This is the long-delayed final installment of a series of posts as I rewatch a 1977 documentary film called How Should We Then Live? If you are new to the series, it’s best to read the posts in order, starting with the introduction, which explains its significance and provides crucial historical context. Today’s episodes are Episodes IX and X, “The Age of Personal Peace & Affluence” and “Final Choices.”
After spending this summer on Francis Schaeffer’s film series How Should We Then Live, I ran out of time to write the final post before my autumn semester started. But there’s another reason I am concluding this rewatch series only now, after a hiatus of almost four months: I have been reluctant to face these last two episodes.
“The Age of Personal Peace & Affluence” and “Final Choices” are not historical discussions. They are responses to twenty years of current events, beginning with the failed Hungarian anti-Soviet uprising of 1956, which had made a deep impression on Francis Schaeffer when it happened. Much of the run time of these episodes, indeed, is dedicated to speculating about the future.
When Schaeffer mapped out these final episodes before production began, he designed them as a trilogy that would describe how drug use, affluence, and apathy had created a crisis: “Just as in ancient Rome,” western people in 1977 faced an imminent wave of authoritarianism without the spiritual tools to defeat it.
I’ve been reluctant to review these episodes, or even rewatch them, because I haven’t been sure I could do it without simply writing about contemporary evangelical politics in the United States.
Throughout this series, I have tried to keep my focus on Schaeffer’s historical claims about western civilization, or else on historical context that would be useful for understanding where those claims came from. These final episodes were sure to strain that commitment.
Moreover, all the fundamental elements of the argument presented in these episodes, as far as I could tell in advance, were already included in previous installments of How Should We Then Live. After all, I have been describing Schaeffer’s argument about a choice between “biblical” Christianity and political destruction since I wrote about the first episode. What more could I say about it now?
Concluding this series today, my solution to that problem is to turn How Should We Then Live inside-out. I plan to ask how its account of western society in the 1970s might shape views of that era today, now that we can treat the 1970s as a moment in history.
As it turns out, however, there are historical claims in Episode IX. The first minutes of Episode IX, “The Age of Personal Peace & Affluence,” describe the 1960s as a watershed in western cultural history.
That, of course, was not an unusual claim by 1977.
But in his opening monologue, Francis Schaeffer proposes that the 1960s were distinctive not as a moment of revolution per se, but as the tipping point when western society gave up on reason.
“Modern man’s humanistic thought,” Schaeffer says (as the camera pans over various modern cultural objects, like a copy of Jean-Paul Sartre’s novel Nausea),
has come down in many, many forms, until, at a certain point of history—and I would put it in the early 1960s—people heard this same message coming at them from absolutely every side, whether they read the book of philosophy, or they went into the art museum, or they listened to music, or they read a modern novel, or they went to the philosophic cinema—it was always the same. And that is that, on the humanistic basis, reason leads to despair, to no answers, and people should try to find answers in the area of non-reason. It had brought people to the place where there were no fixed values whatsoever. These were completely gone. And the great majority of people had come to the place where they had only two horrendous values—absolutely horrible values: personal peace and affluence.
By “personal peace,” Schaeffer explains, he means a form of extreme individualism: the desire to be left alone regardless of what one’s own lifestyle means for others. And by “affluence,” he means “things, things, things—always more things” as the only measure of personal success.
Meanwhile, by the 1960s, Schaeffer claims, a whole generation of college students had been taught by their professors that life was meaningless. This, he says—in what I find a puzzling leap of logic—made them ripe for a revolution against those two dominant values.
“These students,” he says, “looked around them, and they saw these two horrible values, personal peace and affluence, being on every side, and they revolted.” The revolution began at the University of California, Berkeley, in 1964.
The episode cuts to footage of students rioting on campus, facing armored police or soldiers, throwing back tear gas canisters that have been launched at them. It’s all very exciting.
Schaeffer asserts here, if I follow his argument correctly, that the students at Berkeley in 1964 launched a two-pronged assault on their society’s empty values: the hippie drug culture, promoted by Aldous Huxley (who died in 1963) and Timothy Leary (who, as we have seen, actually had met with Schaeffer once), and the Free Speech Movement. The latter, Schaeffer explains, began with limited aims but quickly converged with the New Left, a broad movement led by the philosopher Herbert Marcuse, who was then teaching in San Diego. The same forces, Schaeffer says, led to similar youth uprisings in other places, such as Paris in 1968.
