Friday Five: Alisa Harris

Alisa Harris is a former New York-based journalist who has covered education, poverty and cultural issues. She writes on the intersection of faith and politics for and recently released a book entitled, Raised Right, How I Untangled My Faith From Politics. I posted a mini-review here. Alisa was kind enough to stop by and answer a few questions for today’s Friday Five.

Most people might read a few chapters of this book and think, “Oh, Alisa’s a liberal now” but in reading it, it seemed you are still in process, somewhere in between the right and the left. Would that be true? 

I can say that I emerged from this journey most passionate about the systemic injustice and inequalities faced by the poor. I believe that the powerful—from government to corporations to individuals—need to be held accountable for how they treat the less powerful. I don’t actually think that most elected, self-identified liberals are committed to this cause, so I would say I’m on the margins of our two-party political system. This actually gives me something in common with conservatives who are likewise outraged about the political favors given to irresponsible corporations and other powerful entities.

The subtitle of your book is “untangling my faith from politics.” Do you feel like the evangelical church’s message is often too intertwined with politics? Do we confuse the gospel? 

I would put it this way—if the evangelical church’s message isn’t political, then that point isn’t coming across to the outside world. Before the election in 2008, the Barna Group surveyed Americans’ view of evangelical voters. The majority said that evangelicals would focus primarily on homosexuality and abortion, that they would shift the conversation in a conservative direction, and that they would spend too much time complaining instead of solving problems. Almost half said that evangelicals would minimize social justice issues and 44 percent said evangelicals would not approach the election with an open mind. Most Americans see evangelicalism as inextricably linked to politics.

I don’t think that your average evangelical sees the gospel as a political message. But on the other hand, she may believe—by default, because it’s the culture of the evangelical church—that her faith requires her to be a conservative Republican. That’s just not true, and not helpful to the church’s ministry and mission. Christians should be identified by the gospel and as Jesus said, people should see the gospel lived out by our love. And that love takes on its most tangible, incarnational form when we meet our neighbor’s needs.

You discuss how conservatives and liberals can find common ground on some of the most vexing social ills. Do you think this is the approach favored by today’s generation of evangelicals? 

I would be cautious about saying we can find common ground or that common ground should be our ultimate goal. But I do think that we should be able to have thoughtful, nuanced argument on social issues—recognizing that these are difficult ethical issues—instead of dealing in slogans and symbols. I also think that we’re more likely to find common ground the closer we get to people who have real needs that need to be met. We can quarrel over how to best attack poverty at its roots, but when we’re confronted with a person who is hungry, cold and sick, we can all agree that he should be fed, clothed and healed. I hope that this is the approach favored by today’s generation of evangelicals—and I would say it tends to be the case in my sequestered corner of urban America—but it’s hard to say.

I didn’t agree with everything in the book, but one of the features I particularly liked was that even though you don’t fully agree with your parents, politically, you still honored and respected them. You don’t always see that in memoirs like yours. 

My parents are wonderful, thoughtful people who gave up their lives to serve others. Any passion I have for the less fortunate, I owe to them. They’re always open to talking with me even though we disagree, and the book has really opened up channels for us to do that. People always ask what my parents think of it and if I showed it to them while I was writing it. I only showed them the manuscript when it was almost finished. It was a huge relief to me when they liked it because I really wanted this book to be able to reach them and their generation instead of turning them away.

Typically Christians burned out by politics either sprint to the other side of the argument or withdraw completely. Is there a balanced way to engage the world?

Particularly at this moment, our political system seems to be deeply dysfunctional.  Neither side is even proposing solutions that seriously address the mess we’re in, let alone coming together to debate those proposals and address our problems. I think it’s best to look at your area of the world—not the whole world but just your corner of it—and see what concrete action you can take to make it a better place. Start at a grassroots, local level and become a leader instead of relying on elected leaders to accomplish change. This is so much more fulfilling than stewing about politics and doing nothing—or pinning all of your hopes on a biennial vote for the right guy.

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