Frank Schaeffer: From Helping Found the Religious Right to Embracing Uncertainty and Finding Community

Frank Schaeffer is an artist, a New York Times bestselling author, filmmaker, and along with his father Francis Schaeffer was instrumental in founding what has become known as the ‘religious right.’ He is a commentator on the state of religion and politics, is a frequent guest on the Rachel Maddow Show and AM Joy on MSNBC, and has appeared on Oprah, NPR’s Fresh Air, Samantha Bee’s Full Frontal, and the Today Show. You can read his blogs on Huffington Post and Patheos.

“I think that a lot of times people start with their worldview answers in a big stroke, but the first thing to look at in my own life is that where I am right now has a lot less to do with the ideas that I was raised on and much more to do with passing on the love that did not fade.”

“The first reason I failed [as an evangelical leader] was that I was raised in an actual evangelical Christian mission – old school, it wasn’t about money, it wasn’t about power. I look back on that theology and I don’t believe much of it at all, if any, but these were sincere, genuine people. And so even if you look at my dad’s books for the first years of his life as an author, or my mom’s books, they were all sincere and there wasn’t any politics in them; they weren’t telling people how to live, there was nothing anti-gay in their agenda, it wasn’t anti-feminist. It was all about coming to know Jesus as your personal savior or philosophies that pointed in the same direction or apologetic arguments. . . . So, essentially it’s my father’s fault because he showed me what Christianity with integrity looked like, and I have rejected that philosophically and theologically, but these were not flakes. And so being a Christian in the green room with Pat Roberson and my father, looking from one to the other, my dad was a very authentic person. He read, he traveled, he made art, he liked it, he had an open home, he had never been greedy, he put all of his money back into the ministry, genuinely speaking. Pat Robertson would wind up opening a diamond mine and a billion dollar empire run by his imminent, nepotistic family.”

Frank Schaeffer with his work, On the Day the World Ended God Inexplicably Only Raptured All the Pinocchio Dolls To Heaven Along With Many Pink Cyclamens But Left Behind All the Christians. This work along with his others can be viewed and purchased here.

“ . . . that phase in my life is completely like something out of Black Mirror. It’s like an altered state; I look back on it now almost in disbelief, and if I didn’t have some momentos I probably wouldn’t have believed it had actually happened. Because in my early twenties I was flying around the United States in the evangelist Jerry Falwell’s private jet. We were filling stadiums with 16 to 20 thousand people in 15 to 20 cities, seminar tours, we were raising not thousands of dollars but millions of dollars for our projects and our seminars. My parents would regularly stay at the Ford White House, we knew the Bush family. I have a folder of handwritten notes from all of these presidential people from Ronald Regan forward. We were the religious right – we weren’t helping to start it, we were it. . . . And so our original fight coming out of [the book and film] Whatever Happened to the Human Race wasn’t to get abortion on the agenda of the Republican Party, it was just to get other evangelical leaders involved. They saw fundraising opportunities and they jumped in eventually, and it became what it is today, which is what put Trump in office, because that’s the folks who elected him. When we got into the fight back in the seventies and eighties it was a very different landscape. So there’s a sort of weird thumbnail that people can read more about in my memoir Crazy for God if they want to delve into it. But I was both a spectator to history being made and also a participant in that. The ten years that I spent in that environment as kind of a hot shot, young, nepotistic leader sharing my father’s name put me at the very epicenter of the politics that I thought was going to fade away years ago, but is still going now with the advent of Donald Trump and his Supreme Court justices and so forth.” 

“I was kind of looking at what sort of a father and parent I wanted to be, and essentially involvement in the evangelical religious right is the surest way to become a world class asshole. I would come running back home furious at life and the world, and the more money we were making, the angrier I was getting. I was getting stuck. . . . The first reason I failed was not philosophical, or because I read a book and I thought about it and prayed about it, or I had some big disagreement politically; it was the aesthetic. It’s the ugliest world you can imagine: these are money grubbing assholes and it was infectious. I had my gold credit card, raising all this money, and I wanted to be a painter and a filmmaker. And I was turning as I say, all bullshit aside, into a real asshole at home . . . so the first big break for me was this is not who I want to be.”

“One thing I’ve learned in terms of moving away from my previous incarnation as Francis Shaeffer’s son in misogyny central, which was the anti abortion movement and everything that came from it, honestly one of the big changes of mine has been non philosophical. It’s been the aesthetics of who do you like. When you suddenly realize that your friends are gay or they’re women who are doing interesting things, it’s like, ‘Well, why are we fucking around bashing these people over the head all the time? What is your problem? These are your friends!’”

