Francis Schaeffer (1912-1984) penned A Christian Manifesto forty years ago. Providentially, the book came at the end of Schaeffer’s life. He died of cancer just three years later. It was nevertheless fitting that Schaeffer would conclude his full-length writing efforts with The Christian Manifesto: the book was the final logical step in his apologetic writing project that he had started over twenty years prior with the publication of The God Who is There. In the introduction Schaeffer regarded the Manifesto as “the natural outgrowth of the books which have gone before.”
Recovering Christian Intellectual Engagement
Schaeffer had become convinced that major portions of the Christian church, in response to a cultural narrative grounded in naturalism (i.e., Darwinism), had retreated into a brand of fundamentalist Christianity that saw no place for cultural engagement (and often lacked love for unbelievers), or into a form of pietistic devotion that viewed religion primarily in terms of personal experience rather than publicly verifiable truth. He labored, therefore, in his personal ministry and in his public speaking and writing to help Christians recapture a more biblical, intellectually robust view of the faith. Genuine faith in Christ was never an existential leap in the dark. No, because Christianity is the Truth, belief in the gospel rests on realities that actually occurred in time and space. The God of Christianity is really there, so his Word is objectively true for all people at all times. The gospel is to be received by the whole person: the mind embraces the truth as ultimate reality and the heart rejoices in that truth which the mind had come to know with certainty.
According to Schaeffer, the reason why Christianity as a worldview was being rejected by a growing segment of western society was not because it was false, but because it was being supplanted by an alternative view of reality that made biblical faith appear worse than implausible. Darwinian evolution was supported by a naturalistic worldview that rejected theism at its philosophical starting point. Within a naturalistic framework, Christianity, by definition, couldn’t be true. Schaeffer believed that Christians needed to challenge the prevailing Darwinian narrative by showing where naturalism not only failed to account for and ground the basic elements of our human experience (meaning, truth, love, freedom); it also, for that reason, led to a degrading of human life.
Applying the Lordship of Christ to All of Life
His trilogy, The God Who is There, Escape from Reason, and He is There and Not Silent, “laid out Schaeffer’s basic apologetic—that is, his intellectual defense of the Christian faith and his diagnosis for what had gone wrong with western intellectual life,” notes biographer Barry Hankin. Indeed, an essential component to Schaeffer’s apologetic was his observation that western culture’s departure from a broadly Christian worldview is what had led many societal troubles including arbitrary law, a loss of human freedom, and a sense of despair among those who had embraced relativism. The church, therefore, was to commend a Christian worldview positively by demonstrating how it provides the basis for human freedom and flourishing and negatively by showing what happens when a Judeo-Christian worldview disappears from a culture’s memory.
Both his trilogy and his subsequent books sought to establish and apply the truth that Christ’s lordship pervades all of life, not just a narrow “religious” or “spiritual” portion. The reality of Christ’s lordship meant that Christianity provided the epistemological basis for understanding everything in existence: philosophy, art, music, theology, politics, family, ecology. The sum of true spirituality (the title of one of his books was True Spirituality), therefore, was not the mere experience of God in private devotion (although that was essential to genuine faith), but the application of Christ’s lordship over every aspect of one’s private and public life. The responsibility of the Christian, therefore, was to engage the surrounding culture with Christian truth in order to defend the faith and commend Christ to others while also serving as salt to a decaying society.
The Manifesto was a call for Christians to wake up to the reality that societal major ills—sexual permissiveness, pornography, problems in public school, the breakdown of the family, abortion—were all symptoms of an epistemic shift that had been occurring over the last several decades. Christians had
failed to see that all of this has come about due to a shift in world view—that is, through a fundamental change in the overall way people think and view the world and life as a whole. The shift has been away from a world view that was at least vaguely Christian in people’s memory (even if they were not individually Christian) toward something completely different—toward a world view based upon the idea that the final reality is impersonal matter or energy shaped into its present form my impersonal chance.A Christian Manifesto, 17-18.
Christians had been slow to recognize this shift due to what Schaeffer calls a “defective view of Christianity” (18). Specifically, the church had come to embrace a Platonic pietism that saw spirituality as “shut up to a small isolated part of life,” and the “totality of reality was ignored” (18-19). While pietists were right to emphasize a vital, personal relationship with Jesus Christ over-against religious formalism, they didn’t have the theological apparatus to press the idea that Christian truth by its very nature speaks to all of life, private and public, family and culture. By remaining focused on personal devotion and issues of a strictly “religious” nature, Christians were not able to see past the particular societal problems to the underlying secular humanistic worldview that had given rise to these problems.
Shaking off our Platonic Pietism
Unlike the Judeo-Christian worldview that places a personal-infinite God at the center of the universe and endows humankind with inherent dignity, the “material-energy-chance” view of ultimate reality can’t provide an adequate basis for law or the freedoms Americans enjoy. Such a naturalistic worldview can only lead to arbitrary, relativistic, culturally-grounded law and some form of governmental authoritarianism that replaces God with the state. According to Schaeffer, Christians must shake off their Platonic spirituality and engage the greater culture with Christian truth, not only for evangelistic reasons, but in order to preserve the freedoms that a Christian worldview had helped establish at the founding of this country.
