| YOU SAY YOU WANT A REBELUTION: The Harris twins are drawing thousands to their latest tour with their notion of “rebelling against rebellion.” |
IMAGE: all photos courtesy of therebelution.com
It’s nearly 10 am inside Rolling Hills Community Church, and more than 2,000 teenagers are so stoked for the headline act that they’ve stood for 30 minutes, singing Christian praise ballads with their hands raised.
For more than two hours on this cold, wet Saturday, these teens stream into this Tualatin megachurch on rolling farmland. They’ve traveled to this spot off Interstate 5 from as near as Portland and as far as Dodge City, Kansas.
They pile out of SUVs and church vans into lots named after Genesis, Exodus and the Bible’s other 64 books. And they line up to enter the church for the day’s event at the direction of other teenagers in bright red T-shirts reading, “Rebel with a Cause.”
Once in the airy lobby, they snap up similar shirts for $15 each as they confirm their registration—$35. They’re primed.
And now the two headliners arrive.
The pair of performers strolls from the wings to roars followed by a hush when the stars begin to speak.
The two young men look nearly identical, strikingly handsome biracial teens with the lanky builds of Abercrombie & Fitch models. From the back of the room, they can be distinguished only by their fitted dress shirts: one black, one white. Speaking into a headset with microphones, they introduce themselves to a crowd that already knows many details of their lives, from childhood pets (a great horned owl and a white-tailed fawn) to their commitment to celibacy: “The point really is, we’re just two guys that started a blog.”
They are Alex and Brett Harris, 19-year-old twins from Gresham, home-schooled by their mother, who is Japanese-American, and their preacher father. Their blog is called the Rebelution, a site that features lessons from the brothers about defying “the low expectations of today’s culture.”
They also have another website, one you are much more likely to have read about. It’s called Huck’s Army, and it inspired a raft of feel-good news stories this winter while raising more than $100,000 for former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee’s run in the Republican presidential primaries.
Alex and Brett Harris are in the middle of a four-month speaking tour in seven cities, a nationwide slate of conferences called Do Hard Things 2008 timed to the release of their new book, a bestseller also called Do Hard Things: A Teenage Rebellion Against Low Expectations. Action hero Chuck Norris wrote a glowing foreword, saying the book “will help recruit, develop, and deploy a new generation of young culture warriors.”
And in the fall, they’ll enroll at Virginia’s Patrick Henry College, an institution founded by home-schooling activist Michael Farris to train a new wave of conservative Christians to enter public life.
In addition to starting school, they plan to host a third round of Do Hard Things conferences next summer. (The gross from registration alone for the Tualatin event, which offered a discount of $5 to $10 to early entrants, comes to around $70,000.)
Alex and Brett call themselves “rebelutionaries,” their turn of phrase channeling their notion of “rebelling against rebellion.” In the conservative Christian circles they’ve been speaking to since they were 17 years old, they are rock stars.
“They’re sort of home-school royalty,” says Hanna Rosin, an Atlantic Monthly contributing editor who examined Patrick Henry College in her 2007 book, God’s Harvard. “The Harrises are sort of this young dynasty.”
The twins offer an appealing package. They are preternaturally skillful onstage. Brett, whose persona is that of the world’s coolest youth pastor, is more natural. Alex is slightly more wooden, and occasionally comes across as somebody trying to sell you a timeshare. But both convey the practiced sincerity of motivational speakers everywhere.
In an hourlong telephone interview with WW, the Harris twins reject questions of whether they should be teaching all-day seminars before they complete a college class. They are confident in calling their peers to a fuller life.
“Our message really is that age shouldn’t be the critical factor,” Brett says. “The reason we feel like we can go up onstage and talk to another 19-year-old or 18-year-old, or even maybe a 20-year-old, is the fact that we’re not talking about, ‘I’m older, so listen to me.’ We’re saying we’ve lived this different way our whole teen years.”
The message these young celebrities offer—on their blog, in their book and for the next six hours at Rolling Hills Community Church, with modern touches of shooting a T-shirt into the audience with a compressed-air cannon and conducting audience polls via handheld touch pads—mixes personal-responsibility lecture, political advocacy, religious evangelism and self-help motivational speaking.
