August 23, 2007


God’s Harvard: The New Grooming Ground of the Evangelical Movement (Hanna Rosin, August 23, 2007, AlterNet)

I first visited Patrick Henry College in September 1999, a year before the school opened its doors. The "school," that afternoon, consisted of founder Michael Farris, a Christian homeschooling activist, manning an excavator on a construction site just off a Virginia highway exit. Farris was affable, his usual manner with reporters, as he laid out the plans for his revolution. The school would enlist the purest of born-again Christians in a war to "transform America" by training them to occupy the highest offices in the land." Year after year, it would churn out future congressmen, governors, and federal judges, until they finally had the majority. "Few students will know more about the political ramifications of reinforcing homosexuality through special rights than ours," he told me. One day, he bragged, he would introduce the ultimate graduation-day speaker: "President So and So, an alumnus of Patrick Henry."

It all sounded a little far-fetched. After all, he hadn't even laid the first brick.

Then Bush ran for president as a born-again former alcoholic, and won. Suddenly Farris seemed much less delusional. In the early winter of 2005 I visited again. The central building, Founders Hall, was now an impressive Federalist structure. Inside, the walls were covered with posters for an upcoming production of Oscar Wilde's An Ideal Husband. A Whiffenpoofs-style singing group occupied the grand staircase. After talking to some kids having lunch, I concluded they were some of the most anal, competitive teenagers I had every come across. They input their daily schedules into Palm Pilots in fifteen-minute increments -- read Bible, do crunches, take shower, study for Latin quiz, write debate briefs. After Jesus Christ they bowed down to the "1600's" -- the handful of kids each year who'd gotten perfect scores on the SAT. The atmosphere was much more Harvard than Bob Jones.

They resembled the overambitious junior executives who populate the Ivy League these days -- only without the political apathy. Hardly a dorm window, car bumper, bathroom mirror, or laptop went unsullied by some campaign slogan -- for George Bush, John Thune, Bobby Jindal, or one of the many Christian conservatives who won during the 2004 campaign. Many students had taken a sanctioned two weeks off classes to volunteer for campaigns, and they were giddy with victory. One senior told me how she'd sacrificed a couple of weekends helping out Bush adviser Karl Rove. One Saturday afternoon, he stopped by to give her a thank-you present. "Good thing it was an ice-cream sandwich or I would have kept it forever!"

"You are the tip of the spear," Farris likes to tell his students at morning chapel, drawing on his limitless arsenal of military metaphors. Polls would place them among the 29 percent of Christian teens who attend church weekly, pray, read the Bible, and describe religion as "extremely important" in their lives. Sociologically speaking, they are a parent's dream. They are less likely than most teenagers to cut classes, do drugs, have sex, get depressed, feel alone or misunderstood, talk back, or lie. Within the third of Americans who call themselves "evangelical" or "born again" they make up an elite corps, focused, disciplined, and not prone to distraction.

When they use the word "Christian," they are speaking their own special language. To them, a Catholic or Mormon, with some exceptions, is not really a Christian. Someone who goes to church three times a year and sings hymns is not a Christian. Someone who goes to church every Sunday and calls themselves "evangelical" is not even necessarily a Christian. "She thought I was nice and Jesus was a great guy and she went to church a lot, but she wasn't a Christian," Farris once told a group of students about an acquaintance, and they understood exactly what he meant. To them, a "Christian" keeps a running conversation with God in his or her head always, Monday through Sunday, on subjects big and small, and believes that at any moment God might in some palpable way step in and show He either cares or disapproves.

On the issues that have come to define the modern Christian right, the students at Patrick Henry generally cleave to orthodoxy. During my year and a half on campus, I never heard any student argue that homosexuality is not a sin, or that abortion should be allowed in any circumstances. I heard people criticize Bush, but only from the right. After the 2004 campaign, I heard a rumor that someone had voted for John Kerry. I chased down many leads. All dead ends. If it was true, no one would admit it publicly. At Baylor University in Waco, Texas, a much older Baptist institution that's lately been trying to modernize, the student newspaper defended gay marriage in 2004. Such a transgression is unthinkable at Patrick Henry -- so beyond the pale that the possibility is mentioned only in passing in the otherwise-very-thorough student code of conduct.

