Setting the Record Straight: Michele Bachmann, Francis Schaeffer and the Christian Right

Article by John Whitehead.


“Certain journalists use ‘dominionist’ the way some folks on Fox News use the word ‘sharia.’ Its strangeness scares people. Without history or context, the word creates a siege mentality in which ‘we’ need to guard against ‘them.'”–Lisa Miller, “‘Dominionism’ beliefs among conservative Christians overblown,” The Washington Post

By its very nature, politics is inclined towards corruption, deception and the accumulation of power. Organized religion, in many regards, is no better. So I am particularly leery of those who strive to merge politics with religion and, in the process, turn presidential elections into a test of one’s religiosity, for good or ill.

I became even more apprehensive about this merger between religion and politics in the wake of George W. Bush’s reign, given the extent to which his administration cozied up to the Christian Right and vice versa. That uneasiness was not lessened one iota by Barack Obama’s ascension to the Oval Office, which was met with ecstasy by the Christian Left.

Since then, however, I have begun to notice a growing tendency on both the Left and the Right to demonize those with whom they disagree, either because they subscribe to politically incorrect beliefs or associate with individuals who might be the slightest bit controversial, no matter how fleeting the association. And when you add religion to the mix–Christianity, in particular–
people who may otherwise be perfectly rational beings turn into highly intolerant conspiracy theorists.

Barack Obama’s opponents used this “guilt by association” tactic to their advantage during the 2008 presidential elections by attempting to tar and feather him for having attended the church pastored by Rev. Jeremiah Wright. Wright was portrayed by the media as an unpatriotic, anti-Semitic, Christian zealot three steps removed from the likes of Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson.

Most recently, these McCarthyist scare tactics have been trotted out in an attempt to paint presidential candidates Michele Bachmann and Rick Perry as brainwashed puppets for a Christian Right bent on establishing a theocracy, a government in which God’s laws are supreme. As Lisa Miller notes in the Washington Post:

The Republican primaries are six months away, and already news stories are raising fears on the left about “crazy Christians.” One piece connects Gov. Rick Perry with a previously unknown Christian group called “The New Apostolic Reformation,” whose main objective is to “infiltrate government.” Another highlights whacko-sounding Christian influences on Michele Bachmann. A third cautions readers to be afraid, very afraid, of “dominionists.” The stories raise real concerns about the world views of two prospective Republican nominees. But their echo-chamber effect reignites old anxieties among liberals about evangelical Christians. Some on the left seem suspicious that a firm belief in Jesus equals a desire to take over the world.

Indeed, while less hysterical in tone than many of his counterparts, Ryan Lizza’s recent piece for the New Yorker is no less prejudiced in its view of those with Christian leanings, hopscotching over Bachmann’s life story while dwelling on her Christian influences in such a way as to present her as a cautionary tale to prospective voters: “Bachmann belongs to a generation of Christian conservatives whose views have been shaped by institutions, tracts, and leaders not commonly known to secular Americans, or even to most Christians. Her campaign is going to be a conversation about a set of beliefs more extreme than those of any American politician of her stature.”

And this is where it all falls apart for Lizza, who is so bent on portraying Bachmann as a product of Dominionist dogma that he paints every Christian he encounters with the same extremist brush. In the process, he wrongly ascribes the Dominionist teachings of R. J. Rushdoony to Francis Schaeffer, a leading Christian theologian of the 20th century who called for Christians to be active in the world, including in politics and government, and whose impact on evangelical Christians like Bachmann was far-reaching and not necessarily a bad thing.

This distinction between Rushdoony and Schaeffer may seem like a minor point, but to rational individuals who understand, as Miller does, that “Evangelical [Christians] do not generally want to take over the world,” there is a world of difference between those who subscribe to Rushdoony’s Christian Reconstructionist views and those who fall more into Schaeffer’s camp.

I should know. Simply because I knew Rushdoony many years ago (there’s that guilt by association thing again), I’ve been on the receiving end of these smear tactics time and again, accused of everything from harboring Reconstructionist motives and wanting to kill homosexuals to wanting to overthrow the government and establish a theocracy. Of course, as I document in my autobiography, Slaying Dragons, none of these far-fetched accusations are true, which my accusers would have known had they bothered to interview me or read anything that I’ve written.

