Sex, Mom, and God

How the Bibles Strange Take on Sex Led to Crazy Politics -- and How I Learned to Love Women (and Jesus) Anyway


By Frank Schaeffer

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“A penetrating analysis of political extremism, with a moving and at times hilarious account of growing up in one of the Christian right’s most influential families. Few writers command Frank Schaeffer’s intimate understanding of right-wing radicalism, and even fewer are able to share their insight as entertainingly and with as much moral weight as he has in Sex, Mom, and God.”–Max Blumenthal, author of Republican Gomorrah

“Mom was a much nicer person than her God. There are many biblical regulations about everything from beard-trimming to menstruating. Mom worked diligently to recast her personal-hygiene-obsessed God in the best light.”

Alternating between laugh-out-loud scenes from his childhood and acidic ruminations on the present state of an America he and his famous fundamentalist parents helped create, bestselling author Frank Schaeffer asks what the Glenn Becks and the Rush Limbaughs and the paranoid fantasies of the “right-wing echo chamber” are really all about.

Here’s a hint: sex.

The unforgettable central character in Sex, Mom, and God is the author’s far-from-prudish evangelical mother, Edith, who sweetly but bizarrely provides startling juxtapositions of the religious and the sensual thoughout Schaeffer’s childhood. She was, says Frank Schaeffer, “the greatest illustration of the Divine beauty of Paradox I’ve encountered . . . a fundamentalist living a double life as a lover of beauty who broke all her own judgmental rules in favor of creativity.”

Charlotte Gordon, the award-winning author of Mistress Bradstreet, calls Sex, Mom, and God “a tour de force . . . Sarah Palin, ‘The Family,’ Anne Hutchinson, adultery, abortion, homophobia, Uganda, Ronald Reagan, B. B. King, Billy Graham, Hugh Hefner — it’s all here. This is the kind of book I did not want to end.”


