And not on their deathbeds but while still alive. Rob Boston has an interesting article about three former religious right leaders – Frankie Schaeffer, John Whitehead and Cal Thomas – who have rejected the religious right that they helped to build. And these guys are not bit players. Schaeffer is the son of Francis Schaeffer, the most influential theologian among the American Christian right by far. Cal Thomas was the vice president of the Moral Majority. John Whitehead founded the Council on National Policy, perhaps the most powerful behind-the-scenes group among the religious right. Some of the quotes from Schaeffer’s new book are priceless. Like this one:
“Pat Robertson would have had a hard time finding work in any job where hearing voices is not a requirement.”
Ouch. Or this one:
“There were three kinds of evangelical leaders: The dumb or idealistic ones who really believed. The out-and-out charlatans. And the smart ones who still believed — sort of — but knew that the evangelical world was shit, but who couldn’t figure out any way to earn as good a living anywhere else.”
Or this one:
“What I slowly realized was that the religious-right leaders we were helping to gain power were not ‘conservatives’ at all, in the old sense of the word. They were anti-American religious revolutionaries.”
Here’s some of what Whitehead has had to say recently:
Taking a more nuanced view, Whitehead outlined his thinking last year in a slim volume published by the Rutherford Institute titled God Is A Four-Letter Word. In the book, Whitehead reminds readers that Jesus was not interested in the accumulation of political power.
“Although it is a valued and necessary part of the process in a democracy, the ballot box is not the answer to mankind’s ills,” Whitehead writes. “And Christians who place their hope in a political answer to the world’s ills often become nothing more than another tool in the politician’s toolbox. Indeed, Jesus refused any type of involvement with political figures.”
In a recent Liberty magazine article, Whitehead scored the Religious Right for making Christianity synonymous with “partisan politics, anti-homosexual rhetoric, affluent megachurches, and moralistic finger-pointing.”
This is quite a change for a man who once wrote, as Whitehead did in 1982, that the Supreme Court “rejected Judeo-Christian theism as the religion and foundation of the United States” when it struck down religious qualifications for public office at the state level in 1961.
And this passage I think is important:
What happened? In interviews for this report, both Schaeffer and Whitehead described the factors that led them to move away from the Religious Right — the constant emphasis on far-right politics, the refusal of Religious Right leaders to examine issues like poverty and care of the needy and the crude attacks on the arts.
Both men also described personal spiritual journeys that led them to new paths. Schaeffer joined the Greek Orthodox Church. Whitehead speaks of embracing a Christianity that reflects Jesus’ teaching about the need to serve those in need and work for peace. (Whitehead is a sharp critic of the Iraq War.) Schaeffer and Whitehead remain committed Christians, but both no longer think government is the proper agent to spread that message.
Here’s why I think this is important. We need to stop thinking of Christianity as a single institution and recognize that there are multiple Christianities. And some forms of Christianity are dangerous (reconstructionism, for example) while others are benign or even provocative of some valuable ways of thinking (Quakerism, for example). And I think it’s good that leaders like Schaeffer and Whitehead are arguing publicly for a more benign form of Christianity. Frankly, I think they’re far more likely to succeed in reaching those Christians who’ve been caught up in the more dangerous forms of Christianity than non-Christians will ever be at reaching them. So three cheers for these guys for taking the stand they have.