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Thursday, July 7, 2011

Sex and Mom and God

A Memoir of the Christian Right

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The literature of self-rebuke is not as voluminous as it should be, given the catastrophes inflicted on the world by literate people with big ideas. Frank Schaeffer, who emerged in the 1980s with the Young Turks of the Christian Right, has grown into rueful middle age with his sense of sarcasm sharpened. He explored some of this territory before in his previous memoir, Crazy for God, an account of his uncommon upbringing during the '60s at an evangelical Christian commune in Switzerland. His parents, who became stars of the Moral Majority, were literate and sophisticated people forever trying to square their love of culture with their love for the misshapen God of John Calvin.

Eventually, the contrary pull between his creative imagination (Schaeffer has been painter and filmmaker as well as author) and the theo-political agenda of the Christian Right tore him apart. He repented, did an about face by the mid-'90s and has since waged verbal war on his former comrades in intolerance.


Schaeffer's latest memoir, the provocatively titled Sex, Mom and God (Da Capo), dips into the same well as Crazy for God and draws irony and venom from its depths. But none of the venom (and only a spoonful of irony) is meant for mom. Edith Schaeffer “was the greatest illustration of the Divine beauty of Paradox I've encountered,” he writes. “She was a fundamentalist living a double life as a lover of beauty who broke all her judgmental rules in favor of creativity.”


Schaeffer can add that unlike many sweaty palmed, guilty fundamentalists: “I also think that Mom—bless her—LIKED sex.” It's just that her family's odd ideas bout God, a supreme being who doesn't especially like sex and predetermines eternal damnation for the majority of humanity, painted her into an awkward corner.


After coming of age, Schaeffer joined in the family business of evangelism and found a wider audience through the media-adept Moral Majority and its parallel universe of big ideas and institutions. In the “abandonment of the country they call home,” as Schaeffer puts it, the American evangelicals erected a true counterculture of radio and TV channels, bookstores, rosters of “Christian professionals” and universities. The evangelicals favored home schooling to keep their children from the clutches of public education. They had no regard for the American commonwealth beyond their own ghetto, fenced by their notion of a raging, intolerant deity.


Schaeffer nails the connection between their angry dogma and the violence of Timothy McVeigh as well as the ballot-driven crusade of the Tea Party. “What the Religious Right did was contribute to a climate in which the very legitimacy of our government—perhaps any government—was questioned.” Although the libertarian wing of the Tea Party doesn't share all the presumptions of the evangelicals, the Christian Right cleared the field where the weeds of distrust could flourish.


Hungry for a better God than the deity of his parents, Schaeffer converted to Eastern Orthodoxy, a faith that has produced its portion of fanatics over the millennia but whose essence is expressed through the arts of painting and music and whose inescapably mystical dimension has enriched many lives through fostering a sense of connection with the universe and all those other people stumbling with a candle through the darkness of the unknown.


As for the Christian Right and its mobilizing issue, abortion, Schaeffer declares that the average member has been duped and never realizes “that the logic of their 'stand'… played into the hands of people who never cared about human lives beyond the fact that people could be sold product.” While these sincere folks waved their “Abortion is Murder” banners or stood in line to buy Sarah Palin's book, “it was the denizens of the corner offices at Goldman Sachs, the News CorporatIon, Exxon, and Haliburton who were laughing.”