“They had the right analysis. Let me say that, as somebody who is older,” Schaeffer says, looking into the camera. “They had the right analysis. This was where our society was, with just two terrible values, of personal peace and affluence. But the tragedy was, they tried the wrong solutions.”
He sums up the failure of the drug counterculture as the story of three festivals: Woodstock in August 1969, followed notoriously by Altamont later that year and the third Isle of Wight festival the following summer.
The drug counterculture, Schaeffer says, was discredited by 1970. “The unhappy thing is,” he says, “probably more people are taking drugs” in 1977, “and taking them at a younger age—but drug-taking as an ideology was absolutely done. The New Left went the same way, gradually ground down” by the violence it engendered by the 1970s, to the dismay of its own idealists.
The young people’s escape from their society’s empty values had failed. “What were they left with?” Schaeffer asks. “They were left with apathy.” He adds, shaking his head sadly, “I could have wept—and I did weep, as I met these young people after this.”
Outside of the United States, however, young people often turned to a third option in the 1960s: communism. This, too, Schaeffer says, was a leap into non-reason and despair, for “everywhere, when Marxian Leninism has come to power, it has always meant oppression. Always. And these young people just close their eyes to that.”
Here, unsurprisingly, Schaeffer refers the audience to the work of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, whose Gulag Archipelago had been translated into English in 1974, the same year he was exiled from the Soviet Union as a political dissident. (By the time Schaeffer completed his documentary series, Solzhenitsyn had resettled in the United States.) Specifically, Schaeffer cites Solzhenitsyn’s estimate that by 1959, the Soviet Union had already killed 66 million of its own people.
Schaeffer then recalls his own indirect witnessing of the failed Hungarian Revolution of 1956, when he, already living in Europe, about 700 miles from the scene, listened in shock as Hungarian students took to the radio, begging the outside world for aid as Soviet tanks rolled into their country. “I was marked by that day,” Schaeffer says. “I’ll never forget it. Never. Those voices, pleading for help.”
His own voice breaking, he makes particular note of a photograph of Ilona Tóth, a young medical student who joined the rebellion and was hanged in 1957, accused of killing a suspected secret policeman.
What communism claims to offer humanity in terms of freedom and dignity, Schaeffer says, “just isn’t possible” on the basis of its materialistic values; “there is no place for the dignity of man in a materialistic system.” Yet communists continue to attract young people—like Bettina Aptheker, a communist leader of the Berkeley student movement, shown here in clips from an interview in the 1960s—by speaking constantly about human dignity.
In a startling move that has become famous among evangelical intellectuals, Schaeffer asserts that this mismatch exists because “there’s only one way to understand idealistic, utopian Marxianism, and that is that it’s a Christian heresy.” He means that communism borrows language about human dignity from Christianity. On the basis of communism’s own secular bases, in contrast, neither the individual nor the majority of society have any meaning.
Now Schaeffer makes a major turn in his argument. This comes around the midpoint of Episode IX. Among secular writers, what he says in the second half of this episode is probably the only reason How Should We Then Live is remembered today.
The United States, Schaeffer now warns, is in real danger of a communist revolution at some point in the future. That’s because Americans’ commitment to the values of personal peace and affluence, in the absence of other values, give them no way to resist communism’s false promises.
In fact, Schaeffer says, an incipient communist-style authoritarianism can already be seen in the United States, in the form of arbitrary law based on relativistic “sociological” premises.
Explaining himself, Schaeffer traces a “sociological” tradition in American law to Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., a Progressive legal theorist who served on the Supreme Court of the United States during the first three decades of the 20th century. Believing that the law must change with the times, Schaeffer says, modern American courts are not only overruling the laws of the past but also legislating from the bench, dispensing with the will of elected representatives altogether.
“Now, everybody knows, who knows anything at all about these things, that arbitrary law dominates completely in communistic countries,” Schaeffer says, gazing into the camera. “But what most people don’t realize is that on the humanist flow [of history], arbitrary law swept over into the western world as well.”
