In a piece originally published on Alternet that has appeared this week on Salon.com, Frank Schaeffer claims, “Conservative Christians would have hated Jesus.” It’s unfortunate to read a piece like this, because Frank Schaeffer is the son of the late Francis Schaeffer.
The elder Schaeffer was known for his traditional Protestant positions and his work in cultural apologetics. This included his famous 1979 book, Whatever Happened to the Human Race? that forcefully argued against the evils of abortion and euthanasia. Frank Schaeffer even helped his father make a documentary about the book.
Today, however, Frank Schaeffer is an outspoken critic of traditional orthodoxy. In fact, his most recent book is called Why I Am an Atheist Who Believes in God. The fruit has indeed fallen far from the evangelical tree.
So what reasons does Schaeffer give to think that “conservative Christians,” a group he doesn’t really define in his piece, would hate Jesus? His article gives three reasons:
1. Jesus loved the poor, while conservative Christians do not.
Schaeffer thinks it is striking that nonreligious Scandinavian countries offer their citizens abundant social welfare benefits, while conservative Christians “slash programs designed to help women and children.” But the stereotype of “conservative Christians” not helping the poor is tired, lame, and false.
As Arthur Brooks of the Hoover Institute pointed out in his 2003 “Religious Faith and Charitable Giving” policy review:
"Religious people are more generous than secular people with nonreligious causes as well as with religious ones. While 68 percent of the total population gives (and 51 percent volunteers) to nonreligious causes each year, religious people are 10 points more likely to give to these causes than secularists (71 percent to 61 percent) and 21 points more likely to volunteer (60 percent to 39 percent)."
Along with giving money, throughout the country you find weekly churchgoing Christians, both Catholic and Protestant, giving their time to help operate soup kitchens, foster care programs, and maternity homes for homeless pregnant women.
Pro-lifers, many of whom are conservative Christians, also face this charge when people say that they care only about life before birth and abandon children once they are born. But, as Helen Alvare says, this is “lazy slander,” because pro-lifers operate thousands of pregnancy centers throughout the country. Some of these centers provide “pre-natal care, STI testing, STI treatment, ultrasound, childbirth classes, labor coaching, midwife services, lactation consultation, nutrition consulting, social work, abstinence education, parenting classes, material assistance, and post-abortion counseling.”
She and her co-authors write:
"If pro-life Americans provide so many (often free) services to the poor and vulnerable—work easily discovered by any researcher or journalist with an Internet connection—why are they sometimes accused of caring only for life inside the womb? Quite possibly, it is the conviction of abortion advocates that “caring for the born” translates first and always into advocacy for government programs and funds. In other words, abortion advocates appear to conflate charitable works and civil society with government action."
And this is exactly the kind of rhetoric Schaeffer uses: Christians truly help the poor only when they vote for the government to do it for them. This is ironic, because Jesus never advocated for government to help the poor. He instead instructed his followers to directly help the poor (who in Jesus’ time would have more closely resembled the poor in modern developing nations than the poor in twenty-first-century America).
Now, we can have a legitimate debate about which public policies most effectively alleviate poverty. But it is simply dishonest to say that unless you support solving poverty through massive government programs, you aren’t a true Christian. That’s an emotional assertion and not a logical argument.
2. Jesus was a rule-breaker.
Schaeffer says that conservative Christians are obsessed with rules, while Jesus hated religious rules and codes. Jesus was superior to his modern conservative followers because he operated with the simple intention of loving others and being empathetic. Schaeffer says that Jesus’ act of touching lepers and other ritually impure people, as well as his outreach to people like the Samaritans, were acts of righteous defiance. He implies that these acts are on par with modern liberal Christians today who support legal abortion and redefining marriage. He writes:
"In evangelical and Roman Catholic fundamentalist terms, Jesus was a rule-breaking humanist who wasn’t “saved.” A conservative bishop would have refused Jesus the sacraments. Christianity Today magazine would have editorialized against him, called for his firing, banning and branded him a traitor to the cause of Christianity."
But here Schaeffer is simply wrong about Jesus’ attitude towards the Mosaic Law. In Matthew 5:17-19, Jesus said,
"Think not that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets; I have come not to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly, I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. Whoever then relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches men so, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven."
