I wasn't raised right, at least not the way Alisa Harris was.
My parents were fiscal conservatives, but they were split on social policy, my father's long distilled from forty years of reading National Geographic. He still thinks creationists are crazy. My family was political, but political in the way that immigrants are: not in a nostalgic or subverting sense, but in a loyal, grateful, newcomers-to-a-land-that-fought-and-liberated-their-parents-and-grandparents sense. I visited Parliament Hill and Question Period, went for fireworks on Canada Day and stood shivering in the November rain during Remembrance Day, but none of it was nationalist religion like Harris describes. We were strangers and Canada welcomed us in. My parent's posture has long been one of gratitude. It will be their finest inheritance.
So the hook on Harris' new book took a while to set. It had that starry eyed feeling of reading fantasy, or some far-flung anthropology essay of a lost tribe in feral mountains. Harris was a culture warrior in a war I only vaguely understood growing up. She was zealous to the very definition; so thoroughly enmeshed in a civil religious story that her identity, her hope and faith, were at stake in every contest of power and intellect. The media caricature would be fundamentalist. Oh, and she got Reagan wrong.
Harris talks about worldview camps, which I had never heard of. I learned worldview, what for me was the inheritance of Abraham Kuyper, Herman Dooyeweerd and others. What she describes as boot camp for culture warriors was, for me, an exercise in intellectual and moral expansion. I learned worldview questions, but with them things like common grace and public good. The worldview I learned leaned cosmopolitan, teaching me more about deep pluralism and rooted conversation than didactic culture wars. My home did not idly talk of war. And, always, my father's National Geographic collection loomed large in the family room.
Harris was a casualty in a war I never knew. Yes, she has axes and they grind. But not nearly so loud and obnoxiously as they could, maybe should.
The memoir is not notable for its Christian political theory. Its thin citations count only Gabe Lyons and James Davison Hunter among its Christian political luminaries, which means it gets confused at points, and some of the anecdotes—punchy and amusing as they are—yield paradox more than position. Andrew Walker picks that up in his review. Theory junkies like me will read it that way and find innumerable things to pick and prod, to cluck and roll their eyes at. To her credit, Harris more than admits this. No, it's not notable for its intellectual rigor but its soulful honesty, the kind of honesty that moves people and ideas forward, rather than retrenching them in cathartic cat fights of bitter reprisal. In her memoir, Harris weeps as much as she rages. Only the most pitiless ideologue could be unmoved.
This memoir matters because Harris's story is a parallel of religious fracture in America. It is one of burnout and bitterness; of justified, even if untaken, retribution. Some people will take this book as retribution. I don't think it is. Harris's writing shows intelligence, wit, and passion. If it was retribution, that would be very clear. It would not be dedicated to her parents, who taught her justice and love.
It would be wrong to read this simply as the story of a girl who flipped political allegiance. She did that, but her Obama politics are really the most uninteresting part. What is truly interesting is the existential angst, the journey of faith and love that she took. Because she didn't turn her back on that faith, her tradition of faith doing common good or even—incredibly—the politics, systems, and institutions which so betrayed her.
The subtitle is wrong. She didn't untangle her faith from politics. Critics will call that hypocrisy, but I call that the courage of integrated living. Far from an untangling, love and justice live in every political act she dares to carry out. Such is the call of the Gospel. She turned her back on American civil religion, but found the real thing. That religion covers the whole of reality, as best as she understands it. That, at least, is a beautiful story. And if that means evangelical millennials go on a partisan walkabout to the political left, so be it. Small price to pay for their soul.