For example, he says, in January 1973—barely one year before the work on the How Should We Then Live project began—the Supreme Court of the United States “passed the abortion law” of Roe v. Wade, depriving unborn children of constitutional protection under the Fourteenth Amendment.
Schaeffer calls this decision “a totally arbitrary absolute.” Standing on the steps of the Supreme Court, he quotes the dissenting Justice Byron White, who called Roe v. Wade “an exercise of raw judicial power.”
Most Americans, Schaeffer acknowledges, agreed with the Roe v. Wade decision in 1973 because they found it “sociologically helpful.” But what else, he asks, might Americans find helpful? Why not curtail other human rights on the same basis?
Just as enslaved African Americans once were, he says, “millions of unborn children, of every color of skin, are declared by law to be non-persons” by the Supreme Court on the basis of such values. Why shouldn’t we expect other classes of people—”the aged, the incurably ill, the insane”—to be declared non-persons on the same arbitrary basis?
“In a day like our own,” Schaeffer warns, “what’s unthinkable today might not prove—and probably will not prove—unthinkable in a very, very few years.”
This hard turn Episode IX takes in its second half, treating Roe v. Wade as the harbinger of a communist (or at least communist-style) apocalypse in the United States, has been the subject of much of the commentary written about How Should We Then Live over the years. Most of that commentary has focused on the role Schaeffer played in bringing American evangelicals into the movement to outlaw abortion, cementing their political conservatism down to the present day.
“Regarding abortion,” writes Robert H. Kraphol, for example, in the Encyclopedia of Modern Christian Politics, “no single individual probably did more to galvanize the evangelical subculture against the practice than Schaeffer.”
But Francis’s son Frank Schaeffer, who directed the series, would claim in his 2007 memoir Crazy for God that his father originally had not intended to introduce Roe v. Wade into their film series at all. Instead, Frank had “goaded” his father into speaking about abortion in How Should We Then Live. One day around 1974, Frank says, they even got into “a screaming match” over whether Francis should speak out on something that he still considered “a Catholic issue” and a “political thing” that didn’t belong in a documentary about culture (pp. 265-267).
If Frank’s memory is accurate—or rather, accurate enough, considering its unreliability when it comes to verifiable dates—then the prominent place abortion has in How Should We Then Live makes it an important artifact in U.S. political history. The film itself is a primary source that illuminates the origins of a rapid and momentous ideological shift in American conservatism.
For my purposes in this blog series, however, what’s interesting isn’t what Francis Schaeffer said about the Roe v. Wade decision, which was still practically breaking news when he filmed How Should We Then Live, but the place he gave Roe v. Wade in 20th-century global history.
I have seen a lot of commentary over the years about Francis Schaeffer’s argument that abortion is mass murder. That argument, however, was hardly unique to him. In contrast, I haven’t seen much commentary on what made his argument distinctive: the direct link he saw between abortion and 20th-century communism—to the exclusion of almost all other recent political developments.
As a historical interpretation, that’s kind of fascinating, when you think about everything else that happened, both in the United States and around the world, during the period this episode covers.
I mean, in Episode IX, Schaeffer didn’t even mention the sexual revolution of the 1960s in his coverage of the counterculture and New Left, even though that’s a topic that other evangelical conservatives would obviously be quick to link with Roe v. Wade. Nor did he say anything at all about other contentious Supreme Court cases of the Warren- and Burger-era Supreme Court, an omission I find even more conspicuous.
I can only guess at the reasons for these omissions. I do have guesses, based on what I know of Schaeffer’s intellectual career as a whole, but they are purely speculative.
As for Episode X, “Final Choices” … there really isn’t much historical content for me to discuss, as you can see for yourself in the official study guide. The episode comprises mostly speculation about the future, combined with a recapitulation of arguments that Schaeffer has already made in previous episodes, especially Episode VI.
Once again, Schaeffer predicts the coming of a technocratic authoritarianism across the west, a tyranny that may use genetic engineering and media manipulation to control societies without the necessity of open violence. The only alternative, Schaeffer says, is a return to a social consensus based on biblical Christianity and its absolutes.
This episode does include, however, one scene that I find very interesting for my purposes: a commentary on media coverage of protests in 20th-century America.
In this three-minute scene, Schaeffer warns about “the manipulative possibilities of television.”
