Books: 'God's Harvard'
Wednesday, September 19, 2007; 3:00 PM
Washington Post style reporter Hanna Rosin was online Wednesday, Sept. 19 at 3 p.m. ET to discuss her new book, " God's Harvard: A Christian College on a Mission to Save America." The book examines Patrick Henry College, a Christian school in Purcellville, Va., founded in 2000 with a goal of serving high-achieving home-schooled students -- and an emphasis on getting them into government careers.
Debating 'God's Harvard' (Slate, Sept. 17-19)
The transcript follows.
Hanna Rosin: Hello there, and thank you all for tuning in. This is Hanna Rosin, author of "God's Harvard," about Patrick Henry College and the next generation of young evangelicals. I have a bank of very interesting and provocative questions waiting for me, including some from current and former PHC students, so I'll just get started.
Alexandria, Va.: I've not been able to read the whole book yet, but I am wondering whether is it the students' religious beliefs that are so offensive or whether it is their desire to "impose" such beliefs by political means? (For the record, I am a PHC graduate and I have no political ambitions for myself and no desire to help any politician -- conservative or otherwise -- obtain theirs. I'm in grad school, but am not very disciplined and certainly never planned my days in 15-minute increments. We're not all scary political revolutionaries or "sinful" former scary political revolutionaries -- although I think you've been the most fair of any of the reporters in thinking of the PHC students as humans instead of members of an alien army.)
Hanna Rosin: Hi. I'm giving PHC grads priority here. In my book I make a point of choosing students who do not entirely buy into the school's mission, and some who really chafe against it, so I realize you're not all scary political operatives. As a school, though, Patrick Henry is very much part of this new generation of political activism among evangelicals. For me the interesting part is, how do you take the fairly radical, life-altering message of Jesus and fit it into the compromise-heavy world of politics? Home-school parents may teach their kids to "shape the culture and take back the nation," but once they leave home, how do they actually pull that off?
Reston, Va.: Hanna, you'll know me as the PHC journalism student you rode shotgun with on a debate trip. Following your dialogue with David Kuo on Slate, I'm struck by your statement that "six-day creationism is the first to go" when students hit the real world. Do you contend that they summarily drop intelligent design theory, or just the literal six-day portion?
Personally I think it's intellectually irresponsible to dismiss intelligent design as a viable alternate theory of origin. Where Christians perhaps err is to dogmatically cling to a literal six days, come hell or high water. Even if I believe it (by faith and a conviction that Genesis is accurate) I can't verify it by repetition or eyewitness account. But I can suggest that it's a possible fit within the alternative framework of intelligent design -- without abandoning intellectual honesty.
Hanna Rosin: Another PHC student out there. I think what students tend to let go of is literal six-day creation. As I write in the book, going out into Republican circles and advocating six-day creation is the social equivalent of admitting you have two wives. It takes a pretty strong constitution to stick up for that one. But short of that very fundamentalist position, there are many ways of promoting the notion that God had a hand in creation, as Bush has shown us.
Loudoun County, Va.: What do the students and faculty you spoke with say about the principle of "separation of church and state"? Is it possible to have an open debate with the PHC students or faculty on any subjects, or are all their positions on political, economic and lifestyle issues locked in based on their interpretation of the bible?
Hanna Rosin: I think they might say that the Bible is the first place to look for guiding principles, on any subject. That said, they're also committed to the principles laid out in the Constitution. They would say that secular America has exaggerated the idea of separation of church and state to exclude them entirely from the public square. There are certain issues I never heard debate about, and you can guess what they are: homosexuality, abortion, the natural roles of men and women and -- inside school, at least -- creationism. I did hear debates about taxes, the war, the environment and the legacy of Bush.
Fairfax Station, Va.: I just wanted to say, I found your book fascinating. As a liberal Jew, I'm disturbed by fundamentalism -- in any religion -- and can say I probably would find your task of getting to know these kids, well, creepy. But I got the feeling from your book that however distasteful I found their beliefs and politics, these people out on Route 7 have big hearts. I'm still creeped out by them, but a little less so now.
Hanna Rosin: Hi. I hear these adjectives a lot from friends: "scary," "creepy." I'm glad I at least convinced you they have big hearts, which many of them do. There definitely were moments on campus where I felt the atmosphere to be oppressive, like I wished one of the students would just scream or blast some music or dye their hair purple or do something utterly juvenile without collapsing in guilt. But mostly I just stood in awe at their amazing combination of zeal and discipline.
