Fitzgerald’s Evangelicals and the repeat-failure of the Christian Right

Dr. Joel McDurmon  Aug 21, 2018

You may have not realized it, but there was really only one true intellectual force behind the Christian Right. While you may think this is a stretch on my part, it is not merely my conclusion. Outsiders—objective, third-party, mainstream outsiders—are recognizing this now and helping us come to the right conclusion. The one I have in mind, and which prompted this article, is the 2017 book, The Evangelicals: The Struggle to Shape America, by Frances Fitzgerald.

You may or may not have heard of the authoress Frances Fitzgerald. She is a fine writer. If you have heard of her in our circles, it may have been from the handful of times Gary North recommended her book America Revised: History Schoolbooks in the Twentieth Century—an expert audit of how liberal radicals revised American history textbooks over the decades. It was an impressive feat. Now, Fitzgerald applies the same skills to a much larger task: the analysis of Evangelical Christianity in America. The result is The Evangelicals, a 700-page tome that has won a National Book Critics Circle Award and placed highly in several other top books contests of note.

Not only are such accolades rightly earned, the book actually has some interesting things to say about one of our favorite niche topics: Christian Reconstruction.

Of greatest interest is the chapter, “The Thinkers of the Christian Right.” Here, we might expect a brief mention, among many others, of R. J. Rushdoony. Had the book been written by a typical Evangelical, we could be assured that if any Reconstructionist writer were mentioned at all, it would be in passing and buried quickly. Perhaps not surprisingly, Fitzgerald herself begins the chapter discussing perhaps the most well-known Evangelical intellectual of the 20th century, Carl F. Henry, founding illuminati of Fuller Seminary, The Evangelical Theological Society, the National Association of Evangelicals, and Christianity Today.

But she does not dwell there—at all. Just as quickly as he is mentioned, Henry is dropped. Fitzgerald winds out the opening paragraph of that chapter emphasizing the general absence of systematic thinkers among Evangelicals, and she ends with this perhaps surprising conclusion: “Indeed there were only two of cross-denominational importance, R. J. Rushdoony and Francis Schaeffer, and both had an outsized influence on the Christian Right” (p. 337).

Even more surprising is that this remained no mere mention. Fitzgerald gives half the chapter to each of these men; meaning, she devotes half a chapter to the influence of Rushdoony on the Christian Right.

Fitzgerald’s insight here is even more interesting when you realize that Schaeffer read Rushdoony for a couple decades and then plagiarized some of his work. While we can probably credit to Schaeffer a few original ideas here and there, and certainly great influence of the popularizing type, this reality means that in the end, there is really only one systematic thinker behind the Christian Right in the Evangelical world, and that was R. J. Rushdoony.

Yes, Schaeffer plagiarized Rushdoony (and others)

The plagiarism issue is a real one with Schaeffer, and direct victims are not the only ones to have noticed his habit of coopting the work of others. He was, apparently, kind of famous for it among those close to him. Fitzgerald makes note of this, citing the work of Barry Hankins:

“Schaeffer,” he writes, “was a voracious reader of magazines and the Bible, but some who lived at L’ Abri and knew him well say they never saw him read a book.” In Hankins’s view it was highly likely that Schaeffer had learned almost everything he knew about Western intellectual history from the students who had dropped out of European universities—and the rest from the consultants and editors who worked on his films (p. 352).

The other major sources for Schaeffer were, of course, Rushdoony, but also Cornelius Van Til—neither of whom he would cite. Dr. North and David Chilton documented some of these things in a 1983 essay in Tactics of Christian Resistance. Beginning on page 124 of that work, the authors show an example from Rushdoony’s One and the Many that appeared in unmistakable fashion in Schaeffer’s Christian Manifesto. Likewise, they relate another example where Schaeffer’s audio lectures on relativism in the 20th century took from Rushdoony’s This Independent Republic.

Gary North has documented this even further in his 1989 Political Polytheism (pp. 175, 193 ff.). North states up front, “I do not think Francis Schaeffer actually researched or wrote A Christian Manifesto. At the very least, we at the Institute for Christian Economics were told by one of his associates that he did not personally do the all of the basic research for it. . . .” Here is one example of what he found, Schaeffer lifting almost word-for-word from David Chilton’s essay on John Knox:

Within a few years, tens of thousands of Huguenots were offering armed resistance to the French government; and the year Knox died saw the beginning of the successful Calvinist revolt and takeover of Holland and Zeeland. Knox had shocked the world with his Admonition to England, but he had also convinced it. As Ridley states it, “The theory of the justification of revolution is Knox’s special contribution to theological and political thought.”1

 

Within a few years, tens of thousands of Huguenots were offering armed resistance to the French government; and the year Knox died saw the beginning of the successful revolt and saving of Holland. Knox had shocked the world with his Admonition to England, but he had also been convincing. Jasper Ridley in John Knox writes, “The theory of the justification of revolution is Knox’s special contribution to theological and political thought.”2

They found another direct lifting from another author in the same issue of the Journal of Christian Reconstruction. Considering these plus the other incidents mentioned, North is certainly right to conclude that the “Complete” Works of Francis Schaeffer will never be complete until the missing footnotes are included!