The film cuts to a staged scene of urban violence, in which young actors dressed as police officers and protesters clash in San Jose for TV cameras. (Significantly, all the actors on both sides seem to be white.)
The scene runs twice: once with a journalist’s voiceover expressing sympathy with the protesters, as we watch officers’ batons fly, and once with a voiceover biased in favor of the police, as we watch the protesters taunt them and throw things.
“We staged this scene,” Schaeffer explains.
We filmed it to show that television can tell any story that it wants to tell. In both versions, the action was the same, and the actors did exactly the same things. However, the camera was placed differently, the editor edited differently, and the announcer told a different story. We would be naive not to realize that what we’re seeing is an edited symbol. But the nature of TV is such—we see it with our own eyes—that we naturally look at it as though it were objective truth. For many, what they see on television is more true than what they see with their eyes in the external world.
Schaeffer adds a caveat. “Let me stress,” he says, “it is always unfair to say ‘the media does this,’ or ‘the press does that.’ There are always individuals, or individual publications, for example, that are not included in the generalization.” He continues,
But the mass media can be used by an authoritarian, manipulating government or an elite. The elite gives the arbitrary absolutes, and then not only TV, but all the mass media can be used for manipulation, and a plot or a conspiracy are not needed. All that is needed is that the people in the places of influence, and those who decide what is the news, have in common the modern results of humanism.
It’s an interesting moment, from the standpoint of a viewer contemplating the historic protest movements of the previous two decades.
Let’s be clear about this: Nowhere in How Should We Then Live has Francis Schaeffer spoken directly about the obvious causes that would bring protesters into American (and other) streets in the 20th century.
He has not addressed the Vietnam War, for example, which had come to its conclusion while he was filming the series—an astonishing choice, when you think about that moment. He has not addressed the civil rights movement, in spite of its obvious importance for understanding Christian social thought in the United States at the time. He has not spoken of the huge uprisings in Black neighborhoods in American cities, which were triggered, in many cases, by allegations of police brutality. One Supreme Court case aside, he has not addressed any aspect of the women’s movement, either.
Francis Schaeffer’s portrait of a nation in turmoil between the 1950s and 1970s has discussed exactly three flash points: white hippies embracing the psychedelic counterculture; white college students condemning capitalist culture, sometimes in the name of communism; and a recent Supreme Court ruling.
It’s difficult to view Schaeffer’s cynical and conspiracy-theorizing take on television media coverage, then, as anything except a dismissal of the historical substance of all mid-20th-century mass protest movements in the United States. (The contrast with his own demonstrative emotional response to radio and photojournalistic coverage of the Hungarian uprising in 1956 seems especially instructive.)
Viewers who subsequently derive their picture of the 1960s and 1970s from How Should We Then Live are likely to get a highly distorted understanding of the 20th century’s most important currents.
Having finished rewatching all of How Should We Then Live, I am left feeling strangely deprived. Deprived of something that could have been.
Again and again, going through this series, I watched Francis Schaeffer struggle to reconcile his bleak view of human history with his evident appreciation for human artistic and cultural accomplishments across different religious contexts. Repeatedly, I saw signs of a deeply humane impulse to empathize with people who were very different from him, only to see it founder upon his lack of interest in studying them in their own contexts. Consistently, I saw signs that he was not only capable of making moderate and sympathetic historical judgments but even eager to do so—only to see him fail to engage in the kind of basic scholarship that makes nuanced judgments possible.
I watched a self-taught outsider intellectual create a historical synthesis of great scope and urgency—a narrative that seized the imaginations and changed the lives of many people who saw it—only to see it made clear that he left all the actual research to other people, and that he did not let their scholarly additions modify his understanding of the topics he discussed.
I watched a fundamentalist pastor from early-20th-century Philadelphia overcome his community’s traditional hangups about enjoying secular culture—an overcoming that had made him an electrifying presence inside international evangelicalism the 1960s—only to collapse into paranoid warnings about dangers such as “the elite” putting contraceptive drugs into your water supply.
I watched the same man attempt to tell a story about western history from a Protestant perspective, only to ignore entire categories of historical experience that obviously would be critical for telling such a story truthfully—including, among other things, colonialism, Christian antisemitism, the Atlantic slave trade (as something other than a footnote to a few Christian abolitionists’ supposed moral purity in the early 19th century), or warfare in general.
