Tag Archives: religious right

Raised Right: Slogans vs. Reality

In chapter six of “Raised Right:  How I Untangled My Faith From Politics,” Alisa Harris describes her initial support of the Iraq War and how she came to question her faith in that war and her stance on war in general.  She describes one experience that served as a catalyst for the re-evaluation process:

But one day I popped in my grandmother’s big-band cassette tape and heard a song that pricked me with uneasiness.  A gunner fell and the sky pilot set aside his Bible and took up the gunner’s gun, singing, “Praise the Lord and pass the ammunition, and we’ll all stay free.”

I hit Fast Forward, scrambling the buoyant trumpets and brassy tune. it was all right to portray the long-suffering nobility of soldiers writing letters to their sweethearts and thinking of home or even the soldiers fretting about their girls sitting under the apple trees with other men.  But with this song I could see the gunner lying in pieces and the sky pilot using the phrase we all toss so casually — “Well, praise the Lord” — before he used the ammunition to rip a hole in a human being.

Prior to the above passage, Harris had described romantic notions of war and acknowledged in hindsight that they had been truly romantic.  However, this song struck her with a more bloody reality.  What seems to strike her however, is not only this bloody reality, but the casual way in which it is talked about and almost taken lightly by the flippant — at least as used in this context — phrase “Praise the Lord.”  She repeats her astonishment about such flippancy of a line uttered by Gary Cooper’s character in Sergeant York compares killing German soldiers in World War II to “shootin’ turkeys.”

As Harris faced the realities of war and the thought that war involves killing people — something generally condemned by the Christian god — she finds such casual talk about it to be troubling.  This forces her to consult with other people, both people in her lives and the great minds of people she respects as she grapples with this tough decision.

It’s this grappling with tough questions and the openness to being discomforted by such easy comments that interests me most in this chapter, because it’s something I think is too often lacking in conservative evangelical circles.[1]  Flippant phrases intended to simplify complex topics and therefore discourage uncomfortable thoughts over them are far too common.  They allow those who hear and repeat them to pass over a topic quite quickly and state a position without thinking abut the full implications of that position — especially for other people.

It’s only when those simplified phrases are shown in contrast to the much messier reality they seek to gloss over that such phrase’s flippancy becomes uncomfortably obvious.  Granted, not everyone responds to that discomfort as well as Harris did.  Rather than digging for deeper answers, some will simply dig their heels in harder and even become hostile to anyone who attempts to show them the deeper complexity of the topic and the horrible insensitivity of such simple catch-phrases.

In time, they might be able to cover up the discomfort again and stop thinking about the reality.  But one might hope that more such moments of discomfort might crop up, continuing to afflict the comfortable until they seek to comfort the afflicted.

[1]  In fairness to the conservative evangelical Christians, it’s lacking in plenty of other circles as well, including some of the circles I belong to.

Raised Right: Idolizing mortals

In chapter four of Raised Right:  How I Untangle my Faith from Politics, Alisa Harris talks about her childhood obsession with and idolization of Ronald Reagan.  Of course, Harris’s obsession with Reagan was not limited to herself.  She describes the phenomenon among conservative evangelicals as follows:

Some children revere saints.  In the conservative circles of my childhood, we had heroes — not suffering martyrs who sacrificed for their faith but conquerors who crushed the enemies of God with truth and justice.  These conquerors had to be Christians, preferably of humble roots and always of stainless character, who overcame their enemies to accomplish deeds that changed the world.  We read glowing heroic accounts that omitted Thomas Jefferson’s deism, Louisa May Alcott’s transcendentalism, and Christopher Columbus’s avarice.

