Mom’s Diaphragm, Pat Robertson on Masturbation, and Why the Right Hates Obama: Erika Rae Interviews Author Frank Schaefferby erika on May 19, 2012 • 1:00 am 5 Comments
It’s happened again: Americans have freed up vast quantities of cerebral matter to make room for the dog and mule show we call an “election”, otherwise known as “The Religious Right and the Rest of the Country’s Time to Drop Their Drawers at each other and Let it Shine Let it Shine Let it Shine.”
Once again, the social issues. Once again, the parade of puppets. Once again, one seemingly interminable Groundhog Day of indigestion and dubious self-medication. By the time it’s all over, families need to replace dining room tables, former friends need to remove numbers from cell phones, and the whole nation needs to turn on the fan and light a match.
Which leads a girl to ask a pointed question or three: Why? Why is it that a handful of loaded social issues (e.g. gay marriage, candidates’ religious beliefs, a woman’s right to choose) can dominate the political scene? How can these largely faith-based issues glide right on past the larger world picture of…let’s just use the economy or healthcare as an example…fragmenting families, colleagues and FaceBook friend counts? Why is the larger political scene focused so much on the social agenda of the Religious Right?
In his recent book, Sex, Mom and God: How the Bible’s Strange Take on Sex Led to Crazy Politics—and How I Learned to Love Women (and Jesus) Anyway, bestselling author Frank Schaeffer has quite a bit to say on this matter due to one uncomfortable little detail: he helped start it. The son of Evangelical royals Francis and Edith Schaeffer (both also bestselling authors), he helped found the Religious Right…and then, he walked away. Having once sat in strategic meetings alongside Presidents Reagan, Ford and Bush, Congressman Kemp and Jerry Falwell, today he is considered a traitor by leaders within that camp, blogging on HuffPo, appearing on MSNBC or with Rachel Maddow in support of President Obama and offering insight as to the cultural rift that has developed between the far right and, well, the rest of America.
But this book is not all about the current political rift. In Sex, Mom and God, Schaeffer paints a beautiful portrait of his mother who he described to me as, “ a much better person—a much fuller person—than her theology would have indicated.” And while he may have a lot to say against the institutions of fundamentalist religion, he offers the reader an equally powerful alternative view of faith and hope.
I first learned about Frank Schaeffer several years ago when a friend of mine handed me one of his novels, Portofino. As one who was becoming increasingly disenchanted with the connection between religion and faith, I was instantly hooked. Since then, his writings have had a large influence on me, so it is with great honor that I present the following interview with Frank Schaeffer on his latest book, Sex, Mom and God.
ERIKA RAE: In Sex, Mom and God, you describe how your mother handed you her diaphragm when you were eight years old and explained to you in vivid detail how it worked. Please explain.
FRANK SCHAEFFER: My mom has to be one of the stranger incarnations of a fundamentalist Evangelical Christian that’s ever walked this earth because she really lived in two worlds. On one hand she was a pietistic Evangelical missionary wife who if you had asked her for her official beliefs in an examination question, she would have really trotted out the same thing that any fundamentalist pastor’s wife would tell you about sex or homosexuality or her view of the world or creation–that God had made everything in six days 6,000 years ago, etc.– but when it got to the way she lived, whether it was her open armed embrace of the gay people that came to my parents’ ministry at L’Abri, or her openness about sexuality with her children—to our embarrassment sometimes—it was as if she inhabited a different universe.
When it came to the diaphragm, you have to understand that she had been making disparaging remarks about the Roman Catholic families we were seeing. We were in Italy on vacation, staying in a rundown pensione that was the backdrop for my novel, Portofino, and Mom would make remarks about how lost the Catholics were, and that these people didn’t live with any family planning. And I asked her, what do you mean? Well, when we got back to the hotel, my sisters went off to get ice cream and mom said, come with me. I followed her to the room she and my father were staying in, and she opened her toilet case, flipped it open and took out her diaphragm and proceeded to explain to me where it went and how it worked. Now remember, this was the late 1950s. I don’t know any libertarian secular New York atheists being raised by beatnik mothers who would have gotten a more thorough explanation. I have said this book is a tribute to what I call her “blessed hypocrisy”. She was a far more entertaining and enlightened person than I would have thought by reading her theology alone. I have never met anyone like Mom. She was pretty unique.
