The Fundamentalist Moment

The Careers of Pat Robertson & Francis Schaeffer

The word “fundamentalism” has come to mean the fusion of religion and politics. In America this means the Religious Right, a coalition currently overshadowed by the less religious Tea Party. While it is too early to speak of the demise of the Religious Right, it is worth noting that Pat Robertson’s 1988 presidential bid is now mainly history.

A new biography by David Edwin Harrell Jr., Pat Robertson: A Life and Legacy (Eerdmans, $29.99, 442 pp.), devotes more pages to Robertson’s sprawling religious empire and to his quirky public persona than to his longing for political power.

Historically, fundamentalism is linked not to political action but to retreat from the world, including politics. To be more specific, fundamentalism in America took shape in the 1920s and ’30s as a separatist movement centered on arguments over how to interpret the Bible. It defines itself in harsher terms than evangelicalism, the milder version of born-again Christianity that coalesced in the 1950s around Billy Graham. It is also distinguished from the charismatic movement, a miracle-centered faith that grew out of classic American Pentecostalism. Pat Robertson’s career is a meeting place of all these varieties of the born-again experience. Though charismatic, Robertson shuns doctrinal disputes over matters like speaking in tongues, a stumbling block to many fundamentalists. His most recent biographer locates him between hard-core fundamentalism and wild-eyed Pentecostalism, claiming that Robertson’s religious career represents “a charismatic middle way.”

The notion of Pat Robertson as a moderate will no doubt puzzle those who know him mainly as the host of his long-running television show The 700 Club. There he has addressed the cameras with, among other things, the 1997 speculation that with luck Bill Clinton would “slip out the back alley by himself” where “some gunman will assassinate him”; a 1986 claim to have diverted the course of Hurricane Gloria by prayer; the recent statement that if Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez “thinks we’re trying to assassinate him, I think that we really ought to go ahead and do it”; and a comment implying that Ariel Sharon suffered a stroke as a divine punishment for his liberal policies concerning the Gaza Strip. Robertson also nodded in agreement when Jerry Falwell, a guest on the show, said that “the pagans and the abortionists and the feminists and the gays and the lesbians” were responsible for the 9/11 attacks.

Though he shares the Southern background of many famous preachers, Robertson has never considered himself an evangelist, preferring the terms “businessman” or “religious broadcaster.” His Virginia upbringing was patrician. His father, Absalom Willis Robertson, was a U.S. senator who married a cousin from Alabama, Gladys Churchill Willis. The family settled in Lexington, Virginia, where Pat, the younger of two sons, was born in 1930. His political conservatism came from his father, while the longing for something beyond mere church attendance was partly a product of his mother’s dislike of Washington life. She preferred to stay at home, and while her husband was away, as Harrell writes, “religion came to dominate her mind.” She grew disenchanted with the liberal Baptist church to which they belonged, where the minister liked to quote Reinhold Niebuhr. As she wrote to a friend, “Putting God on an entirely intellectual basis restricts me completely and smothers the free beautiful joy of sharing God.”

Robertson’s early career path was normal for someone of his background. But after prep school and college at Washington and Lee, he landed in law school at Yale, where things started to go awry. At Yale he proved for the first time “to be a mediocre student,” and before graduating in 1955 he secretly married his pregnant girlfriend—a fact that did not become public until his 1988 presidential campaign. He failed the New York bar exam, tried a get-rich scheme involving an “electrostatic loudspeaker,” and finally decided to become a minister. His mother’s response was, “There’s no use going into the ministry, Pat, unless you’ve first surrendered your life to Him.” The surrender took place in May 1956. It was at a restaurant in Philadelphia with one of her friends, an ex-Marine evangelist named Cornelius Vanderbreggen, who ran a tract ministry called the Bible Truth Depot. (Robertson himself was a noncombat Marine officer in Korea for two years before entering law school.)