Silencing sources, silencing biblical law

The point, of course, is not merely to run down Schaeffer or to puff Rushdoony, Chilton, or anyone else. Who gets credit is ultimately not important (though honesty is). More important, however, is that when pickers don’t pick up the whole context, they end up doing a greater disservice to the Body than if they had merely left it all alone. When a watered-down version of the Kingdom of God becomes the popularized version of the Kingdom of God, massive compromises and failures are on the horizon.

And certainly, Schaeffer was the popularized version. Lifting from Rushdoony, borrowing from Van Til’s outlook, building on the work of others here and there, from the ground up, Schaeffer nevertheless had a brief but very powerful influence, reaching all the way into the White House and more. Yet he and his editors chose to keep key footnotes—those from the Reconstructionists—silent when he borrowed from them. Why?

Because of two key departures in which he not only differed theologically, but which led directly to the failure of the Christian Right in general. These were his rejection of biblical law and the adherence to a pessimistic premillennial outlook. North hammers this in both essays:

The point about Dr. Schaeffer, however, is that he is certainly not ignorant of the theocratic origins of his most incisive political ideas, from Rutherford to Rushdoony; nor can he be ignorant of the fact that he is straddling the fence, halting between two opinions. On the one hand, he doesn’t want the “neutrality” of a humanistic State; on the other hand, he doesn’t want a full-fledged Christian State, either. So where does that leave us? Should we work for a half-fledged Christian State? A “dappled” State? Or should we work toward a State which professes to take no sides on religious issues, but which merely strives for ‘justice” and “humanity” and “morality” in terms of lowest-common-denominator pluralism? Problem: the lowest-common-denominator principle is what got us into this mess in the first place.

 

The fact remains that Dr. Schaeffer’s manifesto offers no prescriptions for a Christian society. We mention that merely in the interests of clarity, for we are not sure that anybody has noticed it up to now. The same comment applies to all of Dr. Schaeffer’s writings: he does not spell out the Christian alternative. He knows that “you can’t fight something with nothing,” but as a premillennialist, he does not expect to win the fight prior to the visible, bodily return of Jesus Christ to earth to establish His millennial kingdom.3

North and Chilton go on in this strain a bit more. In Political Polytheism, North concludes the same:

What the reader needs to understand is that Francis Schaeffer did not have anything like a developed philosophy of political action or civil law. He was much more interested in the arts. His writings are theologically self-contradictory at their very core (e.g., myth of neutrality vs. fear of theocracy). His hostility to theocracy led him to reject the continuing validity of the case laws of the Old Testament. This rejection of biblical law forced him into a disastrous compromise with natural law theory. His closely related unwillingness to go the whole distance with Van Til’s presuppositional defense of Christianity led to his unwillingness to break completely with humanism’s faith in the autonomy of man’s mind. His premillennial eschatology left him devoid of hope that Christians could do anything to reverse the drift into humanistic disaster. Thus, the great evangelical disaster was also his disaster. The sad fate of his spiritual and intellectual heirs testifies to this continuing legacy of disaster.

 

Fitzgerald appears to have read none of this. In fact, her sparse comments on Gary North get him totally wrong. Her line, “North focused on politics,” laughably tries to summarize the guy who spent a career answering the old quip, “Politics first,” with his own saying, “Politics fourth!” She clearly read very little of him, or of Rushdoony himself for that matter, though she was aware Schaeffer had read him and had rejected both biblical law and postmillennialism. Her research is largely dependent upon secondary sources. She relies on George Marsden in general for the book, which is great. But on Christian Reconstruction, the secondary sources always lead you into ditches, and so she does commit a few notable blunders like this one on North.

She did not, however, miss the truth about the influence of Christian Reconstruction, or how the Christian Right could not live with it, but also could not live without it.

Fitzgerald’s Feat

Overall, Fitzgerald’s book is very welcome. Her chapter on when the solid South flipped from Democrat to Republican is insightful and needed (more is needed on this, actually, as many myths persist). Her chapter on the two intellectual pillars of the Christian Right is tremendously welcome, despite a few errors, merely because someone near the mainstream has finally recognized the reality. You had only two: Rushdoony and Schaeffer, and Schaeffer wasn’t even original. In his failure to be an original thinker, he took a good bit of what he said from the Christian Reconstructionists.

This means there was really only one intellectual tradition undergirding the Christian Right, but that the Christian Right rejected the key elements of biblical law and optimism. This left it schizophrenic—calling for Christian ethics and Christian success in politics, but without a substantial, positive, biblical doctrine of Christian ethics or of Christian success in politics.