ER: How did this habitual frankness on the topic of sex influence how you discussed sex as a father and now as a grandfather?
FS: Pretty directly. In one sense, she failed miserably. I knew everything there was to know about sex and I still got my 18 year-old girlfriend pregnant. Mom’s theory about sexuality was that it was God-given, but we were supposed to wait until marriage, so we were in direct conflict with her influence. But she spoke very frankly about sex and made it no secret that Dad wanted to go to bed with her every night. I used to ask her why she had to go with him whenever he left for a speaking engagement—I was really hounding her—and she would tell me, “You can’t expect a man to be faithful and your father demands sex every single night.” No question, this sort of honesty with one’s children is exceedingly strange. As a result, I have been a lot more reserved dispensing sex information. You know how the next generation goes the opposite of the one before it. I’m less forward with my children and grandchildren. I can’t imagine showing a condom or a diaphragm to a child the age I was.
ER: You are the son of famous parents, Evangelical royalty, as it were. Your father, Francis Schaeffer, was one of the most influential American theologians of the last century while your mother, Edith Schaeffer, had an enormous following of her own. Both, of course, were bestselling authors. What sort of reaction have you gotten from writing so openly and honestly about them?
FS: I was surprised by the reaction. [While I was writing my novels] I had been like Rip van Winkle—I had slammed the door on the Evangelical world and not paid attention to what was going on. I had not been checking web sites…nobody was calling me. I had been out of the loop. Meanwhile, I had been working with my agent getting novels published, like my more recent novel, Baby Jack. Oprah had me on with Keeping Faith and I did a series of other interviews, but when I came back in, the reaction astounded me. Now, I did get some hate mail, etc. Rush Limbaugh and Fox News called me a traitor. But mainly what I got was former Evangelicals thanking me for telling my story and for being honest. What I learned was that there was a whole movement that back in my day didn’t exist. Back in the hubristic fist in your face religious right, jetting around in Jerry Falwell’s private jet speaking to 23,000 pastors at one venue…in those days, I didn’t run into people expressing their doubts. But 30 years on, Crazy for God has become a bestseller. Turns out there seem to be many thousands of Americans who have traveled out of the ghettos of Evangelicalism.
The bigger story is that it has nothing to do with me. It’s the cultural collision of fundamentalist religions of all kinds and modernity on one hand and science and the fruits of enlightenment on the other hand. Orthodox Jews spitting on schoolgirls in the occupied parts of Palestine or Evangelical homeschoolers specifically trying to prevent their kids from participating in society. Or people calling Obama antireligious because he believes in rights for women. The real story is a collision course between fundamentalists’ reactions and paranoid religions of all kinds—we’re caught up with that—and the people in power catering to a fear that was already there and happy to use the culture wars to gather people who would otherwise not be voting for conservative capitalistic agendas.
ER: You discuss in Sex, Mom and God how the Reconstructionist Movement was instrumental in politicizing the agenda of the Religious Right and moving it into the Republican party – and especially in moving forward the abortion issue. Most people haven’t heard of Reconstructionist thought. Can you please describe for us this influence?
FS: The Reconstructionists, Dominionists, etc., are a strict offshoot of Calvinism. The bottom line is they literally believe in the Old Testament, the stoning to death of homosexuals…the application of biblical law in its harsher sense. They want to turn America into a theocracy. Rousas Rushdoony and his movement (including Gary North and David Chilton) became like a drop of food dye in a bucket of water. He was on the far right. Most people in the Religious Right don’t want to stone homosexuals, but they don’t want them to get married. Or they want to prevent a choice for abortion, etc. Most people in the Religious Right don’t know directly about Rushdoony, but they draw [unwittingly] on Rushdoony’s life work. What he was was the American equivalent of the Islamic Brotherhood in Egypt wanting to impose Islamic sharia law on the world. Today, these ideas have gone very wide.
