Introduction: Maybe you’ve seen the T-shirt: “Pray for Obama Psalm 109:8.” Verse 8 reads: “Let his years be few: let someone else take his position.” Requesting Obama have one term as president appears harmless enough—unless one keeps reading verse 9: “May his children become fatherless, and his wife a widow” to verse 13: “May all his offspring die. May his family name be blotted out in a single generation.”
Popularized by the likes of California Pastor Wiley Drake, these verses have become an evangelical fundamentalist Christian incantation calling for the death of President Barack Obama. When asked by national radio host Alan Colmes if he was praying for the death of the US President, Drake said, “Yes,” adding, “If he does not turn to God and does not turn his life around, I am asking God to enforce imprecatory prayers throughout the Scripture that would cause him death, that’s correct.” The President’s death doesn’t quite do it for Arizona Pastor Steve Anderson of Faithful World Baptist Church who sermonized, “I’m supposed to pray for the socialist devil, murderer, infanticide, who wants to see babies killed through abortion and partial-birth abortion. Nope. I’m not gonna pray for his good. I’m going to pray that he dies and goes to hell.”
On the other side of the fundamentalist imbalance sheet are the “New Atheists,” who not only say there is no God, but declare themselves “Bright” (coined by Breaking the Spell author Daniel Dennett) as opposed to “Dim” religious folk, and call for religion to be abolished. Taking it one step further in his book,
The End of Faith, New Atheist Sam Harris suggests that some religious people may need to be killed because of their dangerous beliefs.
Enter Frank Schaeffer and his latest book, Patience With God (Da Capo, 2009). Agreeing with neither of these camps, Schaeffer sees both as equally fundamental, evangelical, and “religious,” less interested in truly helping people than they are in building million-dollar empires of belief by selling “certainty” to people who are looking for spiritual answers and salve.
Schaeffer should know. As insider turned outsider, he has taken it upon himself to reveal the underbelly of the Religious Right that he and his parents helped to found and rakes in millions annually. Millions Schaeffer abandoned because he was disgusted at what grew from a one-message anti-abortion campaign into a hate-filled, fear of the “other” dogma inspiring people to kill, and an empire focusing more on its balance sheet than the souls of followers. Hearing the same sort of know-it-all, vindictive message coming from the New Atheists, Schaeffer says, “My life experiences have led me to believe that there are better choices out there than being asked to decide between atheistic cosmic nothingness and fundamentalist heavenly pantomimes.” Taking time from speaking engagements and television appearances, Schaeffer spoke with senior editor Lorna Tychostup from his Manhattan home.
Lorna Tychostup: You are the insider gone rogue, revealing the
underbelly of the Religious Right. What was your turning point?
Frank Schaeffer: There were really three things that operated. First, the experience of living in America as an adult starting in 1980. That opened my eyes to the fact that the propaganda I had been raised on—the Religious Right’s portrayal of America as this failed place plunging into chaos because Christianity was being “abandoned by the government, the secularists, the media, and the humanists”—simply didn’t match the facts. Second, the Religious Right was rooting for the failure of America on every level, much as Rush Limbaugh today is rooting for the failure of this country to serve as proof that Barack Obama has failed. Third, the people that I was working with on the Religious Right were simply getting more and more extreme. My introduction into the Religious Right was in 1973 and ended in the 1980s. We were working in the so-called pro-life movement to roll back Roe v. Wade. But that kept expanding into areas I had no sympathy for: gay bashing, anti-immigrant paranoia, this xenophobic version of the city-set-on-a-hill idea where America is afraid of the world and angry with everybody who is different. The deeper I got into the movement and the further “right” it got, the less comfortable I felt. Personally there was the aesthetic question. I’ve ways been interested in art and film. And the politics of the Religious Right is anticultural, antieducational, and I was working with people I didn’t enjoy being with who didn’t share my tastes. Then there was the theology issue. Moving away from evangelical beliefs that I had grown up with led me in a different direction in terms of spirituality. Those things came together, and I began to wake up, smell the coffee, and got out.
