Frank Schaeffer Interview: Vote Common Good Seeks to Penetrate Trump's Evangelical "Echo Chamber"
Image attributed to Frank Schaeffer
Frank Schaeffer is a New York Times bestselling author of more than a dozen books. He is a survivor of both polio and an evangelical/fundamentalist childhood, an acclaimed writer who overcame severe dyslexia, a homeschooled, self-taught documentary movie director and an artist with a loyal following of international collectors who own many of his paintings.
Schaeffer has been a frequent guest on MSNBC, has appeared on The Today Show, BBC News and many other media outlets. He has lectured at a wide range of venues from Harvard’s Kennedy School to the Hammer Museum/UCLA, Princeton University, Riverside Church Cathedral, DePaul University and the Kansas City Public Library. Currently, he is traveling with Vote Common Good, a group who is barnstorming the nation inviting people to vote on November 6, 2018, in order to dislodge control of Congress from the Republican Party to improve the political climate in the United States.
“In this election, flip Congress so that our democracy can work, Congress can do its job and be a check in the checks and balances instead of a kind of lickspittle echo chamber for Donald Trump the way Congress is now in control by the Republicans.”
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Frank, tell me about Vote Common Good and its mission.
Frank Schaeffer: Yes. I’m on the road right now with a group called Vote Common Good, and we have a sleeper bus that has 12 people on it. That’s where we camp out at night. We have an RV pulling a trailer and a mobile stage being pulled behind a truck, and we rotate out 10 to 15 different speakers. We have traveled to 40 cities.
In each city and in each area, we’ve met up with a Democratic candidate for Congress that is living somewhere where they have a chance of flipping the seat, taking it away from a Republican. We’ve chosen the candidates based on folks who live in areas where they have a chance but also where there’s a large number of evangelical voters, the kind of people that went for Donald Trump. What we’re appealing to is whatever sliver of that group is conscious of the fact that maybe they made a mistake, maybe they think Donald Trump’s gone too far. Maybe they think he’s too divisive.
What we have found is there are a lot of people like that, and some of them are in communities that are so predominantly Republican or right-wing or evangelical that they don’t speak up, but they find it very encouraging that a group of evangelical pastors, entertainers and other people would take the time to tour the country for six weeks trying to help flip Congress in order to rein in what we regard as the inhuman and divisive excess of Donald Trump. So that’s what we’re about. It’s not a political party. We’re not Democrats or Republicans. We’re people who think Donald Trump is a horrendous president and not really a president at all in the classic sense but a demagogue.
We’re not telling people to become Democrats. We’re saying, “In this election, flip Congress so that our democracy can work, Congress can do its job and be a check in the checks and balances instead of a kind of lickspittle echo chamber for Donald Trump the way Congress is now in control by the Republicans.” We say things like, “Hey, not one Republican has stood up and opposed this guy in Congress. Not one has resigned on principle when children were locked up away from their mothers. Not one has stood up and said that you can’t mock a woman who says she was assaulted sexually at 15. Not one has left the party base on having a leader that has mocked handicapped people.”
So we’re really appealing to something not political, but what I’ll just call basic decency as a sort of a baseline that we’re asking these people to vote on. That’s what we’re doing. That’s what I’m doing. We were in Irvine in a parking lot behind a union hall. We had a couple of hundred people there. We were in a big United Congregational Church and had that congregation there and other folks. Sometimes it’s a total bust, and no one shows up. But we’ve gotten a lot of media coverage. The New York Times has done two articles. NPR has followed us around and done a series of interviews. The local places we go to, somebody may come. Somebody may not come. But at least we’ve made it into a thing, and they know we’re out here now. That’s a long answer, but that’s what I’m doing.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): From the people who attend, what percentage are responding in a positive way to the group’s message?
Frank Schaeffer: Well, I’ll tell you a story out of Holland, Michigan. A pastor there who gave me the hospitality of his home to sleep for the night said, “I’m all for what you’re doing, but I can’t come to your rally because if I’m seen there, I’ll be fired by my conservative congregation and my board. I have to secretly vote for Democrats.” We have met more and more people like that, which makes the Republican Party and the right-wing Christian community sound more like the old-fashioned East Germany or something like that where if you were not in good standing with the Communist Party, you couldn’t even get a job.
There’s a lot of evangelicals out there who are not happy with Donald Trump. I can’t give you a number because every single place we go to is different. We’ve literally played bars, local union halls, churches and parking lots. We’ve been thrown out of a couple of places. Goodwill, I guess, is supposed to represent everybody, but when they found out we were anti-Trump, they asked us to leave their parking lot even through we had booked there. So it’s a whole mixed bag. But I’d say percentage-wise, we’re probably drawing mostly self-selected people who already agree with us but they become encouraged in their activism. We have the candidates there, and they put a table up so that folks can sign up. We hear from our candidates that they’ve gotten some more donations, they’ve gotten some more people canvassing with them and going door to door. So if you measure it that way, we’re getting a good response.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): You mentioned that there were pastors in the group. Are these progressive Christians representing a denomination, or are they all non-denominational?
Frank Schaeffer: All of the above. We have UCC pastors, we have a black pastor from a big church in Dallas, we have folks who are out of New York and Detroit and people like me who are authors and commentators. It’s a mix. We got a woman, Christy Berghoef from Holland, Michigan, who grew up in a very conservative family, and now her husband pastors a progressive church there. We have a guy who ran as a Republican but was against Donald Trump. He didn’t get the nod where he was running, but he’s one of our speakers.
We’ve got white, black, male, female, former pastors, current-day pastors, commentators and a couple of theologians like Brian McLaren and others like that. Reverend Barber has been involved with some of the things we’ve done in the planning stage. It’s across the board. We have people who’ve been involved in Civil Rights activities, women’s rights activities and folks who have come from a more conservative background as well.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): You are a former evangelical?
