How Should We Then and Now: Ep. 6 (The Scientific Age)

This is the sixth regular installment in a series of posts as I rewatch a 1977 documentary film called How Should We Then Live? If you’re reading this series for the first time, it’s best to start with the project introduction. Today’s episode is “The Scientific Age.”

In the later parts of this week’s episode of How Should We Then Live, things start to get a little weird.

Francis Schaeffer’s main tasks in “The Scientific Age” seem straightforward if you’re familiar with the work of other evangelical intellectuals. First, Schaeffer seeks to show that Christianity is fully compatible with modern science. (Indeed, he wants to show that Christianity contributed to it.) But he also wants to show that the uncritical embrace of science and technology can erode fundamental human values.

This is not an unusual pair of claims. Philosophers and historians have advanced these claims, or something close to them, for generations. They’re countering a 19th-century notion, the “Conflict Thesis,” which says there is a fundamental opposition between religious and scientific thinking.

The Conflict Thesis is still widely believed in America today, and it has high-profile proponents among science communicators. But most contemporary historians have little patience for it. The Conflict Thesis requires an ahistorical view of both science and religion. To a historian’s eyes, science and religion are complex human activities unfolding in time like everything else humans do.

So this episode presents a great opportunity for Francis Schaeffer to be basically on the same side as historians in a contentious public debate.

But Schaeffer doesn’t stop there. After addressing Christianity’s role in the Scientific Revolution of the early modern age, he moves ahead to the 1970s and beyond, speculating about the future of human reproduction and other questions of bioethics. That’s where things get weird.

In that later part of this episode, I think, we get another strong taste of the cultural anxieties that brought Francis Schaeffer, our rehabilitated 1950s fundamentalist living in Switzerland, back into American political conservative activism. So later in this post, I’m going to dive back into the political context of Schaeffer’s work on this film in the 1970s.

Specifically, I’m going to talk about the time Francis Schaeffer got a late-night White House tour from Gerald Ford—after which he ended up sitting in the Lincoln Bedroom, telling the president’s son and daughter-in-law his plans for filming How Should We Then Live.

In the opening minutes of this episode, Schaeffer introduces us to Galileo Galilei and his confrontation with the Inquisition in the early 17th century. “When the Roman church attacked Galileo and Copernicus,” Schaeffer says, “it was not because their teaching contained anything contrary to the Bible. But Copernicus’s and Galileo’s teaching did deny the Aristotelian elements which had become a part of the teaching of the church.” This thought is silently dramatized by a bearded actor studying the heavens through a brass telescope.

Next, Schaeffer himself reenacts Blaise Pascal’s 1646 experiment with Evangelista Torricelli’s mercury barometer. “For Pascal,” Schaeffer says, “man was special—because Christ had died on the cross for him.” Schaeffer then takes us to a courtyard at the University of Cambridge to talk about Isaac Newton’s Principia and his Christian faith; then back in time more than half a century to Francis Bacon’s Novum Organum.

He says:

To these founders of modern science, man—including his science—is not on his own. He is to take seriously the teaching of the Bible concerning history and the cosmos. And yet, art and science in themselves have value before man and God. … To find out about the world was worthwhile because it meant investigating God’s marvelous creation.

So far, I’m not a fan of the way Schaeffer is projecting his own religious beliefs, especially a modern evangelical’s conception of the Bible, onto the beliefs of early modern Catholics and Anglicans. As usual, I’m also not enamored of his freewheeling approach to chronology or his nearly complete lack of interest in historical context. (His exclusive use of male language—”man” for “humanity,” etc.—isn’t getting any less grating, either. I don’t think I’ve mentioned it before, but it’s really out of control.)

Now we skip ahead to the 19th century, to the chemist and physicist Michael Faraday, the first figure profiled so far whose religious beliefs actually might be described as evangelical. But Schaeffer’s evidence that Faraday’s faith shaped his scientific work seems to be purely circumstantial. Indeed, that could be said of Schaeffer’s whole view of early 19th-century science.

