Alisa Harris: Raised Right

I’m a pastor in Washington, D.C. The job is not at all what I supposed it would be. When I lived outside of the beltway and looked in, I saw a group of power-hungry, egomaniac talking heads, yelling at television cameras or rabid crowds.

I didn’t expect what I encountered—a group of idealistic individuals, who love God and love their neighbors. They have allowed their dreams of what the world ought to be seep into what they do each day. They work for nonprofits (or as they say around here, NGOs, non-governmental organizations). They lobby for the environment, lead with teachers unions, and work on the Hill. I don’t serve one of those congregations where the superstar politicians go (there are those churches), but I serve the one where people might be hanging out with a guest at Miriam’s Kitchen on one day and affecting policy on the next.

Of course, we have a thread of ego-driven power-mongering in all of us as well. We are a church, after all. But for the most part, after pastoring this congregation, I’ve learned a bit more about day-to-day politics and the people who are rightly known as “civil servants.”

I had a chance to think about this a lot this weekend. Not only was it the 10th anniversary of September 11, but I’m also participating in the Patheos Book Club Round Table discussion on Alisa Harris’ book, Raised Right: How I Untangled My Faith from Politics. I loved reading how Harris went from Hillary bashing at a goat pageant to burning thrift-store bras as a feminist protest at her conservative college. So much of her story resonated with my own.

As I sat, consuming the pages, I wondered, What now? I may be over-reaching in my analysis, but I dare say that we are watching the coming of power of many women who learned the ways of politics through the pro-life movement.

Think about it… we’ve got Sarah Palin. We’ve got Michelle Bachmann. We’ve got a whole bevy of Mama Grizzlies. You may scoff, but they became solid political figures as a result of their activism. Liberals scratch their heads, wondering why so many Republican candidates are wearing power skirts, while those who fought for women’s rights still seems to be overwhelmed with old white guys. But those of us who grew up in the Religious Right hotbed know exactly why (and if you’re wondering, read Harris’s book).

I’m a full-grown, full-blown progressive now. Palin and Bachmann make me feel like I gulped down a glass of milk before realizing it was six-months out of date. But I was raised looking up to women like them, and I often wonder, If I were still conservative, would I be running for Congress right now? The truth is… conservatives are better at developing young leadership than progressives…. They’re even better at developing their young women.

Which brings me to my earlier point about my congregation, about the everyday work. Harris’s book didn’t make me want to give up on politics, or even completely untangle my faith from politics (even though they are now woven together in a different way now). But it did make me realize that if we represent a new generation of political creatures, then we need to roll up our sleeves and get on with the daily grind. Not just in rallies and protests, not just in posters and sound-bytes, but also in day-to-day justice. In being honest journalists and courageous pastors. In making sure that our daughters hear a different message.

One bit of the book keeps rolling around in my mind, and I find myself wrestling with Harris’s words:

Unless you are smuggling soup to the Jews in your attic, I think a political act can’t be an act of love. It can be a good act, even a noble and heroic, but love is something that takes place behind a barricade; it happened in the breaking of bread and the passing of cups. Political love is theoretical, directed at some vague “humanity,” and Jesus didn’t say to love humanity but to love your neighbor.

I suppose that I agree more with what Cornel West famously said: “Never forget that justice is what love looks like in public.” I know that politics is messy, but I also believe that individual acts of love are only going to go so far. As one hand feeds the hungry, the other needs to be working on the larger scale.

Putting energy into helping one homeless person does not keep you from defending the poor in the political sphere. Loving my daughter does not keep me from fighting for women’s rights. Recycling one can does not keep me from working to make sure regulations are in place so that environmental degradation does not consume our planet. One action informs the other, and we need to keep doing both.

It is a profound moment for a new generation of politics, especially as we learn to engage our faith in the public sphere. And reading Harris’s story is a good reminder that our faith should never be tightly wound up into one political party. And as we engage our faith in different ways, we can remember that being involved in politics means that we must keep thinking for ourselves.


Diana Butler Bass on God Complex Radio


Season Two of God Complex Radio has begun, and Bruce Reyes-Chow had a wonderful conversation with Diana Butler-Bass. Join us as we talk about civility and graciousness.

