Frank Schaeffer on Rick Warren and American Evangelicalism

Frank Schaeffer is promoting another book. It is entitled Patience with God: Faith for People Who Don’t Like Religion or Atheism. I have not read it yet.

In case you do not know Frank Schaeffer, he is the son of Francis Schaeffer, the founder of “L’Abri Fellowship,” a Christian study center in Switzerland that was one of the first evangelical communities to take seriously the life of the mind. During the 1960s and 1970s Francis became an evangelical celebrity. Hundreds of young evangelicals and non-evangelicals traveled to L’Abri to explore their faith with Francis and participate in his Christian community. Even Bob Dylan and Mick Jagger had supposedly planned to visit L’Abri (they never showed up). Eric Clapton and Jimmy Page (of Led Zeppelin fame) were apparently fans of Schaeffer’s books.

Things changed, however, when Francis started providing intellectual heft to Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson. According to Frank’s recent memoir 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 and Barry Hankins’s recent biography, Francis Schaeffer and the Shaping of Evangelical America, Francis would end his career as one of America’s strongest opponents of abortion rights (he was one of the first evangelicals to make an issue of it) and a defender of the idea that America was founded as a Christian nation. You can read my brief reviews of both of these books here and here.

Frank Schaeffer is a gifted writer and thinker in his own right, but he became famous in the evangelical world largely because he was the son of Francis. Since his father’s death he has abandoned evangelicalism and has written about other things, including two well-received books on being the father of a marine.

In 2007 Frank published a memoir of his evangelical childhood. Crazy for God is a fascinating and well-written book. It solidified Frank’s public persona as an “anti-evangelical.” Today he makes appearances on television news programs warning people about the evils of the Christian Right and apologizing for leading so many people astray during the years he spent at his father’s side.

Unlike some of my friends who admire Francis Schaeffer or who have spent time at “L’Abri, I do not have much at stake in what Frank Schaeffer writes. I have never been to L’Abri. I do not consider myself a disciple of his father. And I have only read a few of Francis Schaeffer’s books.

Yet I have always been a bit put off by Frank Schaeffer. Something bothers me about the way he regularly throws the evangelical movement under the bus (so to speak) on national television. People like Rachel Maddow and other liberal pundits love him. He goes on their shows as an expert witness–a former insider ready to testify to the dangers of evangelical religion.

I also lost some respect for Schaeffer when he used Crazy for God to tell the intimate details of his childhood in the Schaeffer family, including his father’s sex life and his mother’s battle with depression. What child does this?

Having said all of this, I was surprised when I found myself agreeing with some of Frank’s thoughts in this excerpt from Patience with God. His main target here is mega-church pastor and evangelical leader Rick Warren. He uses Warren as an example of the way evangelicals are prone to follow charismatic leaders.

First, let me say what I don’t like about the excerpt. Frank unfairly questions the depth of Rick Warren’s spirituality, presenting him as a religious celebrity with no real substance (does he know Warren? Who is he to judge a man’s relationship with God?). Moreover, Frank is way out of line in suggesting that anyone who embraces evangelicalism must eventually become either an atheist or a liar or a “flake.” Wow! Do I sense some bitterness?

But there is much about Frank’s critique of evangelicalism and fundamentalism that seems to be on the mark. For example, it is hard to argue with his assertion that evangelicalism is a relatively new movement in the history of Christendom:

Warren’s message turns out to be less about God than it is about trying to convince his readers to become American-style evangelicals. In other words, to find purpose they have to join the North American individualistic cult of one-stop born-again “salvation” to which Warren belongs. Warren’s Christianity (the leftover residue of the simplistic frontier Protestantism we call “evangelicalism” that broke most connections theological, aesthetic, and liturgical to the historic Christian churches of both the East and West) is not to be confused with what Christians through most of the 2,000-year history of their religion would have recognized as even remotely familiar. According to traditional Christianity, a person was not “saved” or “lost” in a one-stop magical affirmation of “correct” doctrine, but, rather, the process of salvation was lived out in a community. Salvation was a path toward God, not a you’re-in-or-out event, as in “At two thirty last Wednesday I accepted Jesus.” Just as Hillary Clinton said about child rearing, the process of redemption took a village. Pastors were part of that “village” tradition and were inducted into existing communities of faith. They were not self-made and reinventing the faith according to whim. The heart of worship was sacramental continuity and an unbroken connection to generations that came before.