Yet a Patrick Henry student is unlikely to be caught on camera giving a loony Jerry Falwell-style rant about gays and lesbians causing September 11. They worry about gay rights, but they worry just as much about mainstream culture's thinking they're homophobic. "Yes, it's a sin, but so are a hundred other things," one of the students told me, in a self-conscious nod to the "whatever" cadence of his peers. One day a CNN crew came to film a feature story on the school on the same day some students had made two snowmen holding wooden paddles. The snow sculpture was an inside joke about the students' fratlike ritual, recently criticized in the school newspaper, of paddling newly engaged boys. But Farris was mortified. "Do you really want a story to develop that suggests a connection between PHC and those that have beaten homosexuals, etc.?" he wrote in an e-mail to some students who had defended the snowmen as a harmless prank. "PHC 'a school for vigilante justice.' Is that the image you want?"

At first, when I encountered students who were wary about being interviewed by me, I assumed it was because of the usual evangelicals' suspicion of outsiders. After a while I realized it wasn't that at all. Mostly, they were protecting their résumés. "If I want to get into politics, no history is a good history," class president Aaron Carlson told me. "I want to be prudent that nothing I say is ever misconstrued." The Patrick Henry generation will not repeat the mistakes of their fathers. They are not the reckless, fuming, fed-up generation that left Egypt -- evangelical code for the modern world. They are the "Joshua Generation," as Farris likes to say, the first ones savvy enough to "take back the land."

Of course, it's not that long ago that Harvard was God's Harvard.

The bond between God and power: Once looked down upon, American Evangelicals have now risen triumphantly to the heights (The Economist, 8/23/07)

ON PALM SUNDAY 2002 George Bush and his entourage were flying home from El Salvador. Not wishing to miss church, they decided to improvise. Before long 40 worshippers were crammed into Air Force One's conference room. Condoleezza Rice, then National Security Adviser, led the worship, Karen Hughes, then Mr Bush's counsellor, gave the lesson and the service ended with everybody singing “Amazing Grace” and hugging each other.

In the first half of the 20th century, H.L. Mencken, a freethinker, dismissed Evangelicals as backwoods bigots and Richard Niebuhr, a theologian, said that theirs was a “religion of the dispossessed” (or, as one sociologist put it, of the “disadvantaged ranks of the stratification system”). Even as late as the 1990s there was a widespread perception that Evangelicals were poor, uneducated and easily led.

How did these supposedly ignorant buffoons arrive at the heart of the American power structure? Michael Lindsay, a sociologist at Rice University, who has interviewed 360 Evangelicals who have made it into the American elite, including two former presidents, answers this question with a rare degree of skill and learning. The past 30 years have seen a revolution. Evangelicals have almost drawn level with other religious groups in terms of wealth and education. And they have penetrated almost every area of the American establishment. Look at the top of many a professional tree and you can find an arboreal gathering of born-again Christians.

Posted by Orrin Judd at August 23, 2007 12:00 AM

Now, I'm sorry I didn't take better care of myself, because I'd sure like to live long enough to see that happening.

Posted by: erp at August 23, 2007 8:26 AM

"Then Bush ran for president as a born-again former alcoholic, and won."

Things like this drive me up the wall. George W. Bush is at least our third born-again President.

Posted by: Ibid at August 23, 2007 8:29 AM

That leftist lock on Academia came from the draft. Draft-dodgers had hidden out in education. Now that the poltroons are retireing, look for a cultural correction.

Posted by: Lou Gots at August 23, 2007 2:11 PM

Lou. how long do I have?

Posted by: erp at August 23, 2007 2:26 PM

Lou: No chance. The crazies are in 100% control of faculty hiring. And they aren't going to let the troglodytes back in.

Posted by: b at August 23, 2007 3:36 PM