"We were earnest and my parents were sincere. Dad had a vicious temper. Mom was a high powered nut. But so what. Given the range of human suffering, I had a golden childhood." This is one of the more gentle assessments given by Frank Schaeffer in his tell-all autobiography. Better known these days as an author of well-selling novels (Portofino,
Baby Jack), Frank was the only son of Frank and Edith, two of the last century's renowned Christian evangelists.
However, Frank has come to bury evangelism, not to praise it. In fact, if you have a favorite evangelist, prepare to see him eviscerated in Frank's incisive surgical examination of the movement in general and its favorite sons in particular. Jerry Falwell he calls a bigot reactionary. Of the highly respected preacher to presidents, Billy Graham, he comments sanguinely, "When Billy preached, no one wanted to know why he'd gotten his daughter into an arranged marriage with the son of a very wealthy donor."
He states that "the most power hungry and ambitious person I have ever met" was Dr. James Dobson, widely read and supported media minister. But Schaeffer saves the bulk of his scorn for Pat Robertson, whom he paints in a few personal vignettes as vain, pompous, and manipulative, an Elmer Gantry gone supernova.
The Schaeffers were not cut from the same cloth as Robertson and his ilk, but religion sometimes makes strange bedfellows. The Schaeffers were known for their intellectual approach to
Scripture, their love of great art, and their remarkable tolerance. As early as the 1950s, Frank's father counseled homosexuals not to marry if they were only doing so to hide their true orientation, and told his children he would support them if they married a person of a different race. The Schaeffers, acting purely on faith, founded L'Abri, a religious hostel in Switzerland, and waited for converts. They had many – the prostitute who married and sent them baby photos, the alcoholic who gave up booze and led a productive life – though the younger Schaeffer muses in retrospect, "I have sometimes wondered, when my parents 'converted' people, if those people really accepted Christ, or if they had just fallen under the spell of my energetic and attractive parents." He recounts his dad beating his mother upstairs, then going down to the sanctuary at L'Abri to preach to the waiting supplicants. His passive-aggressive, holier-than-everyone mother constantly decried sexual activity to her teenaged son but babbled about it in a way that titillated rather than quelled his fevered imagination.
Author of How Shall We Then Live?, considered by many Christians to be a classic of practical religious guidance, the elder Frank let his son drag him in as a player in the anti-abortion movement. Who knows why young Frank himself got involved? He says the issue of abortion loomed large after he had his first child, but there seems to have been a power hunger within his spirit that had to come to the fore. Frank, at that juncture in his life, had proved pretty much a flop at everything he attempted. Brokering deals among the tacky televangelists, the high-ups in the Catholic hierarchy, and his usually tasteful, tolerant dad, must have felt at the time like heady stuff.
By the author's reckoning, his machinations, aimed at choking off Roe vs. Wade, were the spark that set ablaze the Religious Right as we now construe it, polarizing Americans of faith like no other issue before it. His role in this drama may be less central than he depicts it, but no doubt Frank was playing with matches. He now regrets it.
This book is funny, thought-provoking, angry, angst-ridden and iconoclastic. The author makes a sound, if worrying, point when he expounds on the essentially apocalyptic nature of the evangelical message: "But there was another component: the worse everything got, the more it proved that America needed saving, by us!"
No longer much of a churchgoer, Frank Schaeffer now reflects, "Maybe there is a God who forgives, who loves, who knows. I hope so."