It was one of those brilliant sunny days in Los Angeles – July 1, 2004 – and traffic was at a dead stop on Mulholland Drive. It was all the news vans. Marlon Brando had just died and everyone in the media decided it was important to do a remote from his driveway up there – the house itself was hidden way back in the distance, behind locked gates. The whole business made the trip back down through Laurel Canyon to the Sunset Strip nearly impossible. The cops trying to direct all the traffic were nice enough – they’re used to such things out here – but one should not go shopping in the Valley on the day a celebrity dies. It’s even worse when the celebrity was a notorious rebel – a bad boy. There was that 1953 movie The Wild One – Brando in the leather jacket on the motorcycle. Everyone remembers the lines that summed it all up – “Hey Johnny, what are you rebelling against?” “Whadda you got?”
That was it. Hollywood had figured out that everyone loves a rebel. Two years after that movie it was James Dean’s turn – but he had died in a car crash a month before the studio released his “rebel” movie, so there were no local traffic issues. Steve McQueen and others carried on the tradition. Rebels are box-office gold, even if their movies sometimes stink. Everyone loves them anyway. They don’t give a damn what anyone thinks. It would be damned cool if you could live your own life that way.
No one can. There are rebels – romantic or romanticized antiheroes – and then there are apostates, those who question the prevailing belief system and do things one should not ever do, like this guy:
United Methodist officials on Thursday stripped the clergy credentials from the father of a gay man who officiated his son’s wedding.
A church jury last month found Frank Schaefer, who had been pastor of a small country church in Lebanon, Pa., guilty of violating United Methodist law by doing the 2007 wedding and also of disobedience. He was given 30 days to decide if he could fully comply with the denomination’s Book of Discipline, or doctrine book.
He’s not going to do that:
Schaefer said at the time of the trial and again before the Board of Ordained Ministry Thursday that he could not uphold a book he sees as sending mixed messages on acceptance of gays and lesbians. Schaefer, who has three gay children, said he wants to become a public advocate for gay equality in the church.
The United Methodist Church said fine, you’re gone. He can’t be a public advocate for gay equality in the church if he’s no longer part of the church, can he? He’ll just have to shout at them from out in the parking lot on Sunday mornings, until they toss him out of the parking lot too. Everyone may love a rebel, but no one likes to be told that what they believe, deeply, is nonsense, even if it is.
The same thing happened to David Frum – Bush’s former speechwriter and the guy who came up with tha Axis of Evil concept, or at least the wording. Frum was forced out of the American Enterprise Institute, the right’s go-to think tank, for saying maybe our healthcare system really ought to be reformed, even if Obama’s approach was questionable, and for implying that some of the things being said on Fox News were foolishly over-the-top, now and then. He was banished. He now shouts at them from his own website and on CNN now and then – no one on the right will publish a word he writes, and you’ll never see him on Fox News, even if he’s still quite conservative and, by all accounts, a Republican. He’s a defrocked Republican, and he’s fine with that. He has no use for what his party has become, or for what modern conservatism has become. It’s the same with Andrew Sullivan – a conservative of the old school, Burke and Oakeshott and that sort of thing – who is forever arguing that Obama is the true conservative these days – careful and principled and moderate, and respectful of our core values, and unwilling to do anything too radical, unless absolutely necessary. Sullivan has no use for today’s wild-man-on-a-mission conservatism and its take-no-prisoners methods, where you’re always threatening Armageddon unless you get your way. Sullivan wants lower taxes and little regulation and smaller government, like any conservative, but he sees social conservatism, where everyone is told exactly how to behave, and dress, and speak, because Jesus says so, as authoritarian foolishness. Conservatives are supposed to believe in personal freedom and personal responsibility, after all. That may be so, but Sullivan too has been banished, or dismissed because he’s gay. And David Frum is a Canadian, or was, and you know how those folks are. They have socialized medicine up there.
Everyone may love a rebel, but no one likes to be told that what they believe, deeply, is nonsense, even if it is – which is probably why everyone on the right has rushed to the defense of Duck Dynasty’s Phil Robertson. There was no reason to defend that reality show guy who says homosexuality is the root cause of all evil – God said so, and He hates them, so deal with it. And, by the way, black folks were happy in the Jim Crow South, from the end of the Civil war to the beginning of the Civil Rights stuff, which ruined everything. He was there. He never saw or heard even one black man or woman ever complain about how the white folks treated them, before the troublemakers, like Martin Luther King, arrived and caused no end of trouble. Oh, and by the way, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor because there is no Jesus in Shinto. It’s a fact. You can look it up, or so he says. Defending all that is absurd, but the guy was a rebel, and they liked that. And Robertson was rebelling against someone else’s belief system, not theirs, even if the details were troublesome.