This irony is not lost on Fitzgerald as she reviews Schaeffer’s works. She sees the schizophrenia. She concludes of his Christian Manifesto, “In any case, his argument was incoherent and open to different interpretations.”

Nevertheless, she notes, the book sold 290,000 copies its first year, and Jerry Falwell alone bought 62,000 as gifts for his donors (p. 360). Fundamentalist and Evangelical leaders loved Schaeffer because of his “aura of respectability,” especially, we can be sure, as it came without the controversy of biblical law (“theocracy”!) or postmillennialism (Christian victory in history—i.e., again, theocracy).

Today, Evangelicalism remains in many cases intellectually where it was in 1984 when Schaeffer died: without a biblical social or political ethic, and without an optimistic eschatology. There are slow developments on the latter, as more and more evangelicals are looking for improvement in history. But without the biblical law ethic, the only remaining options are some form of natural law.

This means that, as usually has been the case, Christians will end up following secularists, left and right, on social and political ethics. Historically, this has meant one thing: a slow drift to the left-liberal side over time. This means growing secular humanism, baptized, over time.

Such popularized compromises, however, can be a useful service because the parts left out for strategic (“unpopular truth”) reasons reveals to us the most powerful idols of our society. When even the best thinkers of the church cower before these, we thus see the areas in which the compromised church is most compromised by society’s idols.

We may think the most powerful idols in society are things like homosexual marriage and abortion, but these are merely the grossest surface manifestations of much deeper evils, even if they appear to be the greater evils. In reality, the society’s greatest failures result from the church’s greatest failures: the rejection of biblical law and the deception of pessimistic eschatology.

Granted, a huge part of the rejection of biblical law has been the uglier aspects of contemporary expressions of it. Racist views, emphasis on death penalties that don’t jive with a New Testament theology, tyrannical authoritarian models for society (family, church, and state), and others. So, part of the greater problem lies with the leadership—not only of the church in general, but of the Christian Reconstruction movement as well, for failure fully to develop the hermeneutics and applications of biblical law continuity and discontinuity.

But the more general failure is indeed that of abandoning theonomy and optimism in general. These characterize the fundamentalists and Evangelicals across the board, and they are at the very root of the failure of the Christian Right as a whole. They stand at the root of the gradual takeover of conservative churches by liberal forces, and the replacement of dappled ethics with a more consistently humanistic ethics. Those who try to remain old school in this case will lose control because their own views were compromised at the foundations. They gave away the game, even while staunchly demanding a few conservative outcomes on the surface. These will splinter away, and what cohesion remains will be based on more consistent humanisms.

Such losses will continue until Bible-believing Christians actually believe the whole Bible and apply it as a whole society. Until then, the more consistent and more militant unbelief will grow more consistent in society. It is not surprising, then, that Fitzgerald sees the rise of progressives within the Evangelical world as the current trend and the projected future. Even with some odd conservative resurgences empowered by the Trump train, she suggests it’s only a matter of time.

One major reason for this is because the Evangelicals never learn from their own failures. They tend to repeat the same mistakes expecting different results—or, given their pessimism, perhaps expecting the same results. Either way, they never amend their error. Proof positive of this is the treatment Al Mohler gave it. In a long (over an hour) interview with Fitzgerald, Mohler even at one point makes special note of this chapter, and of Schaeffer. But there is not a single whisper of Rushdoony or the foundations laid by the Christian Reconstruction authors. Everything else is covered, and mention is made of Henry and Mohler himself, but it’s like Rushdoony never existed. Neither he nor biblical law are ever mentioned. The one mention of positive eschatology is as a dying vestige of the old liberal, mainline denominations. For Evangelical leaders like Mohler, the blackout continues. But he’s also left rationalizing why Evangelicals lined up 81 percent behind Donald Trump.

Again, watch that slow slide to the left. This is how it works.

Conclusion

In the end, I personally give thanks for this book because it confirms something we’ve known and said for a long time. Where the Christian Right succeeded, it succeeded because it stole from Christian Reconstruction; and where the Christian Right failed, it failed because it rejected Christian Reconstruction.

Schaeffer did a great service, but it was crucially compromised. As such, his great service was just as much, if not more, a great disservice—helping to render us great losses while suppressing a more comprehensive and more consistent answer in the process. He hid the light of Christian Reconstruction under his bushel. Christian Reconstruction was there, and it was not silent, but it was silenced when inconvenient. Schaeffer sucked the air out of the room. Now the whole Christian Right is on life support, and the IV has humanism on the drip for the foreseeable future.

Knowing that Schaeffer read our stuff from the beginning, they can’t say we never told them. And having documented it and told the same story for decades now, they can’t say we never told them. And now I am telling you. If you want biblical worldview, then read and study biblical worldview, and this means biblical law and biblical optimism and victory. Anything less will leave you asking what happened to human race.

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