Issues of Perception Try McDonnell's Alma Mater

By Ian Shapira
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 20, 2009

VIRGINIA BEACH -- Robert Rice, a law student at Regent University, is proud to see alumnus Robert F. McDonnell, Virginia's Republican gubernatorial candidate, representing the Christian school founded by televangelist Pat Robertson.

But the campaign controversy sparked by McDonnell's 1989 master's thesis decrying feminism, homosexuality and the use of contraception by unmarried couples has left Rice and some other Regent students worried about the disconnect between their school's Christian values and how they and their school are viewed by the rest of the United States and members of their own generation.

"Do we think it's 'illogical' for unmarried cohabitating couples to use contraceptives?" said Rice, 32, editor of the Regent Journal of Law and Public Policy, whose inaugural issue features an article on same-sex marriage with McDonnell's byline. "I don't think so."

Rice, who said he wants to be an estate planner or prosecutor near his family in rural Ohio, is frustrated that "people have this perception about us. You can go to a liberal school, but that doesn't mean you're indoctrinated. All of our professors are believing Christians, but it's not like we sit around class or during breaks and say, 'Did you read Second Timothy?' We get into heated debates, and nobody gets thrown out because so-and-so is pro-choice or pro-life."

At Regent, a 70-acre campus of red-brick, white-columned buildings arranged around a huge wooden cross and a perpetual flame, some students and faculty members have reacted to the flap about McDonnell's thesis with a dismissive shrug. But to others at the 31-year-old school, the controversy adds to their worry that the wider world looks askance at Regent's mission -- to churn out Christian leaders and change agents -- because of Robertson's inflammatory rhetoric and the school's founding as part of his Christian Broadcasting Network.

"We were pigeonholed as an extension of CBN," said Carlos Campo, Regent's vice president for academic affairs. "We have not drifted from that vision, but we have been able to manifest it in ways that make people understand it better. We are less conservative. Pat, he's a much more open and intellectually curious person than a lot of folks give him credit for."

Campo said he is often amused at the notion that Regent -- whose Web site used to boast that 150 of its graduates worked in the second Bush administration -- is training fundamentalist Christians to penetrate Washington. "I think it's clear that the cultural gatekeepers of American have been more liberal than the average American," he said. "We just serve as a counterweight." (The Post reported last year that a majority of President Obama's top appointments went to graduates of Ivy League or elite British universities, MIT, Stanford and the University of Chicago.)

During the campaign, McDonnell, who says his "views on many issues have changed as I have gotten older," has responded to questions about Regent's effect on his political views by saying that it is just one of many schools he has attended. In a 2007 interview with Robertson on the minister's "700 Club" TV show, McDonnell called Regent "a great place to learn the foundational principles of our country in a Christian atmosphere. It gave me a great understanding of the limited role of government and the important roles of the church and the family . . . and what happens if government tries to take on those roles and can often make a mess."

Students and faculty agree that Regent, which has about 1,700 undergraduates and 3,200 graduate students, is mostly conservative or Republican -- the school's Democrats and Independents club has 10 members -- but they contend that many students are more socially moderate than outsiders would imagine.

Kelly Duff, 26, a third-year law and master's student in government, resembles many of her campus peers: A registered independent at home in New York, she opposes same-sex marriage but supports civil unions, scoffs at McDonnell's thesis statement that feminism is "detrimental" to the family and disagrees with McDonnell's opposition to abortion, supporting the procedure in cases of rape or incest. Still, she said she would vote for McDonnell, if she could.

She is a nose-pierced, white, born-again Christian who got a degree from the University of Albany in political science and Africana studies -- how African Americans view U.S. history -- and was considering New York University for law school when her pastor's son swayed her toward Regent. "I do believe in Jesus, but everything else I question," she said. "Because of my faith, I believe there is a sovereign being, and I wanted to learn the rule of law from that basis."

At first, she was apprehensive about enrolling at an overtly faith-based school. "I was nervous about the Christian bubble and was like, 'What am I doing?' " she recalled. " 'They're going to be so intolerant.' But it's definitely more mixed. Everyone seems perfectly reasonable. Half the people have no idea who Pat Robertson is."

Student theses archived at Regent's library reveal a generational difference between the school's early years in the 1980s, when it was known as Christian Broadcasting Network University, and its recent history. Early theses have titles such as "The Role of the Press in Disseminating Communist Propaganda as a Foreign Policy Strategy of Totalitarian Governments," and "Homosexuals' American Dream . . . or Nightmare," a study that advocated "Criminalizing Homosexuality -- The First Line of Defense." Thesis titles from the 21st century: "U2's Gospel of Modulation in a Decade of Change" and "Federal Funding for Needle Exchange Programs," which advocated the idea as a way to prevent HIV.

Experts who study Christian higher education say Regent is bringing in scholars from elite, secular universities to speak on panels and strengthen its academic objectivity. "I was surprised that even I had been invited to speak there because I've been quoted negatively about Pat Robertson," said Michael Cromartie, vice president of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington.

Ashlie Gibbs, 23, an African American graduate student and president of Regent's Democrats and Independents club, said that despite the campus's religious homogeneity, political tensions do surface. "I've had small discussions with Republicans about McDonnell's thesis and they say, 'It was a long time ago, and he's changed some of his positions,' " she said. "I'm a tiny bit skeptical."

Conservatives at Regent say that, rather than operating in an ideologically narrow echo chamber, they constantly grapple with perspectives that veer far from fundamentalist Christian views. "My wife's college roommate is one of our best friends," said Chuck Slemp, a Regent law student who once worked as McDonnell's scheduler. "She's the quintessential liberal -- pro-choice, pro-gay marriage -- but we get together and talk. She's opened my eyes. I know some, like [HBO television host] Bill Maher, may have opinions about Regent students being brainwashed, radical conservatives. That's false. It's frustrating."

Asked about McDonnell's contention in his thesis that feminism is detrimental to family, Slemp laughed. "My wife works," he said. "She puts me through school."

Classmate Rice needled his friend: "I like to call her the 'Sugar Mama.' "

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