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Spreading the Bad News

Regretting Francis Schaeffer's “How Should We Then Live,” forty years on

For dogged observers of America’s long-running culture wars, a quiet milestone was reached this year: the fortieth anniversary of pop theologian Francis Schaeffer’s enormously influential 1976 tract How Should We Then Live? This portentously titled, slim volume served as a handy Baedeker manual for evangelicals, documenting the wayward distortions allegedly wrought on stalwart Christian faith by intellectual and aesthetic movements steeped in secular decadence.

Schaeffer—an eccentric, knickers-wearing minister who a ran a bohemian Christian youth retreat called L’Abri (“the shelter”) in Switzerland—set American evangelicals on the path toward a high-stakes, absolutist reckoning with a secularist ideology that he depicted as little more than a glorified death cult. How Should We Then Live itself reads like a crash course in art history superimposed over the Book of Revelation—a very curious work, in many ways, to lay claim to such fire-breathing political pedigree. But particularly after Schaeffer teamed with his youngest son, Frank, to produce a ten-part film documentary series based on the book’s argument, How Should We Then Live? became a central recruiting and agitprop tool for the nascent religious right, and firmly established the Schaeffer family as evangelical powerbrokers. 

Francis Schaeffer had long written as a Christian apologist, but this was different; it was the first time he had framed his message in overtly political terms. Following the Roe v. Wade decision in 1973, Schaeffer began to speak of abortion as the final act in what he described as the “decline of Western civilization.” If Christians were to rescue humanity, he argued, they were morally obligated as a single voting bloc to mobilize against abortion rights. Prior to the publication of How Should We Then Live?, most prominent American Protestant denominations had never taken a firm stance on abortion. (The Southern Baptist Convention even issued a statement in support of the Roe decision, shortly after it was handed down.) But thanks largely to Schaeffer’s campaign, American evangelicals mobilized with renewed fervor to reverse the ruling. In doing so, they revolutionized the conduct of conservative politics in America.

The strategic alliance of the GOP and evangelicals has long depended on an imagined lost golden age of moral and economic prosperity.

While Schaeffer’s book was helping to launch the grassroots anti-choice crusade on the right, a new breed of preacher-activist was emerging, eager to translate Schaeffer’s more recondite speculations about civilizational decline into a new political call to arms. Borrowing the general cultural-declensionist outlook advanced in Schaeffer’s apologetics, charismatic evangelical leaders like Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell harnessed a powerful new American narrative, one steeped in the spiritual mythos of restorationism—a Protestant theological movement dedicated to reviving the observances of the early church—to a political mission focused on the recovery of the mystic civic faith of the Founding Fathers. The Falwell-Robertson gospel, in other words, reproduced the core logic of Schaeffer’s sweeping indictment of Western moral decline in the narrower setting of the New World. In this version of the story, America had once possessed a uniform moral center that had been eroded by secular humanism, and it was now a holy and urgent political task to restore that center.

The documentary version of How Should We Then Live opens on a Roman amphitheater. Schaeffer’s assured voice is low and shocked with a heavy static: “There is a flow to history and culture,” he begins, “The flow is rooted in what people think.” The footage shifts from a dark street to dusty ruins. “Should we despair and give in? If not—how should we then live?” On cue, a chariot whips past and a trumpet blasts.            

From the beginning, Schaeffer was anything but a traditional ambassador for the Christian church, let alone the Republican party; a plodding intellectual; someone who “was more apt to talk about the philosophical importance of Henry Miller” than quote the Bible. He preached, among many other things, against racial prejudice, the pursuit of wealth, and environmental destruction. How Should We Then Live? was a foundational text for many young Christians—myself very much among them—because it championed the idea that engaging, rather than distancing, oneself from arts and books and ideas was important, and possibly even crucial.

At the time, his ideas were very radical: amalgams of countercultural noncomformity and conservative activism, openly challenging several centuries of Puritan tradition that largely regarded cultural engagement as shallow, if not downright heretical (what practical spiritual application was there in examining a painting by Raphael, let alone Mark Rothko?). But doubt, around L’Abri dinner tables, was an essential exercise in affirming—and re-consecrating—our self-questioning humanity.

But even the relatively theologically liberal magazine Christianity Today praised Schaeffer posthumously. The March 3, 1997 cover features Schaeffer in pious repose, head tilted back, framed by a medieval script: “Our Saint Francis.” Though certainly far from saintly (he was, by all reports, volatile, blustery, and often angry), Schaeffer represented much of what Protestant believers felt was thoughtful, good, and complicated about the Church.

The restorationist outlook has spread into campaign logos: the awkward mashup of present and future tense reflects this.

For evangelical enthusiasts of the restorationist narrative, polemics that depict the past as superior to the present exert an enormous appeal. This, indeed, is the key structural insight of How Should We Then Live?— that something in culture has been taken and must be observed, engaged with, and then restored. Following decades of social instability, this suggestion that there had once some kind of static moral center appealed strongly to American evangelical believers. The book, and the ones that followed—Schaeffer went on to write kindred titles in the cultural alarmist vein, such as Escape From Reason, A Christian Manifesto, and The Great Evangelical Disaster—all became primary texts for the Moral Majority.

More broadly speaking, Schaeffer’s restorationist vision would serve as the political catechism for the New Right ascendancy. Donald Trump’s “Make America Great Again” may be the most muscular and memorable version of restorationism to come along in years, but it is not a new idea: the strategic alliance of the GOP and evangelicals has long depended on an imagined lost golden age of moral and economic prosperity—a backward-looking appeal to a modernized, state-administered moral order.

You don’t have to look far in the annals of right-wing electioneering to see how deep the restorationist outlook has spread beyond its theological point of origin: in campaign logos, the awkward mashup of present and future tense reflects this. See, for instance, Reagan’s poetic “It’s Morning Again in America” slogan in 1984, followed by Pat Robertson’s slightly clunkier “Restore the Greatness of America Through Moral Strength” in 1988. Meanwhile, the imperative command of Ron Paul’s 2012 primary campaign, “Restore America Now” mirrors Mitt Romney’s syntactically perplexing “Restore Our Future,” in the same year.

Today, after four decades of restorationist grandstanding, the evangelical wing of the conservative movement is rallying with striking unanimity behind Donald Trump—the sort of debauched, wealth-worshiping, racist, environment-wrecking avatar of secular ambition that the elder Schaeffer would have derided as an indication of acute cultural decline. According to the most recent polling, the abusive, coarse, and notably undevout Trump is now drawing a greater percentage of evangelical support than the upright Mormon church elder Mitt Romney did in 2012.

As for the first family of American restorationist activism, at least one member has arguably succumbed to a different sort of revivalist longing—for a less power-hungry and instrumental model of evangelical worship, one that is more closely aligned with the spirit of L’Abri (or, for that matter, with the actual primitive apostolic church as it actually appears to have existed). Frank, Schaeffer’s son and right-hand political proxy, grew to regret his contributions to the Moral Majority. He converted to the Greek Orthodox Church, then became an atheist. Frank writes, in his 2008 memoir Crazy for God, that near the end of his life, Francis Schaeffer seemed to regret his role as an alt-celebrity theologian to the religious right. The younger Schaeffer wrote that his father was uneasy to discover that the modern “evangelical world was led by lunatics, psychopaths, and extremists, agreeing with me that if ‘our side’ ever won, America would be in deep trouble.”

But if Schaeffer had regrets about his influence it was too late. He died in 1984, the year that Reagan was reelected.