Monday 16 February 2009

Falling out with the Religious Right

Do the Republicans actually want President Obama's economic stimulus package to fail, so they can say, 'We told you so'? And if so, is there any point in the President continuing to make bi-partisan overtures to the party he defeated back in November? That's certainly a theme gaining momentum in some quarters, fuelled by speculation that Judd Gregg's withdrawal from his recent appointment as Commerce Secretary wasn't the result of policy differences, but of pressure from his local GOP to toe a party line of non-cooperation with the new administration. And last week Florida governor Charlie Crist took a lot of flak from fellow Republicans just for hosting a town hall meeting for the President...

Now Frank Schaeffer, a former scion of the Religious Right, has written an open letter to Obama, arguing that there's no 'decent' Republican party left to cooperate with. Schaeffer claims that today's GOP is controlled by two ideological groups, the Religious Right and the neoconservatives:

Both groups share one thing in common: they are driven by fear and paranoia. Between them there is no Republican 'center' for you to appeal to, just two versions of hate-filled extremes.

From this transatlantic distance, it's difficult to tell whether he's right. But you can't help thinking that those Republicans who argue for cold-shouldering the White House are making a serious electoral miscalculation. When the economy's going down the pan, voters will support any sufficiently bold measure that has a chance of putting things right, whatever its party colours. If the stimulus works, they'll reward the Democrats and punish the Republicans who tried to undermine it. If it fails, they'll probably fall out love with Obama, but they won't thank those who simply shouted 'No' and refused to come up with an alternative.

I hadn't come across Frank Schaeffer's work before, but his name immediately rang bells. It turns out he's the son of the evangelical theologian Francis Schaeffer. Now, when I was a teenage evangelical, back in the 1970s, books like Schaeffer's Church at the End of the Twentieth Century were the kind of thing you displayed on your shelves if you wanted to show you were a Christian, but thoughtful with it: this man actually quoted non-Christian thinkers and had footnotes that weren't references to Scripture! Later on, though, it seems Schaeffer senior became mixed up with the Religious Right, giving the movement a kind of spurious intellectual credibility. However, his son claims that it was solely the issue of abortion that led to this alliance with fraudulent celebrity preachers like Pat Robertson, and that in other circumstances and other times Francis Schaeffer would have been a man of the Christian Left.

Googling Schaeffer junior, I discovered that he's a published novelist, with a line in military fiction (he's the father of a marine). In fact, it was Republican conservatives' trashing of the reputation of two war heroes - first Jim Webb and later John McCain - that led to Schaeffer falling out with the Religious Right. As a result of betraying his political and religious roots, he's become something of a hate figure for theo-conservatives, whose faith doesn't appear to include much sense of Christian forgiveness.

I was also interested to read that the younger Schaeffer has retained his Christian faith, converting from Protestant evangelicalism to Greek Orthodoxy, in search of a faith that 'embraces paradox and mystery'. That's certainly something I can identify with: I lost my evangelical faith within months of arriving at university, only to be drawn to Catholicism a couple of years later (though for me, this turned out to be a staging-post en route to agnosticism). During the election, Schaeffer attracted further ire from his former co-religionists by writing an article headed 'Why I'm Pro-Life and Pro-Obama'.

Schaeffer's latest book is a memoir entitled 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 (these American authors love their long subtitles, don't they?). You can hear him speaking about it here. In the course of the talk, he reads a couple of passages from the book, one a wickedly funny description of going 'on tour' with Pat Robertson, the other a moving story about his aged mother. Now in her '90s, losing her sight and her memory, Edith Schaeffer has rediscovered the passion for dance and for old jazz tunes that she suppressed for most of her life, out of fundamentalist scruples. As Frank Schaeffer says, he can now see the person that his mother might have been, if it hadn't been for the choking dogma that dominated her life. A book to look out for, I think...


Anonymous said...

I heard/saw Schaeffer on C-SPAN last year and he came across as a sensible and thoughtful man. However, if

“Schaeffer claims that today's GOP is controlled by two ideological groups, the Religious Right and the neoconservatives.”

this statement is simply not accurate.

The neoconservatives are an incredibly small group within the GOP. Their ideology is certainly not nearly as influential as the author claims. Unless neocon is shorthand for hawk in which case just about every Republican would be considered a neocon!

The Republican coalition since Reagan has been composed of three ideological groups, the social conservatives (“religious right”), the fiscal conservatives (what people on the left used to refer to as business interests) and the hawks (anti-communists). You can also include two smaller constituencies, libertarians and nativists, although these were not a key to Reagan’s electoral success or to the success of the Republican party outside of the West and Southwest.

It is this last group, the nativists, who are increasing their ideological influence in the party. Immigration restriction is a litmus test for these Republicans just as abortion is for the social conservatives. What sort of rhetoric dominates Republican political conversation today? Abortion, gay marriage, guns and borders. We won’t hear anything (or very little) about democracy promotion or any other the other ideas and policies that the neocons hold dear.

Martin said...

Thanks for the comment. I didn't think the picture could be quite as simple as painted by Schaeffer. Like you, I got the impression he's pretty sensible - but even so, recent converts tend to exaggerate the aspects of their former faith (political or religious) that they're most eager to reject.

Anonymous said...

"...but even so, recent converts tend to exaggerate the aspects of their former faith (political or religious) that they're most eager to reject."

Yes, indeed. This topic--the zealousness of converts--has been entering a variety of discussions I have been having online and in my conversations with family and friends. Maybe I should write a post ;-)

Martin said...

I look forward to reading it!