The Calvin Becker Trilogy
Saving Grandma
Baby Jack
Keeping Faith: A Father-Son Story About Love
and The United States Marine Corps
(Coauthored with John Schaeffer)
Faith of Our Sons: A Father's Wartime Diary
Voices from the Front: Letters Home from America's Military Family
AWOL: The Unexcused Absence of America's Upper Classes from
Military Service—and How It Hurts Our Country
(Coauthored with Kathy Roth-Douquet)
The God Trilogy
Crazy for God: How I Grew Up as One of the Elect, Helped Found the
Religious Right, and Lived to Take All (or Almost All) of It Back
Patience with God: Faith for People Who Don't Like Religion (or Atheism)
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
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Mom and me (age 7) gardening in 1959
One of the things I love most about being with my grandchildren is that they only know me now. So before I explain why I had sex with an ice sculpture and how my family helped push the Republican Party into the embrace of the Religious Right and chronicle my family's complicity in several murders, let me say that my granddaughter Lucy has just turned two. She, along with my three other grandchildren, is my second chance now that I've carved out a spiritual identity as dramatically eclipsing of my former self as if I'd disappeared into a witness protection program.
My four grandchildren, Amanda, Benjamin, Lucy, and Jack, notwithstanding, I'm still prone to label people and ideas as my mother labeled them. Mom divided everything into Very Important Things, say, Jesus, Virginity, Japanese Flower Arrangements, Lust, See-through Black Lingerie (to be enjoyed only after marriage), and everything else, say, those things that barely registered on my mother's To-Do List, like home-schooling me. So I'll be capitalizing some words oddly in this book, such as Sin, God, Love, and Girls, and also words like Him when referring to God. I'm not doing this as a theological statement but as a nervous tic, a leftover from my Edith Schaeffer–shaped childhood and also to signal what Loomed Large to my mother and what still Looms Large to me.
Blessedly, Lucy and Jack live only a few hundred feet up the street. I walk to their house every day and collect them for playtime. When it's Lucy's turn, she perches in my arms and talks to me. (Jack is six months old and pulls my nose and laughs a lot but isn't saying much yet.) Lucy likes to be carried when we stroll back to "Ba and Nanna's house." (I'm "Ba" and my wife, Genie, is "Nanna.") Lucy's big brown eyes scan the eighteenth-century clapboard houses of our New England neighborhood to see which of the ubiquitous American flags are wrapped around their abovethe-front-door flagpoles "by the wind, Ba," and which are waving free in the ocean breeze.
When we get to my house, Lucy commands me to read The Tale of Two Bad Mice by Beatrix Potter. It's a story about two deluded mice, Hunka Munka and Tom Thumb, who mistake a dollhouse dinner laid out in the dollhouse's miniature dining room for real food. When they discover that the lovely looking ham, fish, and pudding can't be eaten, they smash up the plaster "food" in revenge and then spitefully ransack the dollhouse.
When she wrote the book in 1904, Potter couldn't have known that her classic story would someday be an allegory aptly illustrating the delusion suffered by members of the American Religious Right. Some people who helped lead that movement—including me—were very much like Hunka Munka and Tom Thumb. We lived lives informed by beliefs that were not based on fact and that led to deep-seated resentments that couldn't be cured because what we resented never actually happened. We took it as a personal insult that the real world didn't conform to the imagined religious "facts" that we'd been indoctrinated to believe in, and so we did our share of smashing.
My late father, Francis Schaeffer, was a key founder and leader of the Religious Right. My mother, Edith, was herself a spiritual leader, not the mere power behind her man, which she also was. Mom was a formidable and adored religious figure whose books and public speaking, not to mention biblical conditioning of me, directly and indirectly shaped millions of lives. For a time I joined my Dad in pioneering the Evangelical antiabortion Religious Right movement. In the 1970s and early 1980s when I was in my twenties, I evolved into an ambitious, "successful" religious leader/instigator in my own right. And I wasn't just Dad's sidekick; I was also Mom's collaborator in her mission to "reach the world for Jesus."
I changed my mind. I no longer ride around "saving" America for God, nor am I a regular on religious TV and radio these days. Nevertheless—like those two bad mice who later felt remorse and so put a "crooked sixpence" in the dolls' Christmas stocking to pay for the damage they'd caused—I'm determined to acknowledge the destruction I contributed to before Lucy grows old enough to inherit the vandalized "dollhouse" that she'll soon discover lurking beyond her childhood horizon.
Author's Note: Much of the material that is to follow chronicles an intimate journey. Some people's names and other details have been changed. Genie reads my manuscripts, gives me wonderful notes, not to mention her generous permission to "tell all" and put her up on my literary auction block time and again. And I'd like to say this about my mother: At age ninety-six and suffering from short-term memory loss (and sight loss owing to macular degeneration), sadly, Mom won't read this book. But just before Christmas of 2010, we sat down together during a weeklong visit and I told her about my project in detail—including that I was going to "tell the truth and let the chips fall where they may, Mom." With a flash of her old self and a familiar defiant head toss, Mom said, "Go ahead; I don't care what people 'think' and never did!" Given her memory problem, I should add that before it developed and before her eyesight failed, she read my other equally "scandalous" writing, including my novels and nonfiction works, which also drew heavily from memories that to some people might have seemed too private to share. Mom isn't "some people." I once got a letter from one of my mother's followers telling me that, having just read my novel Portofino (a work of humor where the mother character, "Elsa Becker," is like my mother in some ways), she was sure it would "kill your mother because of the hatred for Jesus that drips from your SATANIC pen!" Coincidentally, that fan letter (received in the early 1990s before I was using e-mail) arrived in the same post delivery as a note from Mom asking me for another dozen signed hardcover copies of that book so that my mother could send out more to her friends. Mom's follower had signed her letter "Repent!" My mother signed her note "I'm so proud of you." Attempting to unravel the mystery of how my mother managed to have attracted such "fans" and who she really was (and is)—a life-embracing free spirit—nagged me into writing this book. One other thing: No, I don't remember every childhood conversation word for word as written here. I have, however, faithfully re-created the content and style of the sorts of conversations I did actually have. Lastly, in the first chapter readers of some of my other books will run into a few familiar facts. That's because I need to set up this book for those readers who haven't read my memoir Crazy for God. But I promise you that if you'll take this journey with me (for better or worse), I'll soon guide you into uncharted territory.

