Frank Schaefer is a New York Times best-selling author, well-known for his novels and his non-fiction writing. He is also a frequent commentator on contemporary U.S. politics because of his personal and family history with the evangelical Christian Right. Schaeffer is the son of the theologian and writer Francis Schaeffer and collaborated with his father in the late 1980s to produce the evangelical film How Should We Then Live?: The Rise and Decline of Western Thought and Culture. Frank Schaeffer later gained wide notice for his portrayal of growing up in a fundamentalist household in his novel Portofino and his repudiation of the religious right in his memoir Crazy For God. Cosmologics had the opportunity to speak with him about the role that faith and politics played in the family he grew up in, and the new vision he is working toward in the family he is building with his children and grandchildren.
–Myrna Perez Sheldon for Cosmologics
Cosmologics: Your writing often centers on your own history with American evangelicalism and its influence on U.S. politics over the last forty years. Do you feel an ethical burden to share these experiences with a wider audience?
Frank Schaeffer: I’m in a rather unusual position of having not only been there but of having been an active participant in the formation of the Religious Right. We’re in 2016 now, and I’m 63 years old—if you had checked in with me when I was 32, you would have found me in Jerry Falwell’s private jet flying to give the keynote speech at the Southern Baptist convention to 23,000 pastors. I was there because I was the son of Francis Schaeffer, a well-known evangelist and theologian. But I was also there because I was a good public speaker, who was filled with the same kind of zeal for culture war issues, particularly on the issue of abortion, that you find today in a person like Ted Cruz.
And so by necessity, to answer your question, my change of heart and change of mind over the years drew public scrutiny without me trying to make that happen. The very fact was that the son of Francis Schaeffer, who shared the platform with Ronald Reagan at the Religious Broadcaster’s Convention and was introduced by Pat Robertson, didn’t just drop out and disappear, but instead said publicly, “I’m on the other side of this issue.” My change of view was complicated by the fact that during the time I was leaving the evangelical community, I was changing careers. I started in the film industry, making documentary series with my father called How Should We Then Live? and Whatever Happened to the Human Race? I cut a reel together from those and went to Hollywood and got an agent and directed four low budget Hollywood features in the secular environment. After this, I wrote a novel called Portofino, which was a semi-biographical look at being a child in Switzerland in the 1950s and 60s with missionary parents who fit the profile of my own.
When I wrote fiction, I was in the same territory as when I was writing nonfiction, in that I was drawing from my own life, and people looked at this and thought I was making a commentary on that life. And so people’s interest in my thoughts on the Religious Right really became inescapable. By the time I was in my mid 50s, I had established myself as a writer, been on Oprah, had a New York Times bestseller—and I kept getting all these letters from people who asked: when are you going to actually write about what happened instead of obliquely addressing these things through novels about a little boy in Switzerland? I talked to my wife about it, and I had some reluctance because I’d managed to separate myself from that world. But, by that time, I did have a sense of mission, in that I felt that the essential lie that is at the heart of the Religious Right needed to be addressed by someone who had been there from the beginning, understood the movement, left it—and in my case, I had a father who was part of the beginning of it. By the time I wrote my memoir Crazy For God, I was no longer simply reflecting on things that were interesting to me—and I certainly did want to set certain records straight.
…my separating the issue of faith itself from the politicizing of faith had given them the freedom to maybe reexamine what they had rejected as a blanket reality of religion in America and to realize that perhaps not all expressions of spirituality necessarily fit this mold.
Cosmologics: Have you found that when readers learn about this history of the politicizing of faith in the United States, they find this freeing, in some way? That it opens up different possibilities for conceptualizing what their religious practice could be?