How to spot a mega-church refugee


Okay… they are out there. They slip into our churches, wanting to be unnoticed. They are the mega-church refugees.

After two decades of hand clapping, arm waving, and metal chair sitting, they gave themselves a reprieve from church. But now, they want something, and they’re pretty sure they don’t want their parent’s boomer church, with the charismatic pastor and the Limbaugh-induced sermons. And so a few of them are slipping into our pews. Looking around, wearily, cautiously.

What do they look like? How can you spot them? I have a few pointers, since I was one of them.

•Even though they love the environmental aspects of the screen, they might break out into a bit of a cold sweat when they see it in the sanctuary.

•They might bring their Bibles to church. Do not be alarmed when you see the book. Try not to stare. And don’t worry. They will figure out quickly that they’re not supposed to bring it.

•Their personal Bible in their pew does give them a little comfort because they can’t immediately tell the difference between hymnal, prayer book, and Bible in the pew. They will pick up the wrong one. At least until they figure out that no one else really follows along with the readings, because they are the only ones who know how to look them up.

•If they’re particularly moved by a solo, they will clap following it. Once. Until they figure out that it’s not okay. Then they will die a little bit inside.

•They never missed a Sunday at church growing up, but they don’t know the Apostle’s Creed. They are the ones mumbling “watermelon” when the rest of the congregation is proudly articulating every word.

•They might say “Amen” after the pastor says it. It’s just a reflex. And don’t laugh at them if they use “just” in their prayers. At least they know how to pray in public.

•They are the people who would rather leave their right arm than leave their email address.

•They may not have been going to church for the last ten years, because they were afraid that they couldn’t afford it.

•If they happen into a denominational church during Stewardship Sunday, they may never come back. Only because, in their mind, asking for money is what church is about every Sunday.

•If they hear how much your church is involved with helping the homeless and poor, then they will start to breathe. And they might be able to leave something in the offering.

•If you mention that your church supports LGBTs, then the muscles in their neck will loosen. They will be utterly confused, but very relieved.

•They are confused by communion. They might not have even ever participated in communion before.

•If someone tries to hug during the passing of the peace, they will have finely-developed defense mechanisms in order to shield themselves from the Holy Spirit chest crunch.

•If the pastor learns their name after a couple of weeks, they just might faint dead away.

•If the church has a discussion about having a “contemporary” worship service in order to reach out to more people, they will assume that you’re trying to get their parents to come to your church.

And what would you add? Have you been there? Have you seen them?

Wasted youth

We interviewed Jeff Sharlet, the author of The Family, on God Complex Radio yesterday (as usual, you can click on the right to hear the interview). It was pretty fascinating. He was a part of Ivanwald, a home for men, who are the chosen ones. They were men from affluent households, who were being groomed, through hard work, close mentorships, and prayer meetings for leadership. Ivanwald also has a connection to C Street, a home for congressmen who are connected to the Family and have been highlighted in a number of scandals lately. The Family is a secretive, and extremely powerful fundamentalist group.

It was actually a pretty emotional experience for me, reading the book. I don’t want to over-play my relationship to the Religious Right—I left it before I turned twenty-one. But it answered a lot of questions for me.

It also reminded me of many of the differences between my Conservative roots and my Progressive present. Most of the shifts are wonderful, and I embrace them, but reading this haunting history reminded me that there are some things that we can… well… I’m groping for words here… learn from Conservatives? Things that I’m thankful for?

One of the most shocking realizations as I read this book is the lack of mentoring that happens in Progressive circles. I always hear people who lived through the 60s, decrying the fact that there are no good young leaders. We have a leadership vacuum. There is no respected, loud and clear voice, speaking out for progressive values.

It always confused me, because I’m surrounded by smart, young progressive leaders. To me, it seemed like they were speaking clearly, but no one was listening.

Yet, as I work more and more within our progressive faith tradition, I realize that there is almost an undercurrent of hostility toward the young. I feel it often. Working with generational issues, all across the country, I am always hitting on some raw wound. It often comes up when I point out sociological research that says that Generation X is the most innovative generation in our country’s history. We have more entrepreneurs, we’ve started more companies, fueled the tech boom, etc.

People often get furious.

And let me be clear. I brought up Gen X because their span still includes people in their 20s. But I’m not talking about people like me. I’m not so young any more. I’m talking about those who are younger than me. For instance, I have also been startled by attitudes toward Campus Ministry.

