Over the past decade, the American church has witnessed the rise of the “post-evangelicals.” These Christians, generally disaffected twenty-somethings who partner with the emergent church movement, were raised to be the echelon of the Religious Right. At college, however, they turn their back on their political upbringing by rejecting capitalism, support for the current wars, and other staples of contemporary conservatism. At the same time, they do not turn to Canterbury or cross the Tiber (another common trend among young Christians). Instead, they read Shane Claiborne and Sojourners magazine. Concerned parents who remembered the glory days of the Reagan Revolution wonder how their children abandoned the Republican Party. They could find insight in Alisa Harris’s Raised Right: How I Untangled My Faith from Politics, a politico-spiritual memoir of a burnt-out culture warrior.
Harris (now a New York City journalist) narrates her fall from the homeschooled conservative ideal to informed political moderate. She writes, “For nearly all my childhood and adolescence, on into early adulthood, politics gave my faith meaning. Politics expressed my faith.” Throughout her retelling, she shows that she is still an orthodox Christian; she did not throw out the religious baby with the Republican bathwater.
The book chapters follow a formula: Harris recounts her childhood lessons in conservatism and then shares a vignette of how she abandoned these teachings. For example, she tells of how she dressed herself and her goat as Hillary and Bill Clinton at the county fair. This impropriety was consistent with her training to be confrontational in nearly all circumstances. Later in the chapter, Harris remarks how she tired of constantly arguing at community college and instead made meaningful friendships with liberals and non-Christians while working at a library. In that and other chapters, Harris unwraps how she came to see vilified political opponents as fellow humans made in the image of God. What results is a common tale—the chronicle of a young person trying to escape Falwell’s shadow.
Raised Right identifies key errors of the Evangelical Right. In many circles, Scripture and Rush Limbaugh mix together to form a new politicized gospel. As Harris says, outlining the political impressions of her childhood:
But to me the hope of the gospel meant more than the truth that Jesus Christ, fully God and fully man, had come to earth, died on a cross to free us from sin, and rose on the third day. It also means the hope of being free from the shackles of government as we worked to redeem the world for Christ through political means.
Indeed, Harris points out that many evangelicals see America as Israel, God’s chosen people. Our country backslides, suffers judgment, and repents to once again receive the blessings of Providence. She observes that in American politics, there is “the temptation to believe that each political battle marks the beginning of God’s kingdom or the end of the world, the start of heaven or the beginning of hell.” Evangelicals have heeded the siren song of government power, believing they can usher in the kingdom through elected officials. They confuse civil religion with Christian piety. This does not mean she gives the Evangelical Left a free pass. Indeed, she skillfully implies that the likes of McLaren and Wallis are guilty of this mode of thought, just on the other side of the aisle.
The story of Alisa Harris serves as a warning to conservative parents. In a culture that upholds sexual perversion and condemns moral absolutes, well-meaning Christians try to prepare their children to oppose apostasy, stanch societal decline, and re-establish virtue. Regrettably, this desire often manifests itself in raising one’s offspring to be activists rather than godly men and women. This certainly seems to have been the case for Harris. Although she thanks her parents for teaching her to care, love, and “take heart,” she is also painfully aware something was amiss. As these transformational youth go out into the world, “they probably have felt lost as their belief in the nobility of the culture wars fades away.”
For the author, this disenchantment arose during the Bush years; the Abu Ghraib torture controversy disgusted her. She left the religious right’s fold for good to join other Christians. These disaffected evangelicals begin to find ways to cope with a pluralistic secular culture, or, as Harris says, “They are looking for some worthy causes where they can channel the passion for justice and truth, bestowed by their parents, into something that actually builds people’s lives instead of tearing apart relationships and destroying faith.” As Harris was challenged to look honestly at different ideas and critique the presidential administration she used to love, she finally “just wanted to care about people as people—not as enemy combatants, potential converts, or notches in my holy belt of truth.”
