In the years since his death in 1984 it’s been interesting to watch and listen as people have claimed, explicitly or implicitly, to be carrying on the legacy of Francis Schaeffer.
I am not including here those who continue to serve as Workers in L’Abri Fellowship, the study communities that grew out of the conversations and hospitality the Schaeffers offered a growing number of young adults who trekked to their chalet in Switzerland beginning in the mid-fifties. The work of L’Abri continues, and though the shape of that work in the various centers in Europe, America, and Asia has not remained static, it consciously and intentionally stands on the shoulders of Edith and Francis who walked that path originally. As someone who honors Francis Schaeffer as a mentor, I happily remember him as a teacher who invested untold hours in listening to my questions and discussing the world with its trends and ideas that help shape lives and cultures. I think—I hope—I learned from him, and want to try to faithfully put into practice the best that I learned from and saw in him. I have no illusions, on the other hand, of continuing Schaeffer’s legacy—that role is best assumed not by me but by those in L’Abri and by Jerram Barrs, Resident Scholar of the Francis A. Schaeffer Institute at Covenant Theological Seminary in St Louis.
What I’ve found interesting are people who are outside L’Abri but who invoke the Schaeffer name as a sort of imprimatur to provide gravitas for their own ideas and work. The ones I'm referring to here are found on the conservative or right wing of the American political continuum, and are active in promoting what’s come to be called the “culture war.”
And I must say that as I have watched and listened as people active in conservative culture war politics claim Schaeffer’s legacy, I am not impressed. Here are three reasons.
1. Culture wars and worldviews. When James Davison Hunter published Culture Wars in 1992 he was reporting on a sociological reality, not issuing a call to political activism. Hunter is a careful observer of American society and understood that the divisions over economic, social, religious, and political issues arise primarily not due to pragmatic reasons or because people are uninformed, but because the American people hold widely differing worldviews that inform their views on the issues. This insight should have helped Christians concerned for truth and culture to remember what Schaeffer had insisted on all along, namely that everyone holds a world and life view, that challenging another’s worldview must be approached with compassion in an intentionally safe community where people love and care for one another, and that though the history of ideas is crucial for discussing worldviews, worldviews are far more than simply ideas that can be debated. Instead, conservative culture warriors claiming Schaeffer’s legacy have done the opposite: they ratcheted up their rhetoric in the public square, declared war to take back the culture, and started attacking liberals, secularists, environmentalists, and anyone else who dared question their conservative ideology and agenda as the ones against whom the worldview war must be fought. Just the opposite of what Schaeffer stood for, demonstrated, and taught.
2. Faithful citizenship and politicizing life. Throughout his life Schaeffer argued that because Christ is Lord of all, Christianity has something substantial to say into every sphere of life and reality. This included politics, so that unlike the earlier withdrawal from involvement in politics led by evangelical leaders after the Second Great awakening, Christians could and should see the call to politics as a legitimate vocation and fulfill their duty as citizens being motivated to seek the common good for all. Instead, conservative culture warriors have (along with more progressive believers) politicized life, making politics the central animating focus for seeking to change the world. One symptom of politicization is when people judge another’s moral integrity on the basis of their voting or party affiliation. As James Davison Hunter puts it in his latest book, To Change the World (2010), “the public has been conflated with the political” (p. 168). This in the end not only dismisses the richly nuanced nature of human existence and human society by reducing all spheres of life to the political, it is a practical denial of Christ’s Lordship. When Schaeffer called for Christians to be faithful as citizens he did so while calling them to be faithful across all of life and culture, and from that perspective only a tiny slice is in any way even remotely connected to politics. Another symptom of politicization is when the discussion of every societal or human problem rather quickly resolves into a discussion of politics. The political sphere of life has dignity and is significant, but in reality its scope is extremely limited.
3. Conservative ideology and caring for the earth. It is not surprising that the book by Schaeffer that conservative culture warriors seldom quote is one of the most significant if someone is to claim his legacy. Because Schaeffer’s thinking and living was informed by Scripture rather than by political ideology he wrote Pollution and the Death of Man (1972). The book is made up of two themes. First, Schaeffer refutes the charge that the Christian view of creation is to blame for the ecological degradation found in the modern West by elevating the value of the “spiritual” over the “physical.” And second, Schaeffer goes on to show how Christians must care for the earth because the earth is the Lord’s, we are stewards, and the physical matters because God said it was good. The physical world matters not just a little, but a great deal. How great? Schaeffer gives a specific. “One does not deface things simply to deface them. One would not willingly with no reason deface a rock. After all, the rock has a God-given right to be a rock as He made it. If you must move the rock in order to build the foundation of a house, then, by all means, move it. But on a walk in the woods do not strip the moss from it for no reason and leave it to lie by the side and die. Even the moss has a right to live. It is equal with man as a creature of God.” Instead, conservative culture warriors have adopted an ideology that is broadly understood to be cynical about scientific research, to be insensitive to caring for the earth, and is unwilling to act on the obvious truth that environmental degradation is a cost that must be factored into plans for economic development. Schaeffer was correct to argue in Pollution and the Death of Man against the charge that the biblical understanding of creation leads to an elevation of the “spiritual” at the expense of the physical. Unfortunately, the charge can be made today that conservative culture warriors claiming Schaeffer’s legacy have elevated the political over the biblical at the expense of caring for the earth as God’s stewards, even at cost. My goodness, I have spoken with environmentalists less radical than Schaeffer—notice he compared human beings to moss and a rock, and insisted they have, as creatures, equal value.
I’ll let Schaeffer have the final word:
“As far as living is concerned, we are on the knife-edge of time. What will matter is our relationship to the Lord Jesus, individually and then corporately, at this existential moment. What counts, as [people] look upon us... is whether we are exhibiting God and his character, now. The Christian position is not static, but living” [The God Who is There (p. 155)].