Many of these absences have the effect of writing people other than white Christians out of Euro-American history.
And although all histories are partial histories, such absences make this one unusable for understanding the causes or effects of most of the key events of the past two millennia. So that’s a missed opportunity, too.
I also watched Schaeffer take seriously the concerns of young people in the 1960s and 1970s, even building his public image on his eagerness to spend time conversing with them, only to ignore most of the issues that animated their political activists, and then finally to dismiss their protests as a figment of the media’s imagination.
Another missed opportunity.
All of these missed opportunities amount to a larger failure: A failure to offer American evangelicals an overall narrative of European and American history that would hold up to scholarly scrutiny, and which would resist simplistic culture-war misuses.
For ultimately, when I investigated the circumstances around the series’ production, I found that Francis Schaeffer’s brand of theological history, contrary to the impression many evangelicals have today, was already strongly tied to Republican politics. And that political alignment evidently predated any specific concerns about Roe v. Wade.
Thus, one of the more interesting historical dogs that didn’t bark in How Should We Then Live—considering Schaeffer’s obsessive interest in the nexus of media manipulation, technology, and authoritarianism—is the Watergate scandal. The reasons for its absence are no less interesting for being obvious.
As I have pointed out, the Schaeffer family developed the film series as a collaboration with Gerald Ford’s personal spiritual advisor, and they enjoyed multiple direct close connections with the Ford family, even sharing a private dinner in the presidential residence while the project was underway.
In its way, that seems like a missed intellectual opportunity, too.
Before I end this blog series, I want to say one last thing.
Having seen these last two episodes, I’m worried that viewers who get their understanding of history’s “flow” from How Should We Then Live will have no clear way to assimilate modernity’s positive developments into their mental map of the past.
Schaeffer’s theory of historical decline allows him to incorporate good developments only as anomalous echoes of a faded Christianity—whether or not there is any evidence that Christianity played a role in them.
So when any positive development has clearly extra-Christian sources—for example, when, as historians agree, the American founders drew their theory of republican government mainly from classical and Enlightenment sources—Schaeffer’s approach tends, as we saw in Episode V, to veer into fantastic unhistorical explanations.
I suspect this tendency on Schaeffer’s part has encouraged the popularity of Christian nationalism, and specifically notions about American exceptionalism, among American evangelicals today.
To square apparently praiseworthy developments in modern history with an overall theory of inexorable social decline, many religious conservatives (though not, it must be said, Schaeffer himself) have turned to the notion that the United States has represented a uniquely Christian or Christianity-influenced force in modern world affairs while other western nations have abandoned their Christian heritage. Ironically, this notion has relativistic implications: that the United States plays by different rules from other societies.
That is not Schaeffer’s argument in How Should We Then Live. Not at all. On the contrary, Schaeffer clearly stated that America and Europe were locked in a single historical process. Yet his grim story didn’t give American evangelicals anywhere to go with their pride in their society’s apparently positive modern achievements. As Schaeffer understood the flow of history, hope and pride in modern society could only be ahistorical.
In the end, therefore, I believe How Should We Then Live promoted its own leap into the irrational, in the form of a mystical religious nationalism—an attempted escape from history, nourished by nostalgia rather than any real historical consciousness.
The materials for this escape already existed, and probably were widely believed among Schaeffer’s audiences, by the time the series was made. In the words of Gerald Ford, delivered to the National Religious Broadcasters in early 1974, while he was still Richard Nixon’s vice president, evangelicals were already inclined to believe that America was “the healthiest society—mentally and physically and spiritually—the world has ever known,” because of the nation’s “deep belief in the traditional values, values bequeathed to us by our religious traditions”—notwithstanding, Ford said, the irresponsibility of young people in the 1950s and 1960s.
Francis Schaeffer’s historical pessimism thus gave further vent, despite his principles, to relativistic nationalism, because Schaeffer’s view of history didn’t allow any room for modern society, as such, to succeed a little bit.
I don’t think it had to be this way.
I don’t think this series had to be about “the rise and decline” of western civilization at all.
There was a different story waiting to be told.
A lot about our political future may depend on whether scholars with conservative Christian audiences can find a way tell that story.