[The following essay explores the role that Francis Schaeffer played in the rise of the pro-life movement. It examines the place of How Should We Then Live?, Whatever Happened to the Human Race?, and A Christian Manifesto in that process.]
One of the most enigmatic, controversial, and influential figures in the growth of the “pro-life” movement was Francis August Schaeffer. It was the issue of abortion in particular that drove Schaeffer to shift his later work in the direction of political involvement and mobilization.(1) Yet, despite the enormous impact of his books and films on the public, it was in his influencing of key individuals that Schaeffer made his greatest contribution.
The most effective way to understand Schaeffer’s impact on the Pro-Life movement is to consider the appearance and influence of his 1976 book and film How Should We Then Live?, his 1979 book and filmWhatever Happened to the Human Race?, and his 1981 book A Christian Manifesto. These three works represent an important evolution in both Schaeffer’s and a large part of American Evangelicalism’s understanding of and willingness to participate in the abortion debate.
Schaeffer’s Shift to Political Activism
In the late 1970’s and early 1980’s, it was becoming apparent to many of Francis Schaeffer’s followers that he had made a rather substantial shift in his work. Whereas he had previously focused on merely critiquing and explaining philosophy, culture, and the church, he was now seen to be flirting too much with political activism. Ronald Wells bemoaned in 1983 that Schaeffer’s “present fixation is with political action and social protest” and that what was damaging to Schaeffer and his followers was for them to “embrace and baptize the Christian Right.”(2) Regardless of Schaeffer’s efforts to downplay any idea of his having abandoned his earlier focus, it was apparent to all that a shift had indeed taken place.(3)
Yet the presence of Schaeffer’s voice in the growing political activity of fundamentalist Christians, and particularly in the fight against abortion, was seen as a truly powerful catalyst for and in the growth of the movement. So great was Schaeffer’s influence and so early was it recognized that Newsweekmagazine wrote a full page article on him in 1982 and declared him “the newest celebrity in the fundamentalist firmament.”(4) Richard Pierard would later declare that the “coopting” of Schaeffer’s voice with the growing movement of political activism among fundamentalists was “the Right’s biggest coup by far.”(5)
While the recognition of Schaeffer’s influence among certain circles of Christians was correct and justifiable, the failure of the above-mentioned sources to understand Schaeffer as a cause of the rise of the Christian Right is mistaken. He was not merely “coopted” into the movement, he was a major cause of it. The beginning of his influence in the rising political activism of fundamentalists, and in particular in their efforts against abortion, is found in 1976 and the introduction of the film and bookHow Should We Then Live? to the public.
How Should We Then Live?
It is difficult to imagine How Should We Then Live? as a book which took a prominent place in the growth of a “grass-roots” movement such as fundamentalist political activism. The book seeks to trace the historical, philosophical, and cultural events in which an “existential methodology” entered into society and into the hearts of modern men and women, detached the culture from its previous anchoring in an objective source of truth (the Bible), allowed for the growth of humanism, and susequently allowed morality and ethics to be defined in a purely arbitrary and relative way.(6) While the book does not really differ from his earlier work in regards to its discussion of humanism and its effects, it did vary greatly in its discussion of the Supreme Court’s 1973 Roe v. Wade decision concerning abortion as a product of humanistic ideology.(7) Even more substantial is the fact that Schaeffer’s first plea for Christian activism against abortion is found in this book.(8)
While the discussion on abortion does not take up a major part of the book, How Should We Then Live?must be seen as the work in which the public was first introduced to Schaeffer’s view on the subject. Had the book received little attention, then it would have to be considered largely irrelevent in the formation of the Pro-Live movement. Yet the presence of an accompanying film and lecture tour, however, helped to make it a major factor indeed.
