What’s wrong with America? According to Frank Schaeffer, God is. In a recent post entitled “I Blame God for the Shutdown” he concludes that the real problem in America is religious delusion. Senator Ted Cruz and his cadre of grandstanding Republicans are not motivated by concern for the economy, but by deranged religious zeal. All this could be avoided if Americans would only reason and not be ruled by blind faith.
Schaeffer even goes so far to lament the failure of secularism and compare America to “fundamentalist Islamic countries trying to impose Sharia law.”
Frank Schaeffer and I have much in common. We were raised in a very conservative evangelical world, left that world for a liturgical tradition, and share many frustrations with the Church in America. Unfortunately, it is there that the similarities end. Schaeffer has developed a prideful hate for his former life and for all those who were party to it. The pronoun “I” has probably never been used more than in the writings of Frank Schaeffer. From two of his latest postsalone the reader learns of when “I was speaking to tens of thousands of people…” and how “I understand it from the inside and better than the editors of the New York Times do…” and his classic “I watched and participated during the 1970s and 80s as fundamentalist religion shaped American politics.” Indeed, the very name of Schaeffer’s blog is “Why I Still Talk to Jesus – In Spite of Everything.”
Schaeffer believes the problem is the Church’s failure to adopt enlightenment thinking. If only American Christians would use reason there would be no anti-intellectual establishments like the Creation Museum nor would there be any wooden insistence on laissez faire capitalism. The solution to these problems, however, is not to be found in the enlightenment. In fact, neither of them existed until the enlightenment. Poison is rarely its own antidote.
First, there is Schaeffer’s complaint regarding the Church’s embrace of capitalism or “trickle-down economics.” As those terms are currently understood, I also share a general distrust of those who tell us to blindly trust in unseen hands. Only my skepticism of capitalism is not because it old, but because it is new. Contrary to popular belief, free men and free societies existed long before the enlightenment thinkers. However, it is only since the enlightenment that commoditization has spilled over into areas that were previously considered sacred. The enlightenment declared that nothing may stand on a pedestal or an alter. The only effective counter of consumerism, or the belief that all value is subjective, is to believe in objective truth, goodness, and beauty. These things are all found in orthodoxy while the reductionism of the enlightenment leaves Schaeffer without a leg to stand on.
Next, there is the complaint against the Creation Museums and the anti-intellectualism they exemplify. Once again, I too admit the unfortunate existence of anti-intellectualism in the Church. However, is the enlightenment really the solution to this? One quick look at history will reveal the first Creation Museum was built post-enlightenment. The pre-enlightenment world actually experienced a good deal of debate on the subject. Augustine and Aquinas disagreed on the number of days in creation, and in his commentary on Genesis John Calvin famously told his readers to look elsewhere for questions about science. In our own age, C.S. Lewis and G.K. Chesterton left the matter open for debate with the latter declaring that the question of the earth’s age is irrelevant for a God who is outside of time. It was not until after the enlightenment that people demanded absolute loyalty in adamantly opposed camps.
I empathize with Schaeffer’s frustrations, but he is looking for answers in all the wrong places. The antidote to what ails our world is not what brought us to this point. In Schaeffer’s defense, this fact is lost on many American Christians whose pride often leads to an unfortunate transmutation of values. The antidote to pride is repentance – a habit that is lost by both the world and the Church. We have adopted the enlightenment emphasis on “I.” For the truly penitent, when answering the question “what’s wrong with the world,” the only proper use of the word “I” is to place it before the word “am.”
This article first appeared on the Institute on Religion and Democracy’s blog and is used with permission.