The Shining City’s Superman: By Alisa Harris
HA note: The following story is reprinted with permission. Excerpted from Raised Right by Alisa Harris Copyright © 2011 by Alisa Harris. Excerpted by permission of WaterBrook Press, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. – See more at: http://waterbrookmultnomah.com/catalog.php?work=206894#sthash.Wt4qBeys.dpuf
It was clear on day one of our homeschool speech class that our instructor, the head of the county Republican party, was training us up to be GOP operatives. And it was clear in the final days of the class that I was up to the challenge.
“And for our final exercise we will have a mini-debate competition. And for the resolution… Drumroll please! ‘Resolved: that Ronald Reagan was the greatest president of the twentieth century!’”
He held aloft the prize, a calendar featuring Ronald Reagan pictures alongside quotes from the Great Communicator. I promptly died and went to a heaven where there was no more dying and no more tears, no progressive income taxes, and no ACLU. No Democratic National Committee or William Jefferson Clinton. Where the Gipper sat at the right hand of Jesus who sat at the right hand of God. When I returned to earth, I knew only one thing mattered: I had to have that calendar.
Some children revere saints. In the conservative circles of my childhood, we had heroes—not suffering martyrs who sacrificed for their faith but conquerors who crushed the enemies of God with truth and justice. These conquerors had to be Christians, preferably of humble roots and always of stainless character, who overcame their enemies to accomplish deeds that changed the world. We read glowing heroic accounts that omitted Thomas Jefferson’s deism, Louisa May Alcott’s transcendentalism, and Christopher Columbus’s avarice.
Choosing a hero was imperative, and mine was Ronald Reagan. I devoured every book that canonized him and gulped down his 752-page autobiography. I collected his movies: The Hasty Heart, in which an angry Scotsman bests him for the broken heart of an angelic nurse; Bedtime for Bonzo, in which he parents a monkey while accidentally winning the affection of a charming farm girl. But the crown was This Is the Army, a patriotic epic in which Reagan plays an entertainer who joins the army and discovers his assignment is to put on a musical show to boost morale.
In my speech class we were debating the greatness of Ronald Reagan not because anyone disagreed he was great but because we had to know our enemies’ arguments if we were to defeat them. Whenever our speech teacher asked, “Why do we learn speech?” my hand shot up: “To learn to give a defense for the hope that’s within us!” I was quoting the apostle Peter, who was speaking of the gospel. But to me 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. I read Jesus’s words in Luke 4:18: “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed.”When I heard “freedom” I thought “deregulation of onerous government rules”; when I heard “blind” I thought “blind to the virtue of limited government”; when I heard “oppressed” I thought of children who were not allowed to pray in school and successful rich people whose money was seized by the government. I would whisper, “It is for freedom that Christ set us free,” and would think, Freedom to display the Ten Commandments in a public place!
And Ronald Reagan was the earthly bringer of this good news. His story proved the truth that one person had the power to mold our nation into the kingdom of God if he had the fortitude to stand against the axis of evil, cut taxes, and build up nuclear arms. Ronald Reagan restored America to its economic and moral and political glory. I could do the same for my own generation if I was only open to God working through me, if I could give great speeches full of great thoughts.
And so this semester-long speech class was a practice drill for my ultimate mission. I gave speeches on the power of words to change the world (using Ronald Reagan as my prime example), on why George W. Bush should be the Republican nominee for president (comparing him to Ronald Reagan), and on why public school students should rise up against tyrannical administrators who forbade prayer in public schools. Before my speech teacher announced our final debate, I had given a speech on why Ronald Reagan was the greatest president since Teddy Roosevelt. I was the greatest communicator of the Great Communicator’s greatness.
That calendar should be mine.
A few days before the debate took place, I had the chance to defend my arguments before opponents who didn’t just pretend to disagree. We had my grandparents over for dinner—a set of urbane atheists who had birthed a couple of disappointingly religious nuts in my mother and her older sister, a Russian Orthodox nun. When my sisters and I mentioned we were working hard on our speeches, our parents seized the opportunity to squeeze in some rhetorical practice. “Why don’t you give your grandparents one of your speeches?” my dad asked.
