On the Campus of True Believers

By Dan Gilgoff,
political editor of Beliefnet.com and author of "The Jesus Machine"
Wednesday, September 12, 2007


A Christian College on a Mission to Save America

By Hanna Rosin

Harcourt. 296 pp. $25

Since opening in 2000 as the nation's first institution of higher learning devoted entirely to training home-schooled evangelicals to fight the culture war, Patrick Henry College has provoked a string of news stories trumpeting its straight-out-of-the-gates success. The facts seem to speak for themselves. Even when the college attracted too few applicants to be considered truly selective, most Patrick Henry freshmen were just a cut below Ivy League material, with average SAT scores of 1230 to 1410. Located in Purcellville, Va., an hour's drive from Washington, the school has secured between one and five White House student internships each year, about the same number as Georgetown University. In its first encounter with a moot court team from Oxford's Balliol College, Patrick Henry College won.

No wonder the school's founder, longtime Christian right activist Michael Farris, tells students that he foresees a day when an Academy Award winner is strolling down the aisle to claim his prize when his cellphone rings with a congratulatory call from the U.S. president, "his old roommate from Patrick Henry." But for all Farris's idealism, and for all his students' promise, graduating multitudes of evangelical true believers to reclaim the government, Hollywood and academia for Christ turns out to be a lot trickier than building a championship debate team.

After all, how can a school introduce some of the country's most sheltered youth to the ways of the secular world -- even in hopes they will reshape it -- without their being corrupted in the process? It's a dilemma that makes for constant tension in Hanna Rosin's nuanced and highly readable "God's Harvard."

A former Washington Post reporter, Rosin went more or less native at PHC for the past couple of years, earning the trust of many students, professors and, apparently, Farris himself. Paired with her feisty, richly detailed prose -- she tells how one typically profanity-averse student changed the title of Avril Lavigne's "Damn Cold Night" to "Damp Cold Night" on a homemade CD compilation -- the access makes for a gripping tour of a parallel universe that's typically closed to the mainstream media by evangelical gatekeepers.

It's a universe secular Americans often have caricatured as monolithic and anti-intellectual. According to Rosin, however, the college's ability to achieve its mission is in doubt precisely because Patrick Henry's brightest young minds are willing to buck Farris's hard-line notions about how evangelicals should think and act.

For instance, Farris wants to teach Plato and Nietzsche merely as "opposition research" to prepare PHC graduates to battle non-Christian ideologies. But many teenagers are intrigued by their first taste of the philosophical giants, and some of PHC's best students refuse to dismiss their ideas out of hand. Farris puts professors who teach those philosophers too enthusiastically on notice, and by book's end the conflicts between a liberal arts education and biblical literalism escalate into a full-blown crisis, with many professors mulling whether they should stick around.

Patrick Henry's female students, meanwhile, find it a lot harder to get excited about stay-at-home futures after experiencing the thrill of working for the Bush-Cheney reelection campaign. Farris expects graduates (and faculty members) who become pregnant to resign their professional posts and devote themselves to child-rearing. But, sighs a former intern for Karl Rove who was the first woman at Patrick Henry to campaign for an executive office in student government, "I just wish there was some way to have a family without it being your whole identity."

There are also less heady challenges that come with enforcing the strictures of an orthodox Christian life -- which include no drinking, R-rated movies or kissing, let alone sex before marriage -- on a coed student population. In Farris's nightmare scenario, Rosin writes, a student starts out idealistic, gets an internship at the White House or with a Republican congressman, and then just follows "along with the herd," hanging out with other young staffers and "getting wasted." To see whether such fears are real, Rosin hits the bars of downtown Washington with a Patrick Henry senior. The PHCer sticks to small quantities of Corona Light and denounces the scene as "juvenile."

Containing many similarly intimate vignettes, "God's Harvard" easily could have remained an anthropological study of an oddball college. But Rosin treats Patrick Henry as a petri dish in which the major trends of the sprawling evangelical subculture are concentrated. A creationism conference attended by a PHC biology professor becomes an investigation into the burgeoning Christian movement to bolster the anti-evolution cause with real science. The experiences of an undergraduate with filmmaking aspirations morph into the saga of how Hollywood became more evangelical-friendly after Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ."

Some of these asides feel shoehorned into what is essentially a portrait of a young campus. But they do give the sense that it's not just 300 kids in Purcellville who are coming of age, but an entire movement of tens of millions of evangelicals.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company