Amy Coney Barrett and the Evangelical Anti-Abortion Movement: An Interview with Frank Schaeffer
In a recent episode of MindShift Podcast, I spoke recently with Frank Schaeffer, the son of the late Francis and Edith Schaeffer. They founded the L’Abri center in Switzerland and were hugely influential on the origins of the Christian Right, American evangelicalism, the evangelical and Republican anti-abortion movement, and Christian apologetics. Francis in particular was well-known as a Christian intellectual, writing numerous books, speaking worldwide, and making a number of film series with the help of Frank. As a young man, Frank was an aspiring filmmaker and eventually came to believe in the causes Francis supported — in particular, the anti-abortion movement.
He has since disavowed the entire movement and has walked away from both the Christian Right and the faith — but describes himself as “an atheist who believes in God.”
As an example of his early activism, he worked closely with his famous father, producing the influential 1977 10-film series entitled “How Should We Then Live?” This series, which many early leaders in the Christian Right credited with inspiring their views on religion and politics, was based on Francis Schaeffer’s 1976 bestselling book How Should We Then Live: The Rise and Decline of Western Thought and Culture. Influential figures such as Rev. Jerry Falwell, one of the founders of the Moral Majority in 1979, cited Schaeffer’s emphasis on making a stand against abortion as a primary motivation to get involved in American politics.
Another film Frank worked on in the late 70s and early 80s, along with his father and Dr C. Everett Koop (who would go on to become President Ronald Reagan’s Surgeon General), was the anti-abortion, pro-life series entitled “Whatever Happened to the Human Race?” Frank has now stated that making this film is “the greatest single regret of my life.” And looking back on that period now, Frank writes on his blog: “My family played a wretched leading role in the continuing oppression, denigration, and abuse of women. I am so very sorry. I’ve spent the last 30-plus years of my life trying to undo some of the harm I did. As the fight for the Supreme Court heats up I see my dad’s fingerprints all over it with an assist from me.”
In his effort to atone for what he considers mistakes of the past, Frank has written multiple books on his time as an influential figure in the early formation of the Christian Right. Perhaps the most well-known is his 2007 book 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; more recently (2017) he has published Letter to Lucy: A Manifesto of Creative Redemption — In the age of Fascism, Trump and Lies.
The Evangelical Anti-Abortion Movement: The Early Years
Lately, Frank has been doing a lot of writing and speaking out about the appointment of Amy Coney Barrett to the SCOTUS. This is hugely important to Republicans and evangelicals alike, as they seek to overturn Roe v. Wade. I wanted to know from Frank: to what extent do you see your involvement, and that of your father’s more than four decades ago, as the sort of logical trajectory of what is happening currently with the appointment of Barrett?
On his blog Frank states that “Amy Coney Barrett is William Barr in a skirt. Barrett could have been quoting Barr when she said in a speech at Notre Dame a ‘legal career is but a means to an end … and that end is building the Kingdom of God.’ She is a pro-life theocratic fanatic who given the chance would help turn America into a Christian version of Iran. She did not come out of thin air. My family helped pave the way for this moment of extremism. The very fact she was even considered by Trump makes me feel ashamed.”
Describing his involvement in the movement as a young man, Frank stated in our recent podcast episode:
“So I’m 68, and because as a teen and a young man, as a nepotistic sidekick to my father — in the 70s and 80s — I saw this whole arc. And two points I’d like to bring out that I know you’ll be interested in:
- Most evangelicals don’t realize that when my dad and I, and Dr Koop, came on the scene with ‘Whatever Happened to the Human Race?’, it wasn’t secular feminists we were trying to talk into our position. It was other evangelicals who were pro-choice. I’ll repeat that: they were pro-choice; they weren’t just ambivalent. Dr Billy Graham, the evangelist, was pro-choice…W.A. Criswell, who was president of the Southern Baptist Commission…he actually had Bible verses he was lining up to argue for legal abortion…So the first point I’d like to make is that evangelicals think that somehow the evangelical position has always been anti-abortion. It has not…the whole establishment of the evangelical community, the backbone of the fundamentalist movement in America, was ambivalent and/or pro-choice…
- When it came to the theonomists and the Reconstructionists, Rushdoony and Chilton, and all these other figures, who I knew personally, they were already overtly calling for a theocracy. In other words, they were an anti-democracy group of Christians back in the 60s and 70s who already had rejected American democracy in exactly the same way that American evangelicals are going along with Trump, saying, ‘Well, if the election is lost, it’s because it was rigged; he should hold on to power; greater good is coming out of this; portraying him almost as a biblical king, coming to save the ‘people of Israel,’ being the American evangelicals.”
