Anne Snyder: Something in these two books encouraged me to look at today’s political climate and find the pockets still open to redemption.
Raised Right: How I Untangled My Faith from Politics by Alisa Harris. WaterBrook Multnomah, 2011. 240pp.
The Betrayal of Charity: The Sins that Sabotage Divine Love by Matthew Levering. Baylor University Press, 2011. 229pp.
The confessions of a political pilgrim and a theological probe into charity may seem like strange bedfellows. I certainly thought so while alternating reads of Alisa Harris’s Raised Right and Matthew Levering’s The Betrayal of Charity. But the longer I retraced the steps of one woman’s political journey while considering the intricacies of divine love in light of the sins that weaken it, the more an age-old puzzler tickled. Can love, Christianly conceived, stake a claim on political life and deliberation? Has love ever transacted business with Caesar without cost to itself—without its purity getting defiled in the process?
These are unsettling questions, and I nearly shut down my brain in surrender to the hopelessness of a fallen world. But something about the mix of Levering’s ambition with Harris’s more personal honesty encouraged me to look at today’s political climate and find the pockets still welcome to redemption.
“For nearly all my childhood and adolescence, on into early adulthood, politics gave my faith meaning,” says Harris. “Politics expressed my faith. Politics was my way of fighting for ‘a future and a hope,’ my way of proving I believed what Jesus said: ‘Take heart! I have overcome the world.'”
And so begins a tale of political idolatry swallowed, nurtured, and snapped. As far as referendums on the religious right in America go, Raised Right is a latecomer, but its autobiographical tenor provides a helpful window into the thousands of young evangelicals who are still wrestling with the inheritance of a theo-political marriage they never chose.
Good-humoured and heartfelt, Harris (who is 27) relives her evangelical, conservative upbringing with a gracious but critical eye, unflinchingly describing the campaign signs she carried, abortion clinics she picketed, and Federalist Papers she absorbed from church pulpits. A “child soldier on the front lines,” she defended Republican platforms for God’s glory until entering Hillsdale College in 2003. With the backdrop of a contentious Iraq War and her growing recognition of a contradictory world full of greys, Harris’s spiritual yearnings began bleeding beyond the political creed she had been told would protect them. It’s unclear when exactly the bottom dropped out for her, but somewhere in attending this conservative institution, politics started to feel hollow. Gospels were being crossed, and Harris wanted out.
She graduated and moved to New York City, where the tensions grew as she met Christians who were Democrats and confronted urban poverty. While writing for the conservative evangelical newsmagazine WORLD, she became a victim of dogmatism, condemned and “prayed for” by her readers for expressing feminist positions. Every encounter brought Harris closer to dismissing political activism as cowardly, its method of choosing principles over people unable to heal the pain of a neighbour in need. “I was looking for a more incarnational love,” she writes, “and while I couldn’t define it in so many words, I knew it when I saw it.”
Alisa’s story, while extreme in some ways, will find echoes in the political trajectories of thousands of “millennial” evangelicals who are rejecting traditional institutions out of disillusionment that they will draw us any closer to the ends a Christian imagination demands. Some have shifted leftward. Many (especially post-Obama) want to give up on politics altogether.
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Anne Snyder is a member of the Humane Pursuits editorial board. She is currently living in Houston, Texas, where she is studying the assimilation patterns of the city’s growing immigrant population while also working for the Laity Lodge Leadership Initiative. She has started a biweekly column for the Orange County Register and freelances elsewhere. Before moving to Houston she worked in the Op-Ed department of The New York Times in Washington, DC, and before that at World Affairs Journal and the Ethics and Public Policy Center. Originally from Boston but given the cross-cultural bug from a childhood spent in Hong Kong and Australia, she holds a B.A. from Wheaton College (IL) and an M.A. from Georgetown University.