Robertson’s conversion coincided with the first stirrings of the charismatic movement, whose members tended to belong, at least formally, to mainstream Protestant and Catholic churches. While it retains its normal meaning of personal magnetism, “charismatic” in this sense refers primarily to 1 Corinthians 14, where Paul discusses the gifts of the Holy Spirit, especially those of prophecy and speaking in tongues. Fundamentalists are skeptical about these gifts, believing that they vanished with the Apostolic Age. It is a testimony to Robertson’s diplomacy that in projects such as his 1980 “Washington for Jesus” rally he was able to mobilize the support of powerful noncharismatics such as Falwell and Bill Bright, founder of Campus Crusade for Christ (“Bill Bright may not speak in tongues,” one of Robertson’s friends generously allowed, “but he is a man of God”).

Shortly after his conversion, Robertson enrolled at the Biblical Seminary of New York, a fairly strict fundamentalist academy, and also became part of the charismatic movement. Alarmed at these developments, his father tried to find him a job as a Presbyterian minister or Marine chaplain, but Robertson had a meeting with the Lord in which “He told me that I should go and claim the airwaves.” Robertson returned with his family to Virginia, where he purchased a rundown television station in Portsmouth. Though off to a shaky start, his Christian Broadcasting Network (CBN) soon found a formula for success in its telethons, or on-air fundraising events, in which callers could receive prayers for their illnesses or spiritual problems while also pledging money to the station.

In 1965, needing hosts for a children’s program, Robertson fatefully hired the itinerant evangelists Jim and Tammy Bakker, whose later ordeals would cause him and other religious broadcasters considerable grief. The Bakkers soon left to found their own network, PTL (Praise the Lord). One reason for their departure was that “Jim and Pat were beginning to claw each other to bits in competition for the limelight,” as one observer put it. Like Jimmy Swaggart, another famous evangelist who eventually went up in flames, the Bakkers were old-fashioned Pentecostals who clashed stylistically with the aura Robertson wanted to project. Robertson’s growing political ambition made this problem acute. “Before he ran for president,” one of his friends observed, he “enjoyed some of the guys who were far out there.” The delicacy of his ties to traditional faith healers such as Oral Roberts and Benny Hinn is apparent in comments such as, “I believe that my dear friend, Oral, may have had a bad day when he made his statement that God would take his life unless $4.5 million came in by the end of March.”

Ecstatic communion with God—the heart of the charismatic experience—jars with the pragmatic politics Robertson longed to master. Robertson’s only political success came vicariously, through his hand-picked lieutenant Ralph Reed, leader of the Christian Coalition (the group that rose from the ashes of Robertson’s presidential campaign). Robertson’s biographer seems off the mark when he remarks of his subject, “How could a man so respected, indeed revered, by seemingly bright and reasonable people around the world who know him well be perceived by so many critics as an inconsequential buffoon?” Calling someone an inconsequential buffoon is not really criticism, and in Robertson’s case there must be complexity beneath the smiling façade, however little this biography discloses it. It is disconcerting to be told on almost the last page that “some friends thought that Pat Robertson had a warmer and more intimate relationship with horses than he did with people.”

In Pat Robertson’s case, the separatist tendencies of an earlier fundamentalism have almost disappeared. That separatist impulse survived in the life and career of Francis Schaeffer (1912–84), but it took an odd turn. Schaeffer is the subject of another recent biography, this one by his son Frank Schaeffer, 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 (Da Capo, $16, 417 pp.). To appreciate the twists and turns in this subtitle, a few facts about Schaeffer are necessary, a requirement that the book only fitfully supplies.

Pat Robertson’s faith involved refusing to put God, in his mother’s words, “on an entirely intellectual basis.” With only slight qualifications, that was the basis on which Francis Schaeffer sought to build his faith. His hero was J. Gresham Machen, a fundamentalist scholar whose rock-solid Bible literalism won the respect of H. L. Mencken. When Machen died in 1937, Mencken wrote a long obituary in the Baltimore Evening Sun distinguishing Machen from other fundamentalists like William Jennings Bryan. “Dr. Machen himself was to Bryan as the Matterhorn is to a wart,” Mencken wrote. Then, calling himself “a friendly neutral in all such high and ghostly matters,” Mencken approved of Machen’s fight against “the body of doctrine known as modernism,” which sought to convert the Presbyterian Church, among others, “into a kind of literary and social club, devoted vaguely to good works.” It is against these battles that Francis Schaeffer’s career must be understood.