Arlington, Va.: Hanna, you touched on this in the Slate dialogue, but how do you think Patrick Henry will survive if a Democrat is elected in 2008? And if the Republican establishment comes to see the rise of politically engaged evangelicals as a hindrance more than a help, will that take all the lifeblood out of the school's attractiveness to home-schoolers?
Hanna Rosin: This is a critical question that people ask me a lot. In years past, conservative evangelicals have tended to respond to these moments by retreating from public life, i.e. "any nation that could elect Bill Clinton is not my nation." I don't think that would happen this time -- there are plenty of places where young evangelicals can bide their time for four years. Now about a third of congressmen define themselves as evangelical, and there are think tanks and interest groups and all sorts of places a young evangelical could feel comfortable. Evangelicals are part of the Washington establishment now; like conservatives they may feel beleaguered, mistreated and victimized despite their obvious successes, but they will not go away.
Shirlington, Va.: Hanna, I'd been anxiously awaiting your book ever since I read the New Yorker piece, and it was worth the wait. One question that came up as you described the students working out at the Patrick Henry gym ... if women get in trouble for showing a bra strap or bearing a midriff, how do they exercise or work out? Few of the women profiled were described as obese -- in fact, many seemed to be fit and attractive. So if they can't show any skin on campus, do they run around campus in full sweats? What about the gym? Thanks!
Hanna Rosin: A comic interlude, which makes me feel I left the wrong impression. Patrick Henry works on "business hours," which also means class time. After 5 p.m. or so kids could change into jeans or sweats. Then it became a self-monitoring situation. You still didn't see kids looking like slobs or wearing those too-short velour Britney Spears hoodies that show off your midriff; that said, lots of kids chose to work out off campus, because it felt too weird to be in the gym in shorts, and also to avoid a fight that might break out about what music or TV channel could be on in the on-campus gym
Fairfax, Va.: I come from that rarest of rare socio-religious types -- my family is and has been for generations fundamentalist/evangelical but also strongly Democrat. We come out of the denominations that created evangelical power brokers such as Falwell and Dobson. While the media often portrays their rise to power as very quick (i.e. Moral Majority then Reagan) we know how carefully and crafted that influence was built over decade. (You refer to this in your discussion with Kuo at Slate.com, which was very good by the way.)
What we're ("we" being people within that long-term evangelical world) seeing is the diminishing of that narrow political mindset in the evangelical world. It will take decades to undo, just as it took decades to create. But for this generation that associates evangelicalism for political power, as they become marginalized politically or otherwise within even that religious world, do you think that their need for power will trump their religious commitment?
After all, we have lots of people who were of the Peace Corp and of that generation who are now Republicans. Reluctant Republicans, perhaps, but they see that their power and influence and economics were better served by switching. Which impulse do you think is greater in these students: power or religion?
Hanna Rosin: This is a struggle they have with themselves all the time: power or religion. I don't think they've worked it out yet. Of course they would say religion, but there is a rich recent history of Christian leaders getting corrupted by politics. The school administration is aware of it, and very worried about throwing their relatively innocent kids into that den of temptation.
The good news for you is, things are changing. In the last election there was a resurgence of the populist left evangelical in a few key races. I don't know where it will go but it's an emerging phenomenon, and one that both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama are working hard to capitalize on.
Washington: Is this school a threat to democracy? Are there more-liberal schools with the same intentions?
Hanna Rosin: I don't think any school can be a threat to democracy. Maybe deep down in their hearts a few Patrick Henry students would like to live in a theocracy, but as we all know there is an inverse relationship between extremism and political success, so it ain't gonna happen. Any ambitious secular school would say that it wants to train the next generation of leaders; the difference is they're not as good at it. Patrick Henry is unique because its mission is so specific and directed. By contrast, college students today are famously apolitical; they may have great resumes, but no mission to keep them from falling into the quarter-life crisis.
Arlington, Va.: Frankly, these little conservobots scare the living daylights out of me. Because the majority of them are home-schooled, they have no experience in dealing with those of differing opinions or life experiences. I don't need to be "saved," and I resent their implication that because I believe in a truly loving God (which they claim they believe in but their actions show otherwise), I am doomed to burn in Hell because I believe that birth control should be freely available to all, and that homosexuals should be allowed equal marriage rights. Their focus on obtaining earthly power rather than helping the poor show what their true beliefs are.
Hanna Rosin: Again, a common view, and I have to confess I had my moments of annoyance. But you have to admit that as a system it works quite well -- if you do limit your children's exposure to outside influence, they tend to believe more strongly in the end. I myself am a consummate democrat, small d, so I couldn't do it. I place a high value on experience and exposure, even for kids (although watching those commercials that come on during "American Idol," I sometimes have my doubts).
