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Pro-Life - And In Favor Of Keeping Abortion Legal
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is Fresh Air. I'm Terry Gross. My guest, Frank Schaeffer, regrets the role he played in steering up the culture wars. He's the son of the late Francis Schaeffer, about whom Jerry Falwell said, quote, "There is no doubt in my mind that without Francis Schaeffer, the religious right would not exist today. He was the "prophet of the modern day faith and values movement," unquote.
Francis Schaeffer was an Evangelical scholar, not an activist, until the 1970s when his son Frank convinced him to campaign against Roe V. Wade and abortion in the Christian books and movies they were making together. This work, especially a film they made with Doctor C. Everett Koop helped, politicize Evangelicals around the issue of abortion. That led to the political mobilization of the religious right.
Frank Schaeffer tells the story in his memoir, "Crazy for God: How I Grew Up as One of the Elect, Helped Found the Religious Right, and Lived to Take All or Almost All of It Back." The book recently came out in paperback. Frank Schaeffer grew up in L'Abri, the religious community his parents founded in Switzerland after becoming missionaries there.
Frank Schaeffer, welcome to Fresh Air. What do you think was the role of the books and the films that you worked on in making abortion they issue that politically mobilized what is it now called the Evangelical base?
Mr. FRANK SCHAEFFER (Film Director, Screenwriter, Public Speaker and Author, "Crazy for God"): Well, before my father and I got involved with the issue of abortion, it was a world in which Evangelicals were concentrating on leading people to Christ, as in trying to get them to accept Jesus as their savior. That was the emphasis. The Billy Graham world of modern Evangelicalism that they actually rejected the fundamentalism that came out at the 1920's church splits and was instead concentrating on this personal relationship with Jesus.
What my father and I did is turned that equation on its head, and we reversed it with our books and films and made the emphasis political. And we didn't know we were doing that at the time, but that's how it turned out because with the abortion issue, the religious right found the catalyst that energized the political movement that then evolved into all sort of other areas, from trying to attack the gay rights movement to getting people to vote for Republican candidates. It swept a lot of other issues and - but the energy, the catalyst, all of that happened when my father and I went out with these film series and books and basically told Christians you need to apply Christian teaching to all of life, including politics, law, and cultural issues.
GROSS: I remember when one of the films that you worked on with C. Everett Koop, the pediatric specialist who became President Reagan's surgeon general after the release of this film, that one of the most powerful and quoted images of the film - because this image made news - was basically a fetus holocaust that you portrayed with dolls. Would you describe that image and the effect you think that image had?
Mr. SCHAEFFER: Well actually, my father and I were looking for ways to be non-sensational in the sense that if you look through those movies, there are none of the dead baby pictures that typified the kind of posters that pro-lifers were waving in peoples' faces. And we wanted to go the other direction. You know, I'd grown up wanting to be a movie maker. And you know, Fellini, and Victoria DeSica, and all those people were my inspiration, having grown up in this mission of the L'Abrian, Switzerland. And I tried to bring a little of that creativity to process.
So we went down to the Dead Sea in Israel, this very barren landscape. And we spread several thousand plastic dolls, life size baby dolls, on that landscape to symbolize the number of the babies who were being aborted on a routine basis following Roe v. Wade. And I guess it made news because, you know, we did everything from underwater photography with all these big chunks of salt floating around that tied in with the idea of saline abortion.
And it was a fairly riveting image that actually later, when I went off to Hollywood and made some very lousy feature films, which I'd like to forget. But I made four features, but actually the reel that I cut from some of that pro-life material got me jobs out there on the basis of the visual impact of the stuff.
And I omitted the soundtrack. I would just lay in music because I was kind of cheating and not really letting them know where it had come from because that community tends to be more of the left than of the right. But the images got me some jobs out there, which I then, you know, went off and parlayed into a very half-baked film career for a while.
GROSS: What was the soundtrack that you deleted for your promotional reel?
Mr. SCHAEFFER: Well, probably, I didn't include Dr. Koop or my dad talking about the "abortion holocaust," quote/unquote, and I stuck in some music, maybe a little Vivaldi or something like that made it look very lyrical. And all of a sudden, those dolls that had been introduced to the American public as surrogates for aborted babies were just this kind of artistic image floating in a turquoise, you know, space looking very interesting and mysterious.
GROSS: Now, you write that your father, Francis Schaeffer, didn't even want to mention abortion in the books and movies initially. Why didn't he want to? And how did you convince him to change his mind?
