One of the more engaging discourses I read while I was sick was the exchange between Ryan Lizza and Ross Douthat on exactly how radical the Christianist writer Francis Schaeffer is. Schaeffer had a huge influence on Michele Bachmann, and his work is clearly part of the thriving Christianist/GOP subculture. Ross's first post in defense of this radical is here. Ryan's riposte is here. Ross concludes here.
The core question is whether Schaeffer advocated revolutionary violence against a government so corrupted by liberal elitism and "humanism" that it had ceased to command legitimate authority. The theocon journal, First Things, when edited by Richard John Neuhaus, stirred up a huge fuss a few years back with a symposium on the very same topic. And this is not peripheral to Christianist ideology. Christianists believe that anything other then Biblical principle as a guide to law and politics is literally Satanic – and so a post-Roe and post-Lawrence America is a clear example of a society commanding legal protections for intrinsic and grave evil, i.e. abortion and homosexuality. What does a faithful citizen do in a country where this is becoming a permanent regime, when Roe remains intact decades after passage and has been upheld by many Republican-appointed Justices? What does she do when gay citizens, instead of being ashamed or seeking a cure for their depravity, actually demand – and achieve by majorities in legislatures! – civil equality in the key area of civil marriage?
Ross argues that all that Schaeffer is calling for is civil disobedience, the honorable non-violent resistance to unjust laws as a means to change the hearts and minds of the democratic majority. And the evidence shows that Schaeffer was indeed devoted to civil disobedience – protesting outside abortion clinics, marching, politicking – in a manner that should trouble no one in a free society.
But the key point becomes: is there a point at which, for Schaeffer, civil disobedience is not enough?
Ross argues that it is when civil disobedience is literally made illegal, when the First Amendment is abolished. But if that were the case, it would not just be Christianists overthrowing the government, it would be a whole lot of us. And, of course, we have no evidence of such a thing coming to pass in America (unless, of course, you happen to be an Islamist sympathizer). What we do have is federal, judicially imposed abortion, secular public schools and gay marriage – all seemingly entrenching themselves deeper and deeper into the broader culture. In the book whose lecture series influenced Bachmann so much, How Should We Then Live?, we are told that
[Schaeffer] further warns that this government will not be obvious like the fascist regimes of the 20th century but will be based on manipulation and subtle forms of information control, psychology, and genetics.
Ah, yes, the paranoid Beckian twist. And it is in that context that Schaeffer takes some pains to insist on a bottom line for armed revolt:
"When any office commands that which is contrary to the Word of God, those who hold that office abrogate their authority and they are not to be obeyed. And that includes the state … Rutherford offered suggestions concerning illegitimate acts of the state. A ruler, he wrote, should not be deposed merely because he commits a single breach of the compact he has with the people. Only when the magistrate acts in such a way that the governing structure of the country is being destroyed—that is, when he is attacking the fundamental structure of society—is he to be relieved of his power and authority.
That is exactly what we are facing today. The whole structure of our society is being attacked and destroyed. It is being given an entirely opposite base which gives exactly opposite results. The reversal is much more total and destructive than that which Rutherford or any of the Reformers faced in their day."
This seems to me to hand the debate entirely to Lizza. Schaeffer says that the humanist liberal elites are "attacking the fundamental structure of society" today. By that he meant the 1980s. How much more undermined is the "fundamental structure" of society in 2011? How many more millions of abortions have taken place? How many more millions of incidents of contracepted sex or sodomy have occurred since then? And note that, for Schaeffer, the 1980s were worse with respect to anti-Christian tyranny than that which justified violent overthrow of governments during the Reformation. Necessarily embedded in his argument, it seems to me, is that the current American regime, because it is based on secular pluralism and not Christianism, is illegitimate and must be overthrown.
And this is the core point: Schaeffer is deeply illiberal, profoundly opposed to the Enlightenment on which the US Constitution rests and determined to replace Enlightenment thought with a Biblically based regime. The choice is pretty clear. Either you base your conception of politics on the Constitution, framed along Enlightenment principles with a Deist architect floating ethereally behind it, or you believe that religious doctrine is and must be the core basis for our society, and that a long-standing government that continuously permits and encourages absolute evil must be resisted, eventually with force.
Yes, Schaeffer is careful with his words. But not that careful. The truth is: Ross's party is defined by a radical theological politics that a New York Times columnist has to to diminish or whitewash in order to defend. The question I ask myself is: at what point do these fanatics lose legitimacy in Douthat's eyes? Or will he keep finding excuses for their illiberalism for ever?
(Photo: Francis Schaeffer via the Institute for the Study of American Evangelicals.)