I have been working with college students, in one way or another, ever since I became a pastor, because it’s important. I know that we are overshadowed by the phenomenal success of Campus Crusade for Christ (which always makes me wonder… what college student wants to be a part of a “crusade”? What organization would embrace that name? The crusades were a dark and terrible blot for Christians…), Intervarsity, and Fellowship of Christian Athletes. Even on George Washington University’s campus, where most of the students are politically progressive, why would CCC’s ministry be so robust?

Well, I’m not sure how many full-time staff that CCC has on George Washington University campus, but I know it’s at least two. At least 80 hours a week dedicated to developing young Christian leaders. In comparison, I work ten hours a week, and I am in a constant struggle for funding to hold on to the ten hours.

Most of our Campus Ministers, in Mainline Denominations across the country, spend most of their time trying to justify their jobs, and trying to fundraise in the midst of denominations who question our existence. Denominational funding has been slashed, governing bodies don’t understand the point, the local church feels to strapped to reach out. There is always something more pressing than Campus Ministry.

There would never be a question in a conservative church. Never. If the ministry was struggling, they would fire the person and put someone effective in. Why? Because they are just much more focused on young leadership. They don’t wait for young leaders to kick down the doors, they open the doors for young leaders. And if there is no door to open, they build a door for them.

It seems that we have lost our vision in Mainline Christianity for mentoring, challenging, developing, and loving young leadership. There are exceptions (thank God) to this overarching theme. Will Willimon spoke about his frustrations on this issue quite clearly. But, it still remains as the most startling difference between the two cultures.

I’m back


I’m holding in my hand a thick manuscript. One that needs a whole lot of editing and a summary chapter, but it’s in good enough shape that I feel like I can start blogging again.

Dave Eggers says that if you’re writing a book, an important thing to do is to print out the manuscript, hold the paper in your hand, feel the weight of it. Pay to have it bound, if it’s not going to a publisher.

It’s a good exercise. I don’t like to waste the trees, so I try to do as much electronically as I possibly can, but a couple times in the process, I print it out. I’ve learned to take care of the papers, too. Treat the words with respect. It’s easy for me to let them get lost in the shuffle of school notices and church minutes, let them get dog-eared and coffee-stained, but it’s a vital practice to act as if they’re important thoughts (even when in the midst of editing, I feel like they’ll never be fit for public consumption).

For those of you who write, I’ll update you a bit on the editing process. Because it’s excruciating some days, and wonderful the next day. Right now, it’s difficult, because it all seems out of order, parts of it are bloated, while other parts feel anemic. It kind of reminds me of when I was a kid, and I would find a smelly roadkill possum on some deserted road. In the Florida heat, some of the parts would swell, and others would be all flat….

So, I’m just concentrating on the volume, the quantity, the structure, and trying to feel good about it.

Thanks for your patience, while I concentrated more on it.

There have been some other wonderful developments in our lives around here in the last month, while I was away. I’ve been to the Presbymergent coordinating group gathering (Leslie Scanlon wrote an insightful article on it). I’ve also been with the Disciples in D.C., the Methodists in New Jersey, and the Presbyterians in Pennsylvania, as well as a Fund for Theological Education event at my Alma Mater in Texas.

The most exciting thing that happened was that Michelle Obama came to serve our guests at Miriam’s Kitchen, the breakfast and social service program that’s housed in our church. She wanted to highlight Miriam’s commitment to fresh food and their healthy menu. I was impressed by her warmth and generous spirit. She kept her secret service on their toes as she greeted the homeless men and women. 

Also, Bruce Reyes-Chow–our esteemed Moderator of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA)–and I are starting an Internet Radio Show, which you can read about more here. We are incredibly thankful that Landon Whitsitt will be the Program Producer and Heather Scott will be the Tech Producer and Engineer. We’ll be discussing politics, faith, and culture, beginning on May 4 (well… we might talk about those things before May 4, but on May 4 is when we’re going on air). Andrew Sherman came up with the name “The God Complex,” and now we need to think of a tagline.