ER: Rushdoony…was he as nice of a person as he sounds?
FS: He was a pompous ass. He always had people around him, a bunch of brown-nosing sycophants, servile in his presence. I have never met the Ayatollah Khomeni, but I imagine he must have been like the Ayatollah. He was always surrounded by people taking notes, as if every word needed to be recorded. He was putting out tens of thousands of pages, with papers every week….he was very much like the Islamic leaders. And the noise level…he always had something to say whether it be about hem length, art, the Federal Reserve, returning to the gold standard…he was an odd mixture of Ayn Rand individualism combined with Old Testament law. It is shocking to me that more Evangelicals didn’t spend more time denouncing these guys. The big question is…where were the church leaders while he was pushing the idea that Jesus Christ came to earth to stone people?
ER: You helped start the Religious Right movement alongside Presidents Reagan, Ford and Bush, congressman Jack Kemp and preacher Jerry Falwell. Can you share with us an awkward moment?
FS: I was in Jerry Falwell’s jet, flying across the country to various speaking engagements, addressing 23,000 pastors in one place, etc. Dad was with me and he was sitting in one of those oversized leather seats. You know, built for the typical Evangelical leader of girth. The armrest of the chair opened up to a compartment. Dad idly looked in and pulled out a gold plated .45 pistol. We were in a pressurized cabin at 30,000 feet. Even a major gun nut would not think that was such a good idea. Dad and I were scratching our heads asking, why do we have a loaded .45 in a jet? Dad said that at first glance he thought maybe it was a lighter or something, but no. That was when I really realized, we’re in the Twilight Zone.
Another thing that happened: my Dad and I went to meet Pat Robertson in a secret meeting. It was for the Rutherford Institute, of which I was a founding member. It was the late 70s, early 80s. So, in this meeting, Pat Robertson was saying how we need to do something about the slide of the secular culture around us. And we all looked back at him with glassy eyes. Yes, we know, we said. We were always talking about this sort of thing. But he looks at us and says, “I don’t think, gentlemen, you know haw bad it is.” We were all men, of course. Married men leaders in the Evangelical church. So we all asked, “How bad is it?” everyone knowing he’s a loon. He proceeds to tell us that he was at a men’s business association meeting the week before. And he says to us, “All of you, bow your heads. This is between you, me and God”—notice it was between him and God—“How many of you married men are still masturbating? I want all of you to raise your hands”. We all sort of stared at the floor and waited. He exploded, “At this large leadership meeting I was at last week, more than 2/3rds of the men raised their hands. If these married Christian leaders are still masturbating, can you imagine what the state of the rest of the country is?” After the meeting, my father and I came out of the room and Dad turned to me and said, “This man is a certified lunatic.”
Of course, the reason I got out wasn’t from any one instance. Back then I was rolling in money in the Big God Business, and I haven’t since. But one of the main reasons I got out was just aesthetic. I can’t live a whole life around people who are completely crazy.
ER: As you already know, I was raised in the Evangelical church. My parents attended the presidential prayer breakfasts and knew James and Shirley Dobson, etc. As a youth in this time, we were all about being radical for Jesus – obsessed with things like demonic activity and record backmasking, the rapture coming before we got to have sex, being loudly anti-abortion and suspicious of a government who wanted to remove prayer from schools. Both of my parents were highly educated and comparatively moderate. I was the one who pushed a lot of this, as did my peers. Why do you think my generation felt the need to be so “radical”?
