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The Schaeffers showed an extraordinary ability to identify with the issues that concerned the student generation of the 1960s and early 1970s. Francis scorned postwar materialism, insisting that most Americans had no higher philosophy of life than "personal peace and affluence." Though strongly opposed to communism, he refused to condone the arms race: "In the race of fission versus fission, fusion versus fusion, missile versus missile, what reason is there to think that those conceiving and engineering these things on 'our side' believe anything basically different from those on the 'other side,' the Communists?" He urged respect for nature in a society that had fouled its own nest. He preached against racism, and at L'Abri he practiced what he preached. He sympathized with dropouts and drug users "because they are smart enough to know that they have been given no answers, and they are opting out. The older generation hasn't given them anything to care about."
Francis also thundered against the middle-class sins of the evangelical churches. He challenged evangelicals to adopt a "revolutionary" mindset, to think about getting rid of the American flags in their sanctuaries: "Patriotic loyalty must not be identified with Christianity." He insisted that American evangelicalism was too individualistic: "Christianity is an individual thing, but it is not only an individual thing. There is to be true community, offering true spiritual and material help to each other." He therefore urged Christians to welcome intellectuals, hippies, drug addictswhomever God should send: "I dare you. I dare you in the name of Jesus Christ. Do what I am going to suggest. Begin by opening your home for community." But he warned that real community would require that the churches "buck the evangelical establishment" and kick their habit of hypocrisy: "Don't talk about being against the affluent society unless you put that share of the affluent society which is your hoard on the line. And don't dare respond that these things I'm saying are not a part of the teaching of the Word of God."
Schaeffer's message was like fresh air to the emerging evangelical youth culture. Jack Sparks, founder of Berkeley's Christian World Liberation Front, visited L'Abri and hoped that his organization could have the same kind of intellectual impact. Schaeffer had a profound influence on Larry Norman, "poet laureate of the Jesus Revolution." (One Norman lyric places L'Abri on a par with Holy Land pilgrimage sites: "We'll honeymoon at Haifa and have lunch in Galilee / Then we'll hitchhike up to Switzerland and drop in at L'Abri.") In the late 1970s, Norman formed his own record company and performing arts society, which he intended as a "musical L'Abri." One of its musicians was Mark Heard, who studied at L'Abri himself because it was a place where people could honestly ask hard questions about Christianity.
Despite the countercultural rhetoric, in the early 1970s the Schaeffers began forming ties with Christians who were national political figures in the conservative wing of the Republican party. They were introduced to then-Congressman Jack Kemp in 1971, who in turn introduced the Schaeffers to a wider circle of Washington officials. For ten years Kemp's wife, Joanne, led a class for other congressional wives in which they read all the Schaeffers' books. One L'Abri student was Gerald Ford's son Michael, which led to a private dinner in the Ford White House.
Francis also remained unfailingly suspicious of any theology that strayed from the propositional inerrancy that he learned at Westminster and Faith seminaries. He steered students away from Fuller Theological Seminary and from most Christian colleges. He addressed Billy Graham's international congresses on evangelism in 1966 and 1974, but he disliked Graham's style of evangelism. By Schaeffer's lights, it was too centered in experience and not vocal enough about inerrancy. However, at the time he refrained from publicly criticizing evangelical individuals and institutions by name.
Thus Schaeffer created for himself a highly independent place in the public world of evangelicalism. He had wide appeal to students with countercultural leanings, but also to conservative politicians. He remained in touch with but aloof from the other leading figures of American evangelicalism. And though he had wide international connections, he soon left behind the European contextso crucial to the formation of his thoughtin exchange for increased involvement in the internal affairs of America and its evangelical subculture.
Turn to activism
In 1974 Franky, now 21, propelled Francis in a new ministry direction that would end up leading toward an old ministry style. Franky dreamed up a ten-part documentary film series with the working title "The Rise and Decline of Western Thought and Culture." It was to be a Christian response to Kenneth Clark's widely viewed Civilisation series. The projectHow Should We Then Live? (1976-77)was a resounding success in bringing to the general evangelical public Schaeffer's message about the rotting intellectual pilings of Western culture. The film series and book were both bestsellers, and an 18-city seminar tour drew tens of thousands of people.