Frank Schaeffer: Very much so. What surprised me when Crazy for God came out was that, while I expected emails and letters from the evangelical community denouncing me, and saying that I had betrayed them, the reverse of that was true. I got were three kinds of emails. One would be from a pastor, who was still an evangelical, saying “I wish could be honest and say what you’re saying, that this whole thing is rotten to the core, but I’m getting my paycheck as a pastor of a church of 10,000 members.” Seriously, this is one email I actually got, and there were many more like that one. But I also got letters from people who had taken a very similar journey as me, who felt that the book spoke for them. They recognized themselves in it. Finally, I got a few letters from another group (which has continued through this new little book Why I am an Atheist Who Believes in God) from people who came at it a different way, saying that the kind of honesty they found in the book and my separating the issue of faith itself from the politicizing of faith had given them the freedom to maybe reexamine what they had rejected as a blanket reality of religion in America and to realize that perhaps not all expressions of spirituality necessarily fit this mold. I actually received many letters from people who were agnostics, atheists, in other faith traditions, in none at all, or who had vehemently left and rejected the evangelical world. In a strange sense, they found in my description of leaving the evangelical movement a different set of options for spirituality.
Cosmologics: You’ve taken a very different stance on American religiosity than someone like Christopher Hitchens who famously argued that humanity would be better off leaving theistic belief behind. Why do you continue to see value in religion, despite your criticism of the Christian Right?
Frank Schaeffer: It’s odd that you would bring Hitchens up: he read Crazy for God and I got a number of nice emails from him, and then one time he called me. And he said to me (in effect): “I love this book and you’re a really good writer, but I’m saddened by the end of it.” Because he expected a clear declaration that I had become an atheist. As he put it, “Why do you still describe yourself as a ‘person of faith’ when clearly your journey was out of religion, and you’re smart enough not to be religious?” Interestingly, I got a similar kind of email from evangelicals of good will (not the nasty ones who hate my guts), who also said they were saddened by the book! They acknowledged that “Yes, there is a really dark side to the movement, and yes, that politicizing has hurt the evangelical image, but why in the end, are you so ambiguous and sound so very secular and humanistic—have you really rejected Christ? Where is your declaration of faith?” It occurred to me, that if I’d swapped a few words between the emails from these evangelicals and those from Hitchens, that I’d actually have the same email. I realized we’re in an age that rejects ambiguity and paradox. Over the cycle of my own life, having become a father and then a grandfather (I have five grandchildren), I began to focus on what I want to pass onto my grandchildren. I do not want to pass on certainty addiction to my grandchildren, especially since this addiction to certainty is something that I was born with and continue to struggle with.
There really is no black-and-white; it’s really how far you’re willing to pretend until you actually believe in the certainty.
Cosmologics: What do you mean by that phrase, “certainty addiction”?
Frank Schaeffer: Well, I found that Crazy For God, particularly after an interview I did with Terry Gross on NPR’s Fresh Air, became a kind of catalyst or test, if you will. That is, anyone who embraced paradox and uncertainty (whether they were religious OR an atheist) tended to view the book in one way, whereas those who needed some kind of certainty, no matter their worldview, tended to view the book more negatively, because they wanted me to be their side. This experience I had then has extended through the writing of a new book, Why I’m an Atheist Who Believes in God, which is a deliberately provocative title, designed to annoy people who want clear labels. Actually, I hadn’t thought of it when I was writing the book, but it is very much in line with the work of Jill Soloway, a personal hero of mine and the writer and producer of Transparent. In her philosopher of gender, she says that the very word is wrong; that there is no such thing as gender-specific. I see this as being just the same as matters of faith. There really is no black-and-white; it’s really how far you’re willing to pretend until you actually believe in the certainty.
Cosmologics:: That’s a somewhat unusual comparison, between gender and faith. Do you find your embrace of uncertainty in faith coincides with your experience of gender?
Frank Schaeffer: Well, yes. People who want absolute distinctions between male and female, would not be happy for instance that I describe myself as a young mother because I’m a sixty-three-year-old man. But hey, when I’m waiting to pick Lucy and Jack up from school—Lucy is in second grade and Jack is in kindergarten—I’m as much of a young mother as the 35- and 40-year-old moms that I stand around talking with. I have far more in common with them than I do with the male, distant, patriarchal, doesn’t-get-involved-with-kids type of figure that I knew growing up, and that I still see now. There’s a certain white male way of being that feels threatened by acting a certain way with your children in front of people. At home, men will let down and be much more tender and affectionate, but in public, they feel they need to keep up a certain image. But I’m one primary of the caregivers for my young grandchildren (along with my wife Genie); after I pick them up from school, I make them snacks, play games with, share art lessons and romping time with them. My life is oriented around caring for Lucy and Jack. So in this moment, what I’m living, there isn’t a social role or category that fits neatly into what I’m living.