Mr. SCHAEFFER: Well, my father, as I talk about in the book, dad was in a transition period, where he had been in the '60s and 70s reaching out to the hip and then the hip - the hippie culture. You know, he was the only Evangelical who could quote Bob Dylan's latest album lyrics to you, or discuss Salvatore Dali, or, you know, what have you. That's what he had been become known for. And then all of a sudden, he had this son who got his girlfriend pregnant.
And that's me when I was 17. And in this community that, by the way, had always had an open door policy towards unwed mothers and, on a very practical level, had helped people without it being a political issue, just on the basis of Christian compassion. And in that context, when Roe V. Wade hit, I became a very fiery pro-life proponent, and my father, theoretically, was a pro-lifer in the sense that he thought abortion was wrong.
But he, like Billy Graham and most Christian leaders of that period, felt that politics was not something Christians did, and this was a very political issue. And he was seeing that the Roman Catholic, for instance, were taking a lot of heat by stepping up on this. So what happened was one day, we got into enormous fight and actually wound up swearing at each other.
It happened in his bedroom while he was eating his soft-boiled eggs and toast as he did every morning in bed doing his bible study and lecture preparation. My mother walked in on us and broke up this fight. But in the middle of that, I was challenging him to, as it were, practice what he preached and get out there and do something about all this. And so, really what I did is kind of talked him into a pro-life political stance on the basis of my own emotional reaction to this new little baby girl I had.
Me, being a very typical teen unwed father, my wife, you know, a genuine San Francisco hippie princess who had come out and stumbled across the L'Abri community while hitch hiking across Europe with her sister on a trip. In that context, it wasn't so political for me as just sort of the moral outrage of youth.
GROSS: Now, your father, who you describe as kind of reluctantly being drawn into politics and even reluctantly being drawn into the anti-abortion movement, ended up being quite fiery, politically. I'm going to quote a speech he gave in 1982, and this was just a couple of years before he died. He said, "The acceptance of death of human life and babies born or unborn opens the door to the arbitrary taking of any human life. From then on, it's purely arbitrary. It was this view that opened the doors to all that followed in Germany prior to Hitler. We, who are a Christians, and others who love liberty, should be acting in our days as the Founding Fathers acted in their day. Those who founded this country believe that they were facing tyranny. All you have to do is read their writings. That's why the war was fought. That's why this country was founded." And He goes on to say, "We must absolutely set out to smash the life of the new and novel concept of the separation of religion from the state."
Mr. SCHAEFFER: Mmm Hmm.
GROSS: So it sounds like he's saying abortion leads to Hitler and that we should we follow in the footsteps of the Founding Fathers and do what? Start a revolution?
Mr. SCHAEFFER: Well, you know, to sort of really bring this up to speed, I just have to point out that when Reverend Wright suddenly became a news issue for Barack Obama, and everyone was saying that Barack Obama was, you know, unpatriotic, or un-American, or something because he had sat in the pew while this man preached - when I actually watched what Reverend Wright was saying, in context, it was extraordinary a mild by comparison to my dad would say on the routine basis or I would say on a routine basis in the context of the pro-life movement about literally coming up to the cusp of overthrowing the U.S. government as a godless regime, as my dad would sometimes call it.
And, you know, what's amazing to me is the sort of hypocrisy in both the culture and the politics here, where, you know, a white middle age, a middle-class American theologian on the right could talk about, essentially, America as a godless regime that should be overthrown, or come right up to the point of calling for that. And, you know, what happened to Dad was is he got invited to the White House and had dinner with Ronald Reagan or spent nights in the Ford White House, where my Mom would swim laps in the pool with Betty Ford.
What happened to Barack Obama's pastor is all of the sudden he's being called a revolutionary, an angry black man, and all this stuff. But if you look at the language, if you peel back the actual issue being referred to the language, the fiery rhetoric on the left and the right, but especially within the pulpits of the right and the left, is almost interchangeable. The difference is it that if you're a black man in America and you're talking from the left, it gets one reaction. If you're a white man from the right, all of a sudden you're a godly prophet. And it's all taken as par for the course.
And so, you know, one of the things I point out in terms of my own progression away from the movement was that I had grown up in Switzerland and gone to British private boarding school, a boy schools, from the time I was just a little over 10 years of age. I'd never really live in America. I toured over here with me Dad and gone around. But as I began to live here, Jean and I moved to the states in 1980, you know, I discovered a completely different country than the one the evangelical right had been describing to me while we traveled as tourists, as it were, staying in hotels or Christian colleges and speaking. And, you know, the America I discovered was not going to hell on a handcart. It was not full of people who hated God and everything we stood for.