The Christian Reconstructionist Connection
Both Frank and his father personally knew RJ Rushdoony, the father of Christian Reconstructionism, and many other leading figures of the movement during its heyday in the 1970s and 80s. Rushdoony, for example, came out with his landmark tome The Institutes of Biblical Law in 1973, in which he argued that current American society should be based on the Old Testament law — a theonomy.
To what extent did Francis Schaeffer pick up Rushdoony’s thought, and carry it forward in his work? Frank comments on their relationship on his blog when he states that Francis “regarded Rushdoony as ‘too extreme’ but said, ‘I like some of what Rush says, until he starts saying slavery was okay and part of God’s plan and we need to hang gay men.’ When Trump once joked that Mike Pence ‘wants to hang gay people,’ he was unwittingly confirming that Pence was a Dominionist.”
While Francis himself was not a Reconstructionist, and (as mentioned) rejected some of Rushdoony’s more extreme views, he nonetheless echoed (and thus popularized) some of Rushdoony’s ideas. For example, in his 1976 book How Shall We Then Live?, he makes the case that thinkers and philosophers of the Enlightenment erred when they abandoned the Bible as a basis for authority, and tried instead to base morality and laws on nature or human reason. He argues that the Marquis de Sade, for example, tried to base morality on nature — and as a result ended up lost, abusively cruel and morally bankrupt. Schaeffer’s assessment of de Sade’s philosophy of sadism is that in such a system, “There are no moral distinctions, no value system. What is is right. Thus there is no basis either for morals or law.”
In his book, Schaeffer makes the case that Western society has erred by abandoning biblical law as its basis for legality and morality, and that the Reformation’s “return to the Bible as a final authority and basis for civil law” serves as a worthwhile model for today, because it proved to be beneficial to all levels of society. He argues that this was also the case in 17th-century Scotland; their framing of the notion of Lex Rex (“the law is king”) formed the basis of a society in which the Bible, as an absolute and authoritative basis, became the bedrock of societal law as opposed to the “whims of men.” This move, he argued, in turn had a profound impact on the framers and signers of the American Declaration of Independence in the 18th century, and on the foundations of American law also.
Thus the Bible, Schaeffer maintained, forms the basis both for the foundation of not just morality, but also for civil law. One could easily see that from this argument, one could make the case that all of society should therefore “return” to some sort of theonomist vision. Echoing Rushdoony’s earlier argument, Schaeffer states unequivocally that “It is the Bible which gives a base to law.”
Frank Schaeffer’s view of RJ Rushdoony, and of the relationship of Christian Reconstructionism to that of his father’s work, is as follows. He stated in our podcast that Rushdoony, despite not being well-known outside of certain circles, was nonetheless hugely influential on the Christian Right:
“He [Rushdoony] was a racist. He believed that slavery was ordained by God. The views he expressed through the Chalcedon Foundation were so extreme, that his own followers did so mostly in secret or quoted the less dramatically offensive parts of his work. But: his influence was huge on people, for instance, like Franklin Graham, who is now a political figure and supporter of Trump.
It was huge on figures like Ralph Reed, who is a key organizer of the evangelical political movement. So, in a way, it was like a time bomb. Rushdoony lit this fuse and let the bomb go off in the 60s and 70s. Only now, 40–50 years later, has it come to fruition in the Trump years.
And when you look at…for instance, what the Federalist organization is doing in training for thirty years, and placing judges on to the Federal bench, and who has given Trump the list of judges to nominate — many of these men were young evangelicals and Roman Catholics who were influenced, or infected, by my dad’s book A Christian Manifesto; by him going around the country calling young lawyers to get into law to eventually become judges. The exact thing that has happened is something my father laid out, as an agenda, as did Rushdoony, in the late 60s, in the 1970s and early 80s.