Schaeffer came from working-class Philadelphia, where he was saved during a tent meeting at age seventeen. He met a cultured Presbyterian girl named Edith who gave him a copy of Machen’s Christianity and Liberalism, and soon they were engaged. Against his father’s wishes, Schaeffer enrolled at Westminster Theological Seminary, the school Machen founded in 1929 after losing his post at the formerly orthodox Princeton Theological Seminary. After Machen’s death the logic of schism dictated the founding of a new school called Faith Seminary, from which Schaeffer eventually graduated to become a minister in the recently formed Bible Presbyterian Church.

The complicating factor in Schaeffer’s fundamentalism, his son writes, was “a tremendous tension that pitted his growing interest in art, culture, music, and history against a stunted theology frozen in the modernist-fundamentalist battles of his youthful Christian experience.” His career was shaped by the need to find a place in his “apologetics,” or defense of Christianity, for these artistic interests. A solution arose in the late 1940s when the Missions Board of their church decided to send Schaeffer and Edith to Europe as “missionaries” to modern secular Europeans. For the first time in his life, it seems, he found Christians, such as the Dutch art critic Hans Rookmaaker, with whom he was able to share his passion for modern art, music, and philosophy. The Schaeffers ended up settling in Switzerland, where, after some skirmishes with Catholic authorities, they settled in the Protestant canton of Vaud, there to begin the “work” that eventually made them, in their son’s words, “evangelical royalty.” This was at the loosely knit commune called l’Abri, which means “shelter” in French. Located in a chalet in the village of Huemoz, l’Abri became, among other things, a long-running seminar in which Schaeffer disseminated his ideas to crowds of students and other seekers, eventually compressing his lectures and informal talks into books with titles such as Escape from Reason and The God Who Is There. But even in this congenial atmosphere, his son writes, there were problems:

I believe that my parents’ call to the ministry actually drove them crazy. They were happiest when farthest away from their missionary work, wandering the back streets of Florence; or, rather, when they turned their missionary work into something very unmissionary-like, such as talking about art history instead of Christ.... I think religion was actually their source of tragedy. Mom tried to dress, talk, and act like anything but what she was. Dad looked flustered if fundamentalists, especially Calvinist theologians, would intrude into a discussion and try to steer it away from art or philosophy so they could discuss the finer points of arcane theology.

A special torment was that neither of them, especially Francis, was prudish about sex, drugs, drinking, or the usual catalogue of evangelical no-nos. They indulged in none of these vices themselves but gave no one who did a hard time. They had bigger fish to fry, as a reporter from Time magazine who visited them in 1960 discovered. “Protestantism has become bourgeois,” Schaeffer told him. “It reaches middle-class people, but not the workers or the intellectuals. What we need is a presentation of the Bible’s historical truth in such a way that it is acceptable to today’s intellectuals.” Later in the article he gave a classic defense of fundamentalism that also seems a defense of A Clockwork Orange:

If we accept part of the Bible as a myth, we might as well be consequent and accept the whole Bible as a myth. Why, I can have more respect for a Teddy boy who tells me that killing a friend with a bicycle chain is all right. He at least has a philosophy. To people like him we can point out that morality does have a purpose, and we can lead them back to the self-consistent system of orthodox, reformative Christendom.

It is not surprising that, as the magazine Christianity Today later put it, “When Francis Schaeffer appeared on the American scene in 1965, evangelicals hardly knew what to make of him.”

It was in Europe that Schaeffer refined his definition of “modernism” to include not just modern painting (which he loved) but also the theological modernism of such writers as Niebuhr, Paul Tillich, and above all Karl Barth. To many confused or wavering Protestants, Barth was an almost right-wing theologian who had returned to orthodoxy by proclaiming the Bible the Word of God, yet Schaeffer and other fundamentalists were having none of it. Their objection was that Barth did not concede “propositional truth” to every statement in the Bible, but reserved the right to treat part of it as “myth.” In terms that became famous to his followers, Schaeffer objected that Barth and other modernists divided reality into an “upper story” containing values such as love, faith, and meaning, and a “lower story” consisting of reason and scientific matters of fact, with no possibility of joining the two. God, according to this diagram, could only be reached by a complete denial of the “lower story,” equivalent to what Kierkegaard (another Schaeffer villain) famously called a leap of faith.