In 1976, the year of the book’s release, Schaeffer went on an eighteen city tour in which he showed the ten-part film version of the book.(9) The response was overwhelming. Forty-five hundred people viewed the film in Oakland, thirty-one hundred in Chicago, sixty-six hundred in Los Angeles, and forty-four hundred in Toronto.(10) It was also shown in England and much of Europe.(11) The film broke the all-time “booking” record for Gospel Films.(12)
The book, undoubtedly helped by the film, sold forty thousand copies in its first three months.(13) Three years later, in 1979, it was still selling fifteen-hundred copies a month.(14) These numbers alone seem to lend credence to L.G. Parkhurst’s suggestion that the book and film “had a remarkable effect upon Western culture and Christian leaders in various governments around the world.”(15)
Through this medium, then, Schaeffer’s assessment of abortion and the need for Christian opposition gained a wide audience. One important figure in this audience was John W. Whithead, the founder and president of The Rutherford Institute. The Rutherford Institute has become a major vehicle of Christian political activism as well as a strong voice against the practice of abortion. It seeks to battle in the courts over free speech and religious issues.(16)
Whitehead notes that How Should We Then Live? was “an important catalyst for me and other Christian lawyers interested in seeing society positively influenced by Christianity.”(17) He was similiarly moved by the book’s claim that abortion was a violation of the sanctity of life. After making the important point that Schaeffer was the first main Protestant leader to launch a strong attack against abortion, he notes that “Schaeffer’s critique of the abortion issue was the initial impetus for my own defense of the sanctity of human life.”(18)
How Should We Then Live? takes its place as the starting point of Schaeffer’s impact on the Pro-Life Movement. First, it introduced a unique critique of abortion as well as the suggestion that the church should raise its voice against the practice. Second, by the use of film, Schaeffer reached an extremely large audience, widened his influence, and drew national attention to the issues he raised. And lastly, the book and film inspired John Whitehead to steer The Rutherford Institute (an institution which is still very important to many in the Christian Right and Pro-Life movement) in the direction of free speech issues, religious issues, political activism and opposition to abortion.
Whatever Happened to the Human Race?
While How Should We Then Live? introduced Schaeffer’s views on abortion and Christian activism, his 1979 book and film series entitled Whatever Happened to the Human Race?, co-authored with soon-to-be Surgeon General C. Everett Koop, catapulted the subject of abortion as an evil to be opposed into the middle of the evangelical mind set. The book suggests that abortion has become possible because America has released itself from its “Judeo-Christian moorings.”(19) It then suggests that abortion naturally leads to infanticide and euthanasia.(20) Lastly, Schaeffer appeals for Christian involvement in the fight against abortion.(21)
The film version of the book would prove to have a tremendous impact on the Pro-Life movement. In September, 1979, Schaeffer and Koop began a film/lecture tour in Philadelphia and travelled west showing it in other major cities of the country.(22) In February, 1980, Schaeffer showed the film to a group of Congressmen in Washington, D.C.(23) Schaeffer, Dr. Koop, and an English doctor then sparked a great deal of attention as they showed the film throughout England.(24) While this tour drew smaller crowds than the How Should We Then Live? tour, it is widely agreed that its impact on the Pro-Life movement was even greater than that of the first tour.(25)
The film was also shown on various television stations throughout the United States and other countries. The Humanist magazine, in an extremely critical article, would later call Schaeffer a “prominent figure in the Pro-Life movement” and suggest that the film was “seen by millions” on television. (26)
It also gained national attention, as well as criticism from Planned Parenthood, the National Organization of Women, and the National Abortion Rights Action League, when a group of Pentecostal Christians bought air time at a Washington, D.C., television station and showed Whatever Happened to the Human Race? during the confirmation process of C. Everett Koop as the Reagan Surgeon General.(27)
The impact of Whatever Happened to the Human Race? on the Pro-Life movement was enormous. Harold O.J. Brown suggests that “nothing has had an impact across the board that compares to the Schaeffer-Koop series.”(28) Historian William Martin notes that the book, film, and tour are “often credited with having been the single most important factor in bringing evangelicals into the fight against abortion.”(29) Denis Haack suggests that, while Schaeffer and Koop were not the first evangelicals to attack the issue, the book and film were instrumental in bringing more evangelicals into the fight against abortion.(30) Feminist author Rosaling Petchesky also revealed the importance of the film when she condemned it as “a major ‘right-to-life’ propaganda piece.”(31)
The most important contribution that the book and film made to the Pro-Life movement, however, was in its influencing of a young man at Elim Bible Institute. It was there that Randall Terry would seeWhatever Happened to the Human Race?.(32) Terry points to his viewing of the film as the defining moment in his life and as the point of awakening in which he realized that he must do something about abortion.(33) He would later use this conviction to found Operation Rescue, undoubtedly the most well known and controversial wing of the Pro-Life movement.(34) In the case of Randall Terry, as in the case of John Whitehead, the assertion that Schaeffer’s greatest impact on the Pro-Life movement was in the people he influenced is proven true again.