We love rebels who rebel against someone else’s belief system, not ours – which is also why so many liberals love the new Pope. This new guy refuses to maintain that minorities and women and gays are lesser people, and that wealth is the only reliable indicator of moral worth, and that all science is bunk and you’re a fool if you believe any of it, and so on and so forth. To them, the new Pope isn’t a rebel – to conservatives he’s a Marxist who hates everything America stands for, who just doesn’t understand Christianity at all, or sadly, doesn’t understand the innate morality of winner-take-all capitalism, as Paul Ryan has argued as a good Catholic himself, and probably a better Catholic than the Pope, as he sees it. One side’s heroic rebel is the other side’s apostate who cannot be forgiven.
All of this makes American political life rather dramatic, almost in a Hollywood way. Frank Schaeffer’s 2011 book Sex, Mom, and God: How the Bible’s Strange Take on Sex Led to Crazy Politics – and How I Learned to Love Women (and Jesus) Anyway offered a taste of this. He walked away from evangelical social conservatism and his struggle is best captured in a 2011 New York Times profile:
To secular Americans, the name Frank Schaeffer means nothing. But to millions of evangelical Christians, the Schaeffer name is royal, and Frank is the reluctant, wayward, traitorous prince. His crime is not financial profligacy, like some pastors’ sons, but turning his back on Christian conservatives.
There’s a back-story:
Mr. Schaeffer, who is now 59 and lives north of Boston, grew up in L’Abri, a Christian community in Switzerland founded by his parents, Francis and Edith Schaeffer. In the 1960s, L’Abri was known in Christian circles as a drop-by haven for intellectually curious evangelicals, who could live in the mountains for a few days or even a few years, talking with Francis and Edith about the Bible, Christian art or existentialism. Mr. Schaeffer grew up surrounded by heady talk and, as he discusses in his memoir, tempted by the young women who passed through. He got one of them pregnant when he was 17, then married her.
In the 1970s, Mr. Schaeffer’s eccentric, relatively obscure family became wealthy and influential. Books like “The God Who Is There,” published in 1968, made his father a hero to American evangelicals, including future political activists like Jerry Falwell. Jesse Helms called the elder Schaeffer his favorite author. Edith Schaeffer also wrote books, and in 1977, Frank, an amateur filmmaker, directed his father in a 10-part documentary, “How Should We Then Live?” in which Francis railed against the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, Charles Darwin and abortion. The series was a sensation among evangelicals. Ryan Lizza recently wrote in The New Yorker that seeing “How Should We Then Live?” had a “profound influence” on the future presidential candidate Michele Bachmann.
The younger Mr. Schaeffer wrote his own Christian polemics and, helped by the family name, became a well-paid speaker on the evangelical circuit. Having met important Republicans at L’Abri – Barbara Bush, Bob Dole and Betty Ford all visited – Mr. Schaeffer morphed into a versatile right-wing connector. As a literary agent, he discovered Mary Pride, the Christian home-schooling guru. … He and his father were present at meetings with Jack Kemp and Presidents Gerald R. Ford, Ronald Reagan and the elder George Bush “when the unholy marriage between the Republican Party” and the pro-life community “was gradually consummated.” He says that in 1984 he helped produce Mr. Reagan’s book “Abortion and the Conscience of a Nation.”
Then, in the late eighties, he gave it all up, because he never really believed any of it:
He faked it because it was easy, it was lucrative, and – rather poignant to say – he felt he had no other options.
“I had been home-schooled,” Mr. Schaeffer told me. “I had no education, no qualifications, and I was groomed to do this stuff. What was I going to do? If two lines are forming, and one has a $10,000 honorarium to go to a Christian Booksellers Association conference and keynote, and the other is to consider your doubts and get out with nothing else to do, what are you going to do?”
Mr. Schaeffer is still married to his teenage bride, and he now writes novels. He opted out of evangelicalism.