Family Planning
PHOTO: Mom (age 1) and her father in China, 1915
My biblically inspired sex education took a quantum leap in 1960. When I was eight years old, my mother handed me her diaphragm. I was standing at the window of her hotel room overlooking the Mediterranean Sea. We were on vacation. I'll explain about the diaphragm once I set the scene by noting that while the children of lapsed Episcopalians, secular Jews, ordinary pagans, Hindus, and Frenchmen presumably went peacefully to sleep after their mothers read them Goodnight Moon or A Tale of Two Bad Mice, some of us reared in Evangelical families were tucked into bed after absorbing rather odd bedtime stories like this one.
"And the LORD spake unto Moses," Mom said, in her most cheerful singsong bedtime-Bible-story-reading-out-loud voice. "And the children of Israel took all the women of Midian captives, and their little ones, and took the spoil of all their cattle, and all their flocks, and all their goods.... And Moses was wroth with the officers. And Moses said unto them, have ye saved all the women alive? Behold, these caused the children of Israel to commit trespass against the LORD. Now therefore kill every male among the little ones, and kill every woman that hath known man by lying with him. But all the women children, that have not known a man by lying with him, keep alive for yourselves."
"But, Mom," the eight-year-old version of me asked, "how did they know which women hadn't known a man?"
"Well, Dear, of course they checked," said Mom as she reached over from where she was sitting next to me on my bed and gave my hand a friendly squeeze. Then, with her brightest, most encouraging these-things-are-hard-to-understand-but-trust-me-it's-okaybecause-the-Lord-works-in-mysterious-ways-even-if-it-seems- crazy-to-us smile Mom added, "There's a way to tell."
"How?" I asked.
"I've already told you about that precious little barrier called the hymen."
"But why did those women have to die?" I asked.
"Because," Mom said, giving me another radiant smile, "in Numbers 31:9–18 it says that before the battle God told Moses to tell his soldiers to kill all the women who made the children of Israel commit the trespass of following after false gods. You see, Dear, to worship a false god is like going to a prostitute. And besides, anyway, everyone is supposed to wait for their Wedding Night, Darling, even Midianites. Goodnight, Dear."
"Goodnight, Mom."
Mom completed our bedtime ritual by praying with me. I prayed, too, and she kissed me, turned out my bedside lamp, and left my room. A second later Mom opened the door just wide enough to pop her head back in. Since my room was so small that my narrow bed filled most of it, Mom's face was almost directly over me as she looked down and said, very matter-of-factly, "It is important that when you grow up, you avoid Strange Women."
"I will," I said.
"You know what happened to Solomon because of Strange Women."
"Yes, Mom."
Mom withdrew her head, but just before she clicked the door shut, she added that evening's final instruction. "Marry a virgin, Dear. You don't want your wife to spend the rest of her life comparing you to other men. You should be the only man for her."
"Yes, Mom."
"Sleep well."
I'm not saying that this bedtime Bible story exchange was a usual conversation between a typical Evangelical mother and her eight-year-old son in 1960. Edith Schaeffer wasn't typical. I am saying, however, that I know that I'm not the only person trying to get the ringing out of my ears from childhood overexposure to the bizarre collection of Bronze-Age short stories my family called "the Scriptures." I know this because I've received thousands of notes in response to my writing about the impact of religion—even when that impact has been disguised as fiction in my novels like Portofino, Zermatt, and Saving Grandma—from people who were also raised by parents with a zealous sense of mission and who, like me, once honestly believed that every single word of the Bible was true.