“I am an atheist. I also pray in the morning because I’m a conflicted atheist, not in the sense of thinking, ‘Oh, gee, you better hedge your bets, it may all be true.’ These were the habits I was raised with. . . . I am Edith Shaeffer’s son, I was raised a certain way: there are people who throw salt over their shoulders, there are other people who touch wood, there are other people who go to astrologers – I happen to get up in the morning and pray.”

‘When I say I’m an atheist who believes in God, I’m not making an irrational statement. I am just saying that it’s not a question of toying, ‘Oh, this may be true or the other may be true’ indecision. It’s saying that I acknowledge the emotional impact that being raised in a Christian environment had on me, and I’m not pretending it doesn’t exist or go on pretending that I still don’t find meaning in it. So if I’m listening to St. Matthew Passion or Bach’s B Minor Mass, when I have tears on my cheeks it’s not just because I love the music; it’s evocative of an entire world that’s taken a hold without tugging at the threads of logic around the edges. It’s very beautiful. And it’s not a contradiction in terms. It’s simply admitting that I have a psychological side to my personality. . . . I’m agnostic in the sense of saying that it’s an open question whether there’s some spiritual content in the human condition which is beyond our comprehension. That, I am open to. But whether it was something laid out in a Bronze age, Jewish Bible that was picked up by a bunch of Christians in the first century and turned into a separate religion, that I know is not true in terms of the historical claims. . . . Universal truths are out there somewhere, obviously I’m not rejecting that because who knows? But it certainly has nothing to do with the way I make my religious expression. Like my going to the Greek Orthodox Church, that’s a completely different thing: that’s a psychological need. It has a lot more to do with getting up in the morning to take my dog out to pee, and we both stand on the side of the deck and he does his business and I do mine, and then I go and look up at all the constellations. As I gaze out there I’m observing all of that, and reckoning it as inspirational and beautiful obviously leaves me with the feeling that we have some spiritual content to our life, and you can’t just write that off. But that doesn’t have anything to do with ‘Okay, I’m going to go read The Bible and find out what it all means.’” 

“Yeah, absolutely [Christ is significant to me]. People who live truly according to the teachings of Jesus treat me with a great deal more kindness than people that don’t. And to the extent that I’m a decent husband and grandfather I’m living according to those precepts. They’re very good precepts, whether they’re his or whether they’re borrowed from Greek myth or somewhere else and retransmitted through the Christian Church, I don’t care. But, there’s those identities that think he’s the Son of God and if I don’t believe in him then I’m going to burn in hell forever because he burns Jewish babies ten seconds after they died at Auschwitz. No! I don’t buy that.”

Get Frank Schaeffer’s latest book Letter to Lucy: A Manifesto on Creative Redemption in the Age of Trump, Fascism and Lies on Kindle or iBooks, and check out more of his written works here.

“ . . . I liked [Christopher Hitchens] and we exchanged phone calls and emails because he read Crazy for God and told me it was one of the best books he ever read and wondered why in the last chapter I didn’t declare myself one of the New Atheists and become part of his movement. It sort of pissed him off. And I said because that’s not where my head’s at, and I gave him the answer . . . that’s how I was raised, it’s a psychological need. Plus, you’ve got too much certainty in your movement. I’d never call myself anything like that because you’re trying to start an alternative kind of religious church and you’ve got to convert to this and you’ve got people who are apostates or are still too religious or they’re still superstitious. I said, ‘You know, it reminds me too much of what I grew up with.’ I’m not converting to a new system of thought. I believe in uncertainty. Not as a faith thing, but as an actual, evidentiary, ‘this is how things are’ way that we actually exist. Because we’re semi evolved, we’re just starting out, of course we’re uncertain about 99% of every proposition that comes our way. . . . That’s been, not my gripe, but that’s been my view of the New Atheist movement. They were all bright eyed and bushy tailed and they’re going to change the world – where did I hear all of that before?”