They would also have discovered that I knew Francis Schaeffer much better than I did Rushdoony–in fact, at one time, Schaeffer was a mentor of sorts to me. To his credit, professor Barry Hankins in the American Spectatordelineates exactly where Schaeffer and Rushdoony differed and where all of these conspiracy-laden articles go wrong in their “macro-indictment of all things evangelical”:

Schaeffer had a brief flirtation with Rushdoony’s thought in the Sixties, but not with the Reconstructionist/Dominionist vision of Old Testament civil law. Rather, like some other evangelical figures, Schaeffer was enamored with Rushdoony’s analysis of where, when, and how western civilization allegedly abandoned the moral standards of the Judeo-Christian tradition. The link between Schaeffer and Rushdoony was John Whitehead–who was friends with both figures and who practically wrote Schaeffer’s immensely influential book A Christian Manifesto. Lizza cites Manifesto as arguing for the overthrow of the U.S. government if Roe v. Wade is not overturned. Schaeffer actually said that once Christians had worked through legal channels then practiced civil disobedience, he wasn’t sure what they should do next. He did not advocate violence, but because he referenced the founding fathers’ resort to revolution after exhausting legal channels in the 1770s, Schaeffer’s son Frank remarked loosely and infamously on his blog years later that his father had called for the overthrow of the government. This is just not the case, but Frank Schaeffer has made a career out of debunking his and his father’s evangelical past…

As for Lizza’s alleged link between Schaeffer and Rushdoony, Schaeffer insisted publicly and privately that there should never be a theocracy in America. The moral law of the Old Testament was normative and abiding, but the civil law of the ancient Hebrews had no place under the U.S. Constitution.

As for Whitehead, he too was influenced by Rushdoony’s analysis of the history of western law, but Whitehead never took Rushdoony’s remedies seriously and neither have the vast majority of evangelicals. Having observed the Reconstructionist patriarch doting on his grandchildren, the idea that Rushdoony would actually support the death penalty for incorrigible children struck Whitehead as a bit far-fetched. It was one thing for Rushdoony, like many other utopians of the Right or Left, to theorize about the ideal society off in the future somewhere, but quite another for him to actually support such a thing in the present.

As Professor Hankins noted, I was present when the Christian Right in America was metastasizing into the political behemoth it is today. By the mid-1980s, because of the hypocrisy I had seen in the evangelical leadership, I recoiled from the movement. But in those early years I worked alongside Francis Schaeffer and stayed in the home of R.J. Rushdoony. I also witnessed first-hand how the teachings and writings of these two men were co-opted by leaders of the Christian socio-political movement such as Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, James Dobson and Tim LaHaye, co-founder of the Moral Majority and co-author of the bestselling Left Behind novels, among others.

Fueled by the political writings of Rushdoony and the social activism of Schaeffer and energized by the Supreme Court’s 1973 decision in Roe v. Wade, Falwell and LaHaye launched the Moral Majority in 1979. That same year, Beverly LaHaye started Concerned Women for America as a biblical counterpoint to the National Organization for Women. Since then, the Christian Right has seldom looked back.

By the early 1980s, the Christian Right had formed a voting bloc that burgeoned into a powerful movement. It effectively ushered Ronald Reagan, George H. W. Bush and George W. Bush into the presidency. As the media empires of evangelical leaders and televangelists grew to encompass print, radio and television, so too did the reach and power of the Religious Right. It now boasts of representing some 30 million Christian voters, as its leaders are fond of reminding elected officials.

However, while the Christian Right has made big gains politically in the past several decades, the Christian involvement in politics has produced little in terms of definable positive results spiritually. After all, political action as a cure-all is an illusion. Although it is a valued part of the process in a democracy, the ballot box is not the answer to humankind’s ills. And, in fact, Christians who place their hope in a political answer to the world’s ills often become nothing more than another tool in the politician’s toolbox.

Francis Schaeffer understood this. As he advised in A Christian Manifesto, Christians must avoid joining forces with the government and arguing a theocratic position. “We must not confuse the Kingdom of God with our country,” Schaeffer writes in A Christian Manifesto. “To say it another way, ‘We should not wrap Christianity in our national flag.'” As history makes clear, fusing Christianity with politics cheapens it, robs it of its spiritual vitality and thus destroys true Christianity.

The founder of Christianity understood this. Jesus did not seek political power, and He did not teach Christians to seek it either. Jesus spoke truth to power and it cost him his life. If Christians really want to follow Jesus, this will necessarily mean that they will often be forced to stand against the governmental and political establishment in speaking truth to power, as well. As Martin Luther King Jr. did so effectively, Christians should stand outside the political establishment and criticize the political Herods of this world in advocating for peaceful, nonviolent change.

This brings me back to the current hysteria over the possibility that the Christian Right is mobilizing to take over the country under the guise of electing Michele Bachmann or Rick Perry to office. First, I would echo Lisa Miller’s plea, “given the acrimonious tone of our political discourse, for a certain amount of dispassionate care in the coverage of religion.” Second, given that, according to Miller, nearly 80 percent of Americans say they’re Christian and a third of Americans call themselves “evangelical,” perhaps it’s time for those on the Left to cease their knee-jerk intolerance of all things Christian. And finally, no matter what the talking heads might say about Bachmann’s so-called Dominionist philosophies or Rick Perry’s right-wing leanings, we would all do well to remember that at the end of the day, they, like their opponents, are first and foremost politicians–answering to a higher call that ends at the ballot box. And as we have learned to our detriment, no matter which party takes the White House, the American people will be the ones to pay the price.

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