People who say that they believe every word of the Bible (i.e., "Bible-believing" Christians and the more fundamentalist Jews) are not necessarily 100 percent biblical literalists. They believe that everything the Bible affirms is true because it is the "inerrant Word of God."1 But that's the grown-ups. From a child's perspective peering out at the larger world from deep in the cocoon of a "Bible-believing home," every word of the Bible is understood to be true in ways that nothing else is or ever will be even if, years later, that child grows up and changes his or her mind. That former child's grown-up incarnation may be willing to admit Nuance and Paradox, but the emotional "weight" of the absolutely true Word lingers. The actual words in The Word are still the very fabric of a whole private universe inhabiting those raised inside the hermetically sealed tunnel of absolutist faith, "truer" than all the other words he or she will ever hear, say, read, or think put together—truer than any later reasoned evidence. And on top of that the words of the Bible—or even a few notes of an old hymn—cast a shadow of bittersweet nostalgia that defies reason as thoroughly as a whiff of perfume reminds a man of his first lover and evokes a longing that cuts to the heart.
But back to my biblically inspired sex education: It took a quantum leap when my mother handed me that diaphragm. The view beyond the looming diaphragm was framed by the hills and bay of the picturesque fishing village and "Jet Set" hideaway of Portofino, Italy. While contemplating Mom's diaphragm, I was trying to understand how God could have planned everything if Mom and Dad were picking and choosing when to have children. Mom had the answer: "Mommy and Daddy use this wonderful invention, but sometimes God leads me not to use it, and then He picks the marvelous egg and individual amazing sperm and the exact moment they're conjoined so that the person He's chosen from before the Creation to be born—for instance you, my Dear!—may fulfill His Wondrous Plan!"
So God's Foreknowledge included His Foreknowledge of humankind's ability to use rubber in so many interesting ways besides the invention of the tire. Thus, my parents weren't planning anything by using contraception but merely doing the Lord's Will by exercising their "Free Will." According to Mom's logic, the Lord knew what would happen, but He wasn't bound by any path He'd preordained. He could adjust His Plan, thereby changing His Will for your life by issuing factory recalls (killing people) or even changing His Mind (replacing people), but since He knew He'd do that, even when He changed His Mind, that, too, was part of THE PLAN. In that sense even God couldn't outsmart God.
There are many passages in the Bible about God changing His Mind. For example, God sent the flood of the Noah's Ark story when He "repented of" Creation: "The LORD was grieved that he had made man on the earth, and His heart was filled with pain. So the LORD said, 'I will wipe mankind, whom I have created, from the face of the earth—men and animals, and creatures that move along the ground, and birds of the air—for I am grieved that I have made them'" (Genesis 6:6–7). In Exodus, God reserves the right to change His Mind: "Go up to the land flowing with milk and honey," God says to Moses. "But I will not go with you, because you are a stiffnecked people and I might destroy you on the way" (Exodus 33:3).
God's frequent mind-changing notwithstanding, Mom said that God knew everything about everything before He made anything to know everything about. God knew and/or planned—depending on how you interpret the interplay of Foreknowledge and Predestination and Free Will—that after The Fall women would conceive at the drop of a solitary sperm. Thus, God made fertility the Chief Punishment of women.
After expelling Eve from the Garden, God said unto the woman, "I will greatly multiply thy sorrow and thy conception; in sorrow thou shalt bring forth children; and thy desire shall be to thy husband, and he shall rule over thee" (Genesis 3:16). That didn't make God mean, though, Mom said, because He also planned to (1) send Jesus to save a very few of His fallen creatures, including a very few women; and (2) pick the sperm and egg that would create Charles Goodyear so that Mr. Goodyear would discover the rubber vulcanization process, which he patented in 1844.
So, according to Mom, God Ordained and Foreknew that a few of us would be forgiven our Sins because we'd adopt Correct Calvinist Theology and also that in the mid-1880s German gynecologist C. Haase (using Mr. Goodyear's discovery) would invent a rubber contraceptive device with a handy spring molded into the rim. Therefore, it turned out that God changed His Mind about punishing at least some women by Predestining Protestant women to space their children and if they were Reformed Calvinists, too, He'd also chosen them to be of The Elect—that is, "elected" (chosen) to go to Heaven.
