may have concluded he was some kind of closet case non-evangelical non-Protestant but that doesn't make him less an architect for what we can now broadly call the Religious Right. For folks happy to read whatever he writes about Obama as the last best hope America has in a venue like the Huffington Post what Frank used to do probably isn't as important as what he writes now but the trouble is that for those of us who paid attention to both stages to any degree the snake is still selling snake oil, just for an ostensibly different cause.
One of the things he doesn't clearly articulate in what I have read of him so far (admittedly just a couple of books) is the idea that not just the goals but the methods he has embraced are problematic. He still comes off as a screeching idealogue now who has merely changed formal alliegances. And if by his account he bullied and hectored his old man into making abortion a wedge issue for religious conservatives then why should Frank spend so much time selling himself as different from his old man and reacting to the religious right as a bunch of Muslim terrorists in Christian trappings. Schaeffer himself didn't mind suggesting that actual doctrinal differences could be set aside in the pursuit of political and social goals.
There are those who think that Driscoll is a crazy shill using controversy to sell himself. There seem to be some real teeth in this criticism since when a week elapsed after he pinged requests for stories about effeminate male church musicians he was going on about how he didn't have a platform to talk about his views on social issues. We were being told to believe, despite more than a decade of preaching that included all sorts of remarks about chickafied dudes and social issues, that somehow Driscoll didn't have a proper platform yet for opining on cultural issues and that the solution to this was to set up a website after he and his wife and kids are done vacationing in Europe. There's also a book coming up that deserves promotion, too. So we can all sit tight until Driscoll returns and can tell us what the real issues are again. That's swell. Cause a controversy, redefine the issue around what you say it is instead of what the controversy is about, and then go on vacation to come back and steer discussion again.
Which would seem scandalous and unusual if that hadn't been Frank Schaeffer's shtick before Driscoll ever started a ministry. Schaeffer differs only in the sense that he's officially announced he's changed alliances. He's no longer an architect of the Religious Right. But instead of demonizing the left and making the case that only unfettered capitalism makes the most sense inlight of scripture he's going the other way. Schaeffer is in some senses the less compelling would-be demagogue in a pop culture setting but not because he lacks the will to demonize anyone who disagrees with him. This he does with alacrity regardless of what his actual views may be. He's the lesser public figure because given his mediocrity he is only able to either achieve or sustain this status by dint of the reputation of his old man.
Even my most sympathetic reading of Frank's criticisms of his father leads me to conclude that Frank is a man who has built his whole life managing and directing his father's legacy as a selling point for himself, whether it was bullying Francis into making abortion a wedge issue within the conservative movement when Francis considered it "a Catholic issue", or it was a case of constantly talking about the anti-government violence dear old Dad approved of if abortion could not be legally and non-violently eliminated. Frank finds it easier to take that path than to, it seems, completely deal with the implications of his claims about himself to have fostered in his own way what he now so eagerly calls right wing Christian terrorism.
That he sincerely regrets what he did in the past I grant as a matter of assuming the best. That is not strictly necessary and not, especially given how Frank talks about other people, even what the fellow could be argued to deserve but that's how I'm handling this. The problem in Schaeffer's approach now is precisely that he is the same old hectoring, bullying impugning would-be demagogue sort he came off as twenty years ago when he was trying to be a champion for right wing Christian causes. He's still the same lazy mediocre punk he was before he changed horses. Not that there's anything inherently wrong with being a mediocre punk. Jesus came to save mediocre punks like Schaeffer and jobless losers like me.
It's just too bad that Schaeffer seems to be a man who goes through life continuously buying his own hype, whether that's in his right wing architect mode or his champion of Obama mode. In both cases he still has to build his sales platform on the work his dad gets noticed for. He never had a chance in that respect. It would be as impossible to ask him to not become a coat-tail rider on a parent's legacy as it would be to ask that none of the Lennon boys ever try writing a song; that Jacob Dylan would never take an interest in music; or that the Zappa children wouldn't get involved in entertainment; or that Barrymores would not be in the film industry.
