Francis Schaeffer: American Evangelical Hero - OZY | A Modern Media Company

Francis Schaeffer: American Evangelical Hero

Francis Schaeffer: American Evangelical Hero

By Lorena O'Neil

Portrait of Francis and Edith Shaeffer.


The Hobby Lobby Supreme Court case has put a spotlight on evangelicalism in America. Today’s religious right owes a debt to pastor Francis Schaeffer, but would he approve of the legacy he left behind?

By Lorena O'Neil

It would be easy to define Francis Schaeffer as just a right-wing fundamentalist whose influence led American evangelical Christians to take up arms in the pro-life movement. Easy, but also wrong.

Born in Pennsylvania in 1912 and popular in the 1960s and 1970s, the late gray-haired, goateed Schaeffer was an American evangelical theologian, Presbyterian pastor and political activist. He wrote books and traveled around the world with his wife, Edith, giving speeches on his belief that the Bible was never wrong and that its principles should be reflected in everything, including art and music. He lived a large part of his life in Switzerland, but in the United States, he is most remembered for his part in spurring American evangelicals to join the fight against abortion.

People like Jerry Falwell wouldn’t have become anti-abortion crusaders if it were not for him.

”His lectures, books, and documentary films helped convince American evangelicals that it was their duty to save a crumbling, godless Western civilization — and doing so required getting into politics, particularly the pro-life movement,” explains Molly Worthen, author of Apostles of Reason: The Crisis of Authority in American Evangelicalism

Prior to the ’80s, Worthen explains, opposition to abortion was seen as a Catholic cause, and most evangelical Christians were moderate in their position. ”Schaeffer played a major role in convincing them that abortion was murder and that it had to be a key fight in the culture wars,” she says.

Schaeffer’s son Frank agrees. “People like Jerry Falwell wouldn’t have become anti-abortion crusaders if it were not for Dad’s work,” he says.

This was also a man who created an ’evangelical-run hippie commune.’

Schaeffer’s views have made a lasting impression, but there is more to his legacy: In 1955 he founded the L’Abri community in Switzerland. This was also a man who created an “evangelical-run hippie commune,” his son says.Frank says his dad was radicalized by the Roe v. Wade decision in 1973. Frank directed his father in their 1977 documentary How Should We Then Live?, which is a popular series of 10 episodes attacking the Italian Renaissance, the Enlightenment and Darwin. The film has influenced a number of American evangelical leaders, including Michele Bachmann. The first half of the series focuses on art and culture, while in the second half Schaeffer talks about the U.S. government controlling its citizens. (Frank has since written memoirs about leaving evangelicalism, including Crazy for GodHow I Grew Up As One of the Elect, Helped Found the Religious Right and Lived to Take All (or Almost All) of It Back.)

L’Abri is a Christian commune and study center in the Swiss Alps founded by the Schaeffers decades before Francis began rallying the anti-abortion movement. Young Christians and atheists alike still go there to study and discuss philosophy, art and music. Students like Briton Colin Duriez, who studied under Schaeffer and eventually wrote his biography.

Duriez says Schaeffer ”was trying to get people to look at the modern world through Biblical eyes.” Schaeffer encouraged people at L’Abri to listen to popular music like Bob Dylan and the Beatles and to discuss art and existentialism. The center held film and poetry festivals, including people reciting poems with curse words in the chapel. Frank says his parents welcomed the many LGBT people living in the community.

We helped make a movement that went totally off the rails and, of course, politically is still going now.

— Frank Schaeffer, son of Francis Schaeffer

“He had a wide-ranging view of things which people have taken in a very narrow way,” says Duriez. According to Frank, his dad’s legacy needs “rescuing” from the American religious right who now idolize him. “My dad would not have liked the tea party,” says Frank. ”The fact that the last seven or eight years [of his life made him] a hero on the religious right because of his stand on abortion is kind of a footnote in his whole life.” 

“A lot of people who say they have been influenced by Schaeffer don’t care two cents about the fact the climate is changing, and there are so many nuclear weapons in the world, and the terrible refugee problem in Syria,” says Duriez. “Whereas [Schaeffer] would be in tears if he heard what was happening in other parts of the world.”

As both Frank and Duriez point out, Schaeffer wrote a book about Christian environmentalism and the danger of pollution back in 1970. But the book he is more widely known for is the Christian Manifesto, published in 1981, which some people interpret as calling for nonviolent civil disobedience to restore Biblical morality.

“Later on in his life when he got to defending the unborn child, that was an extension of his message of compassion to all human beings and living thing under the Lordship of Christ,” says Duriez. 

Reflecting on the bombings of abortion clinics, Frank says that, while he doesn’t believe his father instigated all of the “terrible things that happened,” he both places and takes responsibility. ”We helped make a movement that went totally off the rails and, of course, politically is still going now.”

The Hobby Lobby case has put the meaning of religious freedom in the U.S. back into the national debate — and perhaps, over in the Swiss Alps, the disenchanted evangelicals now at L’Abri are criticizing the political American evangelicals Schaeffer helped inspire. Both groups are equal parts of his complex legacy.

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