Thus, my family was fortunate. We were Protestants living after the rubber vulcanization process was invented. That meant that Mom was only punished four times—five if you count her miscarriage—unlike Roman Catholic women who, even after rubber was invented, still got punished dozens of times because the supposedly infallible popes (filling in for Jesus during His unexpectedly long absence) rejected God's Plan for the Rubber Vulcanization Reprieve.
Anyway, Mom's miscarriage loomed large as an example of God changing His Mind. Luckily for me, my parents had "tried again," as Mom put it, and had me. I was especially lucky because Mom was forty at the time. "I'd never have tried for a fourth child at that age except for the fact I lost your brother and we wanted a son," Mom said. Though, "luckily" is the wrong word. As Mom always said, "Real Christians don't believe in 'luck.' The Lord is in charge, so we never use that word because it's a denial of the Sovereignty of God." So, according to Mom, I should rather say that her losing my brother was providential.
I always wondered what my older brother was like or, rather, would have been like. My three sisters were all so much older than me. I would have liked any sibling close enough in age to be a friend rather than more like a second mother. Still, I believed that in Heaven everything we can't understand now would be made clear. For instance, we'd not ever be able to figure out why my older brother was stillborn or even why—when I was two—I'd contracted polio and so had to wear a leg brace. And Mom would explain Dad's "Many Weaknesses" by saying that she was sure she was supposed to learn something from "putting up with your father but will only really understand what it is, someday." All these things would be made "clear later, in Heaven, Dear."
Heaven was a long way off, and meanwhile I would have liked someone my own age to play with. I never blamed God, though, because I always assumed that any problem I had with the way things were was due to the fact that my "knowledge of the big picture" (as Mom called everything of "eternal significance") was incomplete and that "only in Heaven will we fully understand" why, for instance, billions of "unsaved" Chinese, Mormons, Muslims, Jews, Episcopalians, United Methodists, Unitarians, Anglicans, and Roman Catholics—even the "wrong sort of Presbyterians"—were going to Hell with no second chance, let alone why my older brother had died.
Heaven would solve everything. Mom said, "Your bad leg will be perfect in Heaven!" She said that there would be no tears in Heaven. But Mom still cried when she told me about the doctor letting her hold my brother before he "took him away." And Dad was at his most gentle with Mom when she told and retold the story of the stillbirth, how she was in the little Swiss chalet we were living in back then when the "baby came too early" and how she got on her knees and "prayed and wept before the Lord when the contractions started, but His answer was 'no' and He took him."
Mom also said that one good thing was that the miscarriage had helped her better understand her mother. "Mother had something worse happen to her," Mom would say. "Her son died at one year of age when she was in China. They just fed him rice water as 'medicine' because this was long before antibiotics, but the poor little boy died. You see he had dysentery. I had to lose your brother before I really understood why Mother cried so hard, even many years later whenever she spoke of this."
It was a dreadful and awesome thing to know that even if I couldn't "fully understand until we get to Heaven," nevertheless somehow my life was possible because Mom had delivered The Other Baby two months early and he died for me as the doctor "did all he could but failed because God had other ideas—in other words, You, Darling—and besides we weren't in a hospital."
When Mom talked about my older lost brother, she often shed tears. "He had all his fingers and toes," she'd say. "He was so beautiful. His little face was so sweet! I think he would have been my most beautiful child. His fingers looked as if he'd have been a great pianist, so long and graceful! He had a full head of hair just like you did."
