Sunday, January 29, 2012

God's Politics? (Not So Much So Let's Wild Goose in June)

Religion and politics seem to be in a mutual suicide pact worldwide. From the Taliban to Iran from the Republican Party, to the Roman Catholic bishops faith and politics have become interchangeable-- and they are killing each other.

I helped my theologian father, Francis Schaeffer; launch evangelical Christianity into an American political force in the 1970s and 80s. He became one of the fathers of the religious right. My father remains an inspiration to modern conservatives. But these conservatives are now so radically political about their religion that they are actually revolutionaries masquerading as conservatives.

I am now a critic of the movement my father and I helped launch. Its power is corrupting both religion and politics. Exhibit A is the takeover of the Republican Party by fanatics.

Since when did one have to pass what amounts to a religious litmus test to be a Republican? Maybe that is why my old friend congressman Jack Kemp once called me and congratulated me for getting out of the religious right and said. "These people are going to destroy the Republican Party."

Jack was a genuine conservative not a religious fanatic using politics to advance a religious agenda. One could disagree with his economic ideas but still be his friend. That was because he didn't think you were evil if you disagreed with him, only that you were mistaken.

Today as we've seen in the demonization of President Obama by the religious right/Republican Party if you disagree with the "correct" answers to the moral/political tests the right forces on everyone you are considered evil, in fact to use the religious term, you are lost. In fact God hates you.

Thus you are fighting God and God strikes down the unjust in the Bible. Thus politics becomes ruthless. The problem is that God is God and therefore all-knowing (at least that's the idea) but people aren't. So when fallible humans get set to write people off as evil and want to politically strike them down the hubris knows no bounds. Nor does the hard edge ever soften.

Religion needs to be rescued from its political entanglements because religion is about mercy, humility and mystery. In the biblical account an all knowing God may strike down the "unjust" but note: This God is portrayed as all-knowing. No political leaders can make that claim!

So the "model" of biblical God-dispensed retribution is a bad fit for flawed dumb creatures like us!

How do we recapture a spirituality that is not held hostage to the politics of confrontation? It's so politicized; it's so black and white that it's giving religion a bad name.

The modern Republican Party is 100 percent in the grasp of conservative evangelical Christians, far right Roman Catholics, Orthodox Jews (the "Israel lobby") and Mormons. Its leading candidates either are part of this religious right, or have to pretend to be. The fact that all these people have to pander to that sensibility is instructive.

My parents founded a community, L'Abri, in Switzerland, in 1955 which became a haven for people engaged in scrutinizing Western civilization from evangelical Christian perspectives. In the 1970s and '80s, my dad Francis Schaeffer and his books, such as "How Should We Then Live?" and "Whatever Happened to the Human Race?" influenced thousands of evangelical Christians, including Jerry Falwell, James Dobson and Jack Kemp.

I embraced my parents' fundamentalism, became an activist in promoting it, then gradually came to reject it. But I have not rejected faith. Faith need not be opposed to science, or operate its own set of facts about the world. The confrontations between modernity and reason and faith are not necessary. They only become part of "faith" if faith becomes political and thus stops embracing the concept of doubt. And without doubt -- if nothing else doubt about our own goodness -- faith dies.

But in today's political/religious climate faith and politics have become so interchangeable that Mitt Romney being a Mormon is an "issue" with evangelicals. And Romney has to pretend he believes everything on the social agenda to "fit in." It is a lose-lose situation.

Political litmus tests now have been substituted the gospels and the Sermon on the Mount as the new American conservative Christian creed. And conversely the religious creed of politics these days from no new tax pledges to shutting down family planning clinics is pushed as if it was a matter of faith.

The result is that both religion and politics are debased and destroyed. Political leaders pander to faith issues in a destructive way. And religious leaders have met politics more than half way and no longer concentrate on saving souls, but on taking back America for God.

The debasing of politics that Kemp predicted to me has come true.

