Doing hard things
A former homeschool rising star reflects on the polarizing ideologies that shaped a generation of young people
Attorney Alex Harris is a Patrick Henry College and Harvard Law School graduate. His father, Gregg Harris, was an early homeschool pioneer, and brother Josh Harris is a former pastor and author of I Kissed Dating Goodbye. In 2008, at age 19, Alex and his twin Brett published Do Hard Things: A Teenage Rebellion Against Low Expectations. We’ve edited this interview for length and clarity.
How did your family homeschool? A lot of exploring the woods, climbing trees, doing things I can’t imagine letting my 9-year-old daughter do today. Reading. We put on a lot of plays and skits and made home movies with elaborate costumes. We did school year-round, so Brett and I were pretty much done with our formal high-school education at 16, which allowed us to launch our website and ministry.
You rocketed to a kind of celebrity. How did that affect you? The actual experience at the time was almost a sense of destiny. Because of our parents, virtually all the kids we knew were homeschooled. Most were not allowed to date because of our older brother. We thought if God can use Mom, Dad, and big brother Josh, he can use us, too. Thankfully our parents and people in our lives recognized the fast-track hazards, so at the height of the popularity of Do Hard Things and the speaking invitations, we went to college. We were able to just be students, to learn, “Oh wow, I don’t know how to write an essay.” Being in a classroom setting for the first time in our lives was in retrospect exactly what we needed.
Your brother Josh didn’t have that escape from celebrity and has deconstructed publicly. He went from being homeschooled and getting onto the conference speaking circuit, to writing this best-selling book at age 21, to becoming a pastor and the heir apparent for a megachurch, becoming the senior pastor at age 30—even though he’s never gone to college and didn’t have a seminary degree. At no point was his identity not wrapped up in his position of influence. It’s very hard to have genuine friendship with people who view you as a celebrity.
A lot of pressure? You don’t feel like you can express doubt or vulnerability because that could be devastating to the person you’re talking to, could threaten the church, the gospel movement. That’s a weight of authority and pressure I don’t think any believer should carry, let alone someone who went straight from high school to being a senior pastor. That didn’t serve Josh. “Deconstruction” is a slippery term. Complete rejection? Cleansing, reforming? I don’t know exactly where Josh is on that spectrum, but he still, I think, has a heart for the church and a desire to see it be healthier. I have a lot of hope. I don’t think his story is over.
Your book, Do Hard Things, urged young people to take on responsibility. Has Josh’s trajectory added nuance? There was some nuance from the beginning. When Brett and I took a step back to go to college, we were trying to be an example to our readers that doing hard things doesn’t always mean pursuing the most exciting thing. But in the book, you read these examples of kids changing the world, raising tens of thousands of dollars, getting on the cover of ESPN The Magazine. The message many people got was that doing hard things is building to the most prestigious accomplishment. That’s not the truth.
What have been your hard things? Often, the hardest things in my life have been what no one sees. Faithfulness is very different than pursuing the limelight or achieving the highest position you can achieve. Often turning down those positions because that’s the path of wisdom and faithfulness is the much harder thing and the right thing.
In March you wrote a Twitter thread about the Jan. 6 Capitol riot, homeschooling, and “Christian nationalism.” How would you define that term? It’s idolatry of country, which crosses the line from patriotism to putting our hope and even our sense of spiritual salvation in policies, parties, or politicians. The Bible says not to put your hope in princes: Our kingdom is a future kingdom. Christian nationalism twists that into putting our hope in our country either remaining or returning to its roots as a Christian nation.
What’s the relationship between homeschooling and Christian nationalism in the United States? The homeschooling movement has many streams, but one is influenced by Christian Reconstructionism: the view that God’s kingdom will be established on earth before Christ’s return, that God’s law remains the proper law to govern even modern civil society, and that true Christians should be working to bring that about. Some early Christian homeschooling curriculum talks about America as a chosen Christian nation. The implication is to fight to keep it a Christian nation.
The idea of a Joshua Generation? In this analogy, Christian homeschool parents were like Moses in the Old Testament: They fled out of the public-school systems and the moral depravity of secular culture to raise their children in the wilderness. Their children, like Joshua, the heir to Moses, would rise up and take America back for God. We would have more babies than the atheists, but more than that, Christian homeschool graduates would be an elite strike force steeped in a thoroughly conservative view of politics, law, science, history, and apologetics, and trained in debate, public speaking, and political campaigning.
When homeschoolers grew up? We would be the presidents and the Supreme Court justices and the leading Hollywood directors. Many Christian homeschooling parents did not buy into these ideas, but they were widespread and many people viewed homeschooling as key to winning the culture wars. Children became weapons, “like arrows in the hand of a warrior,” to quote Psalm 127. That’s a very unhealthy approach to politics, culture, homeschooling, childrearing. It’s very fear driven. It’s very Christian nationalist.
Did it succeed? It’s too early to say what the end of the story is. I have many friends who have achieved remarkable success early in life. They’re walking the halls of Congress, they’re in the West Wing, at the Supreme Court, with top defense contractors, in mainstream media outlets. Yet those raised to be that Joshua Generation have continued to read the Bible and have started to question this project.
How? We see the fruits of a Christian nationalist way of viewing politics. We see some in our parents’ generation equate faith and the Republican Party platform in ways that seem forced and not fully Biblical. You would not expect to see any major party platform perfectly aligned with Biblical principles in the 21st century, yet that’s how many Christians view politics and their faith. In January, after the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, I publicly called for the impeachment of President Trump. Many homeschool parents, members of the Moses Generation, weren’t thrilled with my doing that. When I was in high school, some people promised to vote for me when I was running for president someday. Some now view me as seduced by the world because I’m not supporting President Trump.
How did others react? Other Joshua Generation homeschool graduates sent messages of encouragement and agreement. They are still committed believers and often conservative, but they were the most concerned about mixing faith and politics and using Christianity as a political prop. These are young men and women who’ve been taught to think critically, to seek the truth. They’ve been taught that character counts, and not to just go along with the culture around them. They are putting into practice what they learned, with the beautiful irony that they’re doing this even to the Christian subculture that they were raised in.
Some homeschool graduates embrace a Christian nationalist vision? The fruit of Christian homeschooling is mixed. Many Christian homeschool graduates have embraced that approach to politics. One speaker at the Stop the Steal rally [held Jan. 6 before some attendees participated in the Capitol riot] was Rep. Madison Cawthorn, R-N.C., a homeschool graduate who participated in homeschool debate. He’s one of the youngest members of Congress, which indicates the impact from these ways of training and raising homeschool graduates. But what’s encouraging to me is that the vast majority of those who have achieved the prized influence have by and large rejected the project. Many are seeking to be faithful, yet are not trying to “take America back for God.”
If critical thinking, learning to read and communicate well, and going against the grain are the baby in the bathwater of homeschooling, how can current homeschool parents ditch the bathwater and keep the baby? There’s so much baby, so much good. The key insight of the homeschooling movement was recognizing that, as parents, we have a responsibility for our children’s education. My wife and I have homeschooled our daughter, and we try to be very thoughtful about what curriculum we use. That’s a big part of the baby in the bathwater process for us.
Do you plan to continue homeschooling or are you looking at other options? As long as we are seeking to be faithful, there’s no right way to do it as a Christian. That’s a very freeing thing. We take it a year at a time.