And now it’s come to pass, in the Trump era.”
One can see this today, for example, in many statements made by Attorney General William Barr, head of Trump’s Department of Justice and staunchly conservative Catholic who has ties to Opus Dei. Barr echoed the arguments of both Rushdoony and Schaeffer in a 2019 speech at Notre Dame’s Law School and the de Nicola Center for Ethics and Culture. Barr stated:
“How does religion promote the moral discipline and virtue needed to support free government? First, it gives us the right rules to live by. The Founding generation were Christians. They believed that the Judeo-Christian moral system corresponds to the true nature of man. Those moral precepts start with the two great commandments — to Love God with your whole heart, soul, and mind; and to Love Thy Neighbor as Thyself.
But they also include the guidance of natural law — a real, transcendent moral order which flows from God’s eternal law — the divine wisdom by which the whole of creation is ordered. The eternal law is impressed upon, and reflected in, all created things.
From the nature of things we can, through reason, experience, discern standards of right and wrong that exist independent of human will.
Modern secularists dismiss this idea of morality as other-worldly superstition imposed by a kill-joy clergy. In fact, Judeo-Christian moral standards are the ultimate utilitarian rules for human conduct.
They reflect the rules that are best for man, not in the by and by, but in the here and now. They are like God’s instruction manual for the best running of man and human society.”
Frank comments on the relationship between Rushdoony, Christian Reconstructionism, his father and figures like Barr when he states on his blog: “Wittingly or unwittingly, [William] Barr and Dad’s views were shaped by the 1960s and 1970s Theonomist movement, or Christian Reconstructionism. This movement was led by Dad’s friend Rousas Rushdoony. No one outside evangelical circles, except a few ideologically driven commentators like Ross Douthat, seem to have heard of my old friend ‘Rush’ (I spent a few days at his compound in the late 1970s). But his influence directly or indirectly shaped the views of many leaders like Franklin Graham and Mike Pence, whom many Americans have heard of.”
In our podcast episode, Frank and I spent a lot of time discussing the nomination of Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court. That her nomination is being ramrodded through by the Republican leaders in the Senate — notably Mitch McConnel and Lindsay Graham — is proof positive that the entire move is nothing more than a cynical power play. Along with their GOP confederates, both Senators famously took a “principled” stand during Obama’s final year as President, blocking the appointment of Merrick Garland. They argued then that a Supreme Court judge should not be appointed in the final year of any president — and that all involved should simply wait until the next president is elected, and let him or her appoint the new justice. All of that high-horse rhetoric has been thrown back in their faces now, but it hasn’t stopped them from pushing Barrett through, mere weeks before the presidential election.
In addition to this, one must examine why a person like Barrett is even being nominated in the first place. A conservative Roman Catholic, it is now widely known that she is a long-time member of the controversial and cult-like charismatic Catholic organization People of Praise. Any criticism of her faith and beliefs, however, have been loudly decried by Republicans as an attack on “religious liberty” and faith in general. But as we discuss in the podcast episode, Frank argues that it’s her cult-like belief system that should garner the most attention, especially when one considers the damage she will most likely do by rolling back the hard-won gains by women in the area of reproductive rights, the LGBTQ community, and by repealing the ACA, a healthcare system of which a majority of Americans currently are in favor.
Despite these very real threats to democracy and progressive gains, her credentials as a staunch and long-time anti-abortion and anti-LGBTQ advocate have served her well; she’s been thoroughly vetted by the Christian Right and pushed forward by the Federalist Society for Trump to nominate. Following a Christian nationalist agenda, their ultimate aim is to overturn Roe v. Wade and “return America to a Christian nation again” by undoing the moral sin of abortion, which in their view has caused America to stray from the path of the allegedly covenant status with God intended by the founding fathers. Once that is done, they believe, God will start blessing America again and the nation will enjoy that favored status once experienced in some fantasy version of the past that they so firmly believe in….making America “great again,” in their view.
That this entire dominionist project was the result of men like Francis and Frank Schaeffer, along with Reconstructionists like RJ Rushdoony decades ago, is a regret that Frank is going a long way toward alleviating with his current work and activism.
Catch the entire episode on MindShift Podcast with Frank Schaeffer!
Follow me on Twitter @MindShift2018