Schaeffer, in the end, ascribes European scientific development in the 1800s to a generally Christian cultural milieu:

Not all the early scientists were individually consistent Christians. Many were. But all of them were living within the thought-forms brought forth by Christianity. In this setting, man’s creative stirrings had a base from which to continue and develop. Knowing that the universe had been created by a reasonable God, the scientists, upon a Christian base, were able to move out with confidence, expecting to be able to find out about the universe by observation and experiment.

Without this base, this foundation, modern western science would never have been born. Without this base, Chinese science, which had promising beginnings, never came to maturity. ‘There was no confidence [in China] that the code of nature’s laws could be unveiled and read, because there was no assurance that a divine being, even more rational than ourselves, had ever formulated such a code capable of being read.’ This was said by Joseph Needham, an expert on this subject. The same thing could be said about Arab science. Without a Christian base, they lost their interest in science eventually.

The Christian base, then, did not hinder science. The Christian base made modern science possible.

(Schaeffer delivers this thought from what seems to be a seat on a Swissair Boeing 747.)

I’m more than a little irked with Schaeffer at this point. For the most part, How Should We Then Live has avoided the kinds of invidious comparisons that make so many celebrations of “western civilization” obnoxious. Now Schaeffer chooses to proclaim European intellectual superiority—as a throwaway line in his attempt to defend Christianity from charges of intellectual inferiority? This seems particularly unnecessary, and probably detrimental to combating prejudice against religious belief. It may be a sign of how defensive the topic makes him.

Anyway, now we’re skipping to the present day—that is, the 1970s, or at least (to judge by the NASA backdrops Schaeffer is standing in front of) the Space Age. Tragically, Schaeffer says, scientists have begun to apply their strict natural cause-and-effect logic to all of reality, including humans.

In the 20th century, he says:

There was no place for God, but equally, no place for man as man. Man died. And love died. There is no place for love in a totally closed cause-and-effect system. And there is no place for morals. And there is no place for the freedom of man. There is no place for the significance of man. Man becomes a zero. Life becomes pointless, devoid of meaning.

“Man died. And love died.”

Hilariously, this statement about the death of love, morals, and freedom is illustrated with footage of 1970s traffic gridlock leading into (I’m pretty sure) Manhattan. Grim times indeed for humanity!

We’re about halfway through the episode now, and finally we get one of the things I’ve been waiting for: an attack on Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution.

Fortunately, Schaeffer keeps this attack simple. He focuses his critique on the idea that humanity could have arisen through chance—and on what that idea supposedly entails for human behavior. Darwinism, he says, “opened the door for 20th-century racism to be sanctioned and made respectable in the name of science.”

Schaeffer is circled

(The camera pulls back dramatically, revealing that as Schaeffer delivers these words, he is perched on the huge grandstand of the Zeppelinfeld, in the rally grounds built by the Nazis at Nuremberg.)

This rhetorical move is both inflammatory and irrelevant to the scientific validity of evolution. But as a matter of history, it’s not entirely unhinged. Evolutionary ideas did underpin much of the “race science” of the 20th century, and Nazis did conceive of themselves as taking control of the survival of the fittest. But then Schaeffer goes further, claiming that Nazism happened because Germany abandoned Christianity, and that, well, that’s a very interesting historical claim to explore. In such an exploration, Christianity may not come off as well as Schaeffer thinks.

But there’s no time, because now we jump into contemporary bioethics. For the rest of this episode, Schaeffer is going to argue that modern medical science is straying into instrumentalism and eugenics (although he doesn’t use that term).

Ultimately, Schaeffer believes, contemporary notions about science will culminate in a totalitarian technocratic tyranny. “When the Christian consensus died,” he says, “it left a vacuum. And this will tend to be filled by an elite, to form an authoritarian state”—a state ruling not through blunt-force terror, as Hitler’s and Statlin’s did, but through scientific “manipulation.”

What kind of manipulation does Schaeffer have in mind?

