Saturday, March 01, 2008

chapter 57 of Crazy for God

If there is a thesis statement or a central premise to Crazy for God: How I Grew Up as One of The Elect, Helped Found the Religious Right, and Lived to Take it All (or almost all) Back then perhaps chapter 57 is where the thesis statement finally appears, somewhere around page 347 of the 408 page book (not counting the index).

Yes, this would seem to be relatively late in the game to reveal the topic sentence.
Frank opens up with a statement that he considers abortion to be an unmitigated tragedy, still, decades after Roe vs Wade. He goes on to explain how the pro-life leaders in the Christian Right like Dobson, Falwell, and Robertson, have played Christians for suckers, using a single hot-button issue as a way to manipulate and rouse political support and sustaining their hold on power.

Frank holds Bush 2 accountable for the deaths of Christians in Iraq, who he believes were in better conditions prior to the war than they have been since. In fact Frank seems to believe the hypocrisy of Bush 2's administration is essentially intolerable.

Frank lays at the feet of Roe vs Wade the blame for three decades of terrible leadership from both political parties who jumped on this decision as the rallying cry for their respective teams. If there had been some moderation on either side to allow for something beyond a strictly binary decision, Frank seems to believe, politiccs in America wouldn't have become the sharp delineation of Religous Right and Secular Left it has become in the last two or three decades. And I think in one sense he's right, he's right that for years the secular left and mainstream media didn't take anything said by evangelicals seriously and for years abortion really was essentially a "Catholic issue" (which was why Francis was so loathe to jump into the political fray and address the issue until Frank, by his own account, cussed his dad into taking a stand on the issue).

As Frank puts it seemed like the requirement of ideological purity on abortion and any number of single-issue political topics) led both parties to prevent the development of any intelligent, pragmatic, and competent political leadership. Left in the wake of this is a series of ideological litmus tests, loyalty oaths, and partisan loyalties that reveal very little about applied principle and more about idology. Politics becomes less about the implementation of policy for the public good and more about the implementation of policy to reward those who fight over policy. This is a relatively old observation since complaints of this sort were rumbling in the United States in a few corners when I was a kid twenty years ago.

There are a handful of statements I admit to not quite getting from Frank. Frank seems to recognize some hypocrisy inherent in either side--the pro-life side opposes abortion but supports the death penalty and the pro-choice side supports abortion and opposes the death penalty. Ironically the Catholic position of the last decade or so seems to often oppose both abortion AND the death penalty and even war in a few cases. Personally I distrust the role and right of government to kill or sanction the killing of citizens without a warrant based on defending the citizenry. War as an act of self-defense I can understand because it is a matter of defending your own people from attack, but killing your own people pre-emptively because they are not wanted or killing them because they are considered too unsuitable to deserve life is bothersome to me and I don't think either should be done lightly.

Now the thing Frank says that seems to clearly indicate how he feels and thinks is something I will quote briefly:
page 349 from Crazy for God:

If it had been the other way around and the left had championed the unborn, perhaps against corporate medical industry interests, or in the name of euqality--or because of the lessons taguht by the rise of the eugenics movement of the 1920s and 1930s, or because of being queasy over a recently slave-owning society once again deciding who was more equal, even more human "legally" than others--my father would have been embraced as a religious leader on the left. And if Dad had been allied with the left, it would have ultimate been a much better fit for him--and for me.

That Frank notes how evangelicals ignored his father's passion for conservationism and environmentalism is easy to establish earlier in the book and that Francis was undoubtedly more broad-minded and inquisitive than most evangelicals and fundamentalists on the arts is something that ought to be universally agreed upon.

But the idea of Francis Schaeffer as a hero to the religious left? That's an amazingly big what-if. I don't see how given Francis Schaeffer's approach to epistlemology worked, let alone how he actually interpreted a great deal of modernist art, music and literature, that such an alternate reality would be possible. Schaeffer was bold enough to embrace, digest, absorb, and interpret a lot of 20th century culture but at the end of the day he was decidedly old-school in his interests and passions. This isn't bad, but it's the kind of thing that in the long run would have made him a hard-sell as a leader amongst the religious left. To the religious left of the 1960s was he something other than an irrelevant sideshow. Frank obvi0usly loves his dad and I think this love for his dad may cloud his perceptions when he goes so far as to suppose that if the left had championed the opposition of abortion that his father would have been a hero to the religious left. It was the religious left that Francis had been partly reacting to all along and Frank himself seems to even know this better than anyone.

If I were to fault the book it's not because Frank reveals that Francis and Edith were fallable human beings who loved the Lord, it's not even that their zeal for the Lord made them crazy because the foolishness of God is wiser than the wisdom of men. Nor is the fault of the book that the Religious Right is a movement that has done some terrible things or even done nothing much at all because that is the provence of any political movement, having a terribly mixed track record. I've been wondering for two decades when the Republican party will actually implement smalle rand less invasive government instead of simply claiming that's what they stand for. No, if I were to fault Frank's book it's that he gets to his real point so late in the book that I can't quite say I've experienced the "joy in the journey". His life was no doubt interesting but then so was mine and that doesn't mean I ought to write a memoir about it.