Schaeffer doesn’t claim that America is a Christian nation as such, and he argues explicitly against the establishment of theocracy. But he does recognize that, despite the deistic convictions of many of the founding fathers and the theologically vague language of the Declaration of Independence and Constitution, the cultural consensus at the time of the American Revolution was strongly Christian (see also Thomas Kidd’s, God of Liberty: A Religious History of the American Revolution for a recent defense of this thesis. Kidd does not suggest, however, that this consensus implies that the U.S. was founded as a “Christian” nation.). Thus, the contemporary claim that the separation of church and state means that religion cannot be allowed to influence public law or policy is “totally foreign to the basic nature of America at the time of the writing of the constitution” (34).
For this reason, Christians cannot be intimidated into a corner when they know that (1) a Christian worldview is what provided much of the foundation for our form of government with its attendant freedoms; (2) the separation doctrine does not imply a secular state; and (3) secular humanism leads inevitably to authoritarianism, arbitrary law, the degrading of human life, and the removal of religious freedom.
Disciples of Christ are called to compassionate engagement in our present setting for the sake of the gospel and the lordship of Christ over all of life. We must “use this freedom while we still have it,” Schaeffer repeats throughout the Manifesto. But we don’t “finally battle on the front for freedom, and specifically not only our freedom,” he reminds us. “[The battle] must be on the basis of Truth. Not just religious truth, but the Truth of what final reality is. Is it impersonal matter or is it the living God” (54)?
The God-Given Role of Government and the Place for Civil Disobedience
A particularly relevant topic that flows logically from Schaeffer’s argument for applying the lordship of Christ to every area of private and public life is the matter of civil disobedience. Since March 2020, Christians have faced the serious question of whether or not loyalty to Christ requires the defiance of some Covid-related restrictions on public worship. Schaeffer’s description of the role and limits of government are particularly helpful here.
Referring to Matthew 22:21, Schaeffer notes that “civil government, as all of life, stands under the law of God. In this fallen world God has given us certain offices to protect us from the chaos which is the natural result of fallenness. But when any office commands that which is contrary to the Word of God, those who hold that office abrogate their authority and are not to be obeyed. And that includes the state (90-91).” After quoting Romans 13:1-4, Schaeffer observes that Scripture clearly delimits the role and reach of the state. “The state is to be an agent of justice, to restrain evil by punishing the wrongdoer, and protect the good in society. When it does the reverse, it has no proper authority. It is then a usurped authority and as such it becomes lawless and is tyranny” (91). Referencing 1 Peter 2:13-17, Schaeffer, reaffirms that, “The state, as [Peter] defines it, is to punish those who do wrong and commend those who do right. If this is not so, the whole structure falls apart.” Christians, therefore, are to obey the state “as a matter of ‘conscience'” (192).
But what does a Christian do when the state does that which violates its legitimate function? To answer this question, Schaeffer references the early church and the persecution it suffered when believers refused to demonstrate allegiance to Caesar through public worship. To the Christian, resistance to the state on this issue was based on religious principles. But to the state, the refusal to worship Caesar was civil disobedience.
The Roman State did not care what anybody believed religiously; you could believe anything, or you could be an atheist. But you had to worship Caesar as a sign of your loyalty to the state. The Christians said they would not worship Caesar, anybody, or anything, but the living God. Thus to the Roman Empire they were rebels, and it was civil disobedience. That is why they were thrown to the lions.A Christian Manifesto, 92.
Rome’s stability rested on each citizen pledging ultimate loyalty to Caesar. To refuse to express this loyalty through an act of public worship was itself, as Rome viewed it, a direct attack on the very health of the nation. For the Christian, however, to participate in such worship was sin against God, and faithfulness to God was ultimate.
You can already see the similarities between ancient Rome and our situation today. To resist restrictions on public worship that require either total closure or the curtailing of elements essential to public worship (like singing) appears to the state as an attack on the nation’s stability (i.e., public health). The Christian, however, cannot give up regularly gathering physically with other believers (Heb 10:24-25), or singing praise to God in public worship (Col 3:16). Nor is he compelled to obey the state when it overreaches its delegated authority. While it is true that Romans 13:1-4 teaches that the governing authorities bear the responsibility of enforcing what is right, we cannot forget that only Scripture can define what is truly right. When the state begins to enforce that which is objectively wrong, the Christian is under no obligation to obey. Indeed, as Schaeffer urges: “The bottom line is that at a certain point there is not only the right, but the duty, to disobey the state” (93).
Schaeffer’s Manifesto was first read by Christians forty years ago, but his insights and exhortations are still trenchant. Indeed, following Harvard Professor Daniel Bell’s prediction, Schaeffer suggested that an “elite composed of select intellectuals made up of those who control the use of the technological explosion, a technocratic elite” (78) will eventually exercise authoritarian control over American society. It’s difficult to deny the accuracy of Schaeffer’s prognosis. Given our contemporary cultural moment and the insight and relevance of Schaeffer’s Manifesto, it just might be time to read it again.