Schaeffer points first to organ transplants from brain-dead but otherwise physically living bodies, a practice that he admits has obvious humane benefits, but which he thinks “opens the door to ‘harvesting the dead'” wholesale. Then he points to artificial insemination using donor sperm; he worries that children born through such methods may one day no longer be considered “illegitimate,” which he says would cause “a weakening of the family.” Third, he hints that scientists may try to eliminate children with conditions like Down Syndrome from the population. He also warns that behaviorists following the teachings of B.F. Skinner already “are often found where it counts” in public institutions; “at times, they control education in the schools down to the lowest grades.” Behaviorism, Schaeffer says, allows no place at all for human freedom—only elite scientific control.

“People have been increasingly conditioned,” Schaeffer says, “to be treated as machines, and to treat other people as machines. And the technical breakthroughs have largely been made for manipulation.”

Here’s where things get weird.

As Schaeffer speaks, we see a mustachioed young man in a white lab coat drive a van up to a water tank. He climbs on top of the tank and dumps a container of liquid into the water. Text on the screen assures us that this is a simulation.

Schaeffer explains that such people as the anti-Soviet writer Arthur Koestler and the psychologist Kenneth B. Clark had explored the idea of using mind-altering chemicals to tame the aggressive impulses of world leaders or the public at large, and the eminent surgeon Kermit E. Krantz, whose name Schaeffer misreads, had suggested putting birth control pills in the world’s water supply. (Please note: I have no idea whether any of those claims are accurate.)

And “some have suggested,” Schaeffer adds, that the state could choose specific households to receive birth-control-neutralizing drugs, so that they alone could reproduce. We see the same creepy guy drive his van up a residential street and place something small, presumably a birth-control-reversal pill, in the water line leading to a home.

In short, Schaeffer is sketching a vision of a dystopian near-future state, in which the idea that humans are mere biological machines is used to justify the power of a scientific elite. This is, he says, a long way from the vision of the Christians responsible for the Scientific Revolution three centuries earlier.

There’s a lot to talk about here. But let me first raise a very basic question: Why didn’t this episode come before the “Revolutionary Age” episode? It seems to break the chronological order of the series.

An early brochure, printed perhaps in 1976 and collected in First Lady Betty Ford’s files, shows how the order of episodes in How Should We Then Live departs from the original 13-episode plan. Initially, there were supposed to be two episodes on the Reformation rather than one:

This brochure shows that the basic chronology of Schaeffer’s narrative was always meant to fall apart around this week’s episode. (Or perhaps even earlier: Schaeffer’s meditation on the early-14th-century Ghent Altarpiece, the symbolic heart of series, was originally supposed to appear in the Reformation rather than in the Renaissance, where it belongs chronologically.)

To present either the Enlightenment or the “Revolutionary Age” (focusing on the later 18th century) before the Scientific Revolution (in the 16th and 17th centuries) was to break any clear sense of order in time—and thus any reasonable sense of cause and effect. All subsequent episodes, to judge by the titles and summaries, were organized around 20th-century thematic concerns that rendered chronology almost irrelevant.

This leaves me wondering how fruitful it can be, from the standpoint of history instruction, to continue examining How Should We Then Live one episode at a time. Perhaps I need a new plan for the rest of this blog series.

Why did Schaeffer organize his thoughts this irregular way? I think it’s partly because he was thinking not of where each episode would begin—in the 16th, 17th, or 18th century—but of where each episode would end, in the horrors of the 19th or 20th centuries. That’s how he conceived of all modern history.

Meanwhile, the fact that I found the above brochure in First Lady Betty Ford’s papers gives us something else to think about. Although this week’s episode is ostensibly about early modern Europe, it reminds us how close Francis Schaeffer’s project already was to the politics of the Republican-held White House between 1974 and 1977, during its post-Nixon hangover.

During a time when the Roe v. Wade decision was still new—and in the brief moment when political evangelicalism was most often associated with the name of Jimmy Carter—it would be a mistake to downplay the importance of the connection between Francis Schaeffer and President Gerald Ford.

Most obviously, as you may recall, the series’ executive producer, a Presbyterian minister and flamboyant businessman named Billy Zeoli, happened to be President Ford’s personal spiritual advisor.

Initially, this convergence was due to the fact that Zeoli and Ford were both from Grand Rapids, Michigan. Upon meeting in 1960, they had bonded over their shared interest in football. Thus, long before Ford’s rise to the presidency, the man who would oversee the production of How Should We Then Live was the Republican congressman’s friend. And in the summer of 1974, almost exactly when work on the film series began at L’Abri, Zeoli became an important semi-official part of White House life.

