Francis Schaeffer wrote A Christian Manifesto in 1981, three years before he died in 1984. Other articles in this month’s theme of Christ Over All will look more at his biography and offer analyses of each chapter of this important book, but it is worth reflecting in general on this work, the cultural moment in which it was published, and finally on our own cultural moment.
In 1981 Ronald Reagan had been in office for less than a year. The Supreme Court had ruled on Roe v. Wade some eight years prior in 1973. The United States had also pulled out of Vietnam in 1973. Schaeffer had first begun publishing in 1968 when two of his key books came out: Escape from Reason and The God Who is There.
Schaeffer ultimately wrote twenty-three books, with A Christian Manifesto being one of his final works. He had covered a lot of ground from 1968 to 1981, and A Christian Manifesto and other books written toward his final years often had an explicitly cultural and political edge to them (e.g., How Should We Then Live? and Whatever Happened to the Human Race?).
A Christian Manifesto When It Was Written
Schaeffer often spoke of Christ being Lord of “all of life,” or that the Christian must work out one’s Christian faith in all spheres of life. Hence, it was inevitable that Schaeffer’s sights would turn to a work of what nowadays could be called “political theology.” Schaeffer himself saw A Christian Manifesto as a “natural outgrowth of the books which have gone before.”
Schaeffer would write: “With the most recent books and their accompanying film series [How Should We Then Live?], I, and all of us working together on these, carried the Lordship of Christ in the whole spectrum of life further.”
1. A Christian Manifesto, revised edition (Westchester, IL: Crossway Books, 1982), 9. Unless otherwise noted, all further references to A Christian Manifesto will come from this revised edition from the 1981 original.
2. Schaeffer, Manifesto, 9.
3. Schaeffer, Manifesto, 9.
And as Schaeffer noted, the “next logical step” was to ask: “What is the Christian’s relationship to government, law, and civil disobedience?”
Several key concerns seem to be at the heart of Schaeffer’s volume. First, Schaeffer was passionately committed to the pro-life cause, and was clear-sighted in his lament over legalized abortion in the United States. Second, Schaeffer rightly saw that the United States had for a number of years been secularizing rapidly, and that the various branches of civil government had become increasingly hostile to Christian faith. In this sense he was warning some forty years ago about the very things someone like Rod Dreher writes about today—soft (or not-so soft?) totalitarianism that creeps into greater power.
4. Rod Dreher, Live Not by Lies: A Manual for Christian Dissidents (New York City: Sentinel, 2020).
Schaeffer saw the root of the problem as a worldview shift that had taken place over eight decades beginning in the 1900s. He posited that there had been a shift from a general Christian understanding of God, man, and the world to what he at numerous times calls “a world view based upon the idea that the final reality is impersonal matter or energy shaped into its present form by impersonal chance.” In short, the worldview shift went from a somewhat Christian understanding of things to a type of (what we might call) naturalistic materialism.
5. Schaeffer, Manifesto, 18.
As Schaeffer saw it, Christians had erred in viewing one’s Christian faith as only touching “spiritual” realities. Schaeffer thought that this version of “pietism” effectively sequestered a full application of the lordship of Christ to every area of life. According to Schaeffer: “True spirituality covers all of reality.”
6. Schaeffer, Manifesto, 19.
As Schaeffer would contend: “When I say Christianity is true I mean it is true to total reality—the total of what is, beginning with the central reality, the objective existence of the personal-infinite God. Christianity is not just a series of truths but Truth—Truth about all of reality.” Over against this, naturalism or materialism sees the world quite differently, and this different worldview works itself out over time in every realm—relations, vocation, morality, and political order.
7. Schaeffer, Manifesto, 20.
A Christian Manifesto Today
When one re-reads A Christian Manifesto today (forty years anon), it seems prescient. Schaeffer saw clearly that the United States was in a perilous place, and he saw clearly what Richard M. Weaver had written about thirty years before, that “ideas have consequences.” In one sense, Schaeffer was simply pointing out the obvious: the fundamental ideas, convictions, and principles which are at the heart of a culture have a way of working themselves out over time. (Let the reader understand.)
