Among the Intellectualoids

The New Yorker and Evangelicalism

Is the liberal elite out of touch with evangelical America, or willfully ignorant?

By 8.15.11

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With Republican presidential contenders lining up for a run at the party's nomination, Francis Schaeffer's name is once again in the air. In this week's New Yorker, Washington correspondent Ryan Lizza presents a ten-page exposé on Michele Bachmann, tying her to the man Newsweek religion editor Kenneth Woodward once called "the guru of fundamentalism." Lizza classes Schaeffer as an "exotic" influence on Bachmann's religious and political formation and links Schaeffer to Rousas Rushdoony. Rushdoony was the architect of Reconstructionist political theology (also called Dominionism by some). He argued in massive tomes that Old Testament law was normative and should and would someday be installed into American law. As critics never tire of pointing out, this would mean the death penalty for adulterers, homosexuals, and perhaps even incorrigible children.

Lizza uses the alleged connection between Schaeffer and Rushdoony as a way of marginalizing Bachmann and, by implication, other evangelicals of the Right who have been influenced by Schaeffer. In doing so, Lizza only gets some of the details on Schaeffer correct while presenting an overall view of the evangelical pop intellectual that is almost wholly without merit. Ironically, Lizza's approach is much like Schaeffer’s, who often got the details wrong about, say, Soren Kierkegaard, the Renaissance, or Samuel Rutherford's alleged influence on the American Revolution, but still presented a big picture that was remarkably helpful for Christians in thinking about the trajectory of western moral and intellectual life.

After a helpful overview of Schaeffer's first film How Should We Then Live?, Lizza alleges that Schaeffer was a major influence on Dominion theology. A paragraph or so later, Lizza also labels evangelical author and Schaeffer disciple Nancy Pearcey a Dominionist and by implication perhaps Bachmann and anyone else who has ever been influenced by Schaffer.

The truth quite different from Lizza’s 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 Schaffer'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. (See, for example, his book 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).

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.

The larger point here is the degree to which a reporter for a reputable and influential national magazine can be so out-of-touch with evangelicalism -- one of the two most influential religious movements in America, the other being Roman Catholicism. Calling Schaeffer exotic, and interpreting him through the lens of a figure he fawned over for about ten minutes, is akin to forgetting who Billy Graham is. I am not the only one who has argued that Schaeffer was second only to Graham when it comes to influence on evangelicalism during the second half of the twentieth century. Moreover, Lizza's interpretation of Schaeffer ignores that the "guru of fundamentalism" also influenced a whole generation of young people who became Christian scholars, artists, musicians, teachers, lawyers, business people, moderate evangelical pastors, and even a few activists on the evangelical Left. Citing his influence on Dominionism, then running that influence backward to imply Schaeffer or Nancy Pearcey were Dominionists is akin to arguing that since Ho Chi Minh cited the Declaration of Independence when proclaiming Vietnam's independence in 1945, Thomas Jefferson must have been a communist.

The Christian Right was indeed one of Schaeffer's constituencies, and arguably the one that has been most visible, significant, and influential. Still, only a tiny minority of the Christian Right is devoted to Dominionism and an even smaller minority of the wider evangelical subculture. One might have expected in the 1980s that a correspondent for the New Yorker might fail to understand evangelicalism in even a rudimentary way. At that time evangelicals had only recently re-entered conservative politics after a half-century hiatus. We might look back to that time and forgive, or at least snicker at, reporters who thought evangelical activists were like Iran's Ayatollah. But after more than 30 years of high evangelical visibility, in an era where roughly 30 percent of the American population is evangelical, and that evangelicals for the most part live pretty much like everyone else, one has to ask the New Yorker, "Where have you been?"

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About the Author
Barry Hankins is Professor of History at Baylor University and author of Francis Schaeffer and the Shaping of Evangelical America.