As political theorists can tell from Harris’s descriptions, she defines conservatism as fusionism, the combination of traditional morals, strong military, and free market economics. Purists might find this frustrating, especially since she tries to point out the complications and nuances of the modern world while giving conservatism a simplistic consensus. Nevertheless, I think the term works fine for the purposes of the memoir. Unfortunately, the book suffers from more serious weaknesses. It is clear that Harris retains political zeal; she talks about exulting with the rest of New York at the election of President Obama.
She equates a change in attitude with a change in position. Because she witnesses the plight of the homeless or a girl with a dangerous unplanned pregnancy, Harris abandons many of her stances. For instance, she sympathetically describes a “pro-lifer who didn’t believe in banning abortion.” Issues regarding homosexual marriage, illegal immigration, and welfare entitlements no longer retain their dangerous savor. She confesses that she voted for pro-choice candidates because she did not want to be a “single-issue voter.” Far be it from Christians to foist morality upon those in dire straits. Of course, it is in such extremes that ethics matter most. In her quest for sophistication and defense of “relationships,” one wonders if Harris went too far.
Convictions about truth should not be cast upon the altar of relationships. Harris rightly regrets that she lacked sensitivity in her younger days; this has left her hungry to fit more comfortably in her surroundings. This comes out in her reflections about the Obama election: “For just once in my life, I wasn’t the person taking an awkward public stand.” In rejoicing with the Democratic victory, she exulted, “I finally fit in.” Orthodox Christians cannot help but worry that such habits trim honesty for approval. Good relationships can withstand inconvenient truths. Granted, Christians engage in unnecessary frivolous squabbles. Nevertheless, even perfect courtesy cannot assuage all conflict; Christians in their role as citizens cannot simply check out of the abortion and homosexuality debates. Perhaps culture wars are not as “ignoble” as young evangelicals deem them.
The book indicates that Harris now tracks more with the New York City liberal elite rather than ill-spoken conservative homeschoolers. Some readers may even think she likes herself more in company with the sophisticated socialite class rather than anything associated with conservative churches. This is not how Christians should take a stand. If we identify with Christ, then we also identify with tax collectors and sinners. The unattractive and embarrassing are members of our motley family. People like Pat Robertson frustrate Christians on a near daily basis, but thoughtful believers still have to be prepared to forgive these political and social failings. Our allegiance belongs not wholly to hip cliques, but also to Christ and His church.
Raised Right is neither particularly convincing nor intended to dismantle conservative political philosophy. The author has a gift for tearing down the problems of evangelicalism through her personal experiences, but shies away from the common alternatives: progressive social gospel or some older faith tradition (generally liturgical or Reformed). Although she has decisively rejected her upbringing, many of her current views are quite inconclusive. The book does, however, provide insights into the problems of modern American democracy. Harris’s story asks if one has to be an activist in order to be a committed American citizen. In the post-FDR era of special interest groups, one wonders if evangelicals can change national policy without engaging in political excesses.
The stated goal of Raised Right was to show how a Christian can separate faith from politics. Can this be done? I can see disentangling Christian orthodoxy from a party platform, but I don’t know if there can be a meaningful community (and thus polity) without at least some shared understandings about God, morality, justice, happiness, property, authority, manners, and family. Harris offers little guidance in these important matters. Thankfully, she has come to terms with being an American. She likens her country to her family; it is not exceptional, but it demands her due love and loyalty. In addition, the writer is solidly Christian. Still, I don’t believe she has settled on what it means to be a Christian in America.
Harris clearly understands that she is a citizen of two cities; nevertheless, she seems to think Christians function in the city of man according to pragmatic liberalism rather than prudent conservatism. This need not be the case. One can affirm many conservative principles while upholding loving relationships with Christians and non-Christians alike. Thoughtful learning does not inevitably lead us into the liberal fold; for many young Christians, dissatisfaction with consumer evangelicalism drives them deeper into tradition, not out of it.