8. [Richard M. Weaver, Ideas Have Consequences, Expanded edition (Chicago; London: University of Chicago Press, 2013).
Schaeffer painted in broad strokes, and perhaps that is why so many persons were influenced by him. That is, Schaeffer’s A Christian Manifesto is not a piece of technical scholarship. It is a jeremiad—but it is more than this. It is a plea for Christians to read the signs of the times, and to think through how the lordship of Christ might be lived out in the present.
9. Schaeffer, Manifesto, 27.
Perhaps most controversially, Schaeffer asked a fundamental question: “What is an adequate basis for law?” And Schaeffer here contrasts the two worldviews which are central to the work: A Christian understanding of reality and a naturalistic/materialistic understanding of reality. Schaeffer starts with the affirmation that man is made in the image of God, which is perhaps one of Christianity’s most stunning contributions to the development of Western culture and statecraft in the West. Man, as made in the image of God, has inherent value—regardless of one’s contribution to the economy, one’s physical attractiveness, one’s strengths, or one’s various gifts. But Schaeffer goes on to outline, and delineate throughout this work, that in Christian theology the civil magistrate has a limited and derivative authority—again, one of Christianity’s most significant insights to political thought and order.
10. Schaeffer, Manifesto, 27.
That is, since this world is created, sustained, and ruled by God, all earthly political authority is limited and derivative. Political rulers are answerable and accountable to God. And Schaeffer was not shy about working this out a bit. Where does all of this theology lead? He writes: “The base for law is not divided, and no one has the right to place anything, including king, state or church, above the content of God’s law.”
11. Schaeffer, Manifesto, 29.
Schaeffer does not explicate in detail how Scripture would or should function to inform contemporary statecraft. His point—for good or for ill—is more basic: The civil magistrate is accountable to God. And the Christian is not obligated to obey the civil magistrate when the magistrate commands disobedience to God’s word or forbids obedience to God’s word. In short, Schaeffer was trying to outline—if in a cursory manner—a Christian paradigm for how to relate to civil rulers, especially when the civil ruler has become not just ambivalent, but hostile to Christian belief and practice.
Although various critics have argued that Schaeffer missed this or that scholarly detail, it seems that one of Schaeffer’s contributions to the Evangelical world was influencing Evangelicals to think in these kinds of architectonic, big-picture, worldview ways. In fact, this is how Schaeffer begins the first chapter, “The basic problem of the Christians in this country in the last eighty years of so [1900–80], in regard to society and in regard to government, is that they have seen things in bits and pieces instead of totals.”
12. Schaeffer, Manifesto, 17.
For us at Christ Over All, this comprehensive view of God’s world is a good legacy, and not one to be abandoned. Our purpose this month is not simply to repristinate a forty-year-old book. Instead, we dust it off in order to learn afresh from Schaeffer. Even more, we hope to extend and improve, if possible, his various attempts at both understanding and engaging culture.
Reflections on a Significant Work
At one level, the key, overarching argument of the book is strikingly simple: the civil magistrate has a real but limited and derivative authority. Christians are called to be good citizens. But this citizenship requires (in faithfulness to the Lord Jesus himself) that we at times disobey the civil government—given its limited and derivative authority, and given that the Christian’s ultimate loyalty must be to God himself as he has spoken in Holy Writ. In one sense this is the most basic of Christian teaching. It should not have really shocked anyone at the time of its publication, and it certainly should not shock anyone today.
There is much to be appreciated in Schaeffer’s work. Forty years on from its original publication, it is past time for Christians to be thinking on the important subject of how to live godly lives when our cultured despisers and many of the intellectual elite—whether the centers of entertainment, education, business, or political life—are arrayed against the most basic of Christian belief and ethics. Doubtless future monthly themes of Christ Over All will explore these and other subjects. But again, our goal is not to repristinate, but to learn and move forward.
