Setting the Record Straight: Michele Bachmann, Francis Schaeffer and the Christian Right

By John W. Whitehead

By its very nature, politics is inclined towards corruption, deception and the accumulation of power. Organized religion, in many regards, is no better. So I am particularly leery of those who strive to merge politics with religion and, in the process, turn presidential elections into a test of one’s religiosity, for good or ill.

I became even more apprehensive about this merger between religion and politics in the wake of George W. Bush’s reign, given the extent to which his administration cozied up to the Christian Right and vice versa. That uneasiness was not lessened one iota by Barack Obama’s ascension to the Oval Office, which was met with ecstasy by the Christian Left.

Since then, however, I have begun to notice a growing tendency on both the Left and the Right to demonize those with whom they disagree, either because they subscribe to politically incorrect beliefs or associate with individuals who might be the slightest bit controversial, no matter how fleeting the association. And when you add religion to the mix—Christianity, in particular—people who may otherwise be perfectly rational beings turn into highly intolerant conspiracy theorists.

Most recently, these McCarthyist scare tactics have been trotted out in an attempt to paint presidential candidates Michele Bachmann and Rick Perry as brainwashed puppets for a Christian Right bent on establishing a theocracy, a government in which God’s laws are supreme. While less hysterical in tone than many of his counterparts, Ryan Lizza’s recent piece for the New Yorker is no less prejudiced in its view of those with Christian leanings, hopscotching over Bachmann’s life story while dwelling on her Christian influences in such a way as to present her as a cautionary tale to prospective voters.

And this is where it all falls apart for Lizza, who is so bent on portraying Bachmann as a product of Dominionist dogma that he paints every Christian he encounters with the same extremist brush. In the process, he wrongly ascribes the Dominionist teachings of R. J. Rushdoony to Francis Schaeffer, a leading Christian theologian of the 20th century who called for Christians to be active in the world, including in politics and government, and whose impact on evangelical Christians like Bachmann was far-reaching and not necessarily a bad thing.

This distinction between Rushdoony and Schaeffer may seem like a minor point, but there is a world of difference between those who subscribe to Rushdoony’s Christian Reconstructionist views and those who fall more into Schaeffer’s camp. To his credit, professor Barry Hankins in the American Spectator delineates exactly where Schaeffer and Rushdoony differed and where all of these conspiracy-laden articles go wrong in their “macro-indictment of all things evangelical”:

Schaeffer had a brief flirtation with Rushdoony’s thought in the Sixties, but not with the Reconstructionist/Dominionist vision of Old Testament civil law. Rather, like some other evangelical figures, Schaeffer was enamored with Rushdoony’s analysis of where, when, and how western civilization allegedly abandoned the moral standards of the Judeo-Christian tradition. The link between Schaeffer and Rushdoony was John Whitehead—who was friends with both figures and who practically wrote Schaeffer’s immensely influential book A Christian Manifesto. Lizza cites Manifesto as arguing for the overthrow of the U.S. government if Roe v. Wade is not overturned. Schaeffer actually said that once Christians had worked through legal channels then practiced civil disobedience, he wasn’t sure what they should do next. He did not advocate violence… As for Lizza’s alleged link between Schaeffer and Rushdoony, Schaeffer insisted publicly and privately that there should never be a theocracy in America…

As Professor Hankins noted, I was present when the Christian Right in America was metastasizing into the political behemoth it is today. By the mid-1980s, because of the hypocrisy I had seen in the evangelical leadership, I recoiled from the movement. But I also witnessed first-hand how the teachings and writings of Schaeffer and Rushdoony were co-opted by leaders of the Christian socio-political movement.

By the early 1980s, the Christian Right had formed a voting bloc that burgeoned into a powerful movement. It effectively ushered Ronald Reagan, George H. W. Bush and George W. Bush into the presidency. As the media empires of evangelical leaders and televangelists grew to encompass print, radio and television, so too did the reach and power of the Religious Right. It now boasts of representing some 30 million Christian voters, as its leaders are fond of reminding elected officials.

However, Christian involvement in politics has produced little in terms of definable positive results spiritually. And Christians who place their hope in a political answer to the world’s ills often become nothing more than another tool in the politician’s toolbox.

Francis Schaeffer understood this. As he advised in A Christian Manifesto, Christians must avoid joining forces with the government and arguing a theocratic position. “To say it another way,” notes Schaeffer, “‘We should not wrap Christianity in our national flag.’” As history makes clear, fusing Christianity with politics cheapens it, robs it of its spiritual vitality and thus destroys true Christianity. If Christians really want to follow Jesus, this will necessarily mean that they will often be forced to stand against the governmental and political establishment in speaking truth to power, as well.

This brings me back to the current hysteria over the possibility that the Christian Right is mobilizing to take over the country under the guise of electing Michele Bachmann or Rick Perry to office. No matter what the talking heads might say about Bachmann’s so-called Dominionist philosophies or Rick Perry’s right-wing leanings, we would all do well to remember that at the end of the day, they, like their opponents, are first and foremost politicians—answering to a higher call that ends at the ballot box. And as we have learned to our detriment, no matter which party takes the White House, the American people will be the ones to pay the price.

Constitutional attorney and author John W. Whitehead is founder and president of The Rutherford Institute. He can be contacted at johnw@rutherford.org. Information about the Institute is available at http://www.rutherford.org.

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