I know that visions of Huckabees are dancing in some of the CRM’s heads, and I’ll have a post or two about electoral mania before long, but right now I’m more interested in starting my engagement with Hanna Rosin’s God’s Harvard. Don’t worry, though; as you’ll read, the students she wrote about are likely on the ground in South Carolina, Pennsylvania, and Ohio even as I write.
To give a brief overview of the book, Rosin (a religion writer for the Washington Post among other things) spent about three academic semesters (one on campus) researching and reporting on Patrick Henry College, a school whose mission is “to prepare Christian men and women who will lead our nation and shape our culture with timeless biblical values and fidelity to the spirit of the American founding” (PHC website). Rosin, who displays her lack of familiarity with evangelical culture at several turns (more on that as the series progresses), nonetheless is “naturally democratic almost to a fault,” and although she sometimes seems to come from a different planet, nonetheless she is a friendly lander.
Coming to Campus
I’ll admit that the opening chapter seemed to me like a collection of exaggerations. On Patrick Henry‘s freshman orientation weekend, Rosin claims, one could see, along with more “typically oversized homeschooling families” (12), some “families [who] looked like reenactors lost on their way to Colonial Williamsburg: mothers in braids carrying babies in bonnets, girls in their best Laura Ingalls Wilder white-collared dresses” (13), and other strange birds. But soon after it settles into a description not far off from some Christian colleges I’ve visited: dress codes, tidy dorms, and a culture so non-alcoholic that Rosin mentions her shock again and again. (I still find UGA’s saturation in hard-drinking culture disturbing myself, so I think that might genuinely be a matter of living in two different worlds.)
Rosin also seems somewhat baffled that PHC students imagine themselves as on a mission:
Their parents raised them tenderly, not with the intention of sheltering them forever, but of grooming them for their ultimate mission: to “shape the culture and take back the nation.” It’s a phrase repeated in homeschooling circles like a prayer, or a chant, or a company slogan. It shows up in homeschoolers’ textbooks and essays and church youth groups; their parents whisper it in their ears like a secret destiny: There’s a world out there, a lost and fallen world, and you alone can rescue it. (17)
At Milligan College, my own alma mater, none of this would have been strange: most of us Buffaloes came in as freshmen with similar thoughts and left not abandoning a sense of mission but relocating it from Washington-by-necessity to wherever-we-may-land. Christians are the sent people, the ones on the missio dei, our professors told us every semester, and frankly, that’s one of the things that keeps life from getting boring. In the same vein Rosin’s amazement at a common evangelical youth group song amused me a bit. You might recognize the chorus:
Take my heart and form it
Take my mind and transform it
Take my will and conform it–to yours, to yours
I saw those words and remembered fondly my Christian Church high school youth group. Rosin heard them and heard “a battle hymn” (20).
Towards the close of the first chapter Rosin does make an apt observation about the cultural phenomena that make a place like Patrick Henry possible:
The truth is, in any other generation, Derek [the primary subject of chapter one] would have been a missionary or a pastor. But in this generation, he found a place to easily plug that evangelizing instinct into politics. The older people in his dad’s church still warned the family that this was a wicked endeavor. But the older people are pushing against a tidal wave. The days when politics was a dirty business for evangelicals are long gone. Derek’s family was in New Guinea during the rise of the Christian Coalition, so he missed the whole period when Christians broke through to the mainstream. His parents may tell him that Christians are discriminated against, kept out of the public sphere, but his experience tells him otherwise. According to what he learned at political activism camp, Christians are crucial players on the political scene. They are the base, the army on the ground, and if Derek wants to work on a campaign or intern with a congressman, someone at camp just has to make a phone call and poof, when can you start? (31)
Michael Farris, founder of Patrick Henry College, incorporated his school at the height of Bill Clinton’s most famous scandal and opened its doors as George W. Bush and Al Gore vied to succeed him. And in the experience of Derek Archer, it serves as a training ground for a new kind of missionary.
The Advance of Movements
Farris’s own mission began in success as he fought for and won legal rights for Christian homeschoolers in the eighties but foundered in 1993 when he attempted a run for Lieutenant Governor of Virginia and ran into his earlier fiery words (the tools of an activist but the bane of an electoral candidate) in campaign ads against him. Still head of the Home School Legal Defense Association in the late nineties,
Farris founded Patrick Henry in 2000 after fielding requests from two constituencies: homeschooling parents and conservative congressmen. The parents, who looked up to him for his work with the Homeschool Legal Defense Association, would ask him where they could find a Christian college with a “courtship” atmosphere, meaning one where dating is regulated and subject to parental approval. The congressmen asked him where they could find homeschoolers as interns, “which I took to mean someone who ‘shares my values.’ And I knew they didn’t want a fourteen-year-old kid.” (45)
Patrick Henry is a school founded for the “Joshua Generation,” the children of the Moral Majority and Christian Coalition who had “left Egypt” but whose task was now to “take back the land” (ibid.). Perceiving a prejudice against homeschoolers in the admissions departments of the nation’s elite universities (excepting Milligan, I must add), Farris started courting some of the elites among home schoolers. As of the book’s publication the average SAT score ran from 1230-1410, not Ivy League yet but proximate to University of Virginia and Rice (46). With Farris’s connections and the school’s growing reputation, the school has since its founding placed roughly as many White House interns as has Georgetown (46). The school cancels classes for the week before each Election Day so that its students can engage in political activism (50).
Patrick Henry’s personnel know that their future base does not consist of backwater fundamentalists but the suburbanites who pack into megachurches and pack their iPods with pop music. Unlike some of their strident forebears, “These graduates are the first generation with no baggage of cultural isolation: they move easily in and out of the mainstream” (67). That said, “Farris is not interested in adapters who bend to the will of the mainstream. He wants shape-shifters who can move between two worlds with their essential natures intact” (68).
As the chapter closes, Rosin, good storyteller that she is, drops a hint that some dissent has arisen from within the ranks of his faculty. The parents and the administration are beginning to line up against the professors. All of a sudden this is sounding not a little but a lot like Milligan College. More in the next installment.
To reflect a moment, the conflict whose seeds were in the project’s beginning and which grows as the book progresses is one that I have trouble imagining my school experiencing, not because of any moral superiority but because our school is just older than that. PHC, because it is a young school, is very much tied up with the person of Michael Farris and with his influence in Washington. Milligan, by contrast, lacks the connections of a powerful central figure but has stability because its traditions are bigger than any president who happens to preside.
I note this because I wonder whether traditions tend to become smaller with time. I know that many of the Cruncy Cons I know personally started out as activists for the Religious Right, and likewise I know that at Milligan, the kind of ambition that seems to drive Patrick Henry is rare; most of us graduated wanting to cultivate a garden (morally speaking) rather than clearing grand fields of tares. (See? A Bible reference!) As I progress through my engagement with the book (and as Jonathan does the same) I’m sure this question will arise again, but for now, I’ll leave it as a question to ponder.