13. Interestingly, I read A Christian Manifesto in preparation for writing this essay, and only turned to Hankins’ book when I had written the bulk of the first draft. The Marsden/Noll criticism that there was no full-blown “Christian America” to my mind does not really strike at the heart of Schaeffer’s general thesis. Schaeffer’s main point, it seems to me, is that there are two general views of the world competing with each other (in Schaeffer’s time): a (1) naturalistic/secularistic view of the world and (2) a theistic, Judeo-Christian view of the world. Now that schema might be challenged as well, but to argue that there is not a distant “Christian America” does not really mitigate against Schaeffer’s general argument.
A Significant Criticism
But we should note a significant criticism levied against the book upon its publication. Barry Hankins, in his Francis Schaeffer and the Shaping of Evangelical America, recounts a line of criticism articulated by George Marsden and Mark Noll. Essentially, Marsden and Noll argue that Schaeffer was wrong to posit that America had been founded on a biblical base, that there had ever really been a “Christian America.” But, Schaeffer’s general thesis does not rise or fall upon the premise that the United States had a truly biblical founding. Schaeffer does see a shift from (1) a more or less biblical/theistic framework to (2) an increasingly naturalist/secularistic framework. But even if it were to be shown that America never had a significantly biblical outlook or framework at its founding, Schaeffer’s concerns about the naturalistic or secularistic cast of his day would stand.
14. I would recommend digging into primary sources to discern this question. A place to start: Daniel L. Dreisbach and Mark David Hall, The Sacred Rights of Conscience: Selected Readings on Religious Liberty and Church-State Relations in the American Founding (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2009).
15. For the record, I doubt Schaeffer was as mistaken as Noll suggested. Schaeffer’s own understanding of America’s former “biblical consensus,” or “Christian consensus,” or “Christian ethos” was rather nuanced and qualified, on my view.
A different essay could explore the Christian influence upon America’s founding. As a young man I purchased The Search for Christian America, by Mark Noll, Nathan Hatch, and George Marsden. It was published two years after A Christian Manifesto, and it argued against the notion of a Christian America.
As I return to it now, I am intrigued. In some ways their critique of Schaeffer is rather mild, and the more acute criticisms of Schaeffer are at the level of historical detail. The authors can even write: “Virtually every recent study of the ideological origins of the American Revolution has pointed out the pervasive influence of generically Christian political traditions.” Likewise: “Certainly the Judeo-Christian heritage was an important influence, as we have already seen, during the Revolutionary period.” The target of these authors really seems to be simplistic notions that the USA is simply the “new Israel” or the like.
16. Noll, Hatch, and Marsden, Christian America, 143n19.
17. Noll, Hatch, and Marsden, Christian America, 129.
18. Noll, Hatch, and Marsden, Christian America, 125.
19. Noll, Hatch, and Marsden, Christian America, 130.
But Schaeffer’s notion of a disappearing “Christian consensus” seems to stand up to scrutiny.
But it is worth noting that Noll, Marsden, and Hatch were not simply making a historical argument about the views and theological commitments (or lack thereof) of America’s founders. They were also arguing something about the nature of political order. Thus they summarize two key reasons why they are skeptical about talk of returning to a “Christian America”: “First, for theological reasons—because since the time of Christ there is no such thing as God’s chosen nation,” and “second, for historical reasons, as we have seen—because it is historically incorrect to regard the founding of America and the formulation of the founding documents as being Christian in their origin.” The first reason is important, and it will be part of the work of Christ Over All to ask serious and meaningful questions about the role of (and relationship between) statecraft and the Christian faith. To simply say that no contemporary nation is “God’s chosen notion” perhaps is too easy to say, and allows one (unwittingly?) to sidestep the really important question: How then should we live—both as people and as a nation?