President Ford consulted Zeoli often, though supposedly not about specific political issues. (“I’m just a Christian who happens to be a friend of the President,” Zeoli told a reporter.) They had a monthly Bible study together and communicated by telephone and mail more frequently. Every Monday, aides would place a typewritten devotional memo from Zeoli on the president’s desk. The Washington press took note—even as most American evangelicals struggled to recognize the devout but relatively reticent Episcopalian president as one of their own.

The secular national press (shown: Parade, Nov. 10, 1975) portrayed Billy Zeoli as an evangelical faith advisor in the mold of Billy Graham—to the evident consternation of a deputy press secretary, who at first refused to confirm that Ford and Zeoli prayed together. (Ford assured him that Zeoli was "a good friend of the family" and that they prayed together regularly.) 

Christianity Today (May 7, 1976), however, was circumspect: "A lifelong Episcopalian, [Ford] credits the spiritual deepening of his life in recent years to involvement in prayer groups, study of the Bible, and the influence of other Christians, especially evangelist Billy Zeoli. ... But he smokes a pipe, dances, and drinks cocktails before supper, and these practices disturb many conservative Christians (Episcopalians traditionally have not looked on them as vices)."

The records of the Ford Presidential Library show that the president and first lady took a specific interest in Zeoli’s evangelistic filmmaking activities. And, together with other records from the period, these records show that this interest extended to a familiarity with Francis and Edith Schaeffer’s work.

Notice in the Washington (D.C.) Star-News (April 3, 1974)

In fact, it seems their two families were acquainted to some extent even before Ford became president. In January 1974, Edith Schaeffer gave Betty Ford a personally inscribed copy of her book L’Abri. At least two other Schaeffer books ended up in the Fords’ possession at one point or another.

By the time How Should We Then Live came out, the ties between the families were even closer.

Amazingly, on August 9, 1974, when Richard Nixon resigned and Gerald Ford became president, Ford’s new daughter-in-law Gayle was babysitting the Schaeffers’ granddaughter in Switzerland. (This is the recollection of Frank Schaeffer in Crazy for God.) Gayle and her husband Mike Ford, the new president’s oldest son, were staying at L’Abri as part of their evangelical seminary studies.

Thus, it was actually through the “first son” and his wife, not through Billy Zeoli, that the Schaeffers had their closest connection with the president of the United States.

Indeed, around Christmas 1974, during one of Francis and Edith Schaeffer’s trips to Washington, Mike and Gayle invited them up to the residence of the White House for dinner.

Here’s how Edith would describe this experience in her memoir, implying that Gerald Ford participated in at least some brief L’Abri-style conversation that night:

This was my first time in the White House. The private elevator stopped on the family floor, and in a moment’s time we were in that beautiful long yellow and white ‘Center Hall’ sitting room, being warmly greeted by President and Mrs. Ford, Mike’s mother and father, and meeting the dog, and other members of the family. Dinner was served in the intimate family dining room, a fire blazing in the lovely fireplace—brass and silver and crystal chandelier gleaming. …

It’s hard for young people, who are hoping a ‘L’Abri discussion’ will grow and flower in a short time, to realize that conversation can’t be forced, nor become a lecture, but must grow naturally. It was a very special evening, and as we went into the yellow living room again, … we stood together, in a little circle—the President, Betty, Mike, Gayle, Fran[cis], and myself—holding hands as Fran prayed very earnestly for the family, for each one in his or her own need, for our country, for the present and the future. Then with a hug and assurances we’d meet again, Betty went off to bed, while the President kindly took us on a personally conducted tour. …

Fran and the President had some minutes of good discussion, but at 10:30 the President had papers to sign preparatory to an early flight …. It was then that Mike, Gayle and the two of us went to the Lincoln Bedroom to sit down and talk. Quietly tucked away in that historic room, we told them of the plans Franky had for filming his documentary series How Should We Then Live? and then prayed together about the project and other things in our lives and theirs. It seemed a bit bizarre to drive back with them and the Secret Service men ….