Less happily, the project caused real dissension within L'Abri. The community had always discussed and prayed over major decisions before they were made, but in this case, the Schaeffers asked for prayer after making the decision to go ahead. They also broke precedent to solicit funds directly from their supporters in order partly to defray a budget that exceeded $1 million.
The project added voices to the chorus of Schaeffer's critics. During his first talk at Wheaton College, the faculty had been much more skeptical than the students. Philosophy professor Arthur Holmes had been put off by Schaeffer's summary dismissal of the entire field of analytic philosophy, and he was later quoted in Newsweek to the effect that he used Schaeffer's books in his classes as examples of how not to do philosophy. Even in his more careful early work, Schaeffer ranged so widely over disciplines and broad periods of time that specialists could not help noticing embarrassing errors of detail and facile oversimplifications. How Should We Then Live? brought even more criticism because it was essentially a reprise of the early Schaeffer material boiled down into an even simpler form.
The academic critics seldom, however, grappled with the role of what might be called "stepping stone" scholarship. Like the great popularizers H. G. Wells and Will Durant, Schaeffer placed accessible versions of academic subjects into a coherent, meaningful framework that highlighted broad connections through time and across disciplines. Durant wrote The Story of Philosophy "to pour warmth and blood into the fruits of scholarship"; this is what Schaeffer did for evangelicals. The result for innumerable high-school and college-age readers was a first awareness of the significance of ideas in history and culture and the intellectual richness of Christianity. As far away as Pakistan, secondary students in a boarding school for missionary kids eagerly read and reread a package of the Schaeffers' books brought in by Youth with a Mission outreach workers in 1971. Church youth leaders and campus ministers introduced their brighter students to Schaeffer's books, launching scores of evangelical scholars on their careers. Philosopher Jerry Walls of Asbury Theological Seminary recalls, "Reading Schaeffer transformed my understanding of Christianity. He helped me to think of my faith in a much more comprehensive fashion than I had done before. My faith was becoming a more or less complete world-view, which embraced all kinds of things I had never associated very clearly with spirituality."
The major departure in How Should We Then Live? was its extended look at legalized abortion as a case study in arbitrary government and the imminent threat of authoritarianism. Schaeffer had always opposed abortion, but the matter only became prominent in his work after February 1973, when the U.S. Supreme Court declared abortion a constitutional right. Beginning in 1977, Schaeffer began devoting his full attention to the issue. Francis, Franky, and their old family friend C. Everett Koop (at that time a nationally known pioneer of pediatric surgery and one of the best-known evangelical opponents of abortion) collaborated on a five-part film series with accompanying book, action handbook, and international lecture tour. The project, Whatever Happened to the Human Race? (1979), coupled Francis's familiar explication of how secular humanism led inexorably to the devaluation of human life with Koop's devastating testimony about the widespread practice of infanticide in hospitals and its links to abortion. Koop later wrote that his involvement in this project was his first step toward becoming President Reagan's surgeon general.
The outcome of the project itself was mixed. The lecture tour drew disappointingly small audiences and in some locales lost money. Francis blamed "an attitude among [evangelical] leaders to keep people away from the seminars so that their own acceptance by the surrounding culture would not be disturbed." Compounding the disappointment were the physical stress and attendant depression that Francis experienced in the chemotherapy treatment he was receiving for cancer, which had been diagnosed at the Mayo Clinic in 1978. However, even though audiences and church showings were smaller than hoped, they still represented a considerable grassroots mobilization against abortion. Many individuals mark this film and the seminars as the beginning point of their personal involvement in pro-life activities, and it may well be that the actual impact from this project was greater than that of the better attended seminars in conjunction with How Should We Then Live?
