This week is the 50th anniversary of Francis Schaeffer's founding of L'Abri, and some of the thousands (indirectly, millions) his thinking affected are convening in St. Louis. Last month I wrote about one Schaeffer book that has had a big impact, How Should We Then Live? His next-to-last book, A Christian Manifesto (1981), is also worth a second look, because in it Schaeffer puts before Christians involved in politics and culture the crucial strategic question: Which track are we on?
Let's get to that question by asking how Schaeffer defined the central problem: "The people in the United States have lived under the Judeo-Christian consensus for so long that now we take it for granted. . . . We have forgotten why we have a positive balance between form and freedom in government, and the fact that we have such tremendous freedoms without these freedoms leading to chaos. Most of all, we have forgotten that none of these is natural in the world."
He pointed out one practical effect of that amnesia by noting that 1 million residents of Somalia had recently died in war and noting that we kill more than that each year in the United States by abortion: "In Somalia it is war. But we kill in cold blood."
In A Christian Manifesto Schaeffer described two tracks, and did not predict which would dominate. Here's what he wrote: "The first track is the fact of the conservative swing in the United States in the 1980 election. With this there is at this moment a unique window open in the United States . . . and we must take advantage of it in every way we can as citizens, as Christian citizens of the democracy in which we still have freedom." He noted that movement down the first track is slow, because opponents "are deeply entrenched, they have had their own way without opposition for a long time, and they will use every means" to stay in power.
The second track, though, is worse: It leads toward authoritarian government with rule by a legal and technological elite. The only way to fight back on that track would be civil or even forceful disobedience, and those tactics manufacture new dangers: "Speaking of civil disobedience is frightening because there are so many kooky people around. . . . Such people will in their unbalance tend to do the very opposite from considering the appropriate means at the appropriate time and place."
Schaeffer himself didn't give much specific detail on the appropriate ways to fight politically and culturally, but he emphasized that "we must not be satisfied with mere words" from leaders. On abortion and in every area he proposed working to use political and legal means to stop or contain social evil, but he emphasized the need to develop Christian alternatives. Neglecting politics and law is "absolutely utopian in a fallen world," but not providing alternatives "is incomplete in conviction and will be incomplete in results."
He did want to make clear that "we are in no way talking about any kind of theocracy. . . . In the Old Testament there was a theocracy commanded by God," but now "we must not confuse the Kingdom of God with our country." He emphasized that "the United States was founded upon a Christian consensus," and that "we today should bring Judeo-Christian principles into play in regard to government. But that is very different from a theocracy in name or in fact."
Some Christian romantics yearn for the second track and even try to force it by acting in extreme ways that invite extreme reactions. And yet, since Schaeffer approved of the election of Ronald Reagan, he would be even more optimistic after viewing the 2004 election and the resultant freedom that Christians have. He would also see the great dangers that we are closer to than we were a quarter-century ago, particularly genetic manipulation. He would mourn the continuation of the abortion holocaust and push for compassionate alternatives. But I believe he would advise us to do all we can to gain first-track success.
We need wisdom regarding how to operate on the first track in a way that neither neglects nor enshrines politics. We need to discern which behaviors by Christians are helpful in our first-track climate and which are not. And we need to nurture future Francis Schaeffers by teaching our children not just what to believe but why to believe it.