Any thoughts? The Twitter feedback has been fun:

  • God Complex: 2 people with 3 names talking about 1 God with many names (Camille LeBron Powell)
  • The God Complex: How We Live in this Earthly Rental Community (Fritz Gutwein)
  • The God Complex: WIIFM Alternative Radio (What’s In It For Me) (Zach Sasser)
  • God Complex: scrutting the inscrutable (Jim Bonewald)
  • God Complex: conversation as complex and inscrutable as God (Jim Bonewald)
  • God Complex: it is really not that difficult (Brian Merritt)
  • God Complex: We’ve Figured it Out (Brian Merritt)
  • God Complex: Easy Cures (Brian Merritt)
  • The God Complex: If Years of Theologians didn’t confuse you, we’ll give it a shot (Mark Smith
  • The God Complex: We Tried The God Simple and that didn’t work (Mark Smith)
  • God Complex: you wouldn’t understand. (Brian Merritt)
  • The God Complex: It’s Only A Neurosis if the majority think it is (Mark Smith)
  •  The God Complex: No Longer a Gated Community (Mark Smith)
  • The God Complex: Catch It! (Mark Smith)
  • God Complex: Does This Divinity Make Me Look Fat? (Brian Merritt)

Visit Bruce’s blog and join the discussion, and I’ll make sure I post more information when we know it. 

It’s good to be back. Life wasn’t quite the same without y’all.

photo by objecthoag

Yes we did.


A group of us spent the night in my office, which is located a few blocks away from the mall. We put on layer upon layer of clothing, in order to stay warm while we stood in one place for hours. We were pretty peculiar, a group of pastors, plus my daughter. And we were surrounded by an incredible array of people, white hippies wearing Grateful Dead concert souvenirs, New York liberals wrapped in fur coats, young Latinos with cell phones, older African-American women with hopeful histories. Our hearts lifted as Barack Obama was sworn in and they soared when he spoke.

Change is upon us.

Hopefully, there will be immediate policy changes—like the end of torture, health insurance for children, and an implementation of a wiser foreign policy. And there will be hard changes that will take time—like better education for all children, health care for all Americans, rebuilding of our crumbling infrastructure, and environmental stewardship for our exhausted planet.

This event also marked significant cultural changes—like a move from the greed of the individual to the care of the community. With giant corporations begging for bailouts, and huge banks collapsing, we know that we need to do things differently.

What does all of mean for our congregations? What is changing on our religious landscape? Well, there is a new passion for social justice, for living out the words of Jesus. And I cannot help but notice the Joshua Generation—the young Evangelicals who cannot swear allegiance to Christian Right, who are finding their own way.

Newsweek recently had a portrait of a man who represented so many of my friends, as well as myself. We grew up in conservative Evangelical households, but when we became adults, the political alliances that our parents made no longer made sense. The sexism, homophobia, and (sometimes) racism of the Religious Right did not seem to match the ministry of Jesus.

There are a swarm of young Evangelicals who are wandering right now. Twenty-six percent of young Evangelicals support same-sex marriage. They no longer have a spiritual home in the congregations of their youth. So, how are denominations going to respond? Can we begin to open up our doors to a new generation?

I am a Presbyterian. I have been a PC(USA) pastor for ten years and a member for fifteen. I love my denomination, but I am still uncomfortable in it. Often, when I’m around denominational types, things are said that make our denominations inhospitable for people who grew up Evangelical.

I guess I should just spell it out. Because I love my church, I need to let you know that if we want to reach out to a new generation, we will need to learn to accept Evangelicals or ex-Evangelicals. You may not agree with me, you may not have had the same experience, but still, personally people communicate to me regularly, “You’re not one of us, and you never will be.” Sometimes I don’t know exactly how it’s being said, but I’ll try to put my finger on some of the more pernicious habits of the mainline.

In my denomination, many people say, “Well, they obviously don’t know what it means to be Presbyterian.” Wake up, my friends. No one knows what it means to be Presbyterian. We are a small group that will keep getting smaller if we think that everyone needs to know the Book of Order before being able to sit in a pew.

“Christianity has not been a force in our society since the sixties.” Wrong. Mainline denominationalism has not been a force in our culture since the sixties. Evangelicals have been a strong tradition since the birth of our nation, and they grew tremendously in the ’80s. They have been creating think tanks, educational institutions, and grass-roots political movements. And they are Christians too.

