Author and lapsed pro-life ideologue Frank Schaeffer was just 8 years old when his beloved Evangelist mother Edith handed him her diaphragm. That and a sensible black negligee, she explained, was what a Christian woman faithful to the Bible needed for family planning and to keep a husband from strange women, the author recounts in his latest title, Sex, Mom, & God: How the Bible’s Strange Take on Sex Led to Crazy Politics—and How I Learned to Love Women (and Jesus) Anyway.
The memoir, the third and last in Schaeffer’s God trilogy, unfolds in lucid anecdotal excursions probing the chinks that later became gaping holes in the fundamentalist walls that penned him in. Here, Schaeffer tells us about the fallibility of holy screeds, the current state of the religious right and his own long road from fundamentalism to agnosticism.
That’s a pretty jarring title—you don’t often see sex, mom and God lumped together.
Titles are meant to get somebody’s attention so I think it does that. But the title in this case actually reflects what the book is about because my contention is that the whole environment of the culture war, where my family emerged in the 1970s and the 1980s as a force to be reckoned with, really revolved around sex. And if you look, for instance, at all the big debates of the day that came out of the culture war—abortion, the gay rights movement, views of marriage—everything relates back into personal sexual relationships.
Religious people have a choice. They can either worship their books, like the Bible, the Koran, the Torah, or they can try to find God and worship God, and maybe the two are mutually exclusive. And so perhaps it has been a handicap for religions to be defined by holy books that can’t be questioned, and we would actually do better to question these books and look for God independent of these books that supposedly are revealed truth. So that if an actual God exists, I think it cripples our attempt to find that God if we do so only by looking at him, her or it through our holy books.
Instead, we ought to be looking at our own experience of life, the love we have for our children and grandchildren and one another in relationships, the beauty in the world we see around us, and this human aspiration to long for meaning, which we share in all culture, and which is why we invented religion to begin with. These things are actually much better testimony to the possible existence of a creator than anything we find in any flawed book.
You call the God of the Old Testament “a shriveled little eccentric.” What do you mean by that?
I don’t want to be overly insulting in a short passage to people’s faith, but if I met someone who had a personal interest in sniffing around women’s menstrual cycles and making them sit in a tent for seven days, or wanted my granddaughter stoned to death if she went to her marriage bed having lost her virginity, or worried about where my grandson ejaculates…pretty soon, I would be saying this is a shriveled little eccentric at best and maybe a pervert at worst.
You argue that the religious right is furious that it lost the culture war and remains determined to make everyone do what it thinks is right according to its interpretation of the Bible.
Yes, that is a very accurate reflection of what my book is about. Roe v. Wade and these other rulings made abortion legal, but then the religious right has lashed back, trying to curtail stem-cell research and stop gay rights—not so much because they can win those battles, but really almost in a punitive lashing out by a group of religiously motivated people who have lost in the democratic process and…the opinion wars.
But what they are bound and determined to do is to try to make people either suffer because of what they believe or [to] take revenge on the whole culture by trying to impose a kind of theocracy through various court rulings and/or other initiatives, where they make the American majority who disagree with them toe the line when it comes to what they say their book says.
You were raised on and you preached and wrote about literal belief in the Bible. Now you seem to believe in the theology of Not Knowing.
Nobody ever blew up a mosque or an abortion clinic after screaming, “I might be wrong.” And I think that sums up why it’s useful to grow up enough, whether personally or culturally, to understand that absolute certainty kills because it gives you a basis to write off whole big chunks of the human race as “the other” and dismiss them.
Did you preach fundamentalist beliefs even after you ceased to believe in them?
The sad answer is yes, but fortunately not for a long time. You know, I’ll be brutally frank. When you have no other way to earn your living but selling God or Jesus or some particular religion, you think long and hard when you have doubts and you push those doubts back—because you look at the bottom line. And in my case, I lose two-thirds of my income overnight when I stepped out of the Evangelical big time. And I never regained it, by the way. If you want to make a lot of money, pitch God to fundamentalists and don’t try to write good books. Instead, try to write books that [fundamentalists] are going to like. And those two things don’t go together.