My brother was growing up in Heaven instead of with us. Or was he? Did babies in Heaven grow up? My sister Susan said that they all were "the same age as everyone else is in Heaven is," which, according to her, was thirty-three, the age she said Jesus was when He was resurrected.
"Mom, Susan says my brother is the same age as Jesus," my six-year-old self said.
"Susan can't know that, Dear. We won't know those sorts of things until we get to Heaven."
"But if he's still a baby, who will take care of him?"
"Jesus said that the little children should come to Him so we can be very sure that He is tender with all the little ones."
"But he can't have accepted Jesus because he was too little when he died," my preoccupied seven-year-old self said.
"Yes, but he was also taken before the age of accountability, so he hadn't sinned yet."
"Not even by original sin?" the theologically precocious ten-year-old version of me asked.
"We won't understand the balance between Free Will and God's Foreknowledge until . . . "
"We get to Heaven," my thirteen-year-old-smart-ass self muttered while completing Mom's mantra.
"Don't use that tone when talking about the Things of the Lord, Dear! He has a Wondrous Plan for your life, and you know that, even if you are in a temporary state of youthful rebellion," Mom said.
She was right. I did know that God and I were inextricably entangled, and I still know that, no matter what the fifty-eight-year-old version of me says that I believe or don't believe on my agnostic days. And I still know that God will "lead me" in ways that I'll understand only in Heaven, no matter what I say to the contrary, even when I'm in an atheist frame of mind or when I hold forth to other enlightened people (at least "enlightened" in our own minds) speaking in an we're-all-too-smart-to-take-anything-at-face-value progressive code that presumes that anyone who disagrees is a backward rube.
Back to Family Planning Day. It unfolded like this: Mom glanced up from reading Girl of the Limberlost out loud and said, "We space our children." The "we" she was referring to were all Saved Protestant fundamentalists in general and We Schaeffers in particular. Then Mom whispered, "You see, Dear, they don't believe in family planning like we do. Those poor Catholics live in such terrible darkness." Mom looked pityingly at the large family sitting next to our family on the Paraggi-Portofino beach. We'd been curious about the twelve children, their ages ranging from one to twenty (or so), attached to the boisterous "Obviously Very Roman Catholic Family," as Mom had labeled the overflowing happy tribe lounging on assorted deck chairs.
The Paraggi beach is a narrow strip of sand about three hundred yards long by twenty yards wide, and when we Schaeffers were vacationing there, two hundred or so deck chairs filled the beach. They were arranged in rows so close together that each chair nearly touched the next. The view of the turquoise bay and gnarled pine trees, stark and dramatic as they clung to the rocky cliffs above the water, was magnificent. Vacationers sat under red-and-blue umbrellas emblazoned with the Martini & Rossi and Campari logos in a sort of seaside version of airplane seating. In Italy, going to the beach was a social occasion shared with people who had no sense of personal space. It was inevitable that in such close proximity we'd spend hours comparing others to our family, mostly unfavorably but also somewhat enviously. My sisters Susan and Debby were amusing themselves by trying to figure out the Very Roman Catholic children's ages. Dad, as usual, was ignoring all of us, eschewing deck chairs and lying face down on a towel roasting in the sun while reading back issues of Newsweek and the Sunday School Times.2
Besides having a dead older brother, I had three very much alive big sisters: petite, ineffably kind, intellectually brilliant, and easily-moved-to-tears-by-the-plight-of-The-Lost Debby, seven years older than me; athletically powerful, almost-as-holy-as-


On Sale
May 31, 2011
Page Count
320 pages
Da Capo Press

Frank Schaeffer

About the Author

Frank Schaeffer is the author of the New York Times bestseller Keeping Faith and the memoir Crazy for God. His novels, including Portofino, have been translated into nine languages. He lives in Massachusetts.

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