FS: There are a lot of factors. At that time, we were on the cusp of a collision of all religions in conjunction with a few Supreme Court rulings, for example Roe v. Wade and Bolton. If the west had been smart enough to follow France and Sweden to be much more moderate, things would be very different today. Before that time, nobody was bombing abortion clinics. Abortion was legal in many states in terms of early pregnancies and for rape victims under Reagan. It was the hubris of the 60s and 70s that bled over—this winner take all attitude—that bled over into this subject in a way that set off more restrictions. Look at Sweden, for example, where abortion is not legal after 12 weeks. Why was it not done this way in the US? To give an excuse to charlatans to raise money and Wall Street has used it to keep Wall Street in power. You also have a racial element. The minority sense of white men being in charge bleeds over to victimization, even if you can change it. And then Evangelicals can raise millions of dollars for the party—and if you try to change things, their platform, everyone says you’re antireligious. It’s a combination, framed in a way that enraged people needlessly. On the right, they’re looking for any excuse, so when they see they’re losing the war on global warming or gay marriage—losing evidence on the basis of science—they begin lashing out on things like gay rights or gun control. It becomes about the “evil media” conspiracy and all this bullshit. Having lost the argument, they turn themselves into victims. The argument then shifts from “We’re right” to “Defending our right to be wrong. It’s our civil liberty.”
ER: At the end of the book, you describe the Service of Forgiveness at the Greek Orthodox church you and your wife now attend – a beautiful ritual in which everyone within the congregation goes to every one else and asks for forgiveness. Why did you place this at the end of “Sex Mom and God”, what are you suggesting to the reader?
FS: You can come through this sort of firestorm and at the same time, you don’t have to be a cynic. There is still value for spirituality, and in looking for community, connection and transcendence. We all do this in different places. I’m not suggesting that people should become Greek Orthodox. Our church is very tolerant, very open, and Genie and I feed on this. But I put this here to strike a blow to taking a cynical approach. There are many approaches you can take that include an open dialogue. You can reach into ancient Byzantine liturgy, for example. You don’t have to be ashamed of that, either. You can be a decent person. I’m not flaying spirituality—and I develop that more in Patience with God in which I address the atheist critique of religion where they basically say “religion sucks so there is no God”. That doesn’t prove there is one or isn’t one. To say religion sucks is just to say another religious institution sucks. I don’t find the New Atheist arguments convincing. It just proves that religious institutions are bad. It doesn’t explain why we long for mystery, art, history, and love.
FS: That’s impossible to answer, so I will choose a far too neglected author: Norman Lewis (Naples 44 and Voices of the Old Sea). I also very much love Philip K. Dick (Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said) Some of his stuff is going to last, while others of it is clichéd, depending on whether he was on or off. But I understand this. Writers can’t always be on, so I forgive him for it. In my late middle age I have been rediscovering Shakespeare, both reading and watching plays. He just plumbs the depth of human psychology and has such a uniquely wonderful voice. My granddaughter recently watched A Midsummer Night’s Dream – and looking at this little girl, seeing her excitement and realizing what she can still discover is wonderful.
ER: Favorite music to listen to?
FS: Bach, Bach and more Bach! Part of that is nostalgia, of course. And then the music of my generation: Jimi Hendrix, the Stones, the Beatles up thru Sergeant Pepper, Jefferson Airplane, Bob Dylan. Solid stuff.
ER: Have you ever heard from “The Girl Who Let Me” since you wrote the book?
FS: No! I have not. I would like to get the book translated into French so that maybe I could find my long, lost first 12 year-old love.
ER: Wine, beer, or soda?
FS: Wine all the way. Red if for the tannins, white if I want a more sophisticated feel. I have 3-4 glasses in the afternoon starting around 3:00. I always say, it’s 5:30 somewhere! And then Genie and I will go watch a movie or something at 6:30 or so.
ER: Favorite comedian?
FS: Eddie Izzard (Dressed to Kill). Ricky Gervais is great, too. And Woody Allen as a director and stand-up.
ER: What are you working on now?
FS: I’m going back to fiction – a piece I’ve been working on and off for 15 years now. It’s set in the end of the apartheid era and involves three delusional subcultures crashing into one: the last of the whites hanging on to apartheid, a delusional evangelical and a failed movie director.
A shortened version of this interview appears on TheNervousBreakdown.com.