Harris’s comparison between the martyrs idolized by other Christians and the “conquerors” of some conservatives is well worth noting, as both the Bible and Jesus[1] seem pretty obvious supporters of the former model rather than the latter.  Without explicitly doing so, Harris seems to at least imply that this conqueror-veneration represents a deviation from more traditional Christian philosophy.  This is further strengthened when she describes her rather curious re-interpretation of Jesus’s words in Luke 4:18 at that time in her life:

When I heard “freedom,” I thought “deregulation of onerous government rules”; when I heard “bind,” I thought “bind to the virtue of limited government”; when I heard “oppressed,” I thought of children who were not allowed to pray in school and successful rich people whose money was seized by the government.  I would whisper, “It is for freedom that Christ set us free,” and would think, Freedom to display the Ten Commandments in a public place!

It’s also noteworthy that Harris’s heroes — and the heroes of those around her — had to be whitewashed to appear blameless and perfect in order to be accept.  Conservative heroes could not and cannot be “sinners bought by grace,” but at least had to be practically sinless.[2]  She gives the example of Irving Berlin, who made her uncomfortable with his “coarse jesting” about having sex on his honeymoon.[3]

I suppose this explains why conservative Christians are so slow to acknowledge when their great leaders “fall” in scandals.  They’ve allowed themselves to build up this idea that they are heroes and so perfect — something necessary to consider them great leaders — that acknowledging those instances where their leaders reveal their “feet of clay” and falter means admitting that they invested in the wrong person.  In a sense, their leaders’ failings are echoed in their own failings in “backing the wrong person.”

Harris closes out the chapter in describing her time at a Decemberists concert after Obama’s election victory.  She describes the crowd cheering on Obama’s success and his promises of change, being encouraged and whipped up by the musicians on stage.  Harris compares this Obamamania to her childhood idolization of Reagan.  I’m inclined to disagree with Harris’s comparison here, or at least as universal as she seems to paint it.  While I have no doubt that some liberals got caught up in a blind belief in Obama — and are possibly still caught up in it — most of my fellow liberals were and are well aware that Obama is just another human being, as mistake-prone and imperfect as any of us.  In my experience, liberals are able to be both supportive of our leaders and critical of them at the same time.

[1]  The post-millennial dispensationalist version of “Turbo-Jesus” notwithstanding.

[2]  Of course, I suspect this was only true for certain values of “sin.”  For example, it doesn’t seem that conservatives were or are that concerned with whether their heroes show any signs of that great abomination, pride.

[3]  The conservative Christian treatment of sex, even when it’s in the “sacred confines of marriage,” deserves its own blog post.  Perhaps several.  I will note, however, that Harris lists Berlin’s jokes about sex with his new bride was mentioned even before the fact that he was Jewish rather than Christian, suggesting that the former was a more troubling matter than the latter.

Raised Right: Spiritual Warfare Goes Political


Cover of Carman

Harris begins chapter two of Raised Right with a description of a music video made by Christian pop artist Carman.  As I read her description, I found them eerily familiar, but could not place them until she mentioned the artist’s name.  I spent my teen years listening to and idolizing[1] Carman and I’m sure I saw the video in question.

Harris uses the video to introduce the importance of “spiritual warfare” that was ingrained into her when she was a youth.  She speaks of singing a familiar Sunday school song (“I’m in the Lord’s army”) and learning the importance of fighting Satan.  She describes one event she witnessed:

While Pastor John was speaking, one of my parents’ friends, Greg, came forward and lifted his hands to ask for prayer.  Pastor John reached out his hand and shouted, “I bind you, Satan, in the name of Jesus Christ!”  The moment he said “Jesus Christ,” Greg staggered as if shot through the heart and then fell flat on his back, lying spread-eagled on the floor with a smile on his face.”

While I got involved in a Full Gospel[2] congregation while in college, I was raised in an American Baptist.  My church — and as I understand it, Baptist in general — don’t really believe that “miraculous gifts” such as speaking in tongues, prophecies, or instantaneous healing.  They also tend not to believe in or expect to encounter demons in a direct manner as might be described in This Present Darkness or as recounted by pentecostal/charismatic believers.  So while I too sang “I’m in the Lord’s army,” learned to recite all the parts of the “armor of God,” and was inundated in the same spiritual warfare terminology, I suspect that I took these things things far more metaphorically than Harris and her Sunday school classmates.

Of course, this left myself and my classmates trying to understand the metaphor.  We had an enemy we could not confront directly.  We had no demons to cast out.  So we were left wondering what “I’m in the Lord’s army” really meant beyond being a silly song.  We wondered what it really meant to put on the full armor of God.  Sure, knew we were supposed to invite friends to Sunday school and church.  We knew we were supposed to read the Bible, pray, and be good.  But for what?  Surely these things were never meant to be an ends in themselves[3].

So in many ways, I think I was more primed for the transition that Harris describes as she continues telling her story:

Though I wouldn’t have put it in these words at the time, I came to believe that our battle was not against invisible demons but against evil people who brought the fight into the real world.  They were the spiritual enemy clothed in flesh:  abortionists, feminists, secularists, humanists, the people conspiring to destroy God’s witness by corrupting America.  Finally I had an enemy I could see and point out to others, one that didn’t require a mysterious intuition or the spiritual gift of discernment to identify.

I can understand that, wholeheartedly.  While Harris had an unseen enemy, I had no enemy.  So latching onto a concrete enemy was a gift from God Himself.  Furthermore, this new, tangible enemy offered a tangible strategy for fighting back:  politics.

Suddenly, “fighting the enemy” meant speaking out against abortion, homosexuality, and premarital sex.  It meant voting for the “holy” candidates so that they could defeat the “evil” ones and stop their “evil” plans[4].  Suddenly, there was a way to become a righteous crusader with a clear path.

Ironically, while this gave me a tangible “enemy,” what it did to my perceptions of the “enemy” was almost the exact opposite.  Adulterers, fornicators, homosexuals, and all those other people ceased to become people and became caricatures in my mind.  My “tangible enemy” turned into smoke and mirrors again.  I find myself wondering if Harris intended this chapter to explain the need to reconnect with “flesh and blood” people discussed in the previous one.

Related Posts

I have created a separate page to track all the blog posts I’ve made regarding this book.  If this post interests you, I would encourage you to go check out the other posts as well.


[1]  Well, insofar as a good little Baptist is allowed to idolize anyone or anything.

[2]  “Full Gospel” is the preferred term used certain charismatic/pentecostal churches.

[3]  I strongly believe that even “being good” for the sake of “being good” is meaningless and pointless.  “Being good” is about doing something for others because it has a positive impact on their lives.  It’s about building a better world.  This is not something that I feel is always properly communicated to young Christians, nor do I feel it is emphasized enough.

As a former Sunday school teacher, I’d also like to suggest that this is in part that the much of the teaching materials for chidren and teen Sunday school classes are abysmal.  They do not treat the students like intelligent people who need to learn what it truly means to live a life that expresses the fruit of the Spirit and are ready to do exactly that.  If you are a Sunday school teacher, I would encourage you to re-evaluate your curriculum and honestly ask yourself if it insults, patronizes, and holds back your students.

[4]  I’m engaging in a certain amount of hyperbole here.  However, don’t overestimate just how much.

Raised Right: Chapter 1

humanity. love. respect.

Image by B.S. Wise via Flickr

Chapter 1 of Harris’s book, Raised Right:  How I Untangled My Faith From Politics, bears the title “Flesh and Blood.”  I assume it was chosen for the chapters attempt to show the need to see not issues, but people.  Harris starts the chapter by describing a scene where she, her parents, and her younger siblings picketed an abortion clinic together.  After describing that scene, she speaks of her past, offering the following insight:

I had been picketing since before I could walk.
Understanding that statement and its significance reveals a great deal about those of us who were raised as conservative Christians.  In a sense, I think it makes it easier to understand us — whether speaking of those of us whose politics and/or faith have changed or those who remain a part of the movement — as flesh and blood people.  Our understanding of the religio-political views we were meant to adhere to was formed very early in our lives.
As I mentioned when I announced I’d be reviewing this book, I was not raised with the direct activism as Harris.  I never picketed before I could walk, or even after.  However, the messages about what I was supposed to believe started when I was young.  Perhaps nothing about the political topics that seem to make up most of the Religious Right’s platform, but there were still those subtle messages that set the stage for me to understand what “good people” believed and did versus what “bad people” said and did.
Subtle is a key-word here.  While Harris’s own childhood experiences were direct and explicit, my own (and I suspect others’) was more subtle.  Things got implied more than said.  Or certain things were said and I inferred.  To be honest, I don’t remember ever hearing a sermon about the evils of homosexuality.  I’m not even sure where I first learned that homosexuality was supposed to be wrong, or even that there was such a thing as homosexuality.[1]  But I certainly picked that message up from somewhere.
When we read Old Testament passages like the story of Rahab and I asked my mom what a prostitute was, she said, “Women that men paid to act like their wives,” which conjured confusing pictures of paid cooks and housekeepers.  When I asked how the single mom in our church had a baby without a husband, she said the mom “acted like she was married.”  Apparently, I was too young to know how people made babies, but not too young to know how they killed them.
Harris’s statement above is something I can totally appreciate.  Sex was something that simply was not discussed.  I remember spending the night with one (male) cousin and sharing a bed and wondering if it was okay, because that’s something only a husband and wife do.  I did not understand there was more to being a husband and wife (or lovers) than merely sharing a bed for actual sleep.
I don’t think my own parents meant to keep me naive about sex.  Looking back, I think that if I had asked about it, either of them would have answered me honestly.  They simply weren’t going to volunteer the information.
However “sinful sex” or the consequences of it did tend to get a bit more attention, from other sources if not directly from my parents.  And that strikes me as quite common in conservative circles.  In many ways, the discussion of sexual sin[2] seems to be the only discussion of sex that goes on in many such environments.  This tends to lead to a rather grim view of sex in general.  I know I tended to think of it as a mostly dirty thing, despite my eighth grade science teacher’s occasional declaration to the contrary — a declaration he made the few times the subject came up in his classroom at all.
Harris goes on to describe a protest held in front of New York Governor Paterson’s Manhattan office which she covered as a journalist.  This protest took place when the state’s same sex marriage legislation was waiting to be approved by the State Senate.  Harris describes the shouting, the anger, the jeering, and the rebukes offered up during the protest.
As the crowd yelled, I would at times forget that these were supposed to be prayers until I would catch an “Almighty God!” or “Lord we pray!”
I have seen these kinds of public “prayers” before.  In fact, I recall participating in a few of them during my college years.  The ones I was involved in were not as heated, aggressive, or condemning as the ones that Harris describes in her book, but they were surely sham prayers meant for public piety and acts of showing others our (my) own superiority.  They were the same in spirit, even if not the same in degree or volume.  I think Harris remarks upon this practice when she writes:
I couldn’t help but think of the kind of ostentatious prayers Jesus chided:  “And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by men.”  He must have meant, Pray to Me and not to the cameras.  When you pray, talk to Me.
Harris describes talking about the importance of love and her own struggle with the idea that these protestors would insist that they “loved” the homosexuals and that they merely wanted to help them “out of their sin.”  She thought of how they would compare themselves to a parent correcting a child.  Harris then goes on to share her own revelation in response to that claim:
Then I realized why these efforts at love sounded hollow — because this love was not the way I experienced love every day.  Even setting aside the arrogance suggested by viewing all other sinners as children and saved sinners as the world’s in loco parentis, I know my parents love me because they sacrificed to feed and clothe me every day.  In the end that burden of labor and sacrifice is what gives them any right to be heard or believed when they say “I love you” after they say “you’re wrong.”
I don’t believe I’ve heard anyone express this as eloquently as Harris did here:  If you want to correct people out of “love,” then you first need to show those same people love in other, tangible and edifying ways.  That may mean meeting other needs they might have — which might actually mean learning what those needs are in the first place.  That’s something that many conservative Christians are not good at.  I know I wasn’t.
Unfortunately, my former self and many conservative Christians come to “sinners” with pre-conceived notions about what they are like and what their needs are.  And they act on those pre-conceived notions, never questioning their accuracy or relevance.  This often leads to offering help that is unneeded, unhelpful, and even insulting.  And then the “helpful” person wonders why they get such a negative response.  Their premise for action is completely wrong.
The problem is, learning people’s real needs and responding to them can get messy.  There are rarely prepackaged slogans, ready-made signs, or “witnessing tools” that covers those needs.  And that can be scary.  But I think that’s exactly what Harris is calling for in this chapter:
Unless you are smuggling soup to the Jews in your attic, I think a political act can’t be an act of love.  It can be a good act, even noble and heroic, but love is not something that takes place behind a barricade;  it happens in the breaking of bread and the passing of cups.  Political love is theoretical, directed at some vague “humanity,” and Jesus didn’t say to love humanity, but to love your neighbor.
May God bless her for it.
[1] I do, however, remember when I first learned what it meant for two guys to “screw.”  It was during my ninth grade English class, and a classmate explained it to me in a tone of complete and obvious disgust.
[2] Let’s face it, too:  The two biggest issues in conservative Christian politics are still homosexuality and abortion, meaning it’s mostly — or even all — about sex.
Other posts in the Raised Right series:

Introducing a book review

Funny Religious Sticker

Image by Amarand Agasi via Flickr

Last Thursday, Fred Clark of Slacktivist fame wrote a fantastic review of Raised Right:  How I Untangled My Faith from Politics, a book by Alisa Harris[1] that was released today.  I was fascinated enough by Fred’s review and the quotes from the book he selected that I decided to purchase the Kindle edition of the book.  I started reading it tonight and decided I’d start blogging about it.

What interests me most about the books is that in many ways, Harris and I come from very similar backgrounds.  I was raised in a conservative evangelical community, was raised to believe that homosexuality was an abomination[2], abortion was murder, and good Christians voted Republican.

Where my upbringing differs from that of Harris is that while I was raised to believe all the same things, my family was not very politically active and did not consider it our duty to be so.  Certainly, my parents voted — and always for candidates who promised to stand “on the right side” of various issues.  They considered (and to the best of my knowledge, still do) both their civic duty as well as a part of their service to God.  But they were not people to carry picket signs, write letters to elected officials, or even give to various political organization.  In fact, if my parents gave to anything other than their church, I suspect it would be the Family Life Network, which runs a number of radio stations whose coverage includes the county my parents live in.

I think this is in part because my parents understood there is more to Christian life than the political machinations that Harris writes about.  My parents are far more community-oriented and understand that Christian life is about building and serving community as much as — maybe even more than — it is about stopping “the gay agenda” or shouting down doctors who perform abortions or women who seek out their services.  In some ways, I consider it an advantage to having grown up in a very rural area.

I think growing up in that rural area is another part of the reason for why activism didn’t play such a big part in my childhood, though.  Where my parents live, all that “political stuff” happens somewhere else, places like New York, Washington D.C. and San Francisco.  Sure, there were gay people and women who had abortions around, but it was — or at least appeared to be — something extremely rare.  People in our community were “good people” whose exposure to such things was minimal and possibly even nonexistent.  So picketing is something that would have involved long drives.  And with Boy Scouts for me (until I quit when I was about 14) and twirling baton in parades for my sister who had time for all that traveling to exotic and dubious places?

On the flip side, I suppose this makes my family and me typical members of the religious conservatives’ “target audience.”  I was someone who knew nothing about what gay people were like, who knew nothing of the issues of abortion, or anything else the religious activists beat their drums about.  I had no way of evaluating what they told me for accuracy or honesty — or at least I had no idea how to go about doing so.

So I come to Harris’s book as something of a kindred spirit, yet as someone who’s experience is slightly different.  We have come to similar places — though she retained her Christian faith while I moved on — but by slightly different routes.  And that is what I would like to explore as I go through the book, hopefully chapter by chapter.

[1] To the best of my knowledge, the author and I are not related.