But the bottom line remains very old-school: Alex and Brett think the very idea of being a teenager—marked as it is by experimentation, questioning and pleasure-seeking—is a crock. The twins who appear as slick and fashionable teen idols are marketing certitudes about who their peers should worship—and how they should live.
While the Harris brothers may bear a passing resemblance to the Young Republicans or child evangelists of previous decades, the twins are at the forefront of a relatively new movement: what Farris calls “the Joshua Generation,” home-schooled and evangelical children seeking to take back America for conservative principles.
This evangelicalism—the most devout wing of “born again” Christianity—is all-encompassing and personal, maintaining that the Bible speaks to every aspect of life, and that where it is silent (say, on the decision of whom to marry) a believer will receive guidance from the Holy Spirit through prayer.
The movement uses a 21st-century style—including a now-defunct teen magazine started by the twins’ older brother, Joshua—to rally teens around a return to 19th-century values, says Rosin.
“It’s a perfect niche for the Harrises,” says Rosin. She has never met Alex and Brett, but she says when she visited Patrick Henry College for her book on the school, “what struck me about the Harrises was that for the kids that I talked to, [Harris] magazine New Attitude was the first genuinely cool thing they had come across.”
For all the attention Alex and Brett have received for their precocious politics—this spring, Newsweek and The New York Times profiled them and National Public Radio interviewed them—the brothers are just the latest, most polished editions of Harris family values.
For nearly three decades, their father, Gregg Harris, and their older brother, Joshua Harris, have led some of the most retrograde movements in Christian evangelicalism from their 3,488-square-foot split-level home in east Multnomah County. It’s a back-to-basics doctrine that goes beyond the usual opposition to abortion and gay marriage to assert that public schools are moral cesspools, and goes beyond abstinence vows to call for young people to cease dating altogether until they are ready to marry.
And as Alex and Brett Harris leave their teen years, they’re poised to continue their family’s mission, which all started nearly three decades ago in Gresham.
When they aren’t traveling to meet with Watergate felon-turned-Christian evangelist Chuck Colson, or to host conferences from Charlotte, N.C., to Tokyo, Alex and Brett Harris live with parents Gregg and Sono on six acres of hilly land a quarter-mile outside Gresham city limits.
Gregg, a pastor at Household of Faith Community Church in Gresham, and Sono, who often joins her husband at his speaking engagements, have home-schooled their seven children: Joshua (the oldest at 33), Joel, Alex, Brett, Sarah, Isaac and James (the youngest at 8).
The Harris twins said their schedule was too busy for an interview in their home, which is surrounded by a grove of fir trees so tall and thick it cannot be seen from Southeast Hogan Road. From this vantage point, the forest looks like a lush fortress keeping the outside world away from the home (Gregg Harris bought the house in 1990 for $206,451 and it now has a market value of $496,220).
Neighbors know little about the family despite the twins attracting thousands of fans to their public appearances. “They’re nice people,” says neighbor Fred Carlin. “I didn’t know they were political until they put up those signs for Huckabee.”
The notion of Christians separating themselves from the outside world was what launched Gregg Harris into the spotlight. The year was 1981. President Reagan had just taken office. The home-schooling movement remained a legally tenuous concept supported by a loosely organized coalition of countercultural educators and religious dissenters united by their distaste for public schools. And Gregg—a Dayton, Ohio, native who told Breakaway magazine last year that he ran away from home at 15, hitchhiked to Laguna Beach, Calif., and converted at age 19 to Christianity—began traveling the country with a home-schooling tutorial he called Christian Life Workshops.
“It is not enough that my children confess faith in Christ and go to church,” Gregg later wrote in a 1999 essay, “Why I Chose to Home School.” “Lukewarmness will not do. I want to see the fire of passion for the presence of God safely burning in the doctrinal fireplace of each child’s Reformed faith.”
Over a decade, he drew more than 180,000 parents to these nine-hour seminars that instructed them to remove their children from schools “where God is not feared and His Word not taught, where I cannot protect my children from falling into dangerous activities that could ruin a young life in one casual act of foolishness.” Gregg gained fame as one of the “four pillars of home schooling” along with Farris’s Home School Legal Defense Association, and was known for aggressively marketing the teaching curriculum at his workshops.
