Frank Schaeffer, Exvangelical

Joel Edmund Anderson has a new post over at Resurrecting Orthodoxy on the life and career of Frank Schaeffer, son of the Evangelical apologist Francis Schaeffer. Frank Schaeffer has become something of a media darling because he turned against the radical conservatism of his youth and his famous father. He has received positive coverage from Newsweek, PBS, Sojourners, et al. The most notable thing about Frank Schaeffer, writes Anderson, is the vitriolic tone he employs whenever he discusses Christians to the right of, say, Bob Dole. In the blog post, Anderson reviews Schaeffer’s Twitter feed with amusing results. (Sample: Schaeffer recently composed a tweet that recommended “ban[ning] evangelical schools & homeschooling as the #1 public health hazard.”) Anderson writes:

Back in the 1980s, when Frank Schaeffer was pretty much an angry Evangelical Christian leader who railed against Democrats, secular atheists, and liberals. And yes, Evangelicals saw it not as unhinged raving, but rather as holy anger and righteous wrath against the enemies of God. Now, though, Schaeffer is an atheist, but he still is spouting the exact same kind of unhinged ravings, even more so. Only now he has simply switched to the most extreme edge of the other side of the political spectrum and thus aims his venom at Evangelicals, Christians, and Republicans. And he doesn’t just occasionally do this. It is a constant, 24/7, litany of unhinged hatred.

I appreciate Anderson’s honesty when he links Schaeffer’s angry tone on Twitter to his equally angry tone in the 1980s. In many ways, Schaeffer doesn’t seem to have changed much, doesn’t seem to have matured much over the past forty years. Sure, it appears dramatic how far he’s moved across the political spectrum, but his rage at his theological, political, and cultural enemies remains fully intact.

Anderson writes, “[…]Frank Schaeffer has become the poster child of rabidly angry ex-Evangelicals who utterly seethe with rage against anything remotely Evangelical, Christian…or Republican. They don’t so much give measured, thoughtful critiques as they simply boil over with foul-mouthed cursing and fury when anything or anyone resembling their life as an Evangelical comes into view.” This strikes me as a fair description of many Exvangelicals. I don’t want to belittle the wounds and agony that many people carry with them as a result of their Evangelical upbringings. But in my experience, the really wounded, agonized Exvangelicals are often not the angriest—and the angriest Exvangelicals frequently haven’t dealt with their own underlying woulds and agony. Their rage is often a coping mechanism, a way of avoiding both the hurt that Evangelicalism can cause and the hurt involved in leaving Evangelicalism behind.

Schaeffer reminds me of those old ex-Communists in the 1950s, people like Whittaker Chambers, who believed that Communism ultimately would triumph over capitalism and liberal democracy because, even though they had abandoned Communism, they retained their belief in its essential strength. Before they converted to liberalism, fellow travelers like Chambers believed that the decadent democracies were no match for Stalin. Once they converted, they didn’t really challenge that belief. They believed the Soviet Union was more powerful and more threatening than it actually was precisely because they had once belonged to it.

Similarly, Exvangelicals like Schaeffer believe that American Evangelicals are the greatest threat to the United States, that they pull all the strings in the Republican party, that they are the driving force behind Trump’s presidency, &c. This simply isn’t true. White, middle-class Evangelicals are just one shrinking demographic among many that gave Trump the White House in 2016. They overwhelmingly support Trump, and he has given them some attention, but his administration has not been especially pro-Evangelical in anything but rhetoric. Yes, sure, he gave them Pence, he gave them Neil Gorsuch, and he delivered a speech at the March for Life. But substantively, on Evangelical issues, Trump’s administration hasn’t differed much from George W. Bush’s (or Bush’s father’s—remember how much attention was given to unborn children during the early ’90s?). Trump’s signature accomplishments—the tax cuts, the furious campaigns against undocumented immigrants, his withdrawal from numerous international treaties and trade agreements—are not classic Evangelical issues. Gay marriage isn’t going anywhere. Recent Evangelical victories on abortion have occurred mostly at the state level, and even without Trump, conservative Republicans would still dominate the state houses.

So Schaeffer’s anxiety and rage over Evangelicalism is a classic symptom of lapsed True Believerism. When you abandon an extreme ideology, it can still possess you to the point of insanity. You see its influence everywhere. In my experience, politicized Evangelical Christianity is often a distraction from more nefarious forces in the Republican party, particularly non-ideological forces like careerism, technocracy, and the insatiable appetite for power at any cost. Would I rather do battle with an ideological “conviction politician” like Barry Goldwater, Ronald Reagan, or Jack Kemp or someone like Mitch McConnell, who seems to possess no ideology apart from capturing and maintaining as much power as possible? Give me the ideologue any day.

Sadly, many Evangelical leaders these days, such as the abominable Jerry Falwell Jr., seem to imitate the Machiavellian McConnell more than the idealistic Goldwater. Their embrace of Trump—a philandering, profligate, gluttonous, unapologetic embodiment of all this nation’s vices; a sinner’s sinner—says less about their beliefs than it does about their lust for power. But we shouldn’t overestimate their power. There is no Evangelical cabal at the heart of American politics. The rotten core of our national politics, as Ezra Klein’s recent work on partisanship makes clear, is the parties themselves and the hold that partisanship has over our lives.

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