A Review of Raised Right | First Things
Sometimes it’s hard to understand why young people deviate from the conservative mentalities of their parents during their young adult years, but Raised Right: How I Untangled my Faith from Politics offers an explanation for the switch. Recounting experiences of faith and politics through childhood into young adult years, Raised Right is an early memoir, chronicling Alisa Harris’ leap, like that of many young people, across the political divide from right to left.
There’s some irony in the title, it seems, because much of what Harris suggests is that she was actually raised wrong, at least in a political sense. Though she dedicates the book to her parents and in the end praises them for their adoption of two Haitian children, her account of her religious and academic education comes off as pretty nutty. Her family attends a charismatic church she depicts in wacky terms early in her childhood, and later moves to something of the conservative evangelical sort where denim-skirt-clad homeschoolers hold to what Harris now considers ultra-conservative views on politics and family.
Their interest in local and national politics is intense: They picket regularly for pro-life causes, enroll their children in debate clubs that argue for conservative political ideas, and rally for Bush in the 2000 election. Harris follows along wholeheartedly through it all, wielding her “W” tote bag while fiercely imagining with her parents and pastors that political victories for the religious right will restore Christ’s rule on earth.
Halfway through the book Harris’ perspective changes from describing her sheltered and skewed childhood to recounting her coming of age: At college (the conservative Hillsdale), she finds her own identity, steeps herself in the humanities, embraces biblical egalitarianism, and develops an interest in journalism, which leads her to New York City to begin her career as a writer for a Christian magazine. There, life in the city and international reporting projects move her politically. Almost going broke, meeting Christians who are Democrats in her church’s small groups, encountering the plight of the homeless firsthand, and watching charitable relief projects in action broaden her awareness of significant problems in America and beyond, problems that Republican politicians, she says, tend to ignore.
The main problems with the religious right, Harris says, include disregard for poverty and international justice (particularly for women), obsession over the issues of abortion and gay marriage, and a mindset that generally embraces greed-centered capitalism. From her personal encounters she makes it clear that there are real, hurting people behind these issues rather than just the cardboard cut-outs we tend to imagine, and her discussion about their concerns becomes provocative in its ambiguity: “Jesus didn’t have much to say about homosexuality,” a friend states, and she tacitly agrees. The emphasis of Harris’ perspective on the pro-life debate is caring for women and the unborn, but she leaves things surrounding the issue of killing a little vague: “I care . . . that pregnant women who want to keep their babies get the help they need to do so.”
Perhaps with enough people hammering the issues of abortion and gay marriage, Harris is right to direct her attention and effort to other issues of mercy and justice, but the flavor of the book seems to downplay the importance of traditional marriage, infant life, and the church’s role in mercy ministry. She says nothing of the Scriptures’ teachings elsewhere about homosexuality, for instance. Certainly the lives of women are as important as those of unborn children, but no one in America or abroad advocates the slaughter of thousands of women annually, while many do defend murder of the unborn. And while conservatives may have tendencies towards foot stomping and sign-raising, their work and influence certainly isn’t limited to that; a good deal of mercy ministry comes out of evangelical churches, which are largely composed of members of the religious right. In Harris’ narrative, it’s hard to see exactly how she comes to the conclusion that concerns for “the poor’s rights” demand aligning with liberal politics rather than those of Christian conservatives, but by the end, Harris finds herself on the opposite side of the political spectrum, voting with those she had envisioned as the manifestation of evil while growing up.
In the conclusion, Harris documents a recent display she led in protest of Bank of America’s economic fraudulence. I’m surprised she concludes this way, because the early chapters of her book poke fun at her family and church’s frequent involvement in protests against abortion and homosexuality. “Carrying a sign seemed a cowardly kind of love, one that isolated you behind a barricade, futilely shouting at the world while it stumbled past,” she determines when looking back on those days. But in the end she embraces public displays against injustice, and it’s hard to see any difference in the latter over the former ones, except for the causes themselves. And in this case, it’s not clear why corporate greed trumps infanticide in degrees of heinousness.
Although I furrowed my brow a little in response to her conclusions, I did find Harris’ story moving in several ways. In a chapter about abortion, for instance, she speaks to the horrific experiences of women in foreign lands due to inopportune pregnancies. Her experiences remind me that in suburban America I am often guilty of forgetting the hardships of people worldwide. It’s true also that poverty, oppression, disease, and hunger have always been far from me, and that I often choose to live in blissful disregard of them rather than think upon and sacrifice significantly to aid those in need. Ultimately, she challenges readers to care, to love, and to take heart, things which ought to be central to any Christian’s approach to the world.
At times, Harris’ approach tends towards obscuring the truth when it encounters the complexities of hurting people, but perhaps truth spoken in love is what the broken need most. Paul reminds his Ephesian audience to do so in his classic paradigm, where speaking the truth without love and loving without speaking the truth both fail to embody Christ. While Harris is no doubt correct to criticize a loveless, sign-carrying conservative who hails women emerging from abortion clinics as murderers, supporting a woman through an abortion without speaking the truth would be equally heartless. Of course, perhaps by returning again to the abortion issue I’ve fulfilled the stereotype of a one-issue conservative, but I hope that holding firm beliefs about important issues and loving real people aren’t mutually exclusive.
Kathryn Walker writes from Lancaster, Pennsylvania.
Alisa Harris, Raised Right