“I don’t consider myself any label. I consider myself as someone who essentially says, ‘Look. Our species has been here for literally an eyeblink cosmologically. Not even an eyeblink. And we have just stood upright 10 minutes ago, started writing a couple of seconds ago, and now we’re making cosmological statements and trying to choose paths towards ultimate truth.’ Don’t fool yourself. No one has written anything accurate about anything to do with cosmology or philosophy or truth yet. If the human race survives itself, which it’s not going to, we’re going to be the first species to document its own extinction; but if by some miracle we hang around for another million or two years and we’re able to get any real perspective on our place here and some understanding in the universe, maybe someone could write something that’s the equivalent of a gospel tract on, ‘Okay, here’s what we found.’ The hubris of the human race, while just scratching the surface on the ideas of meaning, is insane. And that’s why sane people do some form of what I’m doing, and that is they concentrate on being the best grandfather that Nora could possibly have on this earth. And they were up on this barn roof today nailing shingles with his eight year old grandson because the actual experience of life is the only faith that’s worth having. And if you’re not treating people humanely then we’ve learned nothing even from Jesus or anybody else.”

“For me, career is always second to relationships. And the quality of that relationship always takes precedence over the quality of lifestyle or what you are earning. These are no brainers. And it’s not because Jesus said so, it’s because that’s what evolution taught. Stupidest phrase that ever came up is ‘Survival of the fittest.’  All modern science today and evolutionary psychology and the rest point in a totally different direction, and that is the survival of the friendly. You help your neighbor on a tit for tat basis not because Jesus said to, but because tribes that didn’t do that did not survive. And so all this teaching of the ethics of Jesus and other spiritual leaders simply mirror back the survival traits that evolution has taught the hard way. . . . The practice of any religion or philosophy or political order or anything economic, whatever you try to work, is fixated on the survival tactics of evolution and if they don’t, they go the way of the dinosaur. And we know that when you look at, for instance, our relationship with dogs and how we co-evolved. Dogs have the same neurotransmitters when they feel love and anxiety as we do – they picked it up from us or we picked it up from them. Those are the signs of community, of caring for each other, of loyalty, of love, of the experience of affection. These are real. They’re scientifically based in reality that you can test. You can look at neural brainwaves, you can look at the chemical composition of people who are breastfeeding babies and the oxytocin in their blood; these things are real. . . . So, as I look at these ethical issues, it isn’t a question of making statements about truth as if it came from outside, it’s all within our own evolutionary process and we can either learn from it or not. So, you know, at some point in my life I realized the greatest pleasure I had was in loving my children and my family; that wasn’t some big discovery, that’s simply in line with what evolution taught every father who provided for a family or every mother who provided for a family and gave us all a chemical reward because of it. And if you turn away from that you’re just not a happy person, that’s all. You have other priorities – it isn’t that they’re wrong, it’s going to be damaging to you in the final analysis because it’s never enough. So as I look at my own past, I don’t think that that aligns itself with some revealed wisdom that comes from the outside; it all comes from right here. From the experience of how we evolved as primates who now have consciousness and empathy – that’s the deal. And so understanding that or feeding that in your life whether it’s going to Greek Orthodox Church or taking care of somebody that you love or trying to be a good neighbor to someone. You know, this isn’t about good works as in ‘Oh, you’ll get into Heaven.’ This is about building a society in which you will survive and you increase your chances of surviving and passing on your gene pool. It’s as simple as that. Instead of an ethical question it has always been a practical one and we dress it up as an ethical issue. And that’s fine – why not? You know, that’s why we have art and music. We want to make more of this thing that we’ve got than actually is there. That said, if we’re talking this way as honestly as we can about where we’re really at in our heads, then we should really cut to the chase and admit it.”

“Reason and faith are totally compatible because, since we don’t know anything, since there are no certainties about anything except experience, everything is by faith. It’s totally split. There is no such thing as ‘reason.’ Everytime you talk about reason, it means you buy into somebody else’s book without having done the study yourself. You don’t know, you’re taking it on faith. So what we know is, again, in the human, everyday, spiritual connection we have with other people it’s in the relationships or in nowhere. That’s the only place you know something. And, when it gets to these huge issues (cosmological statements, presuppositional philosophy, and so forth and so on), these are interesting conversations, but if you start buying into one of these or another thing, of course it’s on faith because you can never see this out to the end. You won’t be around. So, in the meantime, what do you do? You don’t try to solve these problems by going to church more or read another book on the meaning of life, etc. etc. etc. You get on with the actual living. . . . You know, the real question now is whether we are going to learn from our evolutionary process that community is where it’s at or we’re not going to and continue trashing the world around us. But you can’t call on people to do that with some huge statement, you’ve got to do it based on their own interests, sort of altruistic selfishness: ‘Alright, if you’re not going to do this because it’s the right thing, will you do it for Nora, or your daughter, or your husband, or whoever it is?’ Break it down into bite sized pieces, that’s where it’s really at. So I think a lot of people stay in evangelical communities because that community, certain churches or individual communities, feed their sense of security. They know where they belong, they can do community there, people are kind to them, and they can be kind to other people. And that’s the truth of their faith system. Now, they dress it up theologically and say, ‘We’re living through Christ, you know, this is where it’s happening because of this.’ It isn’t – it’s happening because they’re a primate tribe that treat each other just like all other primate tribes and they give it some sort of a spin, but fundamentally what’s really there for them is the community and the sense of belonging and the sense that somebody’s watching your back. That’s what we all long for.’