The next evening I spoke to the White House Christian Fellowship at their Christmas party …. Fran had lunch on the Hill with some men from the Senate and the House that Jack Kemp had invited for discussion.

Edith Schaeffer, The Tapestry: The Life and Times of Francis and Edith Schaeffer (Word Books, 1981), 546-547

Edith met with Betty Ford several more times after this. She was even invited to swim laps with the first lady in the White House pool. And in early November 1976, right after Gerald Ford conceded his election defeat by Jimmy Carter, Edith and Betty spoke about the loss.

Edith Schaeffer’s memoir also records that Jack Kemp, then a Republican member of the U.S. House of Representatives—and, like Ford, a former football player—took a special interest in the themes of the How Should We Then Live film project.

In the early 1970s, Kemp’s wife Joanne (who died this year) had started a women’s study group in Washington to work through all the Schaeffers’ books. At one point, when Francis Schaeffer spoke to a conference of D.C. journalists, politicians, and lobbyists, laying out for two hours “the central things that were later to be in How Should We Then Live?,” Edith recalled, “Jack Kemp took copious notes and asked the first three questions” (p. 545).

Years later, according to the recollections of Frank Schaeffer, as Frank and his father became more directly involved in pro-life politics, Kemp would provide the Schaeffers with “access to everyone in the Republican Party,” so much that “whenever Dad wanted something done in Washington, he would say ‘Call Jack!'” (Crazy for God, p. 285).

Anyway. Why am I telling this gossipy story now, in the middle of discussing an episode about science in the 17th century? It’s because I think this week’s episode points unmistakably toward an evangelical conservative political coalescence that was already underway by 1974.

In America in the 1970s, nothing about evangelical views of modern science, positive or negative, had to lead toward conservative politics.

In the 1960s, after all, suspicion of elite scientific management had been a hallmark of the New Left, while the rise of the New Right had been associated partly with workers in high-tech industries in the American west. To this day, in fact, Americans working in many scientific, technological, and medical professions lean strongly to the right, not the left. Sociologically speaking, therefore, the popular notion that conservatism is at war with science is just as much a myth as the notion that religion is.

But in Schaeffer’s work, we see specific concern about the intimacy of modern science: its role in controlling sexual reproduction, family life, early childhood education, psychotherapy, and death. For Schaeffer, when scientists turned from studying the rest of the universe as pieces of clockwork, to studying humans on the same basis, they intruded unacceptably upon our basic dignity and freedom.

What does that have to do with Gerald Ford? Maybe nothing specific. But it does help explain why someone listening to Francis Schaeffer might begin to suspect that even perfectly benign exercises of modern state power, under the direction of experts, were ushering in a new age of tyranny.

Thanks to modern science, set loose (as Schaeffer sees it) from the moral control of Christianity, the state doesn’t have to be openly brutal to thoroughly enslave its citizens. Instead, its encroaching enslavement can take the form of contraceptive pills, public education, organ donations, or psychological treatment.

The only sure way to rein in such abuses of power, in Schaeffer’s telling, is to restore the Christian moral order that makes science beneficial.

That kind of thoroughgoing suspicion of the expert state, linked with the goal of restoring a supposedly lost Christian consensus as a key goal of public policy, is recognizable as intrinsically politically conservative. And the urgency of Schaeffer’s message in this episode, predicting that a complete collapse of freedom in western countries was just over the horizon, made an alliance with actual political activists all but inevitable.

In this sixth episode of How Should We Then Live, we don’t yet see the most obvious rallying points for the 1980s-era religious right, such as abortion, pornography, feminism, gay rights, or drugs. But we do see a clear connection between anxieties about the human body in a scientific age, and fear of the state, and the conviction that the culture at large must revert to an earlier, more pious, form.

This episode’s political implications are unmistakable.

Next week, because the historical narrative in How Should We Then Live is breaking up so completely, as I’ve mentioned, I plan to tackle two episodes rather than one. If that plan works, we’ll examine Episodes VII and VIII: “The Age of Non-Reason” and “The Age of Fragmentation.”

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