During a 1950 fundamentalist conference in Geneva, Schaeffer and four of his friends actually met Karl Barth, about whom Schaeffer had written a small booklet and whose ideas he was set to discuss at the conference. The meeting went well enough, yet after receiving a copy of Schaeffer’s lecture, Barth wrote (in English): “Dear Mr. Schaeffer!...you and your friends have chosen to cultivate a type of theology, which consists in a kind of criminology.... You are ‘walking on the solid rock of truth.’ We others, poor sinners, are not. I am not.” The letter coincided with, and may have helped cause, a spiritual crisis in which Schaeffer questioned his own lust for doctrinal purity or “consistency” at any cost. During this time he almost lost his faith, according to his son Frank, and came out of it determined to emphasize love as well as the importance of the Bible. The Time reporter tellingly described him at forty-seven as “sandy-haired, sad-faced Francis Schaeffer,” and without reducing religion to psychology it is clear that holding together the “upper” and “lower” stories of existence was starting to take its toll.

According to his son, Schaeffer was happiest during the 1960s, when his critique of “bourgeois” Christianity seemed to gain support from the hippies and general drift of North American culture. A memorable confluence of Calvinism and acid rock took place during a speaking tour in San Francisco around 1967, when Schaeffer and his son saw Jefferson Airplane at the Fillmore West:

Dad loved the concert and stayed the whole night.... According to Dad, Samuel Beckett, Jean Genet, the Beatles, Bob Dylan, et al., “were doing God’s work. They were preparing men’s hearts, in pre-evangelism,” and “tearing down the wall of middle-class empty bourgeois apathy.”

This exemplifies Schaeffer’s habit of turning modern culture against itself to make a point, a part of his ministry that Garry Wills (who devotes a chapter to Schaeffer in his 1990 book Under God: Religion and American Politics) compares to “the postwar Catholic existentialists—Jacques Maritain’s followers—who were encouraging a Sartrean anguish for Christian purposes.”

Schaeffer’s welcoming, almost antinomian response to secular art and culture may have upset some American evangelicals, but many found it liberating. A whole generation of evangelical scholars such as Mark Noll, author of The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, owed their careers to his influence, even though many wound up questioning the soundness of his critique of modernity. As one admirer put it, Schaeffer typically electrified Christian audiences at places like Wheaton College, where “students were fighting to show films like Bambi, while Francis was talking about the films of Bergman and Fellini.” His growing fame increased the flow of visitors to l’Abri, one of whom was Billy Zeoli, president of Gospel Films. It was in collusion with Zeoli that Frank Schaeffer persuaded his father to bring his ideas to the screen, the result being the 1976 film How Should We Then Live? in which the elder Schaeffer appeared lecturing beside Michelangelo’s David and other iconic works, using these masterpieces to illustrate his thesis of the upper and lower stories.

The claim in Frank Schaeffer’s subtitle to have “helped found the Religious Right” refers mainly to the effect this film had on North American evangelical audiences, who flocked to screenings at churches and auditoriums. Its attempt to tell the story of Western culture in terms of art masterpieces was inspired by Sir Kenneth Clark’s series Civilization, to which it was meant to be a Christian rebuttal. Its message would have stayed within the evangelical community had its last two episodes not moved out of the museum and into politics, where Schaeffer attempted to connect his theories about modern art and philosophy with debates about abortion arising from the Supreme Court’s 1973 Roe v. Wade decision. The man who preferred museums to churches suddenly found himself shoulder-to-shoulder on abortion with Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell, and others who might have found his lectures on Beckett and Genet hard to follow.

In 1979 Schaeffer made another film (directed, as was the first, by his son Frank) called Whatever Happened to the Human Race? It was mainly about abortion, and featured C. Everett Koop, an old family friend who later became Ronald Reagan’s surgeon general. Two years later, Schaeffer published A Christian Manifesto, another attack on abortion that directly inspired antiabortion activists like Randall Terry, the founder of Operation Rescue. Throughout this late phase of his career, his son writes, Schaeffer found himself at odds with his new ideological bedfellows. A tense moment occurred backstage during a taping of The 700 Club when “Pat Robertson told us proudly about burning a reproduction of a nude by Modigliani,” one of Schaeffer’s favorite artists. Crazy for God also reports that the undraped figure of Michaelangelo’s David in Schaeffer’s film was replaced, at some screenings, by stock footage of the statue with a fig leaf.

