Francis, Frank, and Me: A Reflection on the Career of Francis A. Schaeffer

Twenty-five years ago in a predecessor
of this magazine, The Reformed
Journal
, I asked a question that got
me into a lot of trouble. The question was
“Whatever Happened to Francis Schaeffer,”
a takeoff on one of Schaeffer’s book
titles. The RJ submitted the article for an
award, which in due course it won; the
essay was named “the best feature
article in a religious magazine” for
1983. That got it some notoriety
and the attention of the Schaeffers,
who were not pleased.

In that article I reflected on
my deep gratitude for the influence
Francis Schaeffer had on my development.
I, along with a large number
of young Christian academics-in-the-making, was deeply influenced
by the early work of Francis
Schaeffer. Many of us thought
we could make contributions as
Christian scholars because of the
inspiration given by Schaeffer’s
earlier work, such as The God Who
is There
(1968) and Escape From Reason
(1969).
Crazy for God
Beyond the intrinsic worth of his
work, Schaeffer caused us to believe in
ourselves, that we could make it as academics,
even though he was not an academic
himself. When one reflects on the
near-bankruptcy of intellect in Evangelical
circles at the time, it was important
to have a leader encourage those of us
who were coming of age with a sense of a
cause. Schaeffer thus marked an important
way-station for our development, as
much for readers who only had access to
his books and tapes as for those fortunate
enough to talk with him in person
at L’Abri in Switzerland.

At the same time, in that article, I
was critical of Schaeffer. Because of my
admiration for and debt to Schaeffer, I
was very disappointed to see, in the late
1970s and early 1980s, his shifts of emphasis
from intellectual history, philosophy,
and theology to a focus on contemporary
American social and political issues.
Many of us who were with him in
the early years could not grasp why his
later efforts had descended to bombastic
essays that gave intellectual firepower to
the then-new “Christian Right.” Books
like Whatever Happened to the Human
Race?
and especially The Great Evangelical
Disaster
were embarrassingly different
from his earlier works.

That was the question I asked back
in 1983. How did the intellectual hero of our generation move to be a person
embraced by the likes of Jerry Falwell,
Pat Robertson, James Dobson, D. James
Kennedy, and Randal Terry? I was later
dismayed to learn of Schaeffer’s personal
response to my ideas. He wrote some
eminent Christian historians of my acquaintance
asking that they “repudiate”
and take steps to “silence” me. [For an
explication of that part of the story see
Barry Hankins’ article in Fides et Historia,
39/1(2007):15-34.]

Now we have a much better handle
on why Schaeffer moved to give intellectual
leadership to the Christian Right.
The answer comes unexpectedly from a
flamboyant book written by Schaeffer’s
son, Frank (a.k.a., “Frankie”): 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

(Carroll & Graf, 2007).

The book has not–to put it mildly–been kindly received by Evangelicals. For
instance, in a recent issue of Books and
Culture
, Os Guinness hit Frankie with
the harshest review I’ve ever read of any
book. Among other things, Guinness insists,
Frank was a “con artist,” an “arrogant,
pompous, and hollow young fraud.”
It was Frank who got his father into the
political situations that the son says he
now repents of; nevertheless, Guinness
says, “Frank exposes and trumpets his
parents’ flaws and frailties” and then
“skewers them with his characteristic
mockery.” Since Guinness knew all the
Schaeffers better that almost anyone outside
the family, there is reason to credit
his testimony.

Crazy for God is interesting not because
we want to know about the author
but because we want to know about his famous
parents. Yet, we have to endure reading
how many times this out-of control adolescent
masturbates, and in what places
and with what company. It is embarrassing
to learn that his mother, Edith Schaeffer,
believed she needed to accompany Francis
on his speaking tours
because he required
sex every night. Why
would a mother tell this
to her children? Even
if she did, why would a
child write it in a book,
along with allegations of
the verbal and physical
abuse Francis was supposed
to have heaped
on Edith? What emerges
is the picture of an
extremely dysfunctional
family that, the author
insists, was driven
“crazy” because of the
ministry at L’Abri. As
Os Guinness writes, the
portrait Frank paints of
his parents “amounts to
the death-dealing charge of hypocrisy and
insincerity at the very heart of their work.
…The thousands of people, who over
the decades came to L’Abri and came to
faith or deepened in faith, were obviously
conned.” Again, Guinness is right. I may
have disagreed with Schaeffer’s later work,
but I did not fall for the “circus trick” that
allegedly suffused the work at L’Abri. In
my view there was deep integrity and powerful
witness going on there, led by two
remarkable–if flawed–people.

