Francis Schaeffer's political legacy

Posted: Mar 03, 2005 12:00 AM

Who's the major figure behind the election and re-election of George W. Bush? On one level, the visionary Karl Rove. At a deeper level, a theologian most Americans have never heard of: Francis Schaeffer, who 50 years ago this month founded an evangelistic haven in Switzerland, L'Abri.

 Over the next quarter-century, Schaeffer changed the lives of many disaffected young people who stopped at L'Abri and found an intellectual pastor who dealt with their hardest questions. He summarized his answers in notable books like "The God Who is There" and "Escape from Reason," and then turned to political matters in his book "How Should We Then Live."

 Published in 1976 and then turned into a film series, that book -- along with the impetus of the Supreme Court's 1973 Roe vs. Wade decision -- pushed many evangelicals into political and cultural involvement. Schaeffer brilliantly summarized the history of Western civilization and explained problems in philosophy, science and culture. He concluded that if Christians stayed aloof from political and cultural debates, Western civilization would go down the drain. 

 In a follow-up book, "A Christian Manifesto" (1981), Schaeffer argued that:

The people in the United States have lived under the Judeo-Christian consensus for so long that now we take it for granted. ... We have forgotten why we have a positive balance between form and freedom in government, and the fact that we have such tremendous freedoms without these freedoms leading to chaos. Most of all, we have forgotten that none of these is natural in the world.

 Schaeffer went on to describe two tracks, and did not predict which would be dominant down the road. He wrote:

The first track is the fact of the conservative swing in the United States in the 1980 election. With this there is at this moment a unique window open in the United States ... and we must take advantage of it in every way we can as citizens, as Christian citizens of the democracy in which we still have freedom.

 He made it clear that: "We are in no way talking about any kind of theocracy. ... In the Old Testament, there was a theocracy commanded by God," but now "we must not confuse the Kingdom of God with our country." He emphasized that "the United States was founded upon a Christian consensus," and that "we today should bring Judeo-Christian principles into play in regard to government. But that is very different from a theocracy in name or in fact."

 He emphasized the importance of working politically to maintain first track opportunities, because otherwise we'd be on a second track: movement toward an authoritarian government with rule by a legal and technological elite. On the second track, some people would engage in civil or even forceful disobedience, and that would contain its own dangers:

Speaking of civil disobedience is frightening because there are so many kooky people around. ... Such people will in their unbalance tend to do the very opposite from considering the appropriate means at the appropriate time and place.

 Schaeffer died in 1984, at a time when some hard-line Christian separatists still looked down on political involvement as cavorting with Satan, and a few romantics yearned for the second track. Many evangelical thought leaders, though, had absorbed Schaeffer's teaching, which then trickled down to millions more. The result was political organization and pulpit exhortation that propelled evangelicals to the polls, where they overwhelmingly voted for conservative candidates, including George W. Bush. Karl Rove is one among many who said the evangelical vote made the difference.

 Since Schaeffer welcomed the election of Ronald Reagan, he would have applauded the 2004 results. He would see great dangers in genetic manipulation and would mourn the continuation of the abortion holocaust. But I believe he would advise us to work hard for first track political success, because neglecting politics and law is "absolutely utopian in a fallen world."