Bush legacy: So what are the views at PHC of the Bush legacy? I am interested because I am a socially liberal former Republican whose shift to the Democratic side was largely thanks to Bush. Is the PHC community glad that I'm gone from the party because I disagree with them, lamenting my absence because it cost Republicans control of Congress (changed my '00 Senate vote for Allen to an '06 vote for Webb) or is there no consensus?
Hanna Rosin: My guess from seeing polling on evangelicals in general is that they still are fairly supportive of Bush, the person, but have problems with how long the war has gone on and with his failure to balance the budget. Home-schoolers tend to have a strong anti-government streak -- they, like the Republican party, are torn between their Libertarian and social values sides.
New York: Thanks for such a wonderful read -- I gave it a positive review in a publication I write for! I was wondering how you got the access you did. How did people at the college feel about you spending so much time with them? Also, could you speak more to the fact that you're Jewish? Were there any additional exchanges you had with people at PHC about your personal upbringing/background that didn't make it into the book?
Hanna Rosin: People ask me about access a lot. I wrote a New Yorker story about the school in 2005, and they were not unhappy with it -- they felt I at least maintained a neutral tone. I asked if I could come back to write a book. Some board members were against it but Michael Farris, the school's founder, said yes. I think that while he's rightly suspicious of the left-wing media, he also rightly sees himself as being at the center of history -- and would like a reporter around to document that.
As for the Jewish part. I talked to the students a lot about that. They tend to classify people by their faith, so it always came up. I think they knew as little about Jews as I knew about conservative Christians. Lots of evangelical churches are very philo-Semitic, even to the point of celebrating Rosh Hashanah. My first step was explaining to them that these Christian versions of holidays bore no relation to the Jewish version, and that Jews for Jesus, evangelical Jews or Zionist Christians were not really Jews in my book.
Alexandria, Va.: Somebody told me the other day "I'm an evangelical." What does that mean? How is it different from a fundamentalist?
Hanna Rosin: A very excellent question, as that term is much misunderstood. People used to define an evangelical as anyone who liked Billy Graham, but that's not so helpful anymore. Fundamentalist is a historical term from the beginning of the century that's come to be associated with very literal reading of the Bible and a restrictive lifestyle, and also has come to take on negative connotations. I rarely meet people who call themselves fundamentalists anymore.
Theologically speaking, an evangelical believes in the inerrancy of the Bible and has a living, intimate relationship with Jesus Christ. But that term also has taken on political implications, so it has come to mean someone who advocates the "family values" agenda. Right now that term is so overused that anyone who goes to a megachurch can call themselves an evangelical, and it doesn't really tell you all that much about what the person believes or how they live. Complicated answer, but there it is.
Columbia, Md.: Hanna, you are so intellectually dishonest, and I think the tragic thing is you truly don't realize it. It might have seemed to work well for the people you interviewed, but, um hello, they represent just part of that population. What about gay and lesbian kids kicked out of their households by home-schooling ultra-right-wing parents? Does that constitute "working well" for you? I knew a family who was home-schooled, and their two children had a terrible time getting through college because they just weren't ready for the academic challenges. You are very effective at just telling one side of this story, it seems, so far.
Hanna Rosin: I'll answer this one because it's so harsh. I just said it works, not that I think it's necessarily a good thing. And the issue you raise is also the one I have most trouble with: They are totally inflexible when it comes to homosexuality, and I've seen a lot of heartbreak come out of that position, of exactly the type you mention
Boston: President Bush was recently asked if he ever gets down, given all that's gone wrong in Iraq and elsewhere, and his response was "no, because I am right." Is there a need for critical analysis skills usually developed in college when faith tells us we are right no matter what?
Hanna Rosin: This attitude comes out in the new biography of Bush, "Dead Certain." Part of the reason he has so little self-doubt is because of his faith, and in this way he and the Patrick Henry kids have a lot in common. Some of the more progressive professors pushed the kids to get away from the "it's true because the Bible says so" attitude. They succeeded only sometimes, with some of the students. Some "just rode away on the same bubble they came in," as one professor told me.
Alexandria, Va.: Even someone who is home-schooled interacts with other people, and parents may involve their child in more field trips than a traditional public school. PHC doesn't seem like they're either creating or nurturing the "Children of the Corn."
Hanna Rosin: This is very true. One of the things I like most about home-schooling is how much time it leaves for independent pursuits -- kids spend a few hours on their lessons and then have the rest of the day to be on the basketball team, or to go on a field trip, or to get together with friends and make a film, or whatever
Hanna Rosin: Thank you all for sending your excellent questions. I'm out of time. If you want to reach me, feel free to e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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