GROSS: My guest is Frank Schaeffer. His memoir is called "Crazy for God: How I Grew Up As One of the Elect, Helped Found the Religious Right, and Lived to Take It All or Almost All of it Back." We'll talk more after a break. This is Fresh Air.
My guest is Frank Schaeffer. His new memoir is called "Crazy for God: How I Grew Up As One of the Elect, Helped Found the Religious Right, and Lived to Take It All or Almost All of it Back." And he is the son of Francis Schaeffer, who is considered one of the founders of the religious right. You write that your father went from merely talking about providing compassionate alternatives to abortion to actively working to drag evangelicals, often kicking and screaming, into politics. Now, you were an active part of that process of helping to politicize evangelical leaders. Can you talk a little bit about what you and your father did to politicize them?
Mr. SCHAEFFER: When we began, the issue was abortion. By the time we were done, we were meeting with political leaders like Jack Kemp and Ronald Reagan and others. The evolution from talking about an issue on the basis of compassion, of helping people with difficult pregnancies, unwed mothers and so forth, to the place where we were telling people how to vote was fairly gradual. But what happened was is that the pro-life movement was really co-opted by Republican Party.
And the leaders of the Republican Party very quickly realized they had a very hot issue. Speaking for myself, what happened was is that I became enamored with the process. It's very heady, high powered ego stoking stuff to have Jack Kemp sit up all night in his kitchen and watch a film series you've made on abortion and ask you questions and then arrange for you and your Dad to have a discussion with Republican leaders in the Ravenhouse building in Washington.
And we gradually, I think, really started to enjoy the feeling that we could not only change America and bring it back, closer to God's intention for Godly societies whatever the agenda was, but also just the process of meeting with very high powered people and being listened to. And I think really the bottom line is that that became addictive. And that addiction meant that we were increasingly telling people how to vote and not really feeling so much to conscience as to political expediency.
GROSS: You came to the United States and went on the road making speeches to raise money for the anti-abortion movement and for the Christian right. Was the idea of religion as a fund raising tool new to you?
Mr. SCHAEFFER: In a sense, yes, because my parents had this ministry called L'Abri Fellowship in Switzerland. And they had distinguished themselves from the rest of the evangelical world, for instance from Billy Graham, who sometimes would stop by our ministry, by that way, in the '60s and '70s. But they had distinguished themselves, and we're somewhat proud of the fact that they were a, quote/unquote, "genuine faith ministry." In other words, there were no fundraising letters. There were no gimmicks.
My mom would right a family prayer letter to our supporters. She talked about our needs, but never asked for money. Of course, when we started making this film series that cost several million dollars a piece, working with Gospel Films out of Muskegon, Michigan, I became part of the fund raising apparatus. My parents would not want to go on the road and raise money, so Billy Zeoli, who was the president of Gospel Films, coached me and sent me out.
And again, this was very heady stuff. You know, he bought me a nice suit, a good overcoat. He bought me airplane tickets. I'd be met by cars and go off and talk to people like Mary Crowley in Dallas or the Hunt Brothers who, at that time, were also cornering the silver market, Rich DeVos, who founded Amway. These were all our donors. And we would pitch to them based on their interests. So with Rick DeVos, our movie was going to defend capitalism. To Mary Crowley, it was going to bring people to Jesus. To the Hunt Brothers, we were standing against communism.
And I got very clever very quickly and somewhat disingenuous. In my heart, I keep telling myself, well, it's all for the unborn. It's for the unborn babies. It's to save our culture, but getting sucked into the process very quickly changed who I was.
GROSS: Do you have insights into how homosexuality became such a big rallying tool and fund raising tool? I should say anti-homosexuality for the evangelical right?
Mr. SCHAEFFER: Well, yeah. I do. One thing I talked about, and I want to say this about my dad in the book, is that when it came to pregnant women who weren't married, when it came to homosexuals who came to his ministry at L'Abri, My father practiced what he preached. You know, I grew up never hearing that homosexuality was some special case, that if homosexuals accepted Jesus, they would become heterosexuals. All this kind of nonsense you hear now never existed in my childhood.
And in fact, you can go through my father's material with a fine tooth comb. You'll never find him talking about homosexuality at all as an issue that ought to be stood against or specially singled out or dealt with. The way it came about was this. I think that the right wing and the evangelical preachers and people like Dr. Dobson and others realized that this, quote/unquote, "cultural political stuff" was ten times bigger when it came to both fund raising and giving them access to power than simply talking about Jesus or helping the poor or whatever it might be.
