GRAPEVINE, Texas (BP)–Ronald Reagan owes the late Francis Schaeffer a posthumous thank-you, which he may have already delivered. Heaven only knows.
Others owe Schaeffer a debt of gratitude, too, including George W. Bush and hundreds of others elected to public office in the last three decades because of religious conservative voters.
Of course, politics and politicians don’t transform hearts through laws, but their work matters in the pursuit of liberty and justice for all. Most important, it matters to God.
Along that line, one temporal victory that stands tall of late is the Supreme Court’s decision against the barbaric procedure known as partial-birth abortion.
That decision on April 18 and the passing of Jerry Falwell on May 15 remind me of Schaeffer’s lasting legacy. Regrettably, a few so-called Christian Reconstructionists have taken Schaeffer’s ideas beyond what he intended, but most folks rightly grasp his call to a holistic witness.
In the 1970s, Schaeffer, a knickers-wearing Presbyterian minister, intellectual giant and prolific writer, and C. Everett Koop, a physician who later would become U.S. surgeon general, produced a book and video series called “Whatever Happened to the Human Race?”
In it, they examined how the rejection of the doctrine of man made in God’s image resulted in a devaluing of human life.
The effect of their work, lamenting modernism’s ruinous effects, challenged a few evangelicals, but not most — at least not immediately.
Southern Baptists, for example, were on record supporting abortion rights as late as 1976. Our ethics agency presented abortion as a sometimes necessary evil. Thankfully, the SBC officially reversed itself in the 1980s.
Meanwhile, a young independent Baptist preacher from Lynchburg, Va., was evolving from a fundamentalist separatist into a cultural icon.
In 2004, as Falwell reflected on his years of ministry in a sermon at Prestonwood Baptist Church in Plano, he paid homage to Schaeffer as the one who roused him to cultural engagement.
Again in February he noted Schaeffer’s influence on him when asked about it during a brief interview at the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention’s evangelism conference.
He told about visiting with Schaeffer and Koop in Virginia and coming away with a fresh view of how Christians could positively engage the world in various arenas.
A few years later, Falwell founded the Moral Majority, an organization whose cause resonated with most evangelicals and even some Roman Catholics, as social issues — most prominently abortion but also encompassing extreme secularism and fallout issues from the so-called sexual revolution — drew religious conservatives in from the political margins.
At the least, Reagan’s election in 1980 and his socially conservative agenda were aided by Falwell and the millions his movement helped mobilize.
Often provocative, especially in the early days, Falwell activated even those who may have squirmed a bit at his occasional verbal overindulgences.
Falwell’s style differed from Schaeffer, but the movement Falwell helped birth has created a consensus among evangelicals that human life is sacred, and that believers must continually beckon the pagan world through words and deeds in every sphere of life, towards a culture that more closely resembles Eden, and to the Christ who redeems.
Those are grandiose goals, but it is the Christian mandate and the greatest apologetic, Schaeffer believed.
Leaders who have risen up since — people such as Richard Land, R. Albert Mohler Jr., James Dobson, even Rick Warren — are marked by Falwell’s influence, which points back to Schaeffer.
If nothing else, Schaeffer should be remembered as a catalytic agent when reflecting on the influence of evangelicals on American culture and government.
As a post-script, it’s worth noting that Falwell’s private charity toward his opponents is mostly unsung, which is a shame.
In the obits that flooded the Internet the week of his death, the words of a Newsweek magazine reporter stood out as cheeky:
“Opponents would call him a vicious and unforgiving bully.”
But the stereotype of the public Falwell is incongruent with the private man, who often extended kindness toward his detractors as quickly as he sometimes shot zingers in a debate.
In a 2003 videotaped interview, Hustler magazine publisher Larry Flynt told Baptist minister Bob Harrington: “After all these years, the Rev. Jerry Falwell and I have become friends and we talk frequently. He knows what he’s selling and I know what I’m selling.”
Flynt released a statement May 15 after Falwell’s death uttering similar sympathies.
Hustler maliciously parodied Falwell, which led to a defamation lawsuit against Flynt in 1988 that Falwell eventually lost in the Supreme Court.
Later, Falwell befriended Flynt as the pair debated on college campuses
over First Amendment rights and responsibilities, causing Flynt to
write in the Los Angeles Times May 20, “We steered our conversations
away from politics, but religion was within bounds. He wanted to save
me and was determined to get me out of ‘the business.'”
Of all the eulogies, this one is a cogent reminder of the radical call for saved beggars to help lost beggars find salvation. I can’t think of a better legacy.