Having now read the book, I would more readily describe it as showing the light underbelly of the religious right. First and foremost, the book is a personal memoir, and only talks about the religious right as we know it when it comes to those years of Schaeffer's life when he was involved with them. Yes, the dad did begin his religious life as a scary Calvinist, getting involved in nasty schisms over theological purity, but he mellowed out with time, becoming a religious leader to hippies. On this part of the story, the son notes that while his dad was described as making hippies into evangelicals, it was as much about an evangelical becoming something of a hippie as anything.
There are a few insights into evangelicalism: how his dad's conversion story varied with the tellings, from revival tent meeting to "studying Greek philosophy... and that it occurred to him that the Bible answered the philosophical questions raised by the Greeks." Then there's this gem:
It is no coincidence that about 99 percent of evangelical books are written to help people order their lives according to an invisible world when everything in the visible world is challenging faith. The title of almost any evangelical book could be "How to Keep Your Faith in Spite of..." fill in the blank, college, art, science, philosophy, sex, temptation, literature, media, TV, movies, your homosexual tendencies, your heterosexual tendencies... in other words, every break you take.This passage was something of an "aha!" moment for me: I knew of course that a lot of apologetics focused on helping people keep their faith in spite of history, science, and philosophy (the latter, I understand, was the dad's specialty), but it never occurred to me that Evangelical books on popular culture might fill this same essential role.
And yet, and yet, and yet: this is a personal memoir. You're going to be bored to death if you're not willing to read about a close-knit evangelical community; about growing up with a largely American cultural identity, yet doing it in Europe; about English boarding schools; and about, uh, teenage group masturbation (okay, that may not bore you, just squick you out). Get ready to feel more sympathetic to film makers who make crappy movies for the money, because hey, they could be doing it just to avoid something they find more degrading. Get ready for that kind of thing.
The actually stuff about the religious right is interesting, though it could be accused of being self-aggrandizing, as Frank almost makes it sound as though the religious right wouldn't have happened without him. Here's the story: originally, abortion was seen as a Catholic issue. Protestants might be opposed to it, but didn't want to do the political things those Catholics were doing. Well, it happened that Francis had become a successful author, and was beginning to get into making a film series based on his writing. Frank took charge of the project. Then he got this idea: hey, why don't we do a couple of segments on abortion to wrap up the series? Francis wasn't entirely enthusiastic about it at first, but was talked into it, and once the idea was out there, other leaders of the religious right ran with it. Who knows how things would have turned out if not for Frank's nudging (and at one point screaming at) his dad into talking about abortion. He does give some of the credit to the extremism of pro-choice groups who insisted on absolute ideological purity on the abortion issue. Maybe opportunistic evangelists would have found someone else to get the ball rolling on abortion if they hadn't had Frank. Who knows. The association of anti-abortion forces with conservatism, in Frank's view, was an arbitrary thing, and with a slightly different turn of events it could have been a liberal thing and his father remembered as a left-wing religious leader, a place where Frank thought he would have been more at home. (Again, his father was a bit of a hippie, though he did revert to his scary Calvinist roots when associations with other religious hardliners demanded it.)
The story ends with Frank describing how he came to despise the leaders of the religious right as he had more and more contact with them and had to find a way out, which is where the crappy film making comes in. That, and the fact that his involvement with the religious right was a relatively brief part of his life, suggests a sort of moral to the story: people can get wrapped up in something they aren't quite supportive of, get fed up and leave relatively quickly, and yet they've done what they've done, and it can't be undone. They've left their mark on the world.
Final verdict: Four stars