Cosmologics: Do you think that living this kind of ambiguity has pushed you to embrace ambiguity in your understanding of religion?
Frank Schaeffer: Yes, definitely. One of the big mistakes we make is that we put religion in a special category, and I don’t think that religion is in a special category. I’ll give you an example. After I published Why I’m an Atheist Who Believes in God, I gave a series of talks at Google. I kept getting questions along the lines of: What do you believe? How can you be an atheist who believes in God? Give us a definition of what you mean.
Cosmologics: They want you to spell out a systematic cosmology.
Frank Schaeffer: Exactly. And I say to these folks—and not in any way trying to be a smart ass or get out of the question—look, you can’t put religion in a special category. Let’s say you asked me what the word marriage or love means to me. I would say, okay, let me tell you what the word love means to me. Love means that most mornings I bring Genie a cup of coffee in bed. After one of our really big fights and Genie gets in the car or I get in the car and the tires squeal on the driveway and she or I are gone, after we come back a day or so later, that day love means that I hate Genie less than I would if I didn’t love her. How does that sound? Weird? Contradictory? Damn right. Because that’s real life. Don’t ask me for a definition that covers all the bases. Sometimes love means that you hate someone less than you would if you didn’t love them. Sometimes love is a passionate, wonderful embrace in a sexual relationship. Sometimes it’s a cup of coffee in bed. Sometimes it’s other things. Anybody who’s really been around the block in a long term relationship is never going to give you a quick answer or an easy formula. Love is working it out one choice at a time. Now, why would you think that your relationship with a struggle to perceive the divine would be any less complex than just working out the nuts and bolts of just one little marriage?
I put it the same way when people ask me about my father, who was a theologian: “What would Francis Schaeffer think of (fill in the blank)?” I always come back and say, “Which Francis Schaeffer?” The 1950s fundamentalist minister who went to Europe to save everyone who was a Roman Catholic because he believed everyone who was a Catholic would go to hell? Or the man who before his death reached out and embraced all his Roman Catholic friends as his fellow Christians? Who are you talking about?
I think there’s room for growth and change and paradox in every issue in life. No matter whether we’re considering faith, belief, growth, career, love, or attachment. It’s all the same world and none of it is in black and white terms. If you are a certainty addict in any of those areas, you will smash apart what you value, whether it’s a relationship or anything else.
I believe the good fight is for the intrinsic value of beauty in every part of life.
Cosmologics: How are you trying to pass along this embrace of complexity and paradox to the next generation? To your grandchildren?
Frank Schaeffer: I believe the good fight is for the intrinsic value of beauty in every part of life. I think it applies to everything. It’s not somehow that everything suddenly becomes about the humanities and not feeding people. They’re one and the same in the big picture. And it also has to do with motivation. Why do we want to help people? What is the bottom line? There is a foundation, and that foundation is the way that human beings evolved to love tool-making, tool-using, and well-made objects. We love them because they fascinate and entice us. So there is an evolutionary basis for beauty that we forgo at our peril. I believe that the final human value is aesthetic and not moral. My heart sinks when I see a mother slap a child, and I am sad for the child. But the bottom line that makes me sad is how beautiful childhood can be and how ugly it is one when it is stripped of that beauty, how both the mother and child are losing something because of the violence of that interaction. It has nothing to do with the point that when this kid grows up he won’t be as good an engineer. The loss of a sense of intrinsic worth in an area, for me, is the dividing line between a utilitarian view and what is a truly progressive view of human existence.
It’s not about left or right on the political spectrum. It’s the people who do things on the merits of the things themselves. So what I value most in life is never about a calculation. I don’t bring my wife a cup of coffee in bed because I think I’ll get something out of that interaction. I don’t spend hours reading to my granddaughter because I hope that someday she’ll become a Supreme Court justice. I read her Homer’s Odyssey because it is a great book and will give her pleasure for the rest of her life, and when I’m gone someday, that woman will remember me as the door opener. That’s what I want to be remembered as. Not the guy who gave her the ability to pass tests and get a big job.
Myrna Perez Sheldon is a post-doctoral fellow at Rice University and co-editor of Cosmologics.
Image via Flickr via Josh Mazgelis.