The Schaeffers' disappointment magnified their growing frustration with mainstream evangelicalism for its apparent unwillingness to defend inerrancy and take up the pro-life cause. For instance, the celebrated "Chicago Declaration" of November 1973a call to social action spearheaded by evangelicals from the counterculture generationnever once mentioned abortion. The Schaeffers therefore began to keep company instead with the leaders of the New Christian Right, which was coalescing around the pro-life movement.
Francis's writings helped convince Jerry Falwell to take a stand against abortion. Francis also tutored Falwell in the concept of cobelligerence (Schaeffer's belief that Christians ought to stand with non-Christians against social injustice), which led Falwell to try to bring Catholics, Jews, Mormons, and others into the Moral Majority in 1979. Francis and Franky both made public appearances with Falwell and with Pat Robertson. Francis's A Christian Manifesto (1981) defined abortion as the hinge issue for American society, called Christians to civil disobedience, and even broached the idea of resisting the government by force. The book is one of Robertson's all-time favorites, and it inspired a young man at Elim Bible School named Randall Terry to start a new kind of abortion protest employing passive resistance techniques used in the civil-rights struggle. "If you want to understand Operation Rescue," says Terry, "you have to read Schaeffer's Christian Manifesto."
By this point, several people from the counterculture generation began to wonder publicly what had happened to Francis Schaeffer. In 1970 Francis had written that "one of the greatest injustices we do to our young people is to ask them to be conservative," but in Manifesto he wrote that with "the conservative swing in the United States in the election of 1980 there is a unique window open. Let us hope that the window stays open, and not on just one issue." In 1970 he had warned against wrapping Christianity in the American flag, but in Manifesto he took the unprecedented step of praising the Moral Majoritya group whose genuine passion to defend the unborn was conjoined with an equal passion for intertwining loyalty to God with loyalty to America. The countercultural Francis Schaeffer seemed to have disappeared.
The relationship between Francis and mainstream evangelicalism got even rockier in the early 1980s when Franky published several sarcastic books that attacked the "pathetic servility" of prominent evangelical figures and institutions. Francis never reined in his sonpartly out of family loyalty, but partly because Franky was saying things that Francis thought needed to be said. Francis's final book, The Great Evangelical Disaster (1984), approvingly cited Franky's "incisive critique" of evangelicalism and went on to follow Franky's lead in naming names. The book warned that evangelicalism's accommodation to culture in the 1980s had led it to the brink of apostasy. In early 1984, Francis had just enough strength left from his battle with cancer to complete a 13-city tour lecturing on this theme. A month after the tour was complete, he died at home near the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota.
Edith carried on the work at the L'Abri in Rochester, where she continues to live and write. The original L'Abri in Switzerland remains in operation, as do L'Abri sites in Massachusetts, Australia, Holland, England, India, South Korea, and Sweden. All three daughters and their husbands are still involved in L'Abri work around the world. Frankynow Frankturned from berating evangelicalism to filmmaking; he then wrote a novel about his family that is well-crafted, funny, charming, and cruel. More recently he left evangelicalism for Eastern Orthodoxy, and he now speaks and writes about his conversion with the same kind of intensity that marked his father's work.
The meaning of Francis Schaeffer
By the end of his life, Francis Schaeffer had come full circle. A ministry born in the ecclesiastical battles of the early twentieth century now completed its course by urging evangelicals on to another round of internecine warfare. And when all was said and done, evangelicals still did not know what to make of him. Commentators struggling to characterize him adequately have tried to attach a number of labelspastor, evangelist, pre-evangelist, apologist, missionary to intellectuals, guru to fundamentalists, philosopher, prophet.
There is an element of truth in all these labels; each, by itself, reduces him beyond recognition. Clearly he was evangelicalism's most important public intellectual in the 20 years before his death. Ideas were to him literally matters of life and death. History, thought Schaeffer, taught that the intellectual base on which a people build their society will determine that society's laws and character: "There is a flow to history and culture. This flow is rooted and has its wellspring in the thoughts of people." His singular message was that a society cannot hope for righteousness and justice without thinking the thoughts of God from the bottom up.