I mentally ran through my repertoire, realizing that I was now forced, by the limitations of my earlier rhetorical exercises, to take a stand for truth and seize the moment to witness for God and Republican values. The time to share my hope with the unconverted had come. When the Word of God goes out, it does not come back void, I reminded myself—and besides, their criticism would help hone my arguments for our Reagan debate. So I printed out the latest draft of my speech on why Ronald Reagan was the greatest president since Teddy Roosevelt.
As my grandparents settled onto the couch, I took my place behind the large stereo speaker we used as a podium, my belly quaking a little. My deaf grandmother always boomed her outrage at a volume I could not match, at which point she would bellow, “Speak from your diaphragm!”—an order we never quite executed to her satisfaction.
I cleared my throat and opened my eyes wide as my parents had instructed when I’d practiced my speeches before. Hand gestures were still beyond my preadolescent oratorical skills, so I anchored my fists to my sides and lobbed my cause: “Ronald Reagan stood before the vast, huge, thick Berlin wall and said, ‘Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!’ And Mr. Gorbachev did tear down that wall.” I described how Ronald Reagan had inspired Americans to be “happy, joyous, and proud to be Americans again.” He was great because he had destroyed the “evil, inhuman wrong Communist empire.” And most important, he believed in God.
I sat down, trembling with the thrill of suffering the persecution sure to come, but my grandparents merely applauded. My mild-mannered grandfather was too polite to match his seventy-five years of honed intellect against that of a twelve-year-old. My deaf grandmother had not heard a word.
When the debate day came, my sister and I took our places behind our table and I sized up our two opponents. Daniel was a massive youth with an imposing physical presence, but when our dad said, “I just think girls have more natural verbal skills than some men,” he was speaking of Daniel. Mark, by contrast, was a gentle soul whose goal was to become a veterinarian. He had a habit of walking my mom out to her car and carefully closing her car door behind her. She always said, “Well, thank you, Mark,” and as we drove off, my dad would say, “He’s such a nice kid, but it’s a little too much.”
No doubt, my sister and I were sharper and feistier. This would be an easy victory.
The boys, as born conservatives themselves, knew it was impossible to argue that Ronald Reagan was bad, so they argued instead that he was not quite as good as Theodore Roosevelt. I debated brilliantly, argued passionately, painted a deft picture of Theodore Roosevelt as a progressive who instituted unconstitutional national parks and set Big Government in motion. I dipped into my brain and drew up fistfuls of Gipper trivia, skewering each of my opponents with the force of truth.
After we gave our rebuttals, I waited impatiently for our teacher to announce the winner, anguishing over the thought that the calendar might adorn Mark’s wall or, even worse, kick around the room of someone who wouldn’t give it a place of honor. “And the prize goes to the Affirmative team, which has proved that Ronald Reagan was the greatest president of the twentieth century!”
I took the calendar, cupping Ronald Reagan’s face in my loving hands. My sister and I would enshrine his image on the wall of the bedroom we shared, but he was really all mine.
A few months later someone at church trying to make conversation on a topic they knew I loved and casually mentioned some news I found devastating. A liberal media outlet had taken a poll on who was the greatest president of the century. Of the choices offered, Ronald Reagan came in last. I ranted and raved to my family in the car on the way home, seething at the idiocy of my fellow Americans. The next day I collared a mother at speech class to inform her of this travesty. She politely extricated herself by saying consolingly, “Well, at least we know the truth.”
But her response wounded me as much as the poll. For the next few days I was brimming with tears, my heart breaking for the Americans who had ranked Ronald Reagan last, not because they were malicious but because how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them? And why would anyone preach if they thought it was enough simply to know the truth themselves?
Somewhere in there, I got my gospels crossed.