Commentary Abortion

STOKING FIRE: Frank Schaeffer’s New Book Takes Muddled and Condescending Approach to Abortion

Eleanor J. Bader

Schaeffer's latest book, Sex, Mom, & God: How the Bible’s Strange Take on Sex Led to Crazy Politics—and How I Learned to Love Women (and Jesus) Anyway (Da Capo Press), continues to dissect fundamentalist belief systems.

When Frank Schaeffer’s Crazy for God was published in 2007, leaders of the religious right railed against the expose and dubbed the author a mendacious turncoat.

This was not surprising. In fact, as Schaeffer–a former heir apparent to Evangelical leadership–made the transition from Christian conservative to Christian liberal, he angered more than a few former colleagues. His revelations about how the Bible is used to manipulate the flock, and his condemnation of evangelical hypocrisy, sent high-flying sparks into religious circles.

His latest book, Sex, Mom, & God: How the Bible’s Strange Take on Sex Led to Crazy Politics—and How I Learned to Love Women (and Jesus) Anyway (Da Capo Press), continues to dissect fundamentalist belief systems. Part memoir, part revelation about Evangelical pathology, and part prescription for theological sanity, the book has much to recommend it. At the same time, the often-hilarious narrative is downright maddening on the subject of abortion.

Frank Schaeffer came by his conservatism naturally. The only son of Francis and Edith Schaeffer, he was reared in L’Abri, a Christian retreat center in the Swiss Alps. His father, Francis—an authoritarian wife-and-child abuser—is credited with moving fundamentalist Protestants into anti-choice politics. His 1979 What Ever Happened to the Human Race?, co-authored with former Surgeon General C. Everett Koop, motivated his followers to block clinic entrances and antagonize patients and clinicians.

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Schaeffer entered the inner sanctum of fundamentalism in 1969 when he became his dad’s errand boy-slash-sidekick. He took this position—AKA the path of least resistance–after accidently impregnating his girlfriend. Before he knew what hit him Schaeffer went from horny 17-year-old to father/husband. In short order he was hob-knobbing with Reconstructionist kingpins Rousas Rushdoony and Gary North and becoming increasingly mired in a worldview that championed a return to Old Testament morality. Although uncertainty had begun to creep in, Schaeffer writes that, “The more doubts I had the further to the Right I moved ideologically, as if shouting and demonizing any who disagreed with me would solve my real problem: The growing realization that the Bible is horribly flawed.”

Instead, Schaeffer focused on Roe, writing that he made the 1973 Supreme Court decision the focal point of his rightward tilt. In retrospect, Schaeffer is appalled at the movement’s comparisons between abortion and Hitler’s genocide, and, to his credit, he apologizes for his role in revving up the troops to commit violence and murder. His breast beating then goes a step further, and he concedes that the Right has for nearly 40 years used the abortion issue—and code words like family values, life, and choice–to keep financially afloat. “A multi-billion dollar industry grew from the anti-abortion movement’s roots,” he writes. “Its sole business became the winding up of white middle-and-lower-middle-class undereducated fundamentalists and their fellow patriotic secular Libertarian far right travelers. “

He, himself, admits to raising more than $5 million to make two antiabortion documentary films. Then, he writes, he began to see the light.

After Francis’s death in 1984, Schaeffer confesses that he could no longer suppress the apprehensions that had been dogging him for years; slowly but surely he left the fold and began rethinking his beliefs about faith, piety, and sexuality. Twenty-five years later, he supports LGBTQ rights and comprehensive sex education and opposes racial and economic injustice. “Worshipping a ‘God’ who sniffs around women’s menstrual cycles, hands virgins to warriors to be raped as a reward, worries about who ejaculates where, wants unmarried women who lose their virginity (pre-marriage) stoned to death, and recommends castration so that men can become eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven, is the sort of ‘God’ who winds up attracting the worst sorts of nuts to His ‘cause,’” he quips.

Sure enough—and beautifully said.

But this makes Schaeffer’s continued reservations about abortion all the more loathsome. “Roe has remained a perpetual insult to many Americans,” he begins. “This wound won’t heal. Abortion rights rulings were not like civil rights rulings wherein there was plenty of Biblical material within various religious traditions to move people’s hearts to accept men and women of other races as brothers and sisters. There is nothing warm and fizzy about abortion. Doing unto others doesn’t translate well into eliminating a fetus.”

Schaeffer’s solution is to restrict abortion to 12 weeks–“cases of fetal deformity, rape, incest, and/or threat to the mother’s life excepted.” He also trumpets the creation of medical panels to adjudicate the cases of women seeking second or third trimester procedures. For reasons that remain unclear, Schaeffer believes this “compromise” will silence anti-choice naysayers and curtail sidewalk picketers. The suggestion is both offensive and naïve, since a quick perusal of present-day restrictions–from Medicaid cutoffs to waiting periods, from mandatory lectures about the dangers of pregnancy termination to parental notification requirements–have done absolutely nothing to stifle anti-choice terrorism or harassment.

Worse, he fails to recognize that groups like the American Life League, Operation Rescue, Operation Save America, and 40 Days for Life, to name just a handful of the most vitriolic, are thoroughly uninterested in finding common ground. For them—it’s all or nothing.

Warm and fuzzy? What about essential and empowering? Or thoughtfully requested? Or medically or psychologically necessary? Or—you fill in the blank—adding your own reason for choosing to end an ill-timed pregnancy.

Indeed, Schaeffer’s muddled—and condescending–posture on abortion weakens Sex, Mom, & God and reveals a profound gaffe in an otherwise rational, incisive, and entertaining analysis of what’s wrong with the Right. He, and the editors who green-lighted his copy, should be ashamed.

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