It happens. He became a rebel, because he had always been one anyway. He just got tired of hiding it, and now he’s going all out:
I am a white privileged well off sixty-one-year-old former Republican religious right wing activist who changed his mind about religion and politics long ago. …
I’ve just spent the last seven years writing over 200,000 words in blogs and articles in support of President Obama. My blogs on the Huffington Post alone would add up to a book in support of the President of over 300 pages. Weirdly, I just realized that through all my writing, this has been the first time in my life I’ve personally gone to bat for a black man. It just happens that he’s a president. But my emotional stake in his life is now personal.
So I’ve changed from a white guy who used to read news about some black man getting shot or beaten by cops or stand-your-ground types who assumed that the black man must have “done something,” to a white guy who figures that the black man was probably getting lynched. I’ve changed ideology but I’ve also changed my gut intuitive reactions.
I’ve changed because if this country will lynch a brilliant, civil, kind, humble, compassionate, moderate, articulate, black intellectual we’re lucky enough to have in the White House, we’ll lynch anyone. What chance does an anonymous black man pulled over in a traffic stop have of fair treatment when the former editor of the Harvard Law Review is being lynched?
Now, there’s drama, and it gets more intense:
One famous liberal commentator wrote a book on how Ronald Reagan and Tip O’Neil could disagree and still be friends. Why, he asked on many a TV show promoting his book, couldn’t President Obama be like that? Because, I yelled at the screen, those two men were white Irish Americans and part of a ruling white oligarchy.
Because, I yelled, you might as well ask why Nelson Mandela didn’t talk his jailers in South Africa into seeing reason.
Because, I yelled, the President is black and anytime he’s reached out he’s pulled back a bloody stump.
Because, I yelled, liberal white commentators have been as bothered by a black man in the White House, who’s smarter than they are as much as right wing bigots have been bothered.
Because, I yelled, President Obama has been lied about, attacked, vilified, and disrespected since Day One.
Because, I yelled, this country may have passed laws so blacks can vote and eat in a white man’s world, but in our hearts we’re stuck in a place more like 1952 than 2013.
We’ve been watching a slow motion lynching of a moderate brilliant family man, a father, and faithful loving husband. The Republicans in Congress are so dedicated to lynching the President they’ve been willing to shut down our government and risk the future of our economy.
There’s much more of this, but this is the gist of it:
We don’t like to admit who we really are. So we make excuses and blame the victim. I’m ashamed for our country, a country my Marine son fought for in two stupid wars this president has been working to end. And I’m still rooting for the best, smartest and most decent man who has been president in my lifetime. I pray for his healthcare reform to succeed. I pray for his immigration reform to succeed. I’m amazed he’s gotten anything done, but he has, even while the lynch mob gathers again and again to laugh, lie and spit and claim he’s “failed” while “liberal” commentators nod sagely and talk about his “mistakes” as if President Obama has been playing on a level playing field.
We have a lot to do to heal this country of the damage done by the right wing Obama-haters and the Left wing know-it-all pundits who did not have his back because they don’t have the honesty to admit that we still live in a backward racist swamp of prejudice.
No, Schaeffer doesn’t mention Duck Dynasty. He doesn’t have to. But then this rant isn’t that much different than the Phil Robertson’s rant to GQ Magazine that got A&E in so much trouble, and the Washington Monthly’s Martin Longman addresses that:
First, when you present the way the president has been treated as a figurative lynching, you disallow people to disagree with his decisions and policies in almost any way. It’s as if criticizing how he handled the first debt ceiling fiasco is the equivalent of criticizing a man’s diction while his neck is being fitted in a noose. What you really ought to be doing is racing to his defense before he gets killed.
The second problem I have is that it puts too much emphasis on race. Personally, I remember the 1990s, and I remember how Bill and Hillary Clinton were accused of murder when one of their closest friends couldn’t hack life in the White House and the mean editorials in the Wall Street Journal, and he decided to take his own life. That’s some cold stuff right there. I remember how Kenneth Starr pursued the president, like Clinton was Moby Dick and he was Captain Ahab, until he nailed him on less than Al Capone’s tax evasion charge. I remember when the House of Representatives, led by Newt Gingrich, actually impeached the president over something many of them were doing themselves.