The vitriol in the first chapters of Patience With God, regarding the New Atheists—the intensity of your anger almost saw me put the book down. The love you expressed in later chapters had me in tears. What is your gripe with the New Atheists?
FS My gripe is not with atheism as a philosophy. I have nothing but respect for a great many atheists even in the so-called New Atheist movement, like Daniel Dennett. They could well be right. I am not arguing for absolute certainty. My specific criticism of [Richard] Dawkins and [Christopher] Hitchens is that these people are flakes. They are exactly the same sort of people as Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell, and all the rest that I abandoned on the right. And to find them showing up on the left arguing while pitching their websites, building their personal empires, writing off everybody they disagree with as idiots—I’ve seen all of this before. Trust me on this, if there is one thing that I have a good nose for is fundamentalist absolutism and where it leads. It’s a flaky, commercialized, fake spirituality even when it’s packaged as “atheism.” And if you want to dress it up as atheism as a former scientist—which Richard Dawkins is, because he is certainly not still practicing science, but instead pitching himself through his website and books—be my guest.
But why the intensity?
FS Let me give you an example. Christopher Hitchens used to be a socialist anti-imperialist who became one of George Bush’s biggest supporters of a completely illegitimate war. My son wore a US Marine Corps uniform and fought in that war. Where were Hitchens’ kids during this war that he was running around promoting? Nowhere. Hitchens was collecting millions of dollars from book royalties, appearing on talking head-shows and talking to magazines, while my son was getting shot at. Hitchens supported the worst president in our history from the progressive left, which is a laugh. In addition, based on his writing he comes off as a sleazy misogynist. Why should I have any tolerance for that? In fact, I’ll even pitch it the other way, and say atheism is a very credible philosophy, it’s a very thoughtful, serious idea. With friends like Hitchens, atheists don’t need enemies.
You were also harsh with the evangelical/fundamentalists, but
after Dawkins and Hitchens, the evangelical fundamentalist
chapters were a relief.
FS wanted to make very clear at the beginning of the book in very stark terms where I wasn't coming from, and with whom my sympathies didn’t lie, so I juxtaposed those chapters on the Religious Right with what I’ll call the fundamentalist atheist right. Hitchens is a hard right, anti-religious, “bomb them” kind of guy. And I wanted to say that it’s not a choice between these bad alternatives. But in order to discuss these bad alternatives we have to try to be honest about them, and then move on to what I think is a better way to look at things.
In the second half of Patience with God, you talk lovingly about your granddaughter, Lucy, and share personal vignettes from your life. These stories elicit incredible emotion, to the point of tears, and at the same time you talk a lot about “God”; yet never come out and say what God is.
