Former right-wing leader warns of religious right violence: ‘Anyone can be killed’
Frank Schaeffer is an outspoken critic of the politicized Christian evangelical right. He sees the “End Times” movement as anti-Semitic. He fears that a right-wing terrorist might assassinate the President of the United States.
None of these talking points would be novel on the left, but Schaeffer is hardly a bleeding heart liberal. His father, Dr. Francis Schaeffer, is considered to be the godfather of the modern religious right movement. Schaeffer himself took up the family mission and became a prominent speaker and writer, promoting many of the sentiments that have given rise to the politically active, extremely well organized and zealous movement of today. He left the religious right in the 1980s, and was a Republican until 2000.
In an interview with Raw Story, Schaeffer — who has a new book coming out this month called Patience with God: Faith for People Who Don’t Like Religion (or Atheism) — discussed his concerns about the radicalization of the Christian right and the increasingly violent rhetoric he foresees turning into actual violence.
“Since President Obama took office I’ve felt like the lonely — maybe crazy — proverbial canary in the coal mine,” Schaeffer said. “As a former right wing leader, who many years ago came to my senses and began to try to undo the harm the movement of religious extremism I helped build has done, I’ve been telling the media that we’re facing a dangerous time in our history. A fringe element of the far right Republican Party seems it believes it has a license to incite threatening behavior in the name of God.”
“The bestselling status of the Left Behind novels proves that, not unlike Islamist terrorists who behead their enemies, many evangelical/fundamentalist readers relish the prospect of God doing lots of messy killing for them as they watch in comfort from on high,” he added. “They want revenge on all people not like them — forever.”
The former religious right leader also says he’s worried President Obama could be assassinated — or that extremists might launch another “Oklahoma” type bombing.
“Sadly that line from the ‘Godfather’ sticks in my brain about the fact that anyone can be killed,” Schaeffer told Raw Story. “The scary thing is that there are a number of pastors on record as saying they are praying for the President’s death. Can you imagine what some gun-toting paranoid who hears that in a sermon is thinking and might do? And to them the fact that ‘the world’ likes this black man is reason enough to hate him. You wait. The reaction to Obama winning the Nobel Prize will be entirely negative from the far Religious Right. ‘See the world, all those socialists like him that just proves he’s a — fill in the blank — communist, secret Muslim, the Antichrist, whatever.'”
Schaeffer asserts that he’s trying to “right” the Christian right while also trying to explain God and religion to non-believers. But ultimately, he has a very critical view of the Christian right and what he believes is the reason for their deep-seated anger: resentment. He has recently written a column in support of a campaign to prosecute threats of violence and hate speech that may incite violence:
“The campaign includes letters from attorney Kevin Zeese and myself to Attorney General Eric Holder asking that he take the issue of domestic terror seriously by investigating and prosecuting threats and acts of violence,” Schaeffer says. “I’m working with others on a campaign to reach religious leaders who enable and encourage this violence, and asking for the launching of investigations into the use of the media and web organizations by the right wing to foment violence. It is time to combat hate speech.”
More on this campaign can be found at StopDomesticTerror.com.
Coming Full Circle
Larisa Alexandrovna: For those who are not familiar with you and your family, could you please provide a brief summary of your history?
Frank Schaeffer: One morning in the early 1980s, I looked out over several acres of pale blue polyester and some twelve thousand Southern Baptist ministers. My evangelist father — Francis Schaeffer — was being treated for lymphoma at the Mayo Clinic, and in his place I’d been asked to deliver several keynote addresses on the evangelical/fundamentalist circuit. I was following in the proudly nepotistic American Protestant tradition, wherein the Holy Spirit always seems to lead the offspring and spouses of evangelical superstars to “follow the call.”
A few weeks before, after being introduced by Pat Robertson, I had delivered a rousing take-back-America speech to thousands of cheering religious broadcasters. And not long after, I would appear at a huge pro-life rally in Denver. Cal Thomas — once the vice president of Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority, who later became a Fox News Commentator — would introduce me as “the best speaker in America.” The “anointing” he said, was “clearly on this young man!” They were saying that I was a better speaker than my famous father.