Frank Schaeffer: Correct.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): And you’ve been described as an atheist who believes in God, so what are your beliefs?
Frank Schaeffer: Well, I haven’t been described that way. I titled the book that way. I have a book out called Why I am an Atheist Who Believes in God to deliberately pose the question, and that is that labels don’t work. There are Christians who believe in God and have doubts just like atheists sometimes. There are atheists that get up in the morning and pray because that’s how their mom raised them. We’re so used to labeling people and categorizing them by race, ethnicity and gender, the fact is that I’ve never met a Christian or a Jew or a Muslim or a man or a woman for that matter. I’ve met human beings that are ambivalent and frustrated and on a journey and maybe were one thing and became something else. We’re all moving targets.
So my title of Why I am an Atheist Who Believes in God was precisely to get people to ask me questions as in, “How can you say that? It doesn’t make sense.” My response is, “Nor does life, nor does belief.” Listen. We all crave certainty, and some people are certainty addicts. That’s another way of calling someone a fundamentalist. Look. I’ve been married almost 50 years now, and a young couple asks, “How do you do that?” There isn’t a formula. One day it’s because I bring my wife coffee in bed. Another time, I’m on the road working in a movie project with some beautiful actress who might be available, and I don’t sleep with her. That’s how you stay married. A day at a time. You make a series of choices.
Well, it’s the same thing. Sometimes you are feeling very deeply inspired by God and you pray. Other times, you lack faith, and you have doubt. Other times, you reject it entirely, maybe leave a church and walk away. That’s all in the journey of faith. It’s not a simple thing like “I’m this” or “I’m that.” A lot of folks would say, “Hey, I went to a Billy Graham rally and gave my heart to Jesus back in 1963.” You talk to them now, and they are atheists. You talk to atheists who have had experiences with God that didn’t have anything to do with what they believe. My point is that paradox is the rule in life. We find things that are contradictory around us, so when I write a book called Why I am an Atheist Who Believes in God, it’s to put that concept forward that it’s not all black and white. It’s a journey.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): You’re also a former Republican, Frank?
Frank Schaeffer: I have voted that way. Yeah. I’m an Independent now, and I would certainly never vote for a Republican candidate of any stripe again because they’ve totally sold their souls to Donald Trump. If one Republican had stood up in Congress or had done what John McCain did, it would be different. By the way, John was a friend of mine who wrote a foreword to a book I wrote once. But right now, the Republican Party is nothing but an echo chamber for the worst president the United States has ever produced. He’s not a president. He’s not a leader. He doesn’t bring us together.
After the pipe bombs were sent, a president of any party would’ve invited all those leaders to the White House, had a group picture with them and made an announcement saying, “There are no Republicans or Democrats here. We are all Americans.” Instead, Trump made smartass comments about pipe bombs in quotation marks saying, “I’ll try to be good tonight,” read off the teleprompter, then went off script and was his usual self. A real president doesn’t do that.
We’ve had a series of national emergencies. We’ve had Jews shot down in Pittsburgh by a right-wing anarchist who owned 36 weapons, high-powered rifles available because the NRA has duped us into accepting military weapons for the Second Amendment. If one Republican would just stand up and say, “Look. This is unacceptable. This is not a president. This is not how leadership works. I’m resigning. I’m done.” That would actually, to me, be a reason for voting for a Republican next time around. But right now, they have sold out, and I’m done.
At this point, Congress has to be flipped. Otherwise, we’re not only going to get six more years of Donald Trump, we’re going to get Donald Trump unleashed with absolutely nothing reining him in. If hubris and arrogance are already massive and towering, imagine if he thinks he’s gotten a pat on the back from the American people who say, “We love what you’re doing so much. We love the hatred you’re spreading so much. We love your lies so much that we’re going to give you a Congress that’s even more subservient and totally Republican.” That’s just unacceptable. It’s not politics here. It’s national survival.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Being out there on the road, can you predict what the chances are for the Democrats to win the House on November 6?
Frank Schaeffer: You know, before 2016, I would’ve said, “They’re going to flip the House based on the polls and the numbers.” Now, all bets are off. I don’t have any way to predict it. All I know is that anyone who doesn’t get involved like going door to door or donating to a campaign and then vote, is letting their country down. So it belongs to millenials, Hispanics, black voters, white women, educated women and uneducated women. That’s who has to come together and stand up or we’re done.
I don’t have a way of predicting it. I do know that on the morning of November 7, if those of us who believe this country’s in trouble get up and there’s something we left undone to try and get people to vote to flip Congress, we’re going to be kicking ourselves if we didn’t do it.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Who do you think would have a good chance of beating Trump in 2020?
Frank Schaeffer: I wouldn’t even hazard a guess. Right now, there’s only one day that matters to me, and that’s Tuesday, November 6. 2020 is a long way off, and it’s going to be irrelevant if he doesn’t have a Congress to oppose him the next two years. We don’t know where the country will be if he can do anything he wants to do.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Will Vote Common Good continue touring after November 6?
Frank Schaeffer: Yeah. I think we will. I don’t think we’re going to go straight into the next thing. We’re going to go back and regroup and do some fundraising, but this movement isn’t going to go away. There are people up in arms about what Donald Trump’s done. It’s going to surprise the country to learn some of these people are evangelical white Christians who Trump thought he had in his pocket. But he’s gone too far, and a lot of them are jumping ship.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): What else is going on with you, Frank?
Frank Schaeffer: I’m writing a new book on relationships and the anatomy of love as someone who’s been married a long time. I spend most of my day taking care of three fine grandchildren when I’m not on the road. I continue to be an artist, a painter. But, it’s all about Tuesday, and that’s where my head is at right now.
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