A Christian Manifesto
How Should We Then Live? and Whatever Happened to the Human Race? were powerful in convicting the Evangelical community about the need to combat abortion. It was in A Christian Manifesto, however, that Schaeffer gave his clearest, and most controversial, call to political activism. Schaeffer considered A Christian Manifesto to be “the next logical step” in his call for Christian involvement against abortion.(35)
In this important book, Schaeffer begins by condemning the Evangelical church for its apathy about issues such as abortion.(36) He then makes his most blatant call for political action by showing that there is “a window of opportunity” open to the Christians in the conservative Reagan administration.(37) He concludes with his extremely controversial suggestion that, if “the window” closes, Christians must consider civil disobedience and possibly even the use of force to oppose “authoritarianism” and the promotion of humanistic practices such as abortion.(38)
While the book proved to be extremely influential in bringing Evangelicals into the political arena, it also served to polarize Schaeffer from many in the Christian community. Ronald Wells suggested that the book should have been entitled “A Fundamentalist Manifesto,” “because it bears all the marks of that unfortunate movement.”(39) W. Merwin Forbes wrote of his uneasiness with it and suggested that, after having read it, he was sure that a true “Christian manifesto” had not yet been written.(40)
Regardless of these and other criticisms, the book exploded onto the scene. It sold two hundred and ninety thousand copies in its first year.(41) Newsweek reported that Schaeffer spoke to an audience consisting of Sen. Paul Laxalt, Rep. Jack Kemp, and various other government officials in the winter of 1981 about the book and its contents. Conservative columnist Cal Thomas praised the book as a “a battle plan for the rest of the century” and Bill Bright of Campus Crusade for Christ praised Schaeffer as “one of the greatest men of our times.”(42) Pat Robertson was also greatly influenced by it.(43) Furthermore, Randall Terry suggested that, while Whatever Happened to the Human Race? convicted him about abortion, A Christian Manifesto gave him instructions on how to act out his convictions.
The greatest impact of the book, however, was found in the figure of Jerry Falwell. Falwell notes that he was early on convicted by the writings of Schaeffer and Dr. Jack Wilke concerning abortion.(44) Despite being moved by their arguments, his convictions concerning Christian exclusivism left him with “terrific problem” concerning how one could go about mobilizing a large enough group of people to make a difference.(45) It was Schaeffer’s call for Christians to cooperate with non-Christians in social causes that gave Falwell a peace about founding such cooperative efforts as The Moral Majority.(46)
Falwell took a particular interest in A Christian Manifesto. He purchased sixty-two thousand copies of the book and distributed it over his television show, “The Old Time Gospel Hour.”(47) Furthermore, Falwell began following Schaeffer’s advice to him that he use “The Old Time Gospel Hour” as a political action vehicle.(48) Through Falwell, then, Schaeffer was able to have a tremendous impact on the rise of the Pro Life movement and on Christian political action in general.
The cumulative effect of How Should We Then Live?, Whatever Happened to the Human Race?, and A Christian Manifesto on the Pro-Life movement is certainly significant. The three works constitute a progression from the initial introduction of the practice of abortion as it fits within humanistic ideology (HSWTL?), to a passionate description of the practices and results of abortion (WHTTHR?), to an appeal for Christian political involvement in the fight to stop abortion (Manifesto). Most important of all is the fact that these three works directly influenced the growth, development, and direction of Whitehead’s Rutherford Institute, Terry’s Operation Rescue, and Falwell’s Moral Majority.
How Schaeffer is Remembered
Another way of understanding Schaeffer’s impact on the Pro-Life movement is to view how he is remembered by both his followers and his critics. Denis Haack views Schaeffer as a “champion” of the sanctity of human life.(49) Earl Lee, an opponent of Schaeffer, referred to him as a “prominent figure in the Pro-Life movement.”(50) Schaeffer’s obituary in The New York Times referred him as an author and as an architect of “a much publicized crusade against abortion.”(51) Marian Faux called Schaeffer the “philosopher-king” of Pro-Life leaders such as Randall Terry.(52) Ronald Nash remembered Schaeffer as one who “captured the spirit of millions of evangelicals” concerning the abortion issue.(53) Lastly, while suggesting that Schaeffer’s followers have possibly overstated his importance in other areas, Richard Neuhaus does praise him for bringing the issue of abortion into the discussions, minds, and hearts of Protestants.(54)
But Schaeffer’s influence on the Pro-Life movement must undoubtedly return to a consideration of those he influenced. Nash rightly considers Schaeffer’s influence over others who would carry on the work as his “greatest accomplishment.”(55) The list includes: Harold O.J. Brown, Os Guinness, Jack Kemp, C. Everett Koop, Randall Terry, Jerry Falwell, and Pat Robertson.(56)
