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, by Frank Schaeffer

Frank Schaeffer claims to have created a spiritual identity so different from his old one that it’s as if he entered the witness protection program. He is the son of fundamentalist evangelical Christians Francis and Edith Shaeffer, leaders of the L’Abri Fellowship in Switzerland during the 1960s through early ‘80s. As a young man, he initially followed in his father’s footsteps before leaving professional religion behind, converting to the Greek Orthodox church, and becoming a writer after a short stint as a Hollywood movie director. He has published several novels as well as nonfiction about military-family topics. Sex, Mom, and God is the third in his “God trilogy” of memoirs; the abbreviated titles of the previous installments are Crazy for God and Patience With God. Here Schaeffer reveals, perhaps by accident, how far he is from actually living up to the claim of the title, that he “loves women.” This is not to say that he hasn’t changed in many ways from the person he was—he admits he used to hit his eldest daughter out of anger before he left the ministry—or that Sex, Mom, and God doesn’t offer any interesting insights. But Schaeffer is a chaotic writer with a grandiose sense of purpose, false humility, a rhetorical style that relies heavily on italics for emphasis, and a penchant for presuming to know the hearts and minds of wide swaths of humanity. He is a study in contradiction and braggadocio, unafraid to “tell it like it is,” either unaware of how unbalanced he sounds on the page or willing to exploit that quality to sell books.

“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,” he opens.

Schaeffer is provocative by nature, a trait inherited from his mother, who lacked conversational boundaries with young Frank, to whom she spoke openly about sex and her own marriage. For instance, in Chapter 2, “Magical Menstrual Mummies,” we learn that Edith believed it was her duty to have intercourse with her husband every night to satisfy his lust and prevent philandering. While explaining menstruation to her son, she expressed her wish that his father, Francis, would refrain from having sex with her during her menstrual period. Schaeffer makes it clear that these weren’t one-time conversations but ongoing discussions that deepened in detail and complexity over the years. Schaeffer acknowledges that his childhood was hypersexualized. He seems proud of it.

Much of the book is dedicated to explaining how abortion became such a divisive issue in American politics, the roles of Schaeffer and his father in creating and perpetuating this aspect of the culture wars, and his personal stance on abortion rights today. He now favors abortion rights but believes Roe v. Wade is too permissive because it allows for termination throughout the pregnancy, rather than limiting the option to the first 21 weeks. His dismissal of Roe v. Wade supporters as “fundamentalists” who “sweep the fetus under a ‘rug’ of moral platitudes about female empowerment” evinces ignorance of the ongoing struggle for gender equality and autonomy under the law. This misunderstanding or possible aversion to the issue is underscored by a reference to society as “post-feminist,” as well as a presumption that the controversial theory of evolutionary psychology is, in fact, the established, accepted law of the land.

In the end, what is clear is that though Schaeffer may “love” women, he cannot conceive of them as “people.” Women are his sexual Other, his sexual complement, and he delivers these lessons with an increasingly grating paternalistic condescension. The ultimate evidence that belies his claim in the title is found in Chapter 9, “Strange Women.” The women he refers to endanger his marriage because he is attracted to them. A young video editor with whom he works has caught his eye, and he spends their time together ogling her bare skin and randomly exposed bra straps. In interior monologue Schaeffer, a man in his 50s, speaks both to and in the voice of his penis, which he calls “Mr. Penis.” Schaeffer goads the woman into discussing the sex lives of her friends, refers to them as sluts, and then asks if one’s moral compass can include being comfortable with rape. Schaeffer can spout all the soul-changing rhetoric he wants, but the proof of what kind of person he is rests in his everyday workplace interactions, designed specifically for his personal sexual gratification, with a woman about half his age. These interactions expose him as someone who enthusiastically judges and labels women according to their perceived sexual appetites. Schaeffer has a long, arduous road ahead.

Da Capo Press, 287 pages                     

This review originally appeared in Pasatiempo on 11/25/2011