Francis Schaeffer Today: A Few Reflections
For many of us Evangelicals who came of intellectual/spiritual age in the 1970s and 1980s, Schaeffer was significant to us. When one re-reads some his work from the end of his career (like A Christian Manifesto), we see the culmination of a many years of theological and philosophical reflection—all with an eye on how best to live faithfully in the present. In what follows, I share a few reflections on how A Christian Manifesto has aged and its possible significance today.
First, I wonder if Schaeffer necessarily probed deeply enough into the nature and significance of the antithesis between believing thought and unbelieving thought. I believe he intended to, but I wonder. When Schaeffer wrestled with the naturalist and materialistic worldview, did he attend enough to the fact that such persons actually knew God through God’s revelation through the created order (Romans 1), and were in fact suppressing such knowledge?
When we read our cultured despisers today, it seems clear that such despisers often display (and not subtly) a deep animus and hostility to the things of God. That is, there is—it seems to me, and at times—a virtually visceral hatred of the things of God. I wonder if Schaeffer took into account the depth and nature of the resistance to, and hatred of, the things of God which animates the unbelieving world.
Second, I wonder if Schaeffer grasped how committed both major political parties were (and are) to the centralization of political power at the federal level. Schaeffer rightly laments what he calls “statism.” But did Schaeffer grasp how far removed the United States was in 1981 from the decentralized system that lies at the heart of the U.S. Constitution? Do many people even grasp this dilemma today?
As long as traditionalists of all stripes are unaware that the constitutional framework laid out in the U.S. Constitution has been effectively ignored for decades (in my reading at least), the attempt to grasp the nature of our dilemma today will be largely a non-starter.
20. But see Schaeffer, Manifesto, 113-14. For an introduction to the way the constitution has been largely abandoned and/or overrun by recent legislation, see Caldwell, The Age of Entitlement: America Since the Sixties (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2020).
Third, I suspect that some of Schaeffer’s own insights explain why we are in a particularly precarious time today. A number of Schaeffer’s later works expressed grave concern about the nature of the Evangelical church: The Church at the End of the Twentieth Century, The Church Before the Watching World, and The Great Evangelical Disaster particularly come to mind.
I broach this as a concern for the church not to be unduly cynical. Indeed, any Christian—since we believe in the reality of the resurrection—believes God can reform and revive his Church. In short, as we reflect upon Schaeffer’s legacy, we should note the obvious: the Church is utterly central to God’s plan for the world, and we should think and act as to encourage and help promote reformation and revival in God’s church.
Fourth, it seems clear that a truly Christian and biblical theology of civil disobedience needs to be worked out in greater detail than Schaeffer worked out. If a law seems unjust, are we free to disobey a law? If we see something in society that (ostensibly) is unfair or unjust, are we thereby entitled to break laws related to public order? Schaeffer was measured and cautious, and cannot be seen as recommending a kind of freewheeling breaking of the law. Rather, he was working with a very basic and traditional Christian affirmation: when (1) the civil magistrate commands disobedience to God’s word, or (2) disallows obedience to God’s word, the Christian is entitled to disobey the civil magistrate. Schaeffer did not broach (as I recall) a third situation: (3) when a civil magistrate simply acts outside of its jurisdiction, or beyond the authority granted to it. In our current cultural moment, amidst especially highly pitched rhetoric, we need to work out when it is acceptable to engage in civil disobedience, and when it is wiser to simply persevere in less-than-ideal situations.
Fifth, we should seek to extend Schaeffer’s legacy in a particular way. Schaeffer was not afraid to speak the truth, and to do so with love. This should be our model too. In particular, when I read Schaeffer, I read a man who was willing to speak clearly and candidly, and to let the chips fall where they may. As I look out upon our current cultural moment, that is the kind of person we need more of today.
We hope to be those kind of voices at Christ Over All and to encourage others to do the same. What is our manifesto? Like Schaeffer, we hope to speak truthfully, forthrightly, candidly, and fairly—and to do so with love and grace. Our cultural moment—and our Lord—call for it.