LA: You mention your father and I think it is important to point out just how well connected your father was and subsequently how important you and your family were to the movement.
FS: [Yes]. At that moment the Schaeffers were evangelical royalty. When I was growing up in L’Abri, my parents’ evangelical/fundamentalist religious community in Switzerland, it was not unusual to find myself seated across the dining room table from Billy Graham’s daughter or President Ford’s son, even Timothy Leary. The English actress Glynis Johns used to come for Sunday high tea. I figured it was normal. They were just a few of the thousands who made it through our doors. Only later did I realize that L’Abri attracted a weirdly eclectic group of people who otherwise would not be caught dead in the same room. My childhood was, to say the least, unusual.
When Gerald Ford died in January of 2007, I recalled that the day he had assumed the presidency, his daughter-in-law Gayle w as babysitting my daughter Jessica as her job in the work-study program at L’Abri, where Mike Ford, the President’s son was a student.
Mom and Dad met with presidents Ford, Reagan and Bush Sr. and stayed in the White House several times. In the 1990s when my mother Edith — then in her eighties — heard that George W. Bush might run for the presidency, she exclaimed, “What? But Barbara asked me to pray especially for young George. She didn’t think he had what it took to do anything.”
LA: But you have moved away from that history or perhaps a better way to put it is that the movement moved entirely away from you — from Conservatism to extremism?
FS: Dad and I were mixing with a new set of people that had not known much, if anything, about my father. If they had even heard of Dad before he came on the pro-life scene in the mid-seventies, they probably hadn’t liked the sound of him. These people included Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, James Dobson, James Kennedy and all the rest of the televangelists, radio hosts, and other self-appointed “Christian leaders” who were bursting on the scene in the 1970s and early eighties.
Compared to Dad these slick media figures were upstarts. They were “not our sort of people,” Dad often said. What people like Robertson and Falwell got from Dad was some respectability.
Dad had a unique reputation for an intellectual approach to faith. And his well deserved reputation for frugal ethical living, for not financially profiting from his ministry, for compassion, openness and intellectual integrity, was the opposite of the reputations of the new breed of evangelical leadership, with their perks, planes, and corner offices in gleaming new buildings and superficial glib messages. 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.
What I slowly realized was that the religious right leaders we were helping to gain power were not “conservatives” at all in the old sense of the word. They were anti-American religious revolutionaries.
LA: Then you defended Senators Jim Webb (D-VA) and John McCain (R-AZ) for the way they were treated by this movement. Can you point to a particular issue you took with both the attack on Webb and on McCain? What happened after?
FS: I had long since left the evangelical subculture when I wrote an op-ed for the Dallas Morning News, and it was picked up by several hundred blogs and posted on the front page of James Webb’s campaign website. I had defended Webb against a series of scabrous attacks wherein his novels were smeared and he was even labeled a “pedophile” because he had described a sexual tribal ritual. I noted that Webb is a serious novelist whose work has been widely praised by many, including Tom Wolfe, who called Webb’s books, “The greatest of the Vietnam novels.”
I also took the Republicans to task for doing to Webb what they did to another war hero, Senator John McCain, back in the 2000 Republican primaries. I went so far as to say that, in disgust, my wife Genie and I were switching from registered Republicans to independents.
A few days after this op-ed was published I wrote another piece, this time for the Huffington Post, about the reaction to my departure from the Republican Party. This was picked up by dozens of Democrat-friendly blogs. As the congratulatory e-mails poured in I was reminded of the welcome given new believers when they converted from some particularly hideous life of sin. Then the Drudge Report and dozens of other right wing and/or evangelical outlets alerted their faithful to my treason.
Furious e-mails flooded in. They fell into two categories: The evangelical “Church Ladies” said they hadn’t read Webb’s novels but were shocked by his immorality nonetheless and went to three and four page single-spaced quivering lengths to justify the Republicans’ tactics; The second group were simply profanity-spewing thugs. The Church Lady emails contrasted markedly with the insults. It was as if I’d stumbled into a Sunday school picnic at a Tourette’s syndrome convention.