The fact is that Jesus fulfilled the ritual laws of the Old Testament and made them unnecessary in the New Covenant. According to the Catechism:
"Jesus perfects the dietary law, so important in Jewish daily life, by revealing its pedagogical meaning through a divine interpretation . . . What comes out of a man is what defiles a man. For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts . . ." (CCC 582)
Jesus also fulfilled the moral law of the Old Testament not by making the law null but by making it stricter in the New Covenant. He fulfilled these laws by showing us their ultimate purpose -- to make us holy because God is holy (1 Peter 1:15-16). For example, Jesus said that not only is murder wrong, so is hatred (Matthew 5:21-23). He said that not only is adultery wrong, so is lust (Matthew 5:27-28).
It is simply ignorant to say, as Schaeffer does, that “Jesus didn’t like the ‘Bible’ of his day.” Really? Then why did he quote from it during his temptation by the Devil (Matthew 4:4-10)? Why did he proclaim that it was fulfilled in his teachings (Luke 4:21)? Why did he appeal to it in order to condemn the Pharisees (Matthew 15:1-8)?
It’s also a false dilemma to say that we must either care about the moral law or we must care about being loving and empathetic but that we can’t do both.
This brings us to Schaeffer’s final flawed argument.
3. Jesus put empathy ahead of dogma.
"Every time Jesus mentioned the equivalent of a church tradition, the Torah, he qualified it with something like this: “The scriptures say thus and so, but I say . . .” Jesus undermined the scriptures and religious tradition in favor of empathy. Every time Jesus undermined the scriptures (Jewish “church tradition”) it was to err on the side of co-suffering love. . . . For people who call Jesus “the Son of God” you’d think they would also reject the veneration of the book he’s trapped in and church dogma that has crucified him again each time a gay man or divorced couple are refused the sacraments."
Schaeffer must have forgotten Jesus’ exchange with the Pharisees who asked him, “Is it lawful to divorce one’s wife for any cause?” They argued that Moses allowed them to divorce their wives but Jesus responded,
"For your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so. And I say to you: whoever divorces his wife, except for unchastity,and marries another, commits adultery; and he who marries a divorced woman, commits adultery." (Matthew 19:8-9)
Schaefer would have us believe that modern conservative Christians are just heartless, rule-obsessed Pharisees, while Jesus cared about love, not rules. But, in this case, Jesus actually rebuked the Pharisees for not being strict enough! He rebuked them for adhering to the transitory toleration of divorce in Deuteronomy 24:1 instead of seeking after God’s original command in Genesis 1-2 that man and woman become one flesh that no human can separate.
St. Paul warned us that we should not take the Eucharist unworthily and that some who did so in Corinth died because of this transgression (1 Corinthians 11:27-30). We’ve already seen that Jesus taught that adultery, even in remarriage, is a grave sin. Are we going to heed Jesus and St. Paul’s teachings? Or will we say that those teachings aren’t relevant anymore and instead “accumulate for ourselves teachers to suit [our] own likings and turn away from listening to the truth” (2 Timothy 4:3)?
Finally, Schaeffer tells us we need to “believe in Jesus” instead of the “book” or “dogma” that Jesus is “trapped in,” but that advice is nonsensical. The only way we can know anything about Jesus or what he wants us to do is by reading the Scripture God gave us and listening to the teachings of the Church Christ founded.
Schaeffer isn’t telling us to give up the Bible and the Church in favor of Jesus. He’s telling us to give up the Bible and the Church in favor of his own poorly thought out interpretation of the Bible—an interpretation that uses Jesus as a ventriloquist dummy in order to spout his own flawed, secular principles of morality.
Sift Argument from Outrage
When you read a piece like this, my advice is to take a breath when you get frustrated and ask yourself, “What exactly is the argument this person is making?” Often there isn’t an argument to be found, just outrage and the assumption that others must be outraged, too.
Also, resist the urge to explode when the author uses over-the-top rhetoric in order to make his points. The best example of this in Schaeffer’s piece is when he says, “Every time conservative Roman Catholics try to stop the Pope from bringing change to the Church they are on the side to those who killed Jesus.”
All I can say to that is: show me a man who accuses his ideological opponent’s arguments of resembling the act of deicide, and I’ll show you a man who’s run out of any good arguments to defend his beliefs.