The flavor of religion is therefore no longer spiritual but about winning political battles at all costs and this is done even if it means that the name of Jesus s dragged through the mud. This is the ultimate case of taking the Lord's name in vain.

The flavor of politics is no longer about pragmatism and doing what works or is best for the country but about being sufficiently fanatical to satisfy a faith test on the issues.

Religion is merciless because it deals in the currency of ultimate truth. If you disagree you're not just wrong on policy but an evil lost person. When this paradigm translates to politics it leaves no middle ground. It is the same impulse that drives people to kill for God.

On the other hand when the winner-take-all paradigm of politics infects religion the concern for the good of the suffering individual our neighbor goes out the window. We have no neighbors in such a world, just friends and enemies.

Religion loses out because the concept of humility, mercy and justice evaporate. Politics loses because the concept of adaptable pragmatic policy is replaced by holier-than-thou crusades.

We have managed to destroy faith by polluting it with political cynicism and destroy politics by polluting it with merciless religious-style certainty.

The good news is that change is coming. Believe it or not there are religious people by the thousands fighting back to reclaim religion for faith and politics for people.

I'm not the only formerly "certain" religions person now asking tough questions of myself.

For instance take the Wild Goose Festival. Last year 1,300 of us met for the first time in this arts, justice, religion and spirituality gathering and I saw many former right wing religious people now gathered to admit mistakes and find a new way forward.

The response was so positive that Wild Goose will meet again in June and this time 3,500 refugees from religion and politics will gather to compare notes and work for change. What is the change that we'll seek? Put people first and let faith shine and let politics work to help people, not to make them conform to "my way or the highway" ideology. So there is change coming.

Let's remember that, as I say in my book Sex, Mom and God No one ever blew up an abortion clinic or mosque after shouting. "But I could be wrong!"

And no one ever did any good to a country by applying the religious concept of salvation to politics. Certainty kills faith and certainty kills politics too.

We humans are a work in progress. Making do and doing our best is better than thinking we can ever be entirely right about anything.

Frank Schaeffer is a writer and author of Crazy for God: How I Grew Up as One of the Elect, Helped Found the Religious Right, and Lived to Take All (or Almost All) of It Back


steve said...

although I agree with some of what you said I think you are trading in one type of intolerance for another.There is no mention of the Jesse Jackson's,the al sharpons and the Nancy pelosis who frequently preach right from pulpits in churches highly racially charged and politically motivated sermons.When bush was president you also had comparisons to hitler and questions about his sincerity of faith.If the emergent movement wants to be seen as legitimate movement and not just a place for disenfranchised Christian democrats you better paint with a wider brush when you unleash you complaints.

Jeff said...

How appropriate on Sunday morning to hear something truthful. In contrast, I believe, most Protestant sermons will neglect this subject as to avoid offending the so-called conservative membership. So sad since this needs to be revealed in the light of what it is: the highjacking of American Christianity. I am reminded of the words of Jessep from the movie A Few Good Men, who said: "You can't handle the truth!" Yep, for ministers to keep their jobs they better stay quiet on this issue. That is unless they are already on the bandwagon.
Perhaps, and I really don't know, this is where Schaeffer's orthodox tradition may be of an advantage. As I understand it the focus is not on the priest/personality but more so the mystical/ metaphysical experience one has with the sacraments/liturgy. Please correct me if I am wrong.

blessdtwice said...

Refreshing. Thanks!

Frank Schaeffer said...

Jeff, you got it re Orthodoxy and the liturgy and traditions being the focus, not the priest let alone a teaching cult! F

Rich said...

Mr. Schaeffer, you have a most unique perspective. However, you could be wrong on some of your major assumptions.

Religious sentiments are not relegated to the right. The left mocks the right at every turn (Bill Maher to White House press core). The left dominates nearly every intuition from media to the University.