“As a Christian the best question you could ask is what would Jesus do? He wouldn’t give Webb’s books a pass just because he’s a veteran.. .”
“Mr. Schaeffer: Don’t let the door hit your ass on the way out you FUCK!”
“Mr. Webb has no excuse for using profanity…”
“Good fucking riddance — you fucking cry baby!”
“I have never read any of Mr. Webb’s novels. However, the excerpts [in the Drudge Report] are very disturbing. . . . As for the Bible, yes it has all the things you mentioned: rape, murder, adultery, masturbation, etc. However, the Lord did not give us graphic details . . . And I hope as Christians we can remember that and be a voice crying out against ALL the ugly things…”
“We don’t need your lame ass motherfucking comments or your support…”
When combined the hundreds of emails seemed to boil down to: “Do what we say Jesus says — and if you don’t we’ll kick your head in!” The reaction confirmed why any sane person would run, and keep on running from the right-wing/evangelical/Republican morass as far as their legs would carry them, something I’d been doing for more than twenty years. But I had brought this upon myself. The truth is, that with my father I had once contributed mightily to the creation of the right wing, evangelical/Republican sub-culture that was attacking me.
Alarms Bells Sound
LA: Most recently you have expressed serious concern about right-wing extremism in the name of God and the radicalization of the Christian right since the election of President Obama. What is it that has you so alarmed?
FS: Since President Obama took office I’ve felt like the lonely — maybe crazy — proverbial canary in the coal mine. As a former right wing leader, who many years ago came to my senses and began to try to undo the harm the movement of religious extremism I helped build has done, I’ve been telling the media that we’re facing a dangerous time in our history. A fringe element of the far right Republican Party seems it believes it has a license to incite threatening behavior in the name of God.
They have singled out President Obama as their target. Since the real President Obama is not who they describe — no, he’s not the Antichrist, was born in America and doesn’t want to kill your grandmother — they have resorted to lies and intimidation to try and stop his agenda of much needed change. The problem is that I believe that Religious Right leaders and their Republican base are also potentially inciting violence. Within their numbers are unhinged people who also happen to be well armed.
Rachel Maddow and the readers of Huffington Post and Alternet have heard my warnings and so have a lot of bloggers. However, most of the media have ignored the looming threat of far right violence while conservatives deride those of us who link crazy talk to the potential of crazy actions. (I explain and expose the link between evangelical/fundamentalist “End Times” theology, politics and violence in my new book Patience With God–Faith For People Who Don’t Like Religion (Or Atheism).
LA: Have we not seen angry rhetoric before or is this something new, something different?
FS: David Gergen recently said that the racial attacks on Obama are reminiscent of the atmosphere leading to the killing of President Lincoln. Thomas Friedman wrote in the New York Times that he saw this same disturbing play of religious hate shortly before Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated in Israel. And Roger Ebert warned of the rise of the fringe in the GOP and how they are undermining democracy.
(Read more at Huffington Post.)
Of course in [President] Roosevelt’s time the far-right was pro German and called him a Jew.
LA: This I did not know. But to the current far-right, why do you think religion, Christianity in particular, has become so politicized?
FS: Power is a strong drug. But the most recent power grab goes back to Roe v. Wade. It was too soon and too fast a change. That started the whole culture war as we know it. The bestselling status of the Left Behind novels proves that, not unlike Islamist terrorists who behead their enemies, many evangelical/ fundamentalist readers relish the prospect of God doing lots of messy killing for them as they watch in comfort from on high.
They want revenge on all people not like them — forever. Knowingly or unknowingly, Jenkins and LaHaye cashed in on years of evangelical/fundamentalists’ imagined victimhood. I say imagined, because the born-agains had one of their very own, George W. Bush, in the White House for eight long, ruinous years and also dominated American politics for the better part of thirty years before that.
Nevertheless, their sense of being a victimized minority is still very real — and very marketable. Whether they were winning politically or not, they nurtured a mythology of persecution by the “other.” Evangelical/fundamentalists believed that even though they were winning, somehow they had actually lost.