Schaeffer never resolved the tension between religious doctrine and works of art. Thirteen years after his death, Christianity Today published a long summary of his career, “The Dissatisfaction of Francis Schaeffer.” When evangelicals speak of him today there is a hint of sainthood, possibly of martyrdom for his championing intellectual values in such an unlikely subculture. That issue of Christianity Today bears a cover picture of Schaeffer clad in robes and the caption, “Our Very Own St. Francis.” Crazy for God claims that “empire builders like Robertson, Dobson, and Falwell liked rubbing up against (or quoting) my father, for the same reason that popes liked to have photos taken with Mother Teresa.”

Schaeffer was often compared to C. S. Lewis. While he lacked Lewis’s literary focus, he shared Lewis’s belief in a kind of “second” fall, a purely cultural lapse that paralleled the one in Genesis. Lewis spoke in a famous lecture of “Old” and “New Western Man,” aligning himself with the former and locating the shift from one to the other around Jane Austen’s time. Schaeffer placed it at the Reformation, believing that in the Protestant art of Dürer and the Dutch realists, the upper and lower stories of reality enjoyed a unity that has been steadily fracturing ever since. Locating such cultural changes is an academic parlor game whose past masters include Michel Foucault (whom Schaeffer quotes with admiration in at least one of his books) and T. S. Eliot. Eliot’s analysis of the “dissociation of sensibility” that occurred in the seventeenth century is structurally identical to Schaeffer’s diagram of the two stories.

Schaeffer’s is hardly the only name that could be used to complicate normal definitions of fundamentalism. Even in Pat Robertson’s case, the blanket term “Religious Right” turns out to be a fairly blunt instrument. Robertson was bad at politics, and Schaeffer, on being shoved onstage with Robertson, Falwell, and others, was frequently heard to mutter they were “not our sort of people.” Beyond cultural differences, fundamentalists share a belief in God’s immediate presence, not just to the faithful but to anyone who believes. The belief in God as unproblematically “there” explains the offense taken at Karl Barth’s (and Kierkegaard’s) insistence on God’s otherness. Both Schaeffer and the less-reflective Robertson would recoil at Kierkegaard’s statement that “the immediate relationship to God is paganism.”

Fundamentalism is a system of thought whose hallmark is not anti-intellectualism but unexamined devotion to “literal” meaning. Vast portions of the Bible make no sense unless interpreted “literally,” though placing a ban on other kinds of interpretation brings the necessary concept of literalism into disrepute. Symbolic, allegorical, and other ways of reading the Bible are not the same as reducing it to “myth.” The truth is that without these other approaches there would be no creeds, sacraments, religious traditions, or even churches, including today’s evangelical megachurches.

When Francis Schaeffer died in 1984, no secular journalist of H. L. Mencken’s stature wrote his obituary. Mencken’s 1937 obituary of J. Gresham Machen was surprisingly uncritical, at least as far as fundamentalism is concerned. It reserves its scorn for “the Prohibition imbecility,” lukewarm Presbyterians, intellectually lazy “modernists,” and others who traffic mainly in religious externals. In vaguely Kierkegaardian tones, Mencken defines religion as “a corpus of powerful and profound convictions, many of them not open to logical analysis.” The obituary itself turns into a defense of fundamentalism against its obnoxious enemies and “simian” adherents. Agreeing or disagreeing with his assessment of fundamentalism is hardly to the point. What is impressive is a state of affairs in which any religion is so passionately defended by a nonbeliever. The Religious Right’s ability to decide elections cannot alter the fact that this state of affairs ceased to exist a long time ago.


Related: Mark Noll's review of Wayward Christian Soldiers: Freeing the Gospel from Political Captivity, by Charles Marsh

Published in the 2011-02-25 issue: 

Peter Schwendener has written for the American Scholar, the New Criterion, and other publications.

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