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People & Ideas: Francis Schaeffer

Francis Schaeffer

A Presbyterian minister, maverick theologian and prolific author, Francis Schaeffer is credited with providing American evangelicals the intellectual framework that encouraged them to enter the political arena in the 1970s.

In 1955, Schaeffer and his wife, Edith, moved to Switzerland and founded L'Abri, meaning "shelter," a small community that served as a spiritual oasis for young people and philosophical wanderers. With his long hair, goatee, knickers and knee socks, he appeared the embodiment of the counterculture, a man equally at ease quoting the songs of Bob Dylan or passages from Scripture. He loved art -- music, painting and sculpture.

What Schaeffer disdained was secular humanism, the worldview that cast aside the core message of the Christian faith in favor of one devoid of Christian values. "Why has our society changed?" he asked. "The answer is clear -- the consensus of our society no longer rests upon a Christian basis, but upon a humanistic one. Humanism is man putting himself at the center of all things, rather than the creator God." The result, Schaeffer argued, was a society that had lost its moral foundation and threatened to shipwreck itself on the shoals of Western civilization.

Working with his son, Frank, Schaeffer produced and appeared on-camera in two film series: How Should We Then Live?: The Rise and Decline of Western Thought and Culture and Whatever Happened to the Human Race?, a powerful indictment of abortion, euthanasia and indifference to life. In Washington, D.C., the series was screened by prominent politicians and opinion makers; churches across the country showed the series to their congregations. Thousands of evangelicals heard Schaeffer's message and became persuaded that they had a duty -- indeed, a moral obligation -- to set aside their long-standing aversion to politics and step into the political arena.

Among them was Jerry Falwell, pastor of the Thomas Road Baptist Church in Lynchburg, Va. Recruited by strategists from the Republican Party, Falwell set aside his reluctance to enter politics, and in 1979, he co-founded the Moral Majority. Buttressed by Schaeffer's thinking and philosophy, evangelicals marched to the polling booths and voted overwhelmingly for Ronald Reagan in 1980 and George W. Bush in 2004. While evangelicals did not achieve their ultimate goal of reforming American culture, they decisively and permanently changed the political and religious landscape of the country.

Schaeffer's life and work are detailed in a book written by his son, Frank, Crazy for God.

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Published October 11, 2010

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