The flip side of some forceful personality building a "legacy" is that legacy becomes the damned thing your children feel they have no choice but to deal with; they have no choice but to endlessly live in the shadow of and within the constraints of the "legacy" you built ultimately for yourself (or, to be fair, for others). If the legacy is big enough, as is that of J. S. Bach you may find centuries later that there are no members of that family name who get listed as professional musicians of any kind. After all, if great-great-great-great-great-grandpa obtained the pinnacle of Western art music what's the point of continuing the family legacy? It's not that it's a bad legacy it's that anything you attempted to add would automatically just count against you. I would suggest that in terms of American evangelicalism Francis Schaeffer gained such a legacy. If anything Frank selling himself as the anti-Francis is the only plausible business move he has with a legacy he can neither live up to nor escape.
So on the one hand I can almost get why Frank seems to act like he constantly needs to exploit or direct attention about his dad. That's all he's got and in that respect he's sort of a tragic figure, doomed to always be within the shadow of a father who whether loved or reviled is always going to be the more important figure. If Roy Baumeister and others have noted that male social circles by definition only have a limited amount of respect to go around and you're the son of one of the biggest alpha males in American Christianity in the 20th century then if you don't choose a path in some way connected to it then you've got nothing.
On the other hand it's taken with such mercenary alacrity it is hard to see as very sympathetic in the end. He may persuade himself that he has worked hard to not be in his dad's shadow but obviously since he can't help connecting himself and his dad in public utterances at length the jig has been up for some time now. It's not possible for me to feel there's any convincing case to be made that Frank Schaeffer would have gone anywhere without his dad's legacy constantly hanging over him. Frank is most persuasive when he mines ambivalence and confusion. Whenever he grasps for certainty, even if it is in the form of protesting certainty, he seems to just falter.
And to tie things up and put a ribbon on it, this gives me another occasion to sound a cautionary note bout neo-Reformed brothers who want a "legacy". Think of the children. No, seriously. Look at Francis Schaeffer's legacy and look at how his kids have lived. Not just the non-annoying kids who aren't even on the radar. Look at Frank specifically. Frank is what you get when a guy who tries to measure up to a family legacy established by a patriarch figures out that it is simultaneously not in him to ever live up to that legacy and yet who also is completely incapable of escaping it. He then spends his life trying to repudiate it in some way and yet can't do it without being beholden to it. It is possibly the ultimate no-win situation in a parent/child relationship. "Legacy" becomes the strait jacket from which even a petulant and uncooperative child cannot possibly break free.
The miserable pathos of Frank is that even when he tries to distance himself from Francis he reveals that he's the same old Frank. Not unlike Driscoll using a controversy he's stirred up to shill an upcoming book, Frank can use a recent terrorist activity as a moment to say "I told you so" about how certain he was far right Christians are tools. He is in his own way a kind of proto-Driscoll. Proof that absurdist vitriol is not confined to either left or right or some kind of center. So maybe Frank predicted Christian rightests fomenting terror. Big deal. Tom Clancy has sold a lot of books about military topics but does that make him a terrorism expert, too? Novelists and entertainers right and left sure are confident that they can pontificate accurately on stuff.
If he were more honest about his own advocacies he'd not just pin the blame on Christian rightists but also concede that as the architect of those ideas and alliances thirty years ago it was part of what he was pushing for. When Paul had his conversion moment he stopped persecuting Christians and started working to bring the message to the Gentiles. Arguably both his message and his methods changed. Frank would have us believe he had something vaguely like a Damascene moment but his methods suggest that the change-up was not nearly as big as he's convinced himself it is.
Per my long-ago citation of Adolf Schlatter, we do not remove our share in evil by condemning evil in others. Frank's legacy as a Christian right wing activist isn't going to go away no matter how many times he spins the Christian right as a bunch of anti-American terrorists because a black man is in the Oval Office. Some people don't care that Obama is black and consider it uselessly moot to debate about whether he's really an American citizen. Some folks can just not like his administration's policy decisions. Frank would rather assume that literally any disapproval of Obama's policies could only be motivated by stupidity from the far right or left. Whatever, dude. Proves the point that Frank is a leopard whose spots have not changed since he changed alliances. A guy who in the wake of a terrorist act can say "I told you so" is not any better than a guy who in the wake of a tsunami can explain how God's sovereign will is to use it as a gentle reminder that we should repent. It's still capitalizing on the deaths of others as a way to prove "I'm totally right". The tragedy may not be that people keep doing this, that's mundane, the tragedy is that someone who thinks he's left that all behind is still playing the game and doesn't seem to realize he's still at it.

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