FS, that’s because I don’t know and I precisely disagree with people who say they do. How on Earth would I know what God is, or what anything is? I am struggling to be honest enough to say I don’t know. But at the same time, through these loving connections in my life, whether it’s my granddaughter, Lucy, or shedding some tears looking at pictures of little girls the same age who are sitting in Haiti tonight and literally climbing the walls—besides sending donations—thinking, “What can I do to get one of these little kids out?” It drives me nuts. It drives anybody nuts. In other words, what is it about the human condition that gives us this empathy for other people who suffer? Where does this empathy come from? To me, that’s what God is—that sense of empathy, of connection, of love. I also believe that we’re just very newly evolved creatures, and that these senses of empathy, love, and caring are just starting. One of the things I fault myself, Hitchens, Dawkins, and the fundamentalist Christians for, is this kind of conceit that we are modern, evolved creatures able to draw our clever conclusions. Ten thousand years from now the human race is going to look at our period the way we looked at Neanderthals who first discovered they could sharpen flint. We’re at the start of the process. This is no time to be drawing conclusions any more than the Haiti rescue effort should be defined by people who lay out beautiful tree-lined boulevards. That’s not where the planning should be. The planning should be how to get water from the airport to some little girl sitting crying alone by the roadside, not some grandiose scheme. Similarly, the argument isn’t between Hitchens, Dawkins, me, or anybody else about what God is or isn’t—or even what science is or isn’t. The argument is between the people who have the hubris to write off other people and their points of view, and/or those of us who understand that there has to be some humility where we say, “Look, we connect through love with other people. We connect through this sense of empathy with an idea that there may be meaning; there may be a God. (And I use the word maybe.) Let’s build from that and not draw these big conclusions founded on the hubris of thinking we can make summations of cosmology and theories of everything. We can look at some details here, and draw limited conclusions there, but we can’t paint this in capital letters. The big accelerator in the CERN laboratory near Geneva shooting protons around is a crude machine that is going to look like a Stone Age pot someday. Face it. We’re not going to be around to see anything about the conclusions humans will draw about why we’re here, or what we’re doing. The only thing that’s going to stand up is art, because art is never dated. Whatever Hitchens and I am saying is probably 99 percent crap, and will be shown to be so as time moves on. Let’s admit that, so at least people remember that we were humble enough to know we were crude and semi-evolved.
God? I don’t know what or who God is. But I do know that I sense something that is more than brain chemistry when I love my granddaughter, or look back at a teacher who years ago taught me not to be a bully and who let me sing in a musical in school when I was barely able to read or write. That’s what I am trying to get people to concentrate on instead of these big, fancy arguments.
FS word “God” has been infused with many people’s definitions—the guy up in the clouds, he is male, looking down on us. If we take God out of the picture then we are responsible. The feeling of empathy is my feeling of empathy, something I have created. God, this being that created the earth to shake because we did something wrong—Pat Robertson’s reasoning for the earthquake in Haiti is a deal with Satan—is very dangerous. Maybe the word “God” needs to be evolved away from.
Some words get used in a way that almost becomes “anti” whatever their original meaning was. You see that with all sorts of overused words, they’re almost impossible to use with any neutral sense of meaning because they’ve been deformed. And “God” may be one of those words since it got borrowed and mangled by American evangelicals. Belief is not the important thing because belief means, “Am I sincere? Do I have the facts?” Belief goes up and down. Experience is more important, so I would put it a different way. I experience in my life a presence that makes me feel that love and empathy and predates my existence—that this presence was around, was actually tangible somewhere before the Earth was here or the universe took its shape, and that it continues to evolve with us. This gives me a sense of peace, purpose, meaning, and something to appeal to—call it whatever you want. Now I don’t “believe” that, because “belief” is something that hinges on rational argument. But I do “sense” that. So, when I hold Lucy and read her a story, or when I look at the many other people and things that I love, I sense a meaning that goes beyond my ability to describe. Or when I look at a canvas I sense something more than the molecular structure of paint. I know a scientist could take that same canvas and come up with a rational explanation in terms of the paint, its age, and chemical composition, but that’s not what the painting is. I feel the same way about existence. I experience a divine presence in my life that people have called God and maybe the name, or word, as you say, is wrong. Stories about Christ in terms of sacrificing for others, putting others first, doing unto others what you would have them do unto you, not casting the first stone—those are principles I choose to live by. “Belief” in Jesus has nothing to do with it, but his life is a good template for me to try to live by. The word belief is overused, because belief changes. There are days I believe I love my wife, there are days I believe I don’t. But I sense her presence in my life in a way that I can’t and don’t want to escape even when we fight. It’s what we experience in our own life. And I personally experience what I call a divine presence as an entity that emanates from somewhere outside of me. The words fall far short.
This “sense” of the divine, this presence gets attached to religion. The bliss that you feel when you hold your granddaughter is also felt by another human being as he or she straps on a bomb preparing to blow his or herself up. Supporters of this behavior also get that same ecstatic, divine, “God” feeling. Is it time for us to evolve away from the “God” attachment of that experience?