LA: Can you better explain this mentality?
FS: I used to be part of the self-pitying, whining, evangelical/fundamentalist chorus. I remember going on the Today Show with host Jane Pauley back in the late 1970s (or early 1980s). I debated with the head of the American Library Association about my claim that our evangelical/fundamentalist books weren’t getting a fair shake from the “cultural elites.” We Schaeffers were selling millions of books, but the New York Times never reviewed them. I made the point that we were being ignored by the “media elite,” which was somewhat ironic, given that I had been invited to appear on Today to make that claim.
I dropped out of the evangelical/fundamentalist subculture soon after that Today appearance. Others carried on where I left off, pushing the victimhood mythology to the next generation of evangelical/fundamentalists, and they have cultivated a following among the terminally aggrieved based on ceaselessly warning them about “the world.”
The Radicalization of Religion
LA: Do you think there a direct correlation between the radicalization of Islam by extremists to the radicalization of Christianity by extremists?
FS: No. we were ready to try and take over America long before the present wave of Islamic-inspired terror started. But now it’s another excuse for the far right to hate the “other.”
LA: What is it that is driving the Christian right to such extremes? Is it fear? If so, fear of what? Is it something else?
FS: It is fear of facts. Look, if you believe in the earth being 6000 years old, that gays chose to be gay and can “change,” that Jesus will come back soon, that war in the Middle East is good… what you fear is the real world, the reality-based Americans who know you are dumb, crazy or both. It is resentment that drives the right.
LA: For those of us who are not familiar with the “end-times” movement, could you please summarize what it is? How does it relate to Israel?
FS: The expanding Left Behind entertainment empire also feeds the dangerous delusions of Christian Zionists, who are convinced that the world is heading to a final Battle of Armageddon and who see this as a good thing!
LA: A good thing? And what does Zionism have to do with this movement?
FS: Christian Zionists, led by many “respectable” mega-pastors — including Reverend John Hagee — believe that war in the Middle East is God’s will. In his book Jerusalem Countdown: A Warning to the World, Hagee maintains that Russia and the Arabs will invade Israel and then will be destroyed by God. This will cause the Antichrist — the head of the European Union — to stir up a confrontation over Israel between China and the West.
LA: Wait a moment. Aside from the obvious of the real geopolitical allegiances and resource interests — making this scenario less likely than all of us packing up and moving to Mars soon — they believe this is a good thing?
FS: Yes. It will “prove” that they will “inherit the earth.” In other words they’ve spent their lives feeling left behind by culture and scholarship. If the “End” comes, they get the last laugh. So they cling to this like an addict clinging to his last fix.
Perhaps, in the era of Obama, Hagee will do a fast rewrite and say that President Obama is the Antichrist, because the same folks who are into Christian Zionism are also into the far, far loony right of the Republican Party represented by oddities like Sarah Palin.
These are the same people who insist that President Obama is a “secret Muslim,” “not an American,” and/or “a communist,” “more European than American,” or whichever one of those contradictory things is worse — not like us anyway, that’s for sure. Christian Zionists support any violent action by the State of Israel against Arabs and Palestinians because the increasingly brutal State of Israel is, in the fevered evangelical/fundamentalist mind, the nation presently standing in for Jesus as avenger on evildoers everywhere, by which they mean Arabs and others not like us.
Christian Zionists are yet another reason why I and countless other Christians, including many of the more moderate evangelicals, mainline Protestants, Roman Catholics, and Orthodox are hesitant to be labeled “Christian.” Who wants to be confused with some of the most dangerous and stupid people in the world: nuclear-armed, paranoid evangelical/fundamentalist Bible-thumpers rooting for Armageddon on and worrying in paranoid “official” documents about being forced to become like “the Europeans”? (Just a thought: does that make high-speed rail service a tool of the Devil?)
LA: Being a Jew, this idea of Christian Zionism sounds very much like anti-Semitism. Would you say that Christian Zionism — and the whole end-times philosophy — is anti-Semitic or am I misunderstanding it?