Our issues were much sexier, but you can't only talk about abortion. Pretty soon, you have to have some new scandal of the week to go after. And of course, you know the gay movement as it was emerging in tandem during that same period through the '60s, '70s, and then to the '80s, presented a good target. You know, you have a minority population who are living in a lifestyle that will shock the sensibility of fundamentalist Christians. And, you know, after you go after the abortionists, OK, this presents another growth.
And so, essentially, once the religious right got into the habit of essentially playing church lady to the whole culture and both judging, condemning, and also offering a solution, which was to put their people in power, you needed to keep cranking that up.
GROSS: Are there extreme things that you've heard leaders of the religious right say behind the scenes, when not in front of a microphone?
Mr. SCHAEFFER: Oh yeah, all the time. One incident comes to mind. Jerry Falwell sent a jot up to bring Dad and I down to speak. I preached from its pulpit, and I remember sitting in his pastor sturdy before we went on. He had been on a very successful fund raising binge because radio tower, a transition tower of his had had the guy wires cut nearby and fallen down. And he was accusing local gay activists of doing this. And his fundraiser in chief at that point, who was also running the moral majority for him, Karl Thomas, who went and became a commentator for Fox News at one point and is a columnist now, was telling me later, oh yeah, well, we raise that money, you know, 10 times over.
But Jerry wasn't going to let it go. So we went in to his office, and we were talking about this incident. And Jerry said to me, you know, the homosexuals really disgust me. He says if I had a dog that did what they do, I'd just shoot it. And I looked at him to see if he was joking, and he wasn't. And my Dad and I exchanged glances. When my Dad and I left that meeting, Dad turned to me, and he said - and I think I put this on the book - he said to me, you know, he's a really disgusting person. And I think my Dad was just shocked some times to peel back the layer a little bit and see what was there in terms of just the unbridled hatred that was in the heart of a lot of these people.
And I think that probably had been there, in terms of a prejudiced against gay people, long before the pro-life movement came on the scene. But again, I think what happened was we showed the way to energize a larger movement through political issues. The issue of homosexuality just got added to it. But in terms of their personal antipathy, it was rabid.
GROSS: Frank Schaeffer will be back in the second half of the show. His memoir, "Crazy for God: How I Grew Up As One of the Elect, Helped Found the Religious Right, and Lived to Take It All or Almost All of It Back," has been published in paperback. I'm Terry Gross, and this is Fresh Air.
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GROSS: This is Fresh Air. I'm Terry Gross back with Frank Schaeffer. His new memoir, "Crazy for God," is about the role he and his father played in creating the religious right by writing books, making movies and giving speeches that mobilized evangelicals against abortion. Frank's father, Francis Schaeffer, was described by Jerry Falwell as the father of the modern day faith and values movement. Frank grew up in L'Abri, the religious community his parents founded in Switzerland after becoming missionaries there. You voted for Barack Obama. Was this the first time you voted Democrat in a presidential election?
Mr. SCHAEFFER: In a presidential election, yes. The last two elections I've been writing in John McCain. In 2000, I actually went on a number of religious radio stations and right-wing stations, like Ollie North's for instance, to campaign for McCain and against George Bush. I had a real sense that George Bush would be a really terrible president. I had an incident that I talk about in my book that when my old mom, who at the time was in her 80s and now she's in her 90s, heard that George Bush was running she says, oh, but Barbara used to ask me to pray especially for him because, you know, he didn't seem to have anything going for him. Are you sure it's George and not Jeb?
So, you know, we knew the Bushes way back and frankly - I mean speaking of pro-life, one of the things and I know this is emotional, but we all vote on our gut, one of the reasons I dislike George Bush so intensely from the beginning was just the number of executions on the death row, 152, while he was governor. Karla Faye Tucker, you know, that he then smirked about and imitated her answer, I don't want to die, I don't want to die, in that interview with Tucker Carlson, you know, this really turned me off. And it did so because I knew it happened. It was true. Carlson was a conservative interviewer, and actually was on Bush's side until that happened, and I knew other people who knew him. You know, having a smart ass for a president who laughs at someone who he has condemned to death is about the last person you'd want for president.
When my son was serving in the Marine Corps, you know, he served very honorably, but I feel he was serving a dishonorable person, and that is kind of heartbreaking as a military parent. So to go back to what we were talking about - yes, when I voted for Barack Obama, it was the first presidential election that I've voted for a Democrat and that kind of brings me full circle because that's about as far away from where I would have thought I would have been, you know, 30 years ago as you could possibly got.