He also was at the head of the “Christian exclusivist” faction in home schooling, urging local home-education support groups to limit membership to families who had signed evangelical statements of faith. Others in the home-schooling movement believed such exclusivity was an overreaction. And Gregg’s stance divided the movement. (One disgruntled leader, Dr. Raymond Moore, called Gregg “a self-styled hustler, with a Bible in hand”; Gregg had told home-schooling parents not to associate with Moore because he was a Seventh-day Adventist.)
Gregg, who declined WW’s interview requests, appears to have made a comfortable living from his teachings, which included a 1988 book, The Christian Home School. In addition to being a pastor at the Gresham church he founded 10 years ago, Gregg also is president and director of the Noble Institute for Leadership Development, a nonprofit that includes his speaking engagements, a campaign to spread evangelical testimonies in newspapers—and the Rebelution. (In 2006, a year before the Do Hard Things conferences began, Noble Institute declared $70,636 in gross receipts.)
Gregg’s oldest son, Joshua, took his father’s retreat from worldly company one step further. In 1997, then-21-year-old Joshua Harris published I Kissed Dating Goodbye, a 238-page manifesto that contended contemporary dating practices were selfish and destructive, and that Christian teenagers should pledge to shun romance entirely until they felt God had called them to marriage—even saving their first kiss for their wedding day.
I Kissed Dating Goodbye has sold more than 1 million copies at $12.99 apiece. With its success, Joshua wrote three more books and ran his own conferences and the New Attitude magazine—his little brothers helped—all while becoming a pastor at Covenant Life Church in Gaithersburg, Md., and a married father with three children.
Back on the stage at Rolling Hills in Tualatin on May 3, Brett Harris leads the third seminar of the morning. He has seized upon his most frequent topic: the degrading effect of modern society’s standards on adolescents.
“We live in a culture that expects more of babies than it does of teenagers,” he says. “If we adopt a ‘Do Hard Things’ mentality, what would it look like?”
Until three years ago, the twins’ public speaking was limited to a national home-school debate league. In the 2004 and 2005 championships of the National Christian Forensics and Communications Association, the brothers dominated. Alex finished first overall in the 2005 speech contests in Lynchburg, Va., home of the late Rev. Jerry Falwell, with trophies in the impromptu-apologetics and persuasive-speaking categories. Brett finished second overall.
Then came what the twins describe as “our Jeremiah moment,” a reference to the biblical prophet called by God. At age 16, their parents told them they were done with competitive debate. Instead, Gregg told his sons to embark on an “intense” summer reading program ranging from books by New York Times pundit Thomas Friedman to right-wing talk-radio host Hugh Hewitt. The goal: to familiarize the twins with global trends.
They say their reading sparked their desire to “wake up” other teenagers, which led them to start the Rebelution blog in 2005. It is a forum for Christian teens to discuss issues from Third World slavery to women’s modesty. Brett and Alex claim the site is “the most popular Christian teen blog on the Web.” Depending on how you define “Christian” and “teen,” that boast is probably true: Website traffic counter Quantcast shows the Rebelution as the 195,879th most popular site on the web. (By comparison, wweek.com is ranked at 54,871st.)
Months after they launched therebelution.com, a staffer in the office of Alabama Supreme Court Justice Tom Parker read their glowing profile of the self-described “conservative to the core” Alabama justice. And the staffer invited Alex and Brett to apply for internships.
“Initially, I was willing to take them on because of my respect for their parents,” Parker tells WW, referring to his familiarity with the Harris family’s home-schooling advocacy.
But Parker, known nationally for challenging the U.S. Supreme Court’s jurisdiction in Alabama death-penalty cases, became impressed by their competence. By the end of their two-month internship, Alex and Brett had been promoted from delivering memos to drafting legal opinions, which Parker says is unprecedented for a couple of teenage boys.
“They demonstrated a maturity comparable to the law students we’ve had—and sometimes exceeding that maturity,” Parker says .
The twins stayed on in Alabama to serve as grassroots directors for four candidates for the state Supreme Court—including Parker in his run for chief justice. After all four lost, the brothers returned to Gresham in 2006, and the book offers began pouring in as a result of the blog and the conferences they had begun hosting earlier that summer.