“Evangelicals are dumb.” Whether we say it outright or not, this is often our message. I know. I went to Bible College. And while I have friends who went on to do social work and their degrees were seen as an asset, mine has always been seen as a hindrance in my work as a minister. I have an education that allows me to understand inside-and-out the largest religious movement in our nation, and people in my denomination regularly mock me for it.

I can tell you that there were smart people at Bible college, and not-so-smart people in seminary. So, please, can we get over ourselves? Just because we worship in a denominational church doesn’t mean that our IQ is any higher.

I could go on. But I won’t. I’ll just wrap it up by saying, things are changing. And the biggest change on the religious front is that young Evangelicals are leaving their roots. Can we put aside our elitism? Can we reach out to them? If we can, this could be a time of tremendous growth and renewal for our congregations.


In the midst of the election season, I was asked if I would write a blog post supporting Barack Obama. I had to think about it for a few days. I believe in the separation of church and state, and I would never support one candidate from the pulpit.

But, it was a moment in the election when Sarah Palin had been picked and the Republicans were all energized, which was great. Except then I would turn on the television and listen to “Drill, Baby, Drill!”

After a couple of years living in “cancer alley” in Louisiana, I learned what drilling and processing could do to the environment and people’s health. I could just imagine the earth under the feet of those crowds crying out with a muffled, “Help me. Please.”

You know, there are not that many people qualified to do these jobs, and John McCain had, like, a hundred years of political favors to pay back. Even though I realize McCain stood up to his party, I also knew that he would inevitably be stuck hiring the same advisors who have driven our country into this big, scary ditch. Or, he could find some more beauty queens to hire. Either way, it wasn’t looking good.

I figured that I needed to do what I could, and if that meant writing a blog post, as a private citizen, then I would. So, I did.

Go ahead. You can pick that decision apart.

There is a lot to say about whether pastors should publicly support one candidate. Typically, I would not, because I would not want Christianity tied to one political party, or one candidate. We’ve had an awful lot of that in recent decades. Unlike many of my colleagues (whom I respect deeply), I am not middle-of-the-road. I’m not a moderate. I do not refuse labels. My views are not that complicated, although they are also not the same as whatever the Democrats are cookin’ up in their kitchen at this moment.

I am progressive. I want to see social justice happen in our country. I want people to be fed and sheltered. Men and women, who go to work for forty hours a week, should make a living wage. We have enough resources in our country to ensure that everyone has health care. Children should have equal opportunities, equal education. We should protect the environment. I could go on… but you get the picture, and I’ve spent enough time digressing.

The point of the post was actually not about pastors picking presidents. The point was more about presidents picking pastors. I know we’ve all read more about Rick Warren than we ever wanted to, so I won’t rehearse his views on same gender relationships again. But, the selection of who will lead the Inaugural Invocation and the fury that ensued made me realize what a strange moment in history this is.

Billy Graham, the man who was the “pastor to the presidents,” and, therefore, (some people thought) pastor to the country, is in his nineties. He’s probably not able to swim in the White House pool anymore. He needs to be replaced.

I wonder if Barack Obama realized that he was picking Billy Graham’s successor. I wonder if he should.

Maybe it’s time to go to a new model. I mean, maybe we don’t need a one-size-fits-all-presidents pastor. Maybe half of the presidents didn’t even like Billy Graham, and they just felt obligated to invite him to pray for this or that because it was the custom.

Some people say that Obama has a pastor problem, but shouldn’t presidents be able to go to whomever they want for prayer and spiritual guidance? Why should we assume that it will be the same person for the next fifty years? Can you imagine the pastor for that job? I mean, it’s hard enough to keep a small congregation happy with you, how could you keep a large country happy with you? And what about the strange positions that the pastor might be put in? Anyone remember Philip Wogaman (the man who wrote my ethics textbook) defending Bill Clinton’s sexual proclivities on CNN? Can you say, “Awkward”? Would it even be possible for a president to have a pastor nowadays without the blogosphere getting all in an uproar? 

What do you think?

The photo is of the Billy Graham Library by Carolina Tim. From what I’ve read, I think the barn has an  animatronic milk cow, named “Bessie,” that will lead you in the prayer of salvation. Anyone been there? Is it true?