While Christians did have evangelical-style conversion experiences in the early church (not to mention Paul on the road to Damascus), the kind of born-again Christianity we normally associate with American evangelicalism is a relatively new phenomenon in Western culture. I just got done teaching Harry Stout’s biography of George Whitefield, The Divine Dramatist. In that book Stout makes a very convincing argument that the evangelicalism we know today is only about 250 years old. Mark Noll implies the same thing in The Rise of Evangelicalism.

Frank continues:

Communities built cathedrals over generations. Usually, no one who worked on laying the building’s foundation was around when it was completed. The name of the cathedral was that of the town where it stood (for instance, Chartres Cathedral) or that of a biblical figure (Notre Dame for instance). A few egomaniacal popes (or bishops) aside, churches were not about their leaders but about the people who worshipped in them. There were religious orders in the Roman Catholic Church that bore the names of their founders, such as the Franciscans, but when those orders survived their founders, it was because they were folded into a hierarchical orderly structure. There were egomaniacal “saints” who drew attention to their “holiness” by public displays of self-mortification (the so-called Stylites, or “Pillar-Saints,” ascetics in the Byzantine Empire who stood on pillars preaching, exposed to the elements, while followers gathered around), but they performed their antics outside of churches. Such individualistic displays didn’t penetrate the liturgical practices led by largely anonymous priests.

The North American evangelical/fundamentalist brand of Christianity is the religious version of the American civil religion: consumerist individualism. Today’s “Stylites” are more often found in private jets, but they still have followers who conflate holiness with success American style—in other words, as measured by money, possessions, numbers, and (above all) celebrity status. The consumer picks a pastor based on where the action seems to be: “Wow, you ought to hear our pastor!” Such “churches” are often founded by a man or woman who started them the way other men and women start a restaurant or a movie company. In Warren’s case, he is pastor of a church called Saddleback, but it’s more properly known as “Rick Warren’s church,” just as the Crystal Cathedral came to be known as “Robert Schuller’s church,” and the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association has its founder’s name in the same way as the Ford Motor Company bears the name of its founder.

I can’t argue with Frank here. This is very well put. Unfortunately evangelical readers who need to hear this message might be so put off by Frank’s recent history of attacking evangelicalism that they will not take his advice to heart. Frank has his finger on the pulse of American evangelicalism–a religious movement that has always been prone to follow popular leaders at the expense of building a strong sense of “the church.”

I encourage you to read the rest of the article. My evangelical readers will be both infuriated and enlightened, but I am guessing that such a mixed reaction is exactly what Frank Schaeffer wants.

4 thoughts on “Frank Schaeffer on Rick Warren and American Evangelicalism

  1. Frank Schaeffer is clearly mentally ill, and therefor to be pitied. Yes he wrote some aweful things in his book Crazy For God, and not only about family members. As someone who grew up in an extreme evangelical household I do understand the angst. I believe it is a cult. As with any cult many of the leaders are not true believers, but some are. And their fallowers most certainly are. I am very, very, happily a convert to Catholocism, but I know that many of my evangelical friends and family members are sincere, do most definatly want a relationship with their Creator, and are genuinly caring people. Isn't that the point to recognize the humanity of others and act accordingly, as humans are created in the image of God. I do sincerly believe that Mr. Schaeffer needs to make hasty and good use of the sacraments he brags about having access to as an Orthodox Christian, and immediatly thereafter seek some help from the medical community, given his odd behavior and the family history of mental illness he alledges. As for the rest of us, we should sincerely pray for him.

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  2. I've noticed that Frank Schaeffer minimizes the fact that some of his most obnoxious political polemics came out after he had left evangelicalism for Orthodoxy.

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  3. Nataraj: I am glad you hit the button. Thanks for the comment.

    Warren is certainly not perfect, but I do believe that he has done a lot of good in Africa fighting poverty and AIDS. Having said that, I have some of the same concerns about him that Schaeffer does. In other words, I am hesitant to carry too much water for the guy.

    We can agree to disagree over whether or not Schaeffer is right in calling Warren a religious fake. I still think Schaeffer crosses a line here and engages in the same type of judgmental rhetoric that I am guessing he thinks Warren employs in his ministry.

    Thanks again for the post.

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  4. Greetings. I found you via the “Next Blog” button, and read the first post. I must tell you, the twin notions of dominionism and prosperity gospel so embraced by today's evangelical leaders are a keen source of skepticism for “outsiders”, be they Christian on other. The Jesus of the Gospels most certainly did not encourage individual wealth, rather quite the opposite. When the message misses the target by so much, it is a small challenge to question the spirituality of a man like Rick Warren, and to recognize his political and self-advancement agenda. Further, Warren's support of hateful, indeed murderous anti-gay laws in Uganda is truly astonishing and decidedly un-Christian.

    Interesting post. Good luck!

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