GROSS: What kind of reaction have you gotten from your former colleagues on the religious right to your public defection? You left years ago. You left in '85 as an activist, but it's only fairly recently that you've begun writing, for instance, on the Huffington Post columns that were very angry at the direction that the Republican party and the religious right was headed. You were very critical of McCain and Palin. So what's the reaction been like from people who you know?
Mr. SCHAEFFER: Well, as soon as I moved out of that very fast-moving stream, I just disappeared off the radar screen of a lot of people, and, you know, I think they feel the better part of wisdom is just to keep quiet about it and not try to confront me. But on a personal level, the volumes of hate email I've got are pretty amazing. And, you know, in a way, it's fair enough. I mean, I stirred up this pot and helped contribute to this level of division and antipathy, and now I'm getting a little bit on my own. Because when I get emails from people that are basically threatening and angry because I've been writing favorably about Barack Obama, you know, and they're accusing me of being in favor of infanticide and all the rest of it, and that doesn't even go into some of the racist stuff that's just as furious because I've been pro a black man. It's really disturbing and a bit scary. But on the other hand, it kind of confirms to me that I was so very fortunate that while I had a little life to live, I decided to be a novelist and not to just capitalize forever on this nepotistic thing here.
And I think, you know, looking back what I realize is it's been like coming up from deep under the water. You know I was conditioned to be a fundamentalist Christian. I don't mean my parents sat down and said let's make sure that little Frankie here can never think a free thought. But if you're raised on Bible stories from your mother's knee, if every single sentence she finishes has a platitude or a religious part to it, if everything that you look at from sunsets to people you meet on airplanes has to be folded into this narrative, if you can never have an ordinary conversation with someone without witnessing to them about Jesus or giving them a tract or trying to steer it in the direction where they'll ask you questions about religious things so that you can actually talk about something important instead of just their children or their families or their careers or what they like, you know, bring your religion in to the subject. If you do that from the time you're born until you're in your 20s, it takes you a long, long, long, long time to get the ringing out of your ears.
And I've gotten a great deal of email from people who have read some of these Huff Post pieces and some who have read my books and so forth who are telling me that I'm telling their story, not because they have similarities exactly in background, but the same thing of just surfacing after years of thinking that you had the truth. Then you come to a point where you question. And then you come to a point where you reject things, but it's a really, really, really long process. It's taken me, you know, the better part of 30 years to emerge to maybe where I would have been had I had a slightly different upbringing.
GROSS: Well, you grew up in a religious community that your parents founded in Switzerland. Would you describe L'Abri, the religious community, and what it was like to grow up there? I know you could probably spend days describing what it was like to grow up there, but just give us a brief taste of that.
Mr. SCHAEFFER: Well, on the wonderful side, you know, we had a real cast of characters who came and were part of the community. For instance, Jane Stuart Smith, an opera singer that lived across the street. A wonderful, southern lady from Virginia who would play me "Norma," you know, on her record player and showed me art books and told me how great Italy was, but at the same time, was a born-again Christian who had given up opera because she felt that, as a Christian, she ought to be witnessing to people in a missionary. And so there was this strange mix of exposure to tremendous variety of people. You know, the early hippies coming through, Timothy Leary stopped by, you know, when he wasn't as famous. He was still, I think, at Harvard, but talking about LSD and all that. You know, big mix of people.
A couple overriding things. First of all, my parents were authentically compassionate, decent people. These were not conmen and women as a lot of the religious right leaders became later. Dad worked on the corner of his bed out of an old rocking chair, you know, with his fingers all stained with ink from marking up his Bible. He never even had an office. He didn't have a secretarial staff. My parents didn't even own a car. There were months we didn't eat meat because the ministry couldn't afford it, and my mother would just stretch these endless casseroles, but everything was intense.
You know, there was never an answer to a question. There was always a miniature sermon preached, maybe somewhat the way I'm talking in this interview. You know, this is just how I grew up. You just talk and talk and talk and talk. The emphasis is always on bringing people to Christ and changing their lives. There's always this agenda. So under everything you say, there's this other agenda.
But on the personal side because my parents were so busy with the ministry, I basically grew up in the Swiss Alps where I could rove all over the mountain side and hitchhike home from wherever I happened to wind up in the evening in the valley or up in the mountains with a farmer on his truck. It was a wonderfully free childhood, and we were part of this little village. We were on the side of the village. My parents didn't mix much with the villagers. They had their own people coming through, but I grew up there.
