In Bachmann Attack, Ryan Lizza Smears Francis Schaeffer

by Benjamin Domenech on 10:03 am August 8, 2011

The New Yorker‘s Ryan Lizza has a long, meandering piece on Michele Bachmann out today, making her out to be the fringiest of the fringe figures on the fringe–not so much on politics (this goes without saying), but in terms of religion.

In the course of this survey of influences on Bachmann’s faith–much of which relies on little more than book recommendations and offhand approving comments by the Minnesotan as a justification for listings of the worst things Lizza can find on Google about each individual–Lizza cherrypicks quotes and relies overwhelmingly on out of context arguments to attack several figures familiar to many in evangelical communities. Offering precious little new insight into the candidate or her politics, it’s readily evident the piece really isn’t about Bachmann at all. Lizza’s goal is obvious: it isn’t enough to depict these evangelical Christians as wrong about things–the media has been doing that for years, with little impact. For Lizza to write that these individuals are stupid or intolerant or anti-science isn’t anything new. So they have to be depicted as dangerous, too.

It’d be a waste of time to try and correct Lizza on these points (any more than it was to correct the New Yorker on their bizarre Da Vinci Code-like writings about the Koch brothers) or argue with him on the sheer level of ignorance within the piece. So let’s just look at one: a specific and clearly incorrect point that Lizza writes about Francis Schaeffer.

In an extensive portion of the piece, Lizza writes about Schaeffer and his L’Abri program (the only connection to Bachmann that Lizza notes is that she and her husband watched Schaeffer’s film series). My eyebrow rose when I read this line:

In 1981, three years before he died, Schaeffer published “A Christian Manifesto,” a guide for Christian activism, in which he argues for the violent overthrow of the government if Roe v. Wade isn’t reversed.

I personally don’t share many of Schaeffer’s views, or the views of the other figures Lizza writes about. But having read the Manifesto and extensive essays about it in the context of helping write a book on the decline of mainline Christianity and the rise of evangelicals, I find this depiction of Schaeffer’s position is just a vicious smear.

What Schaeffer called for were acts of civil disobedience if Roe v. Wade was not overturned. He repeatedly and specifically stressed that violence was not justified – “overreaction can too easily become the ugly horror of sheer violence”, he wrote. His four responses to Roe, as outlined in the Manifesto, were 1. supporting a human life amendment to the Constitution, 2. seeking the overturn of Roe and Doe in the courts, 3. bringing legal pressure to bear on abortion clinics and conducting peaceful protests, and 4. offering Christian alternatives, such as crisis pregnancy clinics, to urge women toward adoption or keeping the child instead. These responses may seem out of bounds to someone writing for The New Yorker, but they have been the responses of the pro-life cause–one which now represents the views of a plurality of Americans according to Gallup–for decades.

Schaeffer outlines his views explicitly in these remarks in 1982, based on the Manifesto–with a call for civil disobedience, based on the actions of the early Christian church:

Now, I come toward the close, and that is that we must recognize something from the Scriptures, and that’s why I had that Scripture read that I had read tonight. When the government negates the law of God, it abrogates its authority. God has given certain offices to restrain chaos in this fallen world, but it does not mean that these offices are autonomous, and when a government commands that which is contrary to the Law of God, it abrogates its authority.

Throughout the whole history of the Christian Church, (and again I wish people knew their history. In A Christian Manifesto I stress what happened in the Reformation in reference to all this) at a certain point, it is not only the privilege but it is the duty of the Christian to disobey the government. Now that’s what the founding fathers did when they founded this country. That’s what the early Church did. That’s what Peter said. You heard it from the Scripture: “Should we obey man?… rather than God?” That’s what the early Christians did.

Occasionally — no, often, people say to me, “But the early Church didn’t practice civil disobedience.” Didn’t they? You don’t know your history again. When those Christians that we all talk about so much allowed themselves to be thrown into the arena, when they did that, from their view it was a religious thing. They would not worship anything except the living God. But you must recognize from the side of the Roman state, there was nothing religious about it at all — it was purely civil. The Roman Empire had disintegrated until the only unity it had was its worship of Caesar. You could be an atheist; you could worship the Zoroastrian religion… You could do anything. They didn’t care. It was a civil matter, and when those Christians stood up there and refused to worship Caesar, from the side of the state, they were rebels. They were in civil disobedience and they were thrown to the beasts. They were involved in civil disobedience, as much as your brothers and sisters in the Soviet Union are. When the Soviet Union says that, by law, they cannot tell their children, even in their home about Jesus Christ, they must disobey and they get sent off to the mental ward or to Siberia. It’s exactly the same kind of civil disobedience that’s represented in a very real way by the thing I am wearing on my lapel tonight. [Ed. - Earlier in his remarks, Schaeffer references the Solidarity pin he's wearing - L'Abri students had sent an eight ton truck of food and supplies to Poland's resistance.]

Every appropriate legal and political governmental means must be used. “The final bottom line”– I have invented this term in A Christian Manifesto. I hope the Christians across this country and across the world will really understand what the Bible truly teaches: The final bottom line! The early Christians, every one of the reformers (and again, I’ll say in A Christian Manifesto I go through country after country and show that there was not a single place with the possible exception of England, where the Reformation was successful, where there wasn’t civil disobedience and disobedience to the state), the people of the Reformation, the founding fathers of this country, faced and acted in the realization that if there is no place for disobeying the government, that government has been put in the place of the living God. In such a case, the government has been made a false god. If there is no place for disobeying a human government, what government has been made GOD.

Caesar, under some name, thinking of the early Church, has been put upon the final throne. The Bible’s answer is NO! Caesar is not to be put in the place of God and we as Christians, in the name of the Lordship of Christ, and all of life, must so think and act on the appropriate level. It should always be on the appropriate level. We have lots of room to move yet with our court cases, with the people we elect — all the things that we can do in this country. If, unhappily, we come to that place, the appropriate level must also include a disobedience to the state.

Schaeffer’s position takes far more from MLK’s letter from a Birmingham jail (“One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws.”) than it does from any crazed individual bent on violent overthrow of the government. Is there really no distinction between the support of civil disobedience, legal political action, and non-violent protest–the elements of nearly every social justice movement in the history of the world–with “the violent overthrow of the government”, in Lizza’s words? Or does that distinction only vanish when the movement in question is aimed at abortion, as opposed to some other cause?

One final note: given that Lizza quotes Frank Schaeffer in the piece–who has spent much of his life urinating on his father’s grave–and who has made this false claim before, it’s possible he’s just repeating it without having read the work in question. But I’m sure Lizza wouldn’t do something so unprofessional before writing something this provocative.

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