Given the pithy title and the lengthy subtitle I was hoping Frank would, uh, get to the point less than fifty pages away from the end of his book. And his point seems to be not only that he regrets playing a crucial part in forming the Religious Right (okay, I grant him that, I guess) but that if things had gone the other way his dad could have been a leader of the religious left. Okay ... sure I suppose ... but at that point would we even be talking about the religious left of the Western world that rose up in the last two centureis? Soemhow I doubt it.

Of course by eliminating a strictly scriptural approach to knowledge of Christian ethics and practice you can jump to the other side of the Proestant/Catholic/Orthodox divide but the political and historical reality is that Francis Schaeffer couldn't have done that based on his personal convictions. He was far too Prostetant. Would the Francis Schaeffer who seriously believed Billy Graham had compromised the Gospel by working with Catholics have REALLY become a hero to the religious left? Not likely. Did Francis have any interaction with non-Protestant Christians? Here I simply profess my ignorance because it is easy for Protestants to forget that left and right political debates happen within Catholic and Orthodox circles, too. God's kingdom every where has been divided since the time of Solomon's death so it's hardly a surprise that claims of unity are often a facade or mere optimism in the face of reality.

Still, what I appreciate about Crazy for God is that overall Frank seems to be able to admit in the crudest possible terms what evangelicals and really many Christians of every stripe and people of every stripe seem reluctant to admit. He doesn't just say "I'm not perfect [but I'm better than these other people]." He sometimes seems to lack the directness needed to say, "I helped contribute to the destruction of civil discourse in America and helped lay the foundation for nutjobs like Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell to polarize discussion of politics and religion in America." He seems to be TRYING to say that but doesn't quite say it directly, but then maybe he's going for the indirect approach.

But what he does manage to say often, even if indirectly is "I screwed this up. I screwed up pretty much everything and some of that was because of my parents." But a lot of it, he knows, was simply because he was an asshole and he seems to recognize that getting the nickname "the little shit from Switzerland" was deserved, at some level.

I am almost doen with the book and I have no less respect for Francis Schaeffer now than when Is tarted reading Frank's book. I actually have more respect for Frank now than before when I had only read his books from fourteen years ago, tripe like Addicted to Mediocrity that seemed to brazenly use his father's name to plug for political battles that were deeply problematic. Christians so often forget that the Jesus who came to redeem the world said His kingdom was not of it. Frank's memoir is an awkward reminder to me that many Christians willfully ignore this saying of Jesus. It's not that we can't get involved in politics but that what unites us is Christ Himself, not the subsidiary things that we often put at the front alongside Christ.

We are too often tempted to decide that someone is in Christ or not based on political and social views. Not that these aren't important, but I can relate to some of what Frank writes about. If you have been in a position where family have told you that you're not really a Christian, perhaps, if you didn't vote for the Republican or Democrat they told you you must vote for then in some sense Frank's memoir can be read asn apology from a man who willingly and zealously persued that sort of spirituality, that definition of how spirituality ought to inform politics. Whether it's refusing to spend time with Christians because they are Republican and therefore stupid or potentially deciding that a fellow brother in Christ is guilty of treason for opposing the current war the moral outcome is the same, we end up being guilty of judging our brother and thus break the law. And it's so damned easy to do we can often not recognize that we're doing it.

So whether or not I agree with everything Frank has written I think I appreciate him more now. The odds that Francis Schaeffer could have been a leader on the religious left seems like wishful thinking of a very high order but if that's what Frank feels and believes, oh well. It's his book. He can say what he likes.

Having felt for years, even more than a decade, that Francis Schaeffer has been cherry-picked and retroactively edited to serve as a tool for the religious right that doesn't want to engage cultural, historicla, and artistic issues with a heart toward evangelism and service but toward political and social control while using the appearance of political martyrdom as a means to mask their play for control I feel that in some sense Frank has revealed that the Francis Schaeffer I sensed in his famous books (Francis') was still the same Francis that was father to Frank. That probably doesn't make sense but since Frank has written things that don't make sense to me it won't surprise me that I write things that won't make sense to anyone else.

All this is to say is that Frank's memoir reminds me of what I have felt for a long time, that there is a big difference between the actual Francis Schaeffer who lived and died and loved the Lord, and the Francis Schaeffer bill of goods we have been sold by Christian culture warriors who professed admiration for him but in some sense finally used him. If Frank's memoir debunks the elements of Francis' legacy that make him useful to culture warriors then in that respect Frank has done us immeasurable good by the grace of God.

And of course the thing is that I'm not quite done with the book. I'm not anticipating too much else popping up in the next fifty pages but I'll keep reading.

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