FS agree with Barack Obama when he said that there is a universal curve toward order and purpose and progress, and that when you look at history, and the way things shaped up, the evil and the anomalies are there but there is also such a thing as foreword progress. When you look at the history of holy wars between nations, even only 500 years ago, there are individuals and countries doing terrible things. But there are also people moving in good directions. In the history of Christianity anti-Semitism is no longer cool, whereas 500 years ago it was. The Israelis have sworn enemies in the Palestinians, but they haven’t rounded them all up and gassed them. They are trying to work it out. We are evolving, and it strikes me that we are evolving in a direction toward something better.
I don’t judge atheism on the gulag, Mao Tse-tung, or Pol Pot. I just say those are horrible low points for secularism run amok. The same when someone straps a suicide belt on in the name of God. That issue is an issue of where the human race is in its evolution, whatever the excuse, whatever we call those horrible, predatory, ridiculous, deluded things we do—be they in the name of religion or an atheist philosophy. The point is not the philosophy. It’s the fact that those crazy, deluded, evil people, and all points in between all exist as part of a stage of human evolution. But that doesn’t mean it either has to stay that way forever, or that we haven’t made any progress, or that those same kinds of people wouldn’t be doing the same sorts of things in the name of other excuses.
A lot of people, left and right, are very upset President Obama hasn’t microwaved the American Dream back to life after just one year in office. People like Sarah Palin, Glenn Beck, and RushLimbaugh are wishing and hoping for him to fail.
FS separate them out. If you take Glenn Beck, this is a guy that without FOX media would be standing on some streetcorner barking at the moon. He’s not a rational person. The only reason he matters is because Rupert Murdoch makes money by giving him a megaphone to attract stupid people. There is a certain level of uneducated American that finds him entertaining and even dumber folks who actually believe him and his grand amorphous paranoid conspiracy theory of the world. If you look at Sarah Palin, if the Republican Party was still the Republican Party, and being run by people like William F. Buckley and Barry Goldwater, you never would have heard of her. But having been taken over by the lunatic fringe of the Religious Right—or the lunatic fringe of the lunatic fringe—someone like her gets a platform. But it says a lot more about the bedrock of the party right now than it says about her. Looking at Rush Limbaugh, I am sorry to say this, but he is genuinely a despicable person. This is someone who mocked someone with Parkinson’s disease for twitching. In terms of the Haiti crisis, he looks at dead bodies piled up and uses this as an opportunity to slam the President. This is just a crass and horrible person. Limbaugh is the fart in the American elevator and we’re all stuck between floors with him. He is not disheartening. There are many individuals filling our prisons who are ill in this way. But what is disheartening is that there is a media company that will actually pay a guy like this and give him the platform. It’s a very discouraging fact, not because he is from the right wing, but because he is so obviously a crass buffoon.
Do you see these people as dangerous?
FS you look at the things Rush Limbaugh, Fox, Glenn Beck, and Sarah Palin—what she was saying during her campaign, that Obama is not a real American, he’s not like us, he pals around with terrorists, people calling out in her campaign “kill him,” wearing racist messages—it just goes to show that we cannot escape the fact that we have a broad, racist, and hate-filled streak of fear of the “other” running through our country. Where were the so-called responsible Republican leaders to put Palin in her place, or for that matter, 10 minutes after Rush Limbaugh said the Haiti crisis was tailor-made to help Barack Obama and that he’d be using it to gain favor with the black community? Thirty seconds later, any responsible Republican leader should have been calling a press conference to roundly declare Limbaugh an inhuman imbecile and to distance his or herself. But instead there is largely silence. That silence is shocking. The sum total of what FOX TV and the far right has been doing since Barack Obama was elected is trawling for assassins; like they did with Dr. Tiller. FOX commentators went on for years about him calling him a baby killer, showing his photo, and referring to him in the most scurrilous of terms. They didn’t actually pull the trigger, but they definitely share culpability when somebody who was a little bit of a looser cannon—or braver—than they were went out and did more or less what FOX News had been talking about. So, yes, this putrid right wing smell emanating from the Republican camp followers is dangerous. The Boston Globe reported [two months ago] that according to the Secret Service, the threat level against the President has gone up 400 percent—higher than anything they have dealt with in presidencies stretching back over 52 years.
