A BUZZFLASH INTERVIEW
People say there are no more protests on campus, that there's no more politics on campus, but these guys [and young women] are all politics, all the time.
At times there would be students who didn't want to talk to me. It was because they just didn't want to risk messing up their resumes. ... they didn't want to say things that might come back to haunt them politically. At nineteen, they are already thinking about their future political career.
-- Hanna Rosin, author, God's Harvard: A Christian College on a Mission To Save America
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Where is the next generation of Fundamentalist Christians who will serve in high positions in Washington going to come from?
Try the little known and freshly minted Patrick Henry College (oh those right wingers are good with patriotic branding aren't they?) in the epicenter state of big name evangelical academia (the home of Pat Robertson's and Jerry Falwell's college enterprises), Virginia.
Hanna Rosin first wrote a New Yorker article about the school and then expanded it into an insightful, revealing book.
Rosin gained access to the students and professors at Patrick Henry College because she is a good and patient listener, and because she gives people -- even ones that she does not politically or religiously agree with -- a fair shake. That's an enviable skill. We don't have it, for instance.
Listening to Rosin in our interview, we were admiring of how hard she worked to try to understand the mindset and religious fervor of the young people preparing to use the political world to advance their vision of a Christian nation.
These are for the most-part, according to Rosln, home-schooled (by parents who wanted to give them a Fundamentalist education), very bright and highly motivated youth.
They are the next wave of Christian soldiers for the GOP.
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BuzzFlash: Patrick Henry College is a fairly young academic institution located in Virginia. Given that you wrote a whole book about it, can you briefly describe for our readers the background and nature of the college?
Hanna Rosin: Patrick Henry College was founded about five years ago by Michael Farris, one of the founders of the Christian home schooling movement. He founded the school because he felt that once home schoolers graduated from high school, they usually did very well, but there was no place appropriate for them to go next. He thought secular colleges had a little too much of co-ed dorms and things that a Christian student would not want to deal with. He founded Patrick Henry College to train the next generation of Christian leaders, as he put it, and to propel young ambitious Christians into positions of influence and leadership, both in Washington and other centers of influence, such as Hollywood.
Home schooling was also popular in left-wing circles for a long time, but lately it's been primarily associated with Evangelical Christians. It went through a great boom in the Nineties, partly through the influence of Michael Farris. As a constitutional lawyer, he fought for the right for families to home school their children. There are about a million home schooling families now.
BuzzFlash: One would assume that the Evangelical home schooling movement is in part a repudiation of the public school system.
Hanna Rosin: It's absolutely a repudiation of the public school system. Michael Farris is famous for once having called public schools "godless monstrosities." The idea was that in the regular public school, you could not protect your children from all sorts of things in the culture that you would not want them to have contact with -- everything from sex ed, to learning about homosexuality, to just curses, the way people talk, the kind of novels that are taught. They did not want their children exposed to those things, so they decided it would be much better to keep them at home. The goal was not simply to shelter them forever, but in effect, to create almost a vanguard -- to train them to take back the nation.
BuzzFlash: This is still a small college, correct?
Hanna Rosin: It has about 350 students, although, by now it has a thousand-some graduates. Many of them have worked in positions of influence, such as the White House, Karl Rove's office, in Congress, and in Hollywood, so they actually have met their mission in some way. The reason I chose it, even though it's small, is that I felt it was very representative of this moment in the history of the American Christian right. They now are becoming "mainstreamized" and are very much a part of the American culture, rather than a fringe protest group, as was the case when they entered politics in the Eighties. They're an accepted part of the Washington establishment.
BuzzFlash: Patrick Henry has been a little bit in the shadow of Regent University, known for the law school's impact on the Department of Justice, and Liberty University, the late Jerry Falwell's university. Patrick Henry is sort of an up-and-comer here, but moving fast.
Hanna Rosin: I chose Patrick Henry rather than a place like Liberty or Regent, which have a similar mission, because Patrick Henry is pure in a way. Patrick Henry was a much more pure form of this mission, which is, you know, fairly unprecedented in American history. They take the most sheltered kids and push them forward into the centers of influence. The twin mission that they have at Patrick Henry is fairly extreme.
BuzzFlash: Yet the Patrick Henry graduates, if I recall, have already attained an unusually large percentage of influential political positions, White House internships, jobs on Capitol Hill, and so forth.
Hanna Rosin: Absolutely, because they focus so exclusively on this mission. The people who are attracted to Patrick Henry are quite smart -- their average SAT is 1250. They tend to do quite well, and better than other liberal arts colleges. We could call them undistracted compared to your typical college graduate, who maybe wants to travel around Europe for a year, who wants to sow their wild oats or find their identity. These guys are just so absolutely focused that they have really plotted out their career path since they started freshman year. They're very, very, very hard workers. They stay up all night and study. They're your most type-A stereotype of a college student, only without what college students are now famous for, which is political apathy. People say there are no more protests on campus, that there's no more politics on campus, but these guys are all politics, all the time.
I first went there in 2004, right after the campaign. That was the time when a lot of Christian conservatives got into Congress and the Senate. You would see the stickers for Congress and Bush's reelection on basically everybody's laptop and everybody's window. It was very much the opposite of the normal, apathetic stereotype of the college student today.
