Tag Archives: ronald reagan

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.