Frank Schaeffer doubtlessly was a
spoiled and unhappy child. I only bumped
into him once at L’Abri forty years ago,
but those who know him well agree with
his own assessment–he was out of control
most of the time. His parents loved
him but didn’t know what to do with, or about, him in the little time at the end of
the day, when, according to Frank, the
abuse and sex were done.

One section of his book almost makes
a sympathetic reader feel sorry for the
troubled kid. Continuing on his rollercoaster
ride of sexual exploration Frank
tells how he got pregnant a young woman
he eventually married. Later in the book
he insists that he doesn’t deserve the love
of this good woman, a sentiment in which
most readers of the book would concur.
But this is the critical moment in young
Frank’s life–and it is vital to the question
we want to know about: why Francis
Schaeffer became the guru of the Christian
Right.

Just at that time there was a rising
chorus among Christians against abortion.
Frank took it personally into his immature
mind. He looked at his own infant
daughter. He was horrified at the thought
that, in other circumstances,
another parent might
have taken steps to abort
a pregnancy and thereby
snuff out the potential life of
someone as precious as his
daughter. So Frank took it
as his mission thereafter to
go into battle against abortion.
He goaded his famous
father to channel his work
into galvanizing Christians in the U.S. in
the cause. People who knew the Schaeffer
family well say that Francis apparently
agreed to join Frank on the abortion
crusade out of a sense of guilt for having
failed as a father.

To Frank’s credit he now admits how
damnably stupid all this was. We readers
cringe on his behalf to see how this poorly
educated and ill-equipped young man
was forced onto lecture platforms and into
writing dreadful books by people trying to
exploit his father’s legacy. We are embarrassed
for the estimable person of Francis
Schaeffer, knowing it was a poor decision
to go on “The 700 Club,” nevertheless taking
Frank’s cue to work with Pat Robertson.
Further to Frank’s credit he says that
he now has a nuanced and balanced view
on abortion rights and would no longer endorse
what he once wrote and advocated
on lecture platforms.

Crazy for God inflates Frank’s own
role in creating the Christian Right, and
I think he knows that. But there is one
tragic truth about what he says. In being
present at the creation of the Christian
Right, the Schaeffers lent an intellectual
legitimacy to that nascent movement
without ideas and thinkers. Even though
Frank now says he has retracted support
from ideas and causes he once championed
with such bombast, the damage has
been done. What he does not see, or at
least does not repent of, is the Christian
Right’s role in helping to establish a conservative
hegemony in American politics
from Reagan to Bush (even Clinton had
to take a moderately conservative line).
That shift to the right in American politics
produced vicious policies that have
hurt the poor and the marginal, the “least
of these,” for whom the Gospel shows a
marked preference.

This memoir leaves me sad in two
respects. I feel sad for a confused kid,
poorly raised by busy parents, who was
thrust onto a stage where he had no
business and on which he did damage to
himself and to others who cared about
justice and peace. And I feel sad for my
early hero, Francis Schaeffer, who, perhaps
forced by his failure as a parent,
allowed himself to be put forward into a
politically vicious movement for which he
had no real heart and in which he had
little experience.

I think we finally have the answer to
that question from 1983. We know what
happened to Francis Schaeffer. I am saddened
by that knowledge. But I will always
be grateful for his life and early
work. The many people he inspired to
a life of Christian scholarship give his
memory the due honor that this book
would shame.

Ronald A. Wells is professor of history emeritus at
Calvin College. He is now mostly retired in Tennessee,
where he is director of the Maryville Symposium on
Faith and the Liberal Arts, at Maryville College.