Their ideologies from global warming to political correctness ring with the harsh tone of religious fervor. Their messiah is themselves or elected leaders seek to establish a utopia but usually ends in dystopia of Orwellian proportions.

You say that the religious right controls 100% of the republican party. That’s totally wrong. Just look at Ron Paul.

Freedom is the answer - not strict control and orthodoxy; that goes for religion and politics.

Frank Schaeffer said...

Rich thanks for the comment. I don't think Ron P counts for anything at all these days other than as a curiosity. The 87 freshmen congresspeople who got elected in 2010 and then have tried to derail the US economy are all out of the Tea Party and according to polls no one disputes that about 68 % of the Tea Party are the same old evangelical/right crowd. Sure there are exceptions but few. And if the Left controlled so much why was Bush elected twice and able to spend 4 trillion on 2 needless wars where my Marine son fought?

Lausten North said...

Jeff and Frank; I just heard a sermon today from my pastor, fresh off a trip to Colombia, building a school for a disenfranchised village. Not all of the congregation supports him in this work, so rather than preach about the evils of consumerism and how our actions affect the third world, he just painted the picture of contrast he experienced and asked us to think about it. He weaved into the liturgy.

He does have to worry about keeping his job, but he doesn’t forget that there are politics throughout the Bible. It says “love thy neighbor”, and tells stories to remind us who our neighbor is and just what it means to love them. I don’t think of this as mystical so much as a way of teaching.

Jeff said...


Sounds like a courageous minister indeed. I tip my hat.


MaryLou said...

This is the first time I have visited your blog and read your work. I wondered about several things that you wrote.

First of all, you said you haven't lost faith. So what is your faith in?

Secondly, you say that certainty kills faith. How are you defining faith?

Thirdly, you wrote that "religion is merciless because it deals in the currency of ultimate truth." Do you equate ultimate truth with absolute truth? Do you believe that truth is relative?

Thanks for considering my questions.

debese said...

"Certainty kills faith and certainty kills politics too."

And of course you're absolutely certain about this. ;-)

Andrew Richards said...

"But I have not rejected faith. Faith need not be opposed to science, or operate its own set of facts about the world. The confrontations between modernity and reason and faith are not necessary. They only become part of "faith" if faith becomes political and thus stops embracing the concept of doubt. And without doubt -- if nothing else doubt about our own goodness -- faith dies."

How nearly providential I would find and read this today. After having quoted Frank in my own blog (Opera Rocks), having just finished Crazy For God, I wrote the following as the opening line:

"I don't know."

Having been brought up as one of those "weirdly cultic Closed Plymouth Brethren" it was quite a step for me to admit not knowing. In fact, the entire last year has been a move away from "sound doctrine." I tread uneasily. But the path toward Grace is worth it.

Frank, thanks for sharing your path and pain. It has been a great comfort to me, and I hope you don't mind me quoting you on my own blog in the coming weeks. It has been an immense help in dealing with my own crisis of conscience.

But I wonder how wise it was to recently send "Sex, Mom and God" to my own mother for her birthday recently. :-b She has always been dear Edith's greatest fan. My folks no longer are members of the Gospel Hall, but I still have to describe them as being Dogma-centric.

But one can always hope…

Frank Schaeffer said...

Hi Andrew, thanks for the kind comment. I just got off the phone with my mother. She's 97 now and doing well for that age. My sister Debby who takes care of her loved "Sex, Mom and God" and said "Thank you for giving my mother back to me" after she read it. What she meant was that with my parents having been kidnapped (as it were) by the religious right the complex lovely person of my mom (and my dad too) really has disappeared to be replaced by a characterless myth. My parents were actually conflicted about their relationship to the evangelical machine and ran their own ministry in ways that would have shocked the likes of Falwell etc. "I don't know" and "I'm not sure" were phrases I often heard from both Dad and Mom while growing up. I regard much of my own journey as a continuation of their journey not a repudiation of it. I'm glad you read my work! Thanks