“We had four publishers make offers” in spring 2007, Brett says. “We realized, wow, I guess God’s trying to say, ‘Write it now.’”
But while the twins were holed up last summer drafting Do Hard Things, they came up with another idea arising from their support of evangelical Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee. The twins sent fundraising emails to a contact list of several hundred acquaintances. Huck’s Army was born.
The Harrises’ grassroots Internet organization attracted more than 20,000 volunteers—including Chuck Norris, who first got in touch with Huckabee through Huck’s Army and would become the campaign’s unofficial mascot. The twins support John McCain this November but are urging the Republican presidential nominee to pick Huckabee for vice president.
Meanwhile, there was a book to sell. Neither the Harrises nor WaterBrook Multnomah, their publisher, will say what kind of advance was paid for Do Hard Things, or how many copies of the book have sold. But in the nine weeks since the book’s April 15 publication, it is already in its fifth printing. It’s ranked 18th on the June bestseller list of the Evangelical Christian Publishers Association—just four places behind The Purpose-Driven Life by Rick Warren, a California megachurch pastor described by Time magazine as “perhaps the most important voice in contemporary American Evangelical Christianity.”
Do Hard Things is 241 pages, not including the foreword by Norris. It is a breezy read, two parts banal and one part subversive.
Much of the book is vague, exhorting its readers on the work ethic. But underneath the twins’ self-help language is a message in keeping with the ideas of their father Gregg and brother Joshua: The authors oppose not just garden-variety teen laziness but the entire 20th century. They trace the rise of the word “teenager” to the passing of child-labor laws in the early 1900s, and say that while such reforms “were good because conditions had been brutal,” Progressivism had unintended consequences.
“By completely removing children from the workplace and mandating school attendance through high school, teens’ once-established role as key producers and contributors came to an end,” they write. “Suddenly their role was almost exclusively that of consumers.”
Alex and Brett don’t feel their commitment to reject modern adolescence has caused them to miss out. “Doing hard things, and seeing God use us through that to impact the lives of others—that’s so much more fulfilling than a night at the mall [or] a night at the movies could ever be,” Alex tells WW.
They are winning new fans. “It was really encouraging for me to know that there are other people out there who are willing to do what it takes to accomplish what God called them to do,” says Lydia Swift, a 16-year-old student who attends a public school—Cam High School in Battle Ground, Wash. She rode for an hour to the conference with 14 fellow youth group members from a church in neighboring Yacolt. “They have encouraged me to hold faster to God’s truth,” Swift says.
The Harris twins surrender the stage after five hours at the May 3 conference at Rolling Hills.
The next speaker is their father, Gregg, a thickset 55-year-old with a bushy mustache. He’s no mere stage father like Joe Simpson—he actually speaks at each Do Hard Things conference.
“There are only two kinds of people in the world,” Gregg tells the crowd of teenagers. “Children of God, and those who are still children of the devil.”
To watch Gregg Harris is to understand the contradictions at the heart of the Rebelution. Alex and Brett Harris, who tell evangelical teenagers they can influence the wider culture, are inextricably tied to a man who teaches that this culture corrupts children by drawing them away from the purest version of their faith—a man who is unstinting in his efforts to keep that faith intact.
Gregg Harris turns behind him to the large projection screen that Alex and Brett used to display poll questions for the 2,000-plus teenagers in the audience to answer via touch pads. Now Gregg has his own question. “How often do you pray just because you believe God is there to hear you?”
Fewer than 150 answer “not often” or “not at all,” prompting Gregg to say, “There’s a very large number of people here who I’m very concerned about your soul.”
He then commands the room to keep “every head up, every eye open”—a direct inversion of the usual evangelical altar call of “every head bowed, every eye closed”—and insists the teenagers who want to become Christians “stand up and say to the people around you, ‘Jesus is Lord.’”
The teens who answered the poll the wrong way were anonymous, but are now faced with the shame of their answer and the massive weight of their peers watching them.
The bodies rise from their seats—at first one at a time, then in groups of two or three—to another round of applause for each new convert (the Rebelution website will estimate there were 127).
In their interview with WW, Alex and Brett say the altar call is consistent with their mission. “We’re saying, ‘Do you really care about this, is this really you?’ Then they have the chance to look at themselves and say, ‘Is this really me? Am I really trusting God enough to obey him even when it’s not easy?’ Which ties into the whole Do Hard Things concept.”