FS: Yes. The “purpose” of the Jews is to be there to be killed after the Second Coming. Christian Zionists love Israel the way oncologists love cancer. It’s a good living. Jews who play footsie with evangelicals in return for the “support” of the State of Israel are fools.
LA: What do you fear will happen? Who or what do you fear will be targeted?
FS: I don’t fear large scale violence. I fear another Oklahoma type bombing, and most of all the assassination of President Obama.
Sadly that line from the “Godfather” sticks in my brain about the fact that anyone can be killed. The scary thing is that there are a number of pastors on record as saying they are praying for the President’s death. Can you imagine what some gun-toting paranoid who hears that in a sermon is thinking and might do? And to them the fact that “the world” likes this black man is reason enough to hate him. You wait. The reaction to Obama winning the Nobel Prize will be entirely negative from the far Religious Right. “See the world, all those socialists like him that just proves he’s a — fill in the blank — communist, secret Muslim, the Antichrist, whatever.”
LA: How would you describe the audience to whom this violence is marketed?
FS: This is rube white America. This is the cracker fundamentalist South. These are the Sarah Palin “He’s Not-A-Real-American” Obama haters. These are the people waiting for Jesus to come back and/or the UN to take over the world or the Army to take their guns.
LA: Who do you see as fueling this rhetoric?
FS: Fox News, Rupert Murdoch, Glenn Beck… we all know this crew. And of course there’s Rush Limbaugh. But worst of all are not the famous leaders but the every day religious leaders feeding hate. Look how they came together in California to push prop 8. Behind them are those like James Dobson who has told his followers to beat their children into submission. He is always looking for new enemies and is now aiming at gays. But none of this would happen if there were not thousands of pastors and followers whose idea of faith is to divide themselves from the “other.”
LA: What do you think motivates these media personalities, politicians, and so forth? Are they true believers or opportunists?
FS: I’ll speak for the ones I know personally. Dobson gave away 150,000 copies of one of my far right 80’s hate screeds. He had me on his show. His intentions started out as good. Then he got used to power and became a genuine egomaniac. Pat Robertson is a genuine lunatic. I’ve been on Fox talking about my military-friendly books before they put me on their shit list. They are just plain stupid.
LA: Have you seen similar extremism from left-wing Christians? If so, how is it the same or different from what you observe from the right-wing?
FS: I wouldn’t say I’ve seen the same levels of hate and outright lies from the left. If you read the comments on places like Huff Post they are shrill sometimes but no one is being condemned to hell, and people try and stick to facts. The amazing thing about the religious right is the combination of lies, myth and hate into a rather unique blend.
LA: What do you think a workable solution might entail? Some would argue that no matter how hateful, ugly, even violent the speech, it is still protected speech. How then do you think your concerns could be addressed in that context?
FS: All I’d say is this: The hate speech of the right ought to draw the same level of public and governmental attention as, say, Muslim hate speech. If we take bin Laden seriously when he talks about God hating America’s sins, we should take the America extremists as seriously. There should be no free ride for these idiots carrying weapons near presidential or other political gatherings. People like Operation Rescue should be investigated to see how many of their members are planning to murder more abortion providers. And if you want to know what the greatest threat to our president is, look no further than where evangelical “Christianity” intersects with Glenn Beck’s fans. The FBI should seize his fan letter email. I’ll bet they’d find some very interesting folks out there, people in militias, far right hate groups, and all the rest.
LA: How do you think your father would react if he were still alive today? How about Jesus?
FS: Dad would despise Glenn Beck. My father was not a hater. He opposed abortion on demand and Roe. But he never bashed gays but welcomed them and everyone else in his ministry. Even before he died in 1985 he told me that he thought Robertson was a nut, Falwell crass, and Dobson power-hungry. Except for the abortion issue my father was center left, interested in art and culture. As for Jesus, well, I won’t speak for him, but let me just say that if “conservatives” are now going to edit out the “liberal” parts of the Bible, they better cut the four Gospels in their entirety.
LA: Thank you for your time.
Larisa Alexandrovna is managing editor of investigative news for Raw Story. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org.