So, you know, my memories are evangelicalism mixed with herding cows in the high Alps mixed with opera singers and people who came through (unintelligible) Bible studies. My mother's pietism on one hand, but a very down to earth, good heartedness on the other, where pregnant girls are coming to L'Abri as a place that will accept them to have a baby, where homosexuals - both lesbians and gay men - are welcomed. No one's telling them they've got to change or that they're horrible people and they go away, you know, having found my father wonderfully compassionate and Christ-like to them.
And then, at the very end of that experience, you know, as a teenager, suddenly my father is a very famous evangelical, and it's not hippies anymore, and it's not people coming by just to stay there. It's evangelical leaders, It's Billy Graham. It's Pat Roberts, and it's Jerry Falwell. It's Barbara Bush stopping by and people like that. And so, you know, there was this progression. But in my childhood before my dad got famous, it was a weird childhood, but it was not a bad childhood. It was, in a way, a great experience.
GROSS: My guest is Frank Schaeffer. His memoir, "Crazy for God," has been published in paperback. We'll talk more after a break. This is Fresh Air.
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GROSS: My guest is Frank Schaeffer. His memoir is called, "Crazy for God: How I Grew Up As One Of The Elect, Helped Found The Religious Right, And Lived To Take All (Or Almost All) Of It Back." Along with his father, Francis Schaeffer, he helped politicize evangelicals by organizing them against abortion in the 1970s. You converted to Greek Orthodox in 1990. Why did you feel the need to convert? And if you were unhappy with your faith, why didn't you leave faith altogether?
Mr. SCHAEFFER: Well, the reason I didn't leave faith altogether is one that I'll never know because I don't know where my conditioning as a person of faith begins and where my choices begin and where they end. All I can tell you is that if I wanted to become an atheist, the first thing I would do is pray to God to help me and that probably tells you that I'm stuck. And I'm stuck because faith is just part of my life. I don't know whether it's because faith is real or whether it's because that's the way I was brought up. But a day that doesn't begin with prayer for me feels empty, even when I'm questioning the existence of God. And that's just who I am. And so for me, I had to wash up in some sort of a faith community or feel that a limb was missing.
And why I'm in the Greek Orthodox Church is because I found refuge in a liturgical tradition which is not centered around a local guru. Our priests are interchangeable. They face the altar and not the people. They lead the people in their liturgy that was set in the fourth and fifth centuries and has nothing to do with clever ideas or what's fashionable or politics. And so for me, I find refuge in a changeless liturgical tradition that gives me religious food, as it were, spiritual food, but without the attachment to this twentieth and twenty-first century spin that I got so caught up in. And it's just where I feel comfortable, and that's why I'm in the Greek Orthodox Church.
GROSS: Abortion is the issue that politically motivated you and that you helped organize the religious right around. You now believe that abortion should be legal, although you don't like the idea of abortion.
Mr. SCHAEFFER: Right.
GROSS: Barack Obama supports legalized abortion. He's pro-choice. What advice would you have for him about how to proceed with abortion issues?
Mr. SCHAEFFER: Well, if Barack Obama asked me, and I had one minute to tell him, here's what I'd boil it down to. I would say, please don't start the culture war again by throwing a token scrap to the left of the progressive movement because you're meeting with people who they may not approve with when it comes to abortion. For instance, leave well enough alone. You know, don't do as one of your first dramatic acts in the presidency something to overturn local regulations trying to circumscribe abortion's legality or parental notification.
First, carry out what you said you would do in your campaign when you agreed that even if abortion was legal, it would be better if it was less frequent. Come up with a program to help pregnant women and their babies and families with medical care and with intervention for children and people with difficult pregnancies. Do something positive first that will make the pro-life community take a second look and say, aha, he was serious when he said he would try do something to reduce the number of abortions, and then, fight for Roe v. Wade to stay legal.
Keep it legal, but don't expand the abortion right in a way that will simply trigger the next round of the culture wars and saddle you with a fight that is going to sap the energy from your presidency and the support that you might have had from, for instance, a whole new group of evangelicals who voted for you this time around, people like the students at Gordon College, north of Boston, who endorsed Barack Obama in the student paper, this evangelical school, for the first time in the history of the school endorsing a Democrat.
So I think he's made a very hopeful beginning, and I hope he doesn't do something that to him might look like a token, but to the pro-life movement would be a declaration of war and a reenergizing of the culture wars. Let's give it a rest for a while and just let the status quo be there. Do something positive to help pregnant women with their babies and go from there.
