A view from within the religious right

religion | Crazy for God, by Frank Schaeffer, Da Capo Press, $26, 418 pages

With a title like "Crazy For God: How I Grew Up as One of the Elect, Helped Found the Religious Right, and Lived to Take All (or Almost All) of It Back," Frank Schaeffer -- author, filmmaker and one-time heir-apparent to a religious dynasty -- sets a table any mortal would be hard-pressed to clear. One of the elect? Helped found the Religious Right? Whew.

Schaeffer, with his self-effacing humor, for the most part backs his claims while unraveling the reputations of evangelists whom the elect hold dear. If you've never heard of Francis or Edith Schaeffer (his parents), you are probably not blessed to be numbered among the Protestant evangelicals of the 1960s, '70s and '80s.

Francis Schaeffer, an evangelical of the old school, was an intellectual who loved art and classical music. Edith Schaeffer was, in a word, a nut. Both published wildly popular religious books and were sought-after speakers and seminar leaders. Yet they mostly flew under the cultural radar.

Although riches (Frank Schaeffer calls them "Jesus dollars") could be made as evangelists, the Schaeffers sequestered themselves and their children at their Christian community, L'Abri, in Switzerland. L'Abri became a destination for seekers -- single pregnant women, seminary students dissatisfied with a chapter-and-verse education, ministers nervous about modernity creeping into their congregations.

The senior Schaeffer was erudite and learned but believed the Bible was to be interpreted literally. At home, the beloved Bible teacher abused his wife, and they both ignored their children. The cheery family that Edith Schaeffer so lovingly wrote about was fraught with serious issues. Yet in matters of faith, the Schaeffers practiced what they preached. Their doors were open to anyone who came to them. Theirs was a fascinating blend of sacred and profane.

Frank Schaeffer is an astute observer. "Fundamentalists never can just disagree," he writes. "The person they fall out with is not only on the wrong side of an issue; they are on the wrong side of God," and so, he posits, groups that keep splintering grow more shrill in their doctrines. "We Schaeffers," he writes, "never compromised."

In the hands of a less skilled writer, this might come off as a screed, but Schaeffer loves his parents, and he loves his Lord.

When the opportunity comes to try filmmaking, he makes popular documentaries, including "Whatever Happened to the Human Race?" and "How Should We Then Live?" starring his father.

That leads to relationships with some religious leaders.The younger Schaeffer becomes disillusioned with the Jesus dollars he is making.

"What I slowly realized was that the religious-right leaders we were helping to gain power were not 'conservatives' at all in the old sense of the word," he writes. "They were anti-American religious revolutionaries."

But he keeps on and helps encourage the religious right to adopt abortion as its big-ticket issue. The money is good, until he writes a less-than-laudatory fictionalized version of his family, which confirms his public breach from the religious right.

If anything, in this work Schaeffer lingers too long on the family's faults, and material he includes from family and friends -- which look like cut-and-paste jobs -- is jarring. He doesn't spend enough time taking back what he helped start, but maybe that's the subject of another book.

When Schaeffer comments on the American religious landscape, the reader can rest assured they're in the hands of someone who knows.