No doubt, race plays a big part in the way people feel about and treat the president, but you need to subtract everything the Republicans did to Clinton and see what’s left over before you can determine what’s racism and what’s just Republicans freaking out about a Democrat being in their White House. Unless you want to argue that the GOP lynched Bill Clinton, too, “lynching” is probably not the best descriptor of the opposition Obama has faced.
As for white liberals and liberal commentators, no doubt there has been quite a bit of inappropriate idealism and myopia and silly white privilege and expressions of first world problems and lack of realism and misplacing of blame. But being stupid or wrong doesn’t equate to being part of a lynch mob.
It might be better to keep things simple:
First, the country could elect Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia president and the Republicans would treat the Democrats’ most conservative senator as though he were advocating a communist revolution. This seems to be an essential tool in the GOP’s political tool-kit and it will be used completely irrespectively of how the Democrat actually behaves.
Second, that people blame the president when there is gridlock much more than they blame the people who won’t compromise. This is because most people do not properly understand the limitations on the office of the president’s power. And, so, you will get even somewhat savvy political commentators saying stupid things like the president could get more cooperation if he just invited more of his opponents over for dinner.
Given that, there no point in talking about lynching:
The lesson is, the GOP will go crazy anytime a Democrat is in the Oval Office, and they will not be properly punished for it by the electorate. This is a seemingly immutable law of American politics, somewhat akin to the law that says that Republican presidents will run up huge deficits and then the party will turn into deficit scolds the moment they are out of the White House.
If so, rebels like Schaeffer are just irritating. Not everyone loves a rebel, even one on your own side, and at Salon, Matt Barnum argues that same point from the other side:
Today, “social conservatism” has come to mean fighting the demographically lost battle against same-sex marriage, and the legally lost battle against abortion. No ideology has narrowed in such a startling way. The culprit? Social conservatism. As a Republican who supports things like fewer abortions, I think it’s unfortunate that socially conservative means aren’t in line with socially conservative ends.
The best example is marriage equality, which conservatives have been battling now for over a decade. What’s odd about this fight is the extent to which gay rights activists have donned the trapping of family values (sometimes to criticism from those on the left). Go to the Human Rights Campaign website, and you’ll see talk of religion and faith, adoption and foster care, commitment, parenting, and of course marriage. These are often considered fundamentally conservative values – so why aren’t conservatives celebrating rather than fighting them? The answer, of course, is the historical and religious opposition to homosexuality. For better or worse (I think worse), this religious-based view is undermining the simple conservative belief in the importance of marriage and family.
This is fairly obvious, but people do get stuck:
That’s not the only instance where social conservatism undercuts itself. Take abortion. Social conservatives believe that the number of abortions should be reduced or eliminated (I agree). Yet, social conservatives support a host of policies – such as abstinence-only education and limiting access to contraception – that will actually increase abortion.
Similarly, conservatives often rail against the effects of single parenthood. Yet what policies have conservatives supported that would curb single parenthood? In fact, opposition to increasing the prevalence and knowledge of contraception surely leads to more single parents. Likewise, the war on drugs – which social conservatives have longed championed – has devastated families in low-income communities, while, in my view, also undermining core Republican values like personal freedom. By incarcerating vast swaths of men, the war on drugs has turned into a war on families and a war on liberty. My hope is that social conservatives lead the Republican Party in rethinking this battle.
Finally, conservatives believe in the power of religion. Yet, when churches push sharply conservative views – most notably anti-gay views – that are anathema to the younger generation, they also push people away from church. Here again we find that one prong of conservatism is working to undermine another.
In other words, conservatism’s commitments to religion, stable families and fewer abortions are undermined by commitments against pre-marital sex, contraception, decriminalized drugs and homosexuality.
The logic is clear, and Matt Barnum is the rebel here, not Phil Robertson, or Barnum is the apostate – the rebel for the cause that offends too many people. Either way he’s trouble.
Then there was that sunny July afternoon up on Mulholland Drive long ago, stuck in a long line of cars at a dead stop, wondering what all the fuss was about. Marlon Brando wasn’t really much of a rebel, and he was certainly not an apostate, offending the beliefs of most everyone. He was an actor, a brilliant actor, who also got rich trading on the image of being a fearless rebel, when he was, by all accounts, no more than a pain in the ass.
How did that happen? That’s simple. Everyone loves a rebel. His agent told him so – but that only works in Hollywood. In real life actual rebels are nothing but trouble, often for their own side, and apostates are always banished. We really don’t like either, and things change slowly.