I rarely read books that cite scripture so frequently that the majority of the footnotes are devoted to identifying the biblical passages from which they are drawn. In fact, Alisa Harris’ Raised Right: How I Untangled My Faith From Politics may be my very first gospel-quoting memoir. And that, I suspect, is an indication of a problem that Harris lays out with remarkable clarity. Too many of us see the world as a place where our own worldview is the correct one, while those on the other side of the issues are corrupt and feeble-minded. In many ways, this book is the story of Harris’ journey from the Manichean universe she grew up in toward a world where views are not matters of dogma but the result of reflection on the values they represent.
Harris grew up in a Christian conservative Republican family (that order, I learned, is significant) in which politics was an expression of faith. She started picketing abortion clinics even before she could walk, was home-schooled, and was active in Republican politics many years before she enrolled in a conservative Christian college. In her early 20s, she started to question the orthodoxy of those worlds and to recognize more of life’s complications, especially when she moved to New York City after graduation. This book is the record of that process of self-examination.
As a complete outsider to the world of her childhood (I was nominally raised a Christian, but in a denomination in which God is pretty much an allegory), it’s the portrait of the community she was raised in that fascinates me. It’s much more difficult to demonize “the other side” when they are real people who face the same problems and challenges we struggle with.
The circles Harris moves in these days are much more familiar to me. (In fact, I should note that we know each other slightly through her husband, who is part of the Slate family.) Perhaps that why it’s difficult for me to understand the full import of her decision to support Barack Obama in 2008, and the discomfort it caused her family—until, that is, I think how horrified my British Commie grandfather would have been if I had ever voted for the Conservative Party. (I suppose it’s sad that I can understand her family’s concerns more clearly if I consider how Marge Simpson would have felt if Lisa announced she was moving to Shelbyville.)
As Harris herself anticipates, some readers will complain that at 26—and without a single grand slam tennis title to her name—she’s too young to write a memoir. But for once the author’s youth feels like an asset. She’s close enough to her childhood and adolescence to remember how it felt when the stark black-and-white world her parents created started to take on shades of gray. In a few years’ time, I doubt she would spend quite so much time describing her wardrobe choices when she attended GOP debates and conventions, but that would be a shame, since nothing conjures her youthful fervor more effectively than the image of a teenager dressed in a T-shirt “featuring an artistic rendering of a fetus next to a Mother Teresa quote.”
Harris’ honest depiction of her ongoing struggle is inspiring, and she turned those strange beings I am all too prone to dismiss with a term like fundamentalists into real people. As a pro-choice feminist, I’m horrified by the story of how her father lobbied a local hospital to close the one facility in the county where abortions were performed, but I grudgingly admire his effectiveness, and I’m glad I got to know him here.