Chapter 4: “The Humanist Religion”

In October 2022, Christ Over All authors examined the ten chapters of Francis Schaeffer’s A Christian Manifesto in order to explore their significance for today. Each title corresponds to the chapter name in Schaeffer’s work, which can be found here.

In 1981, the year Francis Schaeffer published A Christian Manifesto, I was a philosophy professor at Wheaton. He had just spoken in an April chapel, and I asked him if he’d mind coming directly to my bioethics class to engage the students. From the first time I would read his Escape from Reason (1968) up through How Should We Then Live? (1976) and Whatever Happened to the Human Race? (1979), I had admired his willingness to take on the idols of the age, and the 1979 video series primed him for extemporaneous contribution to my class.

Though he’d been diagnosed with lymphoma in 1978 (a malady which would take his life in 1984), he was still going as strong as he could, and he was kind enough to agree to the impromptu presentation, with Edith by his side. (She was not thrilled that he would tax himself for this extra hour of speaking, but he was willing, and she relented.)

The Religion of Humanism amidst the Reach of Television

Versed in the Communist Manifesto (1848) and the two Humanist Manifestos (1933 and 1973), Schaeffer picks up the gauntlet in his Christian Manifesto, responding particularly in chapter four to these humanist documents. He also cites Supreme Court decisions to make his case that humanism is, indeed, religious. From there, he argues that the religion of humanism not only exists, but that it increasingly prevails, supplanting our nation’s Judeo-Christian consensus and greasing the skids toward authoritarianism.

He blames the media for much of the damage insofar as they “see through the spectacles of a finally relativistic set of ethical personal social standards” (56). He calls out public television for refusing to broadcast Whatever Happened to the Human Race? while using tax money to deploy the Hard Choices series, which platformed a materialistic view of the universe, one that relegated biblical teachings to the realm of “fairy tales.” He also mentions PBS’s broadcast of Carl Sagan’s Cosmos series, which touted a thoroughly mechanistic universe.

The problem of partisan overreach extended to the legacy media, where “reporters” sought to be players—case in point, CBS, where the avuncular Walter Cronkite (who later expressed doubts over the long-term viability of democracy) was pressuring Ronald Reagan to pick Gerald Ford rather than George Bush as his running mate, a maneuver chronicled by Tom Shales in the Washington Post. Schaeffer concludes that the “solution is to limit somehow television’s power to use its bias in ‘the editorial’ reporting of events, and most specifically to keep it from shaping the political process” (61).

That observation jumps off the page, provoking the reader to ask what sort of limiting procedure he has in mind. Surely, we do not want a government watchdog such as the one established (and disestablished within a month) by the Department of Homeland Security—the Disinformation Governance Board. Critics quickly and correctly pointed out that Secretary Mayorkas’s brainchild was reminiscent of various “ministries of truth” portrayed in Orwell’s 1984 and instantiated under Axis and Iron Curtain tyrants in the twentieth century.

Fortunately, robust counterbalances have arisen in recent years. In the 1985, the year after Schaeffer’s death, Rupert Murdoch founded Fox News as an alternative to the legacy networks, NBC, CBS, and ABC. (Eventually Fox would find itself squaring off against another upstart, CNN, founded by Ted Turner in 1980.) In 1983, the year before Schaeffer’s death, the Internet (called the Transfer Control Protocol/Internetwork Protocol—TCP/IP) was launched, opening the door to a universe of reporting and opining through on-line journals, blogs/vlogs, and various streaming services. In the year of his death, 1984, Congress enacted cable deregulation, and channel selections mushroomed dramatically. In a thousand ways, new voices and outlets challenged the hegemony of the legacy media, and Schaeffer likely had no idea how bad and how good things could get.

Sometimes I imagine what it would be like to take Henry Ford on a 50-year time journey from his 1914 Highland Park, Model-T assembly line to a passenger seat in the Shelby Cobra that won Le Mans in 1964. Similarly, I wonder what Schaeffer might have said had he been plopped down in the world of Tucker Carlson v. Rachel Maddow, Epoch Times v. New York Times, NPR v. Clay Travis and Buck Sexton, and Twitter v. Parler. It would probably be bewildering and then alternatively appalling and exhilarating.

Yes, these media phenomena have served up a dog’s breakfast of insight and muddles, but all truth where it might occur is God’s truth, and Schaeffer, a champion of capital-T Truth, would have found in the mix a rag-tag army of cobelligerents for the culture wars.

Hedging on the Moral Majority and Learning from a Hedgehog

Several times in this chapter, Schaeffer tips his hat to the Moral Majority, but only after taking pains to acknowledge reservations—“Some of us may perhaps have some questions about the Moral Majority . . .” (56); “ . . . we must realize that regardless of whether we think the Moral Majority has always said the right things . . . (61)” He then gives them credit for drawing a worldview line in the sand and urges those who “personally do not like some of the details of what they have done” to “do it better” (61). In this, he sounds a lot like those who size up Donald Trump with judgments like, “Well, I didn’t like his style, but at least he did some good things.”

I close with a quibble, which I’ll put in context: In this chapter, his treatment of appellate decisions leaves a bit to be desired. Yes, the Supreme Court has, in effect, said that you don’t have to believe in God to be sufficiently religious to enjoy conscientious-objector status. And yes, the Macintosh (1931), Torcaso (1961) and Seeger (1965) cases he names figure in that narrative. But the evolution of law over a 28-year span is not as crisp as he suggests. For one thing, the Macintosh decision (which he calls the “1933 MacIntoch” ruling) did not itself hold that religion required belief in a supreme being; that notion appears only in Justice Hughes’ dissent, a point Schaeffer notes but seems to count trivial. And then he credits the Torcaso case with declaring, decisively, that secular humanism is a religion. But that observation pops up only in a footnote, an obiter dictum or side comment lacking legal force.

Again, this seems like so much nitpicking on my part, but I think it touches on something that those of us in the Wheaton philosophy department noticed when we were tapped to lead discussions of the How Should We Then Live? film series in local churches—that Schaeffer was impressive overall, but his treatment of details could occasionally prompt a “Say what?!” instead of an “Amen” (e.g., from Arthur Holmes re: Aquinas and Steve Evans re: Kierkegaard).

Drawing on an observation by the Greek poet, Archilochus, Isaiah Berlin famously divided thinkers into foxes and hedgehogs—“A fox knows many things, but a hedgehog knows one big thing.” It’s a fairly arbitrary distinction, but his examples are helpful—with Shakespeare and Montaigne as foxes (running from one set of details to another) and Plato and Nietzsche as hedgehogs (attending to details as necessary to make their overarching point). Though Francis Schaeffer marshalled a host of details to make his case, I’d call him a hedgehog, since the grand point—that two big worldviews were at war—was his raison d’être, and the specificities he assembled along the way could occasionally give one pause. Nevertheless, this hedgehog was basically right, and we are in his debt.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Mark Coppenger

Mark Coppenger

Mark Coppenger (BA, Ouachita; PhD, Vanderbilt; MDiv, SWBTS) retired in 2019 as Professor of Christian Philosophy and Ethics at SBTS. He’s also taught full-time at Wheaton and MBTS, and covered adjunct courses at Vanderbilt, Elmhurst, and TIU. He’s served as senior pastor for churches in Arkansas and Illinois; held denominational posts in Indiana and Tennessee; and retired as a USAR infantry officer in 1998. He currently is a member at Redemption City Church in Franklin, TN, where he volunteers in a number of roles. A selection of his writings is found at markcoppenger.com.