Despite Schaeffer's errors of detail, some critics have recently allowed that his big picture has proven durable. The conceptual centerpiece of Schaeffer's historical view is the triumph of relativism in the modern post-Christian world: "Modern men, in the absence of absolutes, have polluted all aspects of morality, making standards completely hedonistic and relativistic." He would not have been surprised by the advent of "postmodern" thought, which has built countless altars to relativism across the intellectual landscape. Nor would he have been surprised by the resultant moral vacuum that characterizes much contemporary academic thinking. In a recent issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education, anthropologist Carolyn Fluehr-Lobban agonized over the fact that her discipline's prime directivecultural relativismleft her with no rationale for opposing rape or racial genocide in other cultures. One can almost hear Francis Schaeffer saying, "I told you so."
In particular, he appears to have been prescient on the issue of human life. In 1976 he observed that "in regard to the fetus, the courts have arbitrarily separated 'aliveness' from 'personhood,' and if this is so, why not arbitrarily do the same with the aged? So the steps move along, and euthanasia may well become increasingly acceptable. And if so, why not keep alive the bodies of persons in whom the brain wave is flat to harvest from them body parts and blood?" Schaeffer's bleak vision is now daily news. "Cadaver Jack" Kevorkian has already killed more people than Ted Bundy, but the state of Michigan cannot muster the political will to stop him. A federal court has forbidden the state of Washington to pass laws preventing doctors from killing their patients, while the University of Washington is permitted to scavenge and sell the body parts of thousands of aborted children every year.
In Francis Schaeffer's later years, he seemed to act as though the social order perhaps could be reformed from the top down, beginning with laws and proceeding toward intellectual foundations. This is almost certainly due to the fact that he was thoroughly radicalized by the merciless killing of millions of unborn children. If his later actions were inconsistent with his philosophy, they were certainly understandable. To echo pro-choice historian Garry Wills, if one really does think that abortion is the taking of innocent human life, surely Schaeffer's response makes sense.
In trying to assess the meaning of Francis Schaeffer, it is instructive to compare him to Billy Graham. Both reached the peak of their influence at about the same time, and both had an immeasurable impact on American evangelicalism. Graham in many ways represents the moderate middle of evangelicalismdefusing controversy, wishing the best for everyone, friend of both Republicans and Democrats, slow to disturb middle-class conventions, willing to cooperate with anyone who will let him preach the gospel. As historian Grant Wacker once wrote, "When Graham spoke, middle America heard itself." It was just as natural to see Graham and the President on the fairway together as to see Graham on a platform with a Bible in his hands.
But one can no more imagine Francis Schaeffer playing golf with the rich and famous than one can imagine Mother Teresa shopping for furs in I. Magnin. If Graham represents evangelicalism's smooth center, Schaeffer represents its crushed-glass edges. Evangelicalism by its nature blurs denominational distinctions, but Schaeffer's own version of Christianity was tightly sectarian. Graham lent his name widely and welcomed allies from all corners, but Schaeffer refused all alliances. Those who were not his followers but believed in his aims he categorized as cobelligerents in the war against the secularizing and dehumanizing trajectory of modern culture. While Graham appealed to the majority in the middle, Schaeffer attacked the middle for failing to see the direction it was headed. It is no accident that his strongest impact has been among those who have a bone to pick with the middle classdropouts, intellectuals, and that remarkable recent phenomenon, formerly respectable citizens who have begun to perceive the American judiciary as a refuge for scoundrels.
In short, Francis Schaeffer represents that part of evangelical Christianity that has always been ill at ease with the world in which it finds itself. He once said, "In my teaching, I put a great deal of weight on the fact that we live in an abnormal world. I personally could not stand this world, if I did not understand it is abnormalthat it is not the way God made it." Perhaps, then, this is his most enduring legacyhis crystalline vision of the vast difference between the world God designed and the world that is the work of our hands.
-Michael S. Hamilton is coordinator of the Pew Scholars Programs and concurrent assistant professor of history, University of Notre Dame.
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