It certainly fits with the twins’ message of “rebellion against rebellion”: the idea that evangelical teenagers can change the world, so long as they do not challenge a commanding adult authority that protects them from that world.
As they once again emerge from the wings of the Rolling Hills Community Church stage, Alex and Brett stand beside their father, embracing the converts in long hugs and handing them copies of their book.
“We just want you to know,” Alex says, “that this is why we do what we do.”
God’s words: a glossary of Evangelical lingo
“Rebelution” may not be the only word Alex and Brett use that sounds exotic in heathen Portland. Here are some other helpful definitions:
1. Praise ballads: Worship songs in the mawkish style of U2 and Coldplay, with lyrics asking God for his love and power (or powerful love). The ballads at Do Hard Things 2008 were led by Alex and Brett’s older brother Joel, and included choruses like: “Stepping forward /Lead us into action /Keep us from just singing /We must go.”
2. Evangelical Christians: More than 70 million Americans—or about one in four—identify as evangelicals. They are Protestants, ranging from Billy Graham to Left Behind novelist Tim LaHaye. And they believe Jesus is their savior and that they are called to preach the gospel to others. But many on the conservative fringes, such as Michael Farris and the Harris family, define Christianity more narrowly. They argue that people who do not pray and study their Bibles daily or dedicate themselves to courtship (see below) show signs of being unsaved.
3. Christian exclusivists: Home-schooling leaders who believe Christian children should not socialize extensively with their non-Christian counterparts.
4. Fundamentalist: A term created during the turn-of-the-20th-century Protestant church splits to define those who held to the “fundamentals” of Christianity—the inerrancy of the Bible, the virgin birth of Jesus and his literal resurrection from the dead. The term is now considered pejorative. (Wheaton College philosophy professor Alvin Plantinga famously observed, “The full meaning of the term…can be given by something like ‘stupid sumbitch whose theological opinions are considerably to the right of mine.’”)
5. Reformed: Protestants who affirm the five points of Reformation-era theologian John Calvin: total depravity of mankind, unconditional election, limited atonement, irresistible grace and the perseverance of the saints. These roughly translate to a belief that humans are hopelessly wicked and condemned to hell, and that God has decided since before Creation which people he will save through the sacrifice of Jesus.
6. Courtship: A rejection of dating, or spending one-on-one time with someone of the opposite sex until both people feel called by God to marry. Joshua Harris’ now-defunct magazine New Attitude and his best-selling memoir I Kissed Dating Goodbye popularized this practice among evangelicals (mostly home-schoolers) in the late 1990s.
7. Joshua Generation: A phrase referring to the biblical hero Joshua, who “took back the land” of Canaan for the Hebrews after Moses led the exodus from Egypt. Home School Legal Defense Association founder Michael Farris announced earlier this month that his organization is considering suing Sen. Barack Obama’s presidential campaign for trademark infringement over the phrase. Obama has launched the Joshua Generation Project to attract young evangelical voters; HSLDA’s Generation Joshua program was founded in 2003 to involve conservative Christian teens in politics.
Promo Video: Rebelution 2008 Tour
In 1981, there were an estimated 30,000 children who were home-schooled in the U.S. Today, there are as many as 2.4 million.
Joshua Harris followed I Kissed Dating Goodbye with several books, including Boy Meets Girl: Say Hello to Courtship; Sex Isn’t the Problem (Lust Is): Sexual Purity in a Lust-Saturated World; and Stop Dating the Church!: Fall in Love with the Family of God.
Another Gresham resident holds the top spot on the Evangelical Christian Publishers Association bestseller list this month: William P. Young, whose inspirational novel The Shack imagines God appearing to a bereaved father. Portlander Donald Miller’s Blue Like Jazz sits at No. 23.
Gregg Harris told dads in his Father’s Day sermon to “act like a man. Take charge of your household. Do not allow it to be led by your wife and children. Break your addiction to having to please them.”
WW reporter Aaron Mesh was home-schooled and attended a Joshua Harris conference when he was 16. There, he was asked to sign a pledge saying he would refrain from “physical or emotional promiscuity” until marriage. He declined.