GROSS: Now, you said that one of the reasons why you're in the Greek Orthodox Church is that, you know, the priest faces the altar not the congregation. The priests are interchangeable. It's not a cult of personality, which you feel evangelicalism has become in many instances. Is one of the reasons why you distrust the cult of personality is because you feel your father had become part of that, that he was worshiped by some of his followers, and that the person they worship was different than the father you knew, the man you knew?
Mr. SCHAEFFER: Yes, I think that entirely. Look, you know, when your dad gets up on Sunday morning and, you know, throws a potted ivy plant at your mom and screams at her and empties the cupboard of all her clothes and tosses them over to the balcony then literally walks down the stairs and preaches a sermon, you know he's a human being. He's no worse of a human being than the steel worker or the lawyer or the doctor or the media personality who also has their problems, but he's no better either, and he has own problems and his own demons. And then when you have people who run up to you in airports and grab your hard and say I just wanted to a Schaeffer, having not been able to touch my father, you realize that if religion has any substance at all, it has to be built on principles which transcend the failures and the weakness of we individual human beings.
And so, you know, when a priest stands up and leads you in liturgy that he didn't write and that has been there for centuries and is very beautiful as well because all the rough edges have been worn smooth by the years just like pebbles on a beach with the tides coming in and out, that's a completely different experience than a clever sermon by Pastor Billy Bob who's built this mega church, and you know perfectly well if he leaves or is kicked out or the church splits or he has an affair that, you know, everybody goes with him. So to me, you know, I have great respect for atheism, but if I'm going to be religious at all because of my personal need and my background and my thoughts and my longings, it has to be fulfilled in a way that doesn't depend on Pastor Billy Bob. There has to be something larger than that there or something more transcendently permanent for me personally to feel comfortable with.
GROSS: While you were active in the religious right and helping to mobilize it, did you have to keep secrets about what your family was really like? For instance, the fact that your father threw a potted plant at your mother, shouted at her a lot, sometimes abused her.
Mr. SCHAEFFER: Yeah, absolutely and it wasn't just keeping secrets when we were part of the religious right. As I grew up as a child, there was this closed off part of our family life we never discussed, and that was summed up, and actually in my book, both "Crazy for God," but also in my novels, I have the word Mood capitalized, with a capital M, because it was my mother's code. Your dad is in a Mood, be careful, don't come upstairs. Go outside, don't come back to the house for a while. If you talk to him, don't put him in a worse Mood.
Well, mood was a code word for really clinical depression. My father sometimes talk about committing suicide. He said he would like to hang himself. I would hear this fairly often as a child. On other days, he was the most magnificently wonderful father in the world, taking me hiking in the Alps, showing me beautiful things, telling me that the world was a good place, that art was important. There were both sides.
Well, I could talk about that one side, but even amongst ourselves in our family, we could never discuss the dark side because he had been called by God to save the world. My mother had been called by God to save the world. We were the chosen few, and basically, you were letting your side down by telling people that your team captain also just happened to be on steroids as it were, if it was in a sports analogy. And so you just didn't talk about it. You just kept quiet and so, I have gone through life, up until the time when I started writing my novels, and notice I started writing about my family obliquely in my novels and then finally, at age 57, publishing an actual memoir. And there's things that aren't in this memoir that even now I wouldn't want to talk about. Not huge terrible dark secrets, they're all hinted up, but specifics that are just too painful to talk about.
GROSS: Just one more thing, since your father spoke often of suicide when he was at his most depressed, did you ever have trouble reconciling how a man of such deep faith would so often be at the point of considering taking his own life?
Mr. SCHAEFFER: Well, in a sort of a strange way, it had the reverse effect on my because dad actually, we kept our mouths shut on his behalf. But one on one, when we would be hiking, he'd be very honest with me and sometimes, dad would hug me and say, you know, I feel like killing myself, Frank. But life's very tough, but I'm going to stick around and one reason is because I really love you, and he meant that. So actually, it kind of made me want to hang in there on faith because I felt my dad trying to overcome what was really a bad case of depression, although I didn't know what it was at the time, because he loved us.
And to me, that was a big example of strength, and I love my dad very much and, you know, people who were read, "Crazy for God," if they think it's an expose, then they must have been looking at him as a cult figure because for me, I'm trying to rescue my dad from a lot of people who have worshiped him as a cult figure. But, you know, he was my father, and he hugged me and told me he wasn't going to kill himself because he love me too much. So that was my dad.
GROSS: Frank Schaeffer, thank you so much for talking with us.
Mr. SCHAEFFER: Thank you.
GROSS: Frank Schaeffer's memoir, "Crazy for God," was recently published in paperback. Coming up, John Powers introduces us to the work of the director he describes as the best filmmaker you've never heard of. This is Fresh Air.
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Jia Zhangke: Capturing China's Transformation
TERRY GROSS, host:
Chinese movies first began reaching America in the 1980s in lush epics about the past like, "Raise the Red Lantern" and "Farewell My Concubine." Since then, a new generation of filmmakers has emerged. Their concerned with depicting China as it is today. The leading figure of this group, known as the Sixth Generation, is Jia Zhangke who has won many international awards, including top prize at the 2006 Venice Film Festival for his film, "Still Life." The film has just come out on DVD from New Yorker Films, and our critic-at-large, John Powers, says it's a good introduction to the best filmmaker you've never heard of.
JOHN POWERS: Back in August, the Beijing Olympics opened with a dazzling, pyrotechnic ceremony that showed us China as its leaders would like us to see it - a prosperous, unified, modern country that's able to do anything. There is, of course, another, less glamorous China. That's the one you find in the work of Jia Zhangke, who may well be the most important filmmaker working in the world today. Now 38 years old, Jia has spent his life watching China go from being a backward Maoist nation to a booming, capitalist country that's equal parts police state and Wild West. This is the biggest and fastest social transformation ever, and Jia's movies, which mix fiction and documentary, have the immediacy of bulletins from the front-lines of history.
His gifts are on display in his acclaimed fifth feature, "Still Life," which is just out on DVD. It's set in Fengjie, a town along the Yangtze River that's about to be covered with water from the Three Gorges dam, a huge project that has already displaced millions of people. The story, such as it is, couldn't be simpler. We follow two people who've both come to Fengjie looking for their lost spouses. One, Han Sanming, is a coal miner searching for the wife he bought 15 years earlier. She had a daughter and then left him.
The other, Shen Hong, is a nurse seeking out the husband who came to Fengjie to work two years earlier and simply stopped communicating with her. These two searchers spend most of the movie wandering around town and meeting the locals - a grumpy ferry worker, a magician who turns euros into Chinese money, a big shot who takes pride in having the lights on a bridge turned on simply by making a phone call.
With rare exceptions, the people we see are not the beneficiaries of China's economic boom. They're part of the vast majority. They work menial, often dangerous jobs in a country where money rules and the party bosses make the life or death decisions. Jia's a great director, and much of "Still Life's" power comes from the way he depicts his characters moving through the landscape - an environment of crowded ferries, collapsed buildings, small rooms with TVs blaring, and huge construction projects looming in the background. This may sound grim, but the movie's incredibly beautiful. Jia's eye for composition recalls Antonioni in its rigor and poetry, but he's not after mere pictorial splendor. He wants us to see how the landscape defines his characters' lives, how small and alienated individuals feel in relation to the gargantuan size of Chinese development.
This is true of all Jia's work, which takes us to places nobody else does. His movie, "The World," is set at a kitschy Beijing theme park whose young employees are surrounded by miniature versions of iconic tourist sites like the Eiffel Tower that they could never afford to visit. His current film, "24 City" is a documentary about an old factory created during the Maoist era that's being flattened and replaced with luxury high rises, a project that not only throws thousands of ordinary people out of work, but erases a whole city's sense of its past.
Naturally, Jia wouldn't deny that China is getting more prosperous. But he wants to register what's getting lost in this great leap forward - a sense of place, a sense of community, a sense of social equality. Just as it's no consolation to our endangered auto workers that hedge fund managers made billions in the real estate bubble, so it's no comfort to "Still Life's" characters that the dam waters that will wash away their homes will provide lots of electricity for some Gucci store in Shanghai.
Like all of Jia's movies, "Still Life" is both a compassionate portrait of ordinary people scrambling to survive warp-speed change and a record of cultural memory. He's making a sustained effort to capture the precise moments when China's past is being tossed on the ash heap of history. While this might seem like an obvious thing to do, it's worth noting that Jia has no real peers. There's no filmmaker like him in India or Russia or Brazil. For that matter, we don't have one in America, either. Where's the great movie about what's happening in Detroit?
It's always hard to foresee how the future will judge today's artists, but I do feel confident predicting one thing. In 100 years, people will still be interested in the films of Jia Zhangke, and I'm not sure I can say that same thing about "Twilight" or "Slumdog Millionaire."
GROSS: John Powers is film critic for Vogue. He reviewed "Still Life," which has been released on DVD. You can download podcasts of our show on our website, freshair.npr.org.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.