“I don’t think it’s a question of morally right or wrong, I think it’s a question of going back to the actual state we are in, which is that we are communitarian beings and what trashes community, you can call it wrong if you want to put a moral spin on it. You can also call it that evolution will punish you, but not with eternal hell. We have evolved to be interdependent and if you forget that, you pay. Whether it’s a selfish jerk like a Donald Trump or a Hugh Hefner or whoever it might be that lives out their fantasy of power over others, his family will pay. He will pay. His line will die out. That’s not how you survive. You know, ask Hilter how that worked out. The truth of the matter is the things we call love and charity and kindness, these aren’t moral teachings; this is how primate societies survive. And if they don’t, they go extinct, which we have a good chance of doing. And I think our present predicament with the way our selfishness has overwhelmed our desire to preserve our planet proves that on a huge scale. You know, we’re talking about real annihilation here. That’s not a moral question as in, ‘Oh, it’s wrong to destroy the human race.’ The question is, ‘Are you stupid enough to buy into an ethical way of seeing things that literally guarantees the destruction of yourself and everything around you?’ And if you are, then be my guest, but those groups and people that survive, whether it’s on an individual level or group level or societal level or historical level or imperial level, in the end either get it or they don’t . . . it’s not a question of right and wrong as in a moral teaching that comes down from heaven. It’s do you want to live in a workable situation in which you can as a human being feel joy in your life or do you want a constant sense of turmoil and anxiety all around you, and live in a boiling cauldron of jealousies and hatreds and acquisitiveness and greed and lust and all the rest of it. And it’s a simple choice.”

“Does my absence worry me? No, not at all. The only thing that worries me is not being around to watch over the people I love. And that’s where [it takes] a certain amount of faith – and I don’t mean religious faith, again it’s community. So, what is my best defense against mortality? It is to build relationships with my children so they will take care of each other when I’m gone. To set an example of, say, what is the definition of success in life. . . . There’s only one definition at this point in my life, and that is to be the rock upon which the people around you that you love can build a life on. That’s it! And if you do that, you don’t fear death, because you’re passing on the only thing that really matters in this life and that’s the love you felt and were given. And if you become that person to some folks around you and if you’re the one they come to and your grown kids are Skyping with you from business trips all over the world the way mine do because they want to tell me what’s going on in their life and they wanna hear what’s going on in mine, you know, that’s a win! And it’s a win against mortality because it means that you have passed something on and that you have those relationships and they’re real. It doesn’t mean they’re perfect, but they’re real. It’s the bitterness of the divided family and the people who trash their lives because they put career ahead of people or money and so forth and so on. That’s where death is – that’s death. Stopping your brainwaves and your heartbeat is not death. My life will go on through these people, they’re going to remember me. And I don’t mean something like, ‘Oh, you know, I’m living in their memories.’ Nothing like that – it’s much more than that. You know, when Jack hammers a nail he’s going to remember he was sitting up on my barn roof today and me telling him not to fall. That’s where he learned to hammer. And he’s eight. Now when Lucy burns her wrist cooking in the kitchen she’s going to remember that I taught her how to fry fish. And that’s life. And it’s not just passing on some maudlin ‘Oh, we loved each other’ business. It’s participating with each other. And so as a father and grandfather, my ambition is realized every time I realize, ‘Oh, there’s another win.’ You know, Jack came out, he worked, he got tired, he went in and got a drink, came back out an hour later and said, ‘Can I come up and help you some more?’ That’s it. I’m alive. And that life will not end. So, that’s immortality.”

More information on Frank Schaeffer as well as his fiction and non-fiction can be found through his site, here.

Frank Schaeffer’s art can be viewed and purchased here.


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