News & Politics

God’s Harvard: The New Grooming Ground of the Evangelical Movement

A small Christian school outside the nation’s capital is dispatching the next round of evangelicals to the front lines of science and politics, where they will battle for control of the nation.
When I first began covering religion for the Washington Post, more than ten years ago, deflecting conversion attempts became a routine part of my work. Although they are unfailingly gracious, evangelicals are not so good at respecting professional boundaries. What did it matter that I was a reporter doing my job if I was headed for eternal damnation? To a population of domestic missionaries, I presented as a prime target: a friendly non-Christian who was deeply interested in learning more about their beliefs.

The first time someone tried to share the gospel with me, I naively explained that I was Jewish and born in Israel, thank you, thinking this would end the conversation. This was a big mistake. In certain parts of Christian America, admitting I was an Israeli-born Jew turned me into walking catnip. Because God's own chosen people had so conspicuously rejected Jesus, winning one over was an irresistible challenge. And the Holy Land glamour of Israel only added to the allure. Preachers told me they loved me, half an hour after we met. Godly women asked if they could take home a piece of my clothing and pray over it. A pastor's wife once confided to my husband, "You're so lucky. She looks so ... Biblical." Once, at a Waffle House in Colorado with some associates of the influential Christian activist James Dobson, a woman in our company stared at me so hard it became uncomfortable for me to eat. Finally, I looked up at her. "When I look at you, I see the blood of our Savior coursing through your veins," she said.

"Thank you," I gulped. "More maple syrup?"

Explaining that my family had been Jewish for many generations and that, by converting, I'd be breaking a deep, rich tradition only encouraged them to break out the big gun. I've heard it so many times that I can recite it by heart. Matthew 10:36: "For I have come to turn a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law -- a man's enemies will be the members of his own household. Anyone who loves his father or mother more than me is not worthy of me." This didn't stick with me, either. Clearly they had not met my mother, or any Jewish mother for that matter. The Jews haven't endured for nearly 4,000 years by giving their cubs up so easy.

Biblical verses, like turtlenecks go in and out of style. During the nineties I heard Matthew 10:36 on nearly every reporting trip. This was a paradoxical decade for evangelicals. The Christian right had become a fixture in American politics and the nation was about to elect George W. Bush, the closest thing American evangelicals have had to a pope. At the same time the Christian home-school movement was booming -- a relic of the age of separatism and retreat. Evangelicals were poised to move from the fringe to the elite power circles of American society, but they just couldn't seem to make the jump. Unless they learned to polish their act and stop telling people to renounce their mothers, they would never make it.

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."

Patrick Henry students are supposed to be lights unto the world, an example to the unsaved. And yet, there I was, blind as can be, and no one on campus tried to convert me, at least not outright. I never once heard Matthew 10:36. No one told me to turn against my mother, and no one told me I looked like Jesus. Once Sarah Chambers, a PHC student I knew well, left me a note about a book I'd loaned her, a memoir by a former evangelical. She said the book was charming and funny and astutely observed but ultimately unsatisfying because the author fundamentally did not understand what it meant to have a close personal relationship with God. ("If you don't have it yourself it's hard to understand what motivates these 'crazy fanatics,'" she wrote.) I took the note personally. Months into my reporting, I still didn't understand.

I began to ask around: What does it mean to keep up a running conversation with Jesus in your head, and at the same time to function in the modern world? I asked as a reporter, but the question kept striking people in a way I didn't intend. To Farris and many of the students I knew, I seemed to be sending out the signal that I was open to hearing The Word. Farris loaned me Dallas Willard's Hearing God and one afternoon pulled a splinter out of my hand, which at the moment felt close to bathing the feet of the sinner. He prayed "that things come up to help me really show her what it means to have a relationship with God. I feel so inadequate. This is so strange." One sweet freshman told me, "Uhm, well, I like you and I'd just feel really bad if you died and you weren't sure."

Farris must have known I'd be a hard case. I am Jewish, and most of my family lives in Israel; I spent my teenage years in Queens, New York, in the eighties, where my idea of a dress code was matching my miniskirt to my handball gloves. I work and leave my children for several hours a week in the charge of a babysitter who is (gasp!) not related to me. I firmly believe the earth is 4.5 billion years old, or whatever the current scientific consensus says. I have many beloved gay friends and have never once suggested to any of them that they enter into reparative therapy to "cure their disease."

I am naturally democratic almost to a fault. (I've always been grateful that I don't live in a country ruled by a despot, since I could have ended up the one to "humanize" him.) So, despite our differences, I had no trouble letting them in.

For a few weeks during the summer of 2005, Sarah Chambers lived with my family. She'd gotten an internship at a national magazine based in Washington, D. C., and needed a place to stay. When I told my friends this, most of them would give me a quizzical why-are-you-harboring-Nazis-in-your-attic look. Once they met her, they were even more worried. Sarah is charismatic, funny, and adventurous. She climbs, snowboards, and plays the guitar. Her musical tastes range from Jack Johnson to Puff Daddy. She's a terrific writer and was the only intern in her class hired for a full-time job. She could be one of those power girls in a Nike ad, looking glamorous even at the end of a marathon. On top of that, she's an astute judge of character with an introspective side. Sometimes in the mornings I'd find her upstairs in her bed, reading her Bible and taking notes. "If they're all like this," one of my friends said, "we're in trouble."

Often, in the evenings, we would sit around and talk about what she believes. One night my husband finally asked her the question: "So, are we going to Hell?" The Patrick Henry statement of faith, which Sarah and all the other students have to sign, is quite explicit on this question. Satan is real, it says, so is Hell. "All who die outside of Christ shall be confined in conscious torment for eternity." Barring the Second Coming, chances are quite high that my husband and I and our two young children are going to die outside of Christ.

At this point, Sarah had been living with us for almost a month. She'd bathed our children and read them bedtime stories. She'd given my five-year-old daughter a magnificent white model horse, Snow White, that she herself had loved as a child.

"Yes," she answered. "But I'm not jumping up and down with joy about it."

Copyright © 2007 Hanna Rosin from the book God's Harvard by Hanna Rosin
Published by Harcourt; September 2007;$25.00US; 978-0-15-101262-6

For more information, visit www.GodsHarvard.com.
Hanna Rosin has covered religion and politics for the Washington Post. She has also written for the New Yorker, the New Republic, GQ, and the New York Times. She lives in Washington, D.C., with her husband, Slate deputy editor David Plotz, and their two children.
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