1. Michael S Hamilton, “The Dissatisfaction of Francis Schaeffer,” Christianity Today, 3 March 1997, 30.
2. Ronald Wells, “Whatever Happened to Francis Schaeffer?,” The Reformed Journal 33 (May 1983): 11,13.
3. Francis Schaeffer, The Great Evangelical Disaster (Westchester: Crossway Books, 1984), 185n16.
4. Kenneth Woodward, “Guru of Fudamentalism,” Newsweek, 1 November 1982, 88.
5. Richard V. Pierard, Religion and State: Essays in Honor of Leo Pfeffer, ed. James E. Wood, Jr. (Waco: Baylor University Press, 1985), 400-401.
6. Francis Schaeffer, How Should We Then Live? (Old Tappan, N.J.: Fleming H. Revell, Co., 1976), 255-256.
7. Hamilton, 28.
8. Schaeffer, HSWTL?, 256.
9. Hamilton, 28.
10. Stephen Board, “The Rise of Francis Schaeffer,” Eternity, June 1977, 40.
11. D. Keith Mano, review of How Should We Then Live?, by Francis Schaeffer, National Review, 18 March 1977, 345.
12. Philip Yancey, “Francis Schaeffer: A Prophet for Our Times?,” Christianity Today, 23 March 1979, 17.
13. Mano, 345.
14. Yancey, 17.
15. L.G. Parkhurst, Jr., Francis and Edith Schaeffer (Minneapolis: Bethany House Publishers, 1996), 115.
16. John W. Whitehead, Francis A. Schaeffer: Portraits of the Man and His Work., ed. Lane T. Dennis (Westchester: Crossway Books, 1986), 177.
17. Ibid., 181.
18. Ibid., 182.
19. The Complete Works of Francis A. Schaeffer, ed. Francis A. Schaeffer, vol.5, Whatever Happened to the Human Race?, with C. Everett Koop (Westchester: Crossway Books, 1982), 284.
20. Ibid., 308,329.
21. Ibid., 405-410.
22. Parkhurst, 124.
23. Ibid., 125.
24. Parkhurst, 126.
25. Hamilton, 28.
26. Earl Lee, “Francis Schaeffer: Prophet of the Religious Right,” The Humanist, September/October 1988, 27.
27. C. Everett Koop, M.D., Koop: The Memoirs of America’s Family Doctor (New York: Random House, 1991), 130.
28. Martin, 194.
29. Ibid., 239.
30. Denis Haack, “Francis August Schaeffer, RIP,” National Review, 15 June 1984, 20.
31. Rosaling Pollack Petchesky, Abortion and Woman’s Choice (New York: Longman Inc., 1984), 339-340.
32. Marian Faux, Crusaders: Voices From the Abortion Front (New York: Carol Publishing Group, 1990, 133.
33. Martin, 321.
34. Faux, 138.
35. The Complete Works of Francis A. Schaeffer, ed. Francis A. Schaeffer, vol.5, A Christian Manifesto (Westchester: Crossway Books, 1982), 417.
36. Ibid., 454-455.
37. Ibid., 457.
38. Ibid., 475-482, 483-491.
39. Ronald A. Wells, “Francis Schaeffer’s Jeremiad,” The Reformed Journal 32 (May 1982): 19.
40. W. Merwin Forbes, review of A Christian Manifesto, by Francis Schaeffer, Grace Theological Journal 4 (Fall 1983): 309.
41. Woodward, 88.
42. Ibid., 88.
43. Hamilton, 29.
44. Jerry Falwell, Strength for the Journey: An Autobiography (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1987), 335.
45. Ibid., 361.
46. Ibid., 361-362.
47. Woodward, 88.
48. Martin, 197.
49. Haack, 20.
50. Lee, 27.
51. The New York Times (New York), 17 May 1984.
52. Faux, 134.
53. Ronald Nash, Evangelicals in America (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1987, 105.
54. Richard John Neuhaus, “The Schaeffer Legacy,” First Things, June/July 1993, 64.
55. Nash, 92.
56. Michael G. Maudlin, “Midwives of Francis Schaeffer,” Christianity Today, 3 March 1997, 6.