These are the very same people who after 9/11, when Bush began banging the war drum, said clearly and loudly that because we were in a time of war, any comment against the president was anti-American and unpatriotic. We are still at war. Why is the right silent?
FS is a sign of hatred unleashed and has nothing to do with rational thought. This is an emotional response to our first black president and it wouldn’t matter what he was doing. And it’s an emotional response to the demographic change in America. The white, pontificating talking heads like Bill O’Reilly and others, they know their days are numbered. Our country is going to be a completely different place than the one where they have any sway. First of all, Tea Parties aside, Barack Obama’s problems aside, this country is definitely moving away from positions these far-right people are comfortable with. It’s moving away from white males being in charge of everything, too. They can’t face it. They’ve had a psychological breakdown, and/or they are just racist but can’t come right out and say that.
You have been a big supporter of President Obama. How do you feel about him now?
FS have totally unswerving support of him. It has nothing to do with loyalty. I don’t know the guy. The very fact he is being criticized from the left, not to mention the scurrilous right, means that when he does triumph, it will be his triumph alone. People will see that he hung in there, while people who should have been supporting him all along—say so many commentators on the left—stood on the sidelines sniping him.
When we look at the presidency of Barack Obama, we need to keep things in perspective. After Ronald Reagan’s first year in office, people said he wouldn’t run again and his popularity was flattening out. Left or right, people look back now and say he was a very effective president. Whether you liked his policies or not is a different discussion. But no one discounts or says his was a failed presidency. People who don’t like what he did don’t think it was a failed presidency and have to admit he got much of his agenda through. Obama will, too. I think he will go down as one of the greatest presidents in American history. Unfortunately, there’s a lot of people on the left, commentators, etc., who are going to have egg on their faces. Twenty years from now their anti-Obama quotes will be remembered as shortsighted in writing him off before he had had a chance to do anything. I think health care will not only pass, but will be improved in the next seven years. Twenty years from now there will be universal single-payer health care just like we have Social Security and Medicare and no one will question it. But we’ll all know whom to thank: Obama. People from the left who are saying, “It isn’t perfect” today, will be a laughingstock then because eventually it will be made better. I think we’re going to get out of Afghanistan in one piece and we will have some success there. I think our economy will be coming back, and unless there is some huge Republican victory that reverses all this, we will be heading into a time of prosperity, because Obama will slowly, patiently, and subtly reshape our national institutions. His agenda, broadly speaking, is going to work. The idiots from the right are going to be absolutely discounted by history, and the progressive critics of Obama are going to be remembered as shrill and crazy in 15, or even 5 years from now, embarrassed at their hurry-up impatience. I also will say something that I believe: There is such a thing as “progressives” who are racists, too. No, they aren’t consciously racists; they are just so damn know-it-all and condescending to Obama that I have to wonder if they would have such a supercilious attitude to a white man or woman. I think some progressives think that they were mighty nice to “allow” their token black of the day to win, and now he should be doing everything their way. I also think that the people who hang in there with him—yes, I’m one—are going to be remembered as correct in our assessment, because Obama is going to turn some big, “impossible” things around. This is going to be a historic presidency. He is a great man. His policies are actually working. The problem is he has had trouble pitching them to the American people because he hasn’t articulated his vision in a slick, dumb, sound-bite way—he’s been trying to tell the truth too much and talk to us as if we were grown up.