Untangling God and Caesar

Untangling God and Caesar October 30, 2012

Review of Raised Right: How I Untangled My Faith from Politics and Learned to Start Living the Gospel by Alisa Harris.


I am always pleasantly surprised to be reminded that there is such a thing as the “evangelical left.” Not that I’m much of a lefty myself (as anyone who’s read more than two words of anything I’ve ever written knows), but I’m always nervous when something that is not the Gospel is overly connected with Christianity in the mind of the popular culture. Whether it’s not dancing, voting Republican, or any of the countless other stereotypes out there that get attached to us, I don’t like the idea of Christians being perceived as anything other than people who believe in the person and work of Jesus Christ. Obviously on some level this is inescapable, and I’m certainly guilty of making such associations myself—it’s just nice from time to time to run into someone who is a Christian and who intentionally rejects these categories in favor of another approach to culture and politics. This is a much needed reminder that associations are temporary aberrations that won’t outlast the faith. Alisa Harris’ Raised Right: How I Untangled My Faith from Politics and Learned to Start Living the Gospel is useful at least as one such reminder. That, however, is only the beginning of its usefulness.

This book jumbles together memoir—with Alisa Harris walking through key events in her life—and meditation on the appropriate relationship between religion and politics. It is well written with a solid flow (I read the whole thing in three sittings of about an hour each), which I suppose is to be expected of a professional journalist. Harris does an excellent job of telling her story in a way that highlights the points she wants to make about politics and religion.

This book’s greatest value, however, is not that it is well written (though it is). It is that Harris thoughtfully raises issues that many politically polemical Christians have forgotten. Our primary point of interaction with the world is not to be power, but rather love. As Christians we should find our responsibilities not in political credos or shallow one-liners, but in care for those around us, in concern for those who cannot defend themselves, and in working to love our neighbors. This love should not be found in any kind of abstract love for humanity, but rather in concrete relationships with those in our lives (Harris is quite right to agree with Dostoevsky by pointing out that the two are mutually exclusive anyway). Areas in which all Christians can agree, left and right alike, are that we should: 1) care for the poor and underprivileged; 2) love “not just with words but with actions,” and 3) take heart that Christ has overcome the world “not through a show of power but a picture of love.” (218-219)

The problem with so much of the Christian right, according to Harris, is that for them

The hope of the gospel meant more than the truth that Jesus Christ, fully God and fully man, had come to earth, died on a cross to free us from sin, and then rose on the third day. It also meant the hope of being free from the shackles of government as we worked to redeem the world for Christ through political means.(65)

The Christian right far too easily forgets that the Gospel is not a roadmap for a libertarian economic state dominated by politically neoconservative Republicans. (Frankly, I’ve never truly understood how one could reconcile the doctrine of original sin with the idea of a completely free market—our sinful natures need restraint in every aspect of life except economics?) And it is certainly not a blank check for the invasion and destruction of other nations in the name of spreading democracy and freedom.

Which is not to say that there are no problems with the Christian left. Where the Christian right looks at the eschatological kingship of Christ and tries to make it real in the here and now, the Christian left looks at the healthy church and wants to see all of its best aspects realized in the state. Both are correct to want to see the world fixed; both are wrong in their means and method. Only God can transform individuals and solve the problems of the world—and He does this through the Gospel, not through political action.

Raised Right is also useful as remarkable evidence that reasonable, honest, and faithful Christians can legitimately disagree on political issues (no doubt Harris and I would differ on many) while respecting each other as believers and agreeing on broad categories of our social obligations.

The primary weakness of the book seems to be that Harris has spent her life looking to politics for what she should be finding in a healthy, Gospel-centered church. First as a conservative and then as a liberal, she has continually looked to politics as a place where love is achieved. She writes of the civic potential to become a people of “no color, just people, loving each other and doing the right thing, helping.” (162) While this of course is something we can and should work for not just in politics but in all of life, it must always be remembered that this is an ideal that will only be fulfilled where people are drawn together by the Gospel, and that is something which no state, political party, or law will ever be able to do. Only in a faithful local church do we see this ideal at work. Even then it is but an imperfectly achieved ideal—perfect love on the part of Christians is ultimately seen only in heaven.

This obviously is not much of a criticism, given that the book is about politics. Perhaps if she had written a book on the church she would echo the sentiments expressed above…

I highly recommend this to anyone who has an interest in thinking more carefully about church/state relations or the place of religion in the public square.

Disclaimer: I received this book for free from WaterBrook Multnomah Publishing Group for this review. I was neither asked nor required to write a positive review.

Coyle Neal lives with his wife in Washington, DC, where he tries to write in such a way that the reader is annoyed, edified, or both.

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