BuzzFlash: In the Publisher's Weekly review of your book, they referred to the college as a training ground for God's cultural soldiers. I guess, one would say Christian soldiers. Is that an accurate description?
Hanna Rosin: That's absolutely accurate. That's how the school sells itself -- as very much a training ground. And the way the curriculum works, that's how it turns out. For the first two years, it's the basic study of the whole Western culture curriculum. Then the next two years are almost vocational. It really does feel like a training school. You're pushed to get an internship. You do these long essays which are designed to mimic what a congressional staffer or a young lawyer would have to do. It's very much training for a particular kind of job of influence.
BuzzFlash: You mentioned how hard working the students are. I don't mean to be sarcastic here, but from a practical standpoint, they don't have sex, rock-n-roll and drugs and alcohol to distract them.
Hanna Rosin: You're actually right. That's not being sarcastic. Where else would that energy go? They really have learned to keep a tight discipline over themselves, which probably began with a kind of tight religious discipline in their teenage years. They are able to transfer that into a tight academic discipline.
Don't get me wrong. People fall in love. There are tons of people who get married. In a graduating class of a hundred, you'll have ten weddings of Patrick Henry graduates to other Patrick Henry graduates. But you don't get those people who are just kind of biding their time. Some people sort of fail in the system, and there are some who have gone wrong, who drink too much or get kicked out of the school for one reason or another. But the culture, for the most part, is very, very focused.
BuzzFlash: You spent an extraordinary amount of time there. You didn't see a lot of people just freak out and start taking LSD or drinking?
Hanna Rosin: Some freak out in the other direction. You encounter people who you are worried are anorexic. You may encounter people who drink a lot. I have a chapter which is essentially an analysis of a drinking case. Basically, the Dean of Students discovers that these students are drinking. He hunts them down. They had a room at the dorm that they called the "den of sin." It was almost operated like an embassy in a foreign country. People would go there to sort of dry out and hide in these guys' room.
An extraordinary set of students engineered this process. It did disappear quickly -- in the next year, they didn't manage to have it. They just kind of worked the roommate selection process to make it happen. My chapter talks about how the school conquered that and shut them down. So there are people who drink, who come home drunk every once in awhile. It's kind of normal college stuff, but by Patrick Henry standards it was extreme.
BuzzFlash: What about sex? Is it a pretty chaste school?
Hanna Rosin: Once in awhile, people get kicked out for having sex. I definitely know of a couple of kids like that very early on in the school's history. Somebody got a girl pregnant, and they were pressured to get married, and the baby died. A lot of people call it the consequences of sin kind of story. That does happen, but it really is talked about the way you would talk about a deep shame in a great Victorian family. Everybody whispers about these cases, and worries about them, and they're never spoken of openly, and it's explicitly forbidden.
BuzzFlash: A Hester Prynne sort of environment.
Hanna Rosin: Very Hester Prynne. In fact, one woman who I describe was something like a Hester Prynne, not because she has sex, but because she exudes a certain vibe of brazenness, which is not so acceptable on campus. I write about her as the person in the school who girls kind of circle around, and they give her a lot of trouble about what she's wearing, and if her bra strap is showing. Once again, it's not that she's actually done anything. It's just that she has this air about her which makes people uncomfortable.
BuzzFlash: In the conclusion to your book, you mention one couple that end up getting married. The husband is Matthew du Mee. He went to Arizona to work for the Center for Arizona Policy, a Christian-right organization. He has on his office door an editorial by the founder the group: "Legislate morality -- Why not?" It's a quotation. In some ways, could that be the informal motto of Patrick Henry?
Hanna Rosin: Yes, that's a good way to put it. I write about Matthew because he is the perfect product of Patrick Henry. Normally what happens is, students who are able to maintain their faith intact and unadulterated are not the same as the students who actually make it out there in the world of Hollywood and Washington. You realize not everybody out there is a Christian, and a lot of people drink, and it's not like I was taught in school. But somebody like Matthew du Mee really is able to maintain both of those ideals strongly at once. He's extremely successful, and, I would say, he has not wavered one inch in his notion of what it is to be a Christian.
Now he's going to Harvard Law School, and he really is able to live in both worlds at once. That's what's unusual about this next generation of Christians. I think the Jerry Falwell-Pat Robertson generation really felt, to the mainstream culture, like aliens descending upon us from the right. Now, this generation is successful. They go to Harvard Law School. They work in Hollywood. It's not that easy to distinguish them, even in the most extreme wings of the conservative Christian movement.
BuzzFlash: The Bush administration looks very favorably upon graduates from this school, just as they did and do on those from Liberty University or Regent law school, such as Sara Taylor and Monica Goodling.
With "Legislate morality -- Why not?" as an informal motto in these schools, it appears to me that, for many of these graduates, the mission is indeed to impose their morality. We've long had Christian centers of higher learning in the United States. Billy Graham graduated from Wheaton College, which is still thriving, but Wheaton doesn't have that mission. It gives, according to its own goals, a Christian college education, but it doesn't necessarily perceive its role as to have graduates go out into the world and impose that Christian morality on the rest of the country, using the governmental process to impose a Christian morality and values system on the rest of the country.
It seems to me one of the things you've learned is that at Patrick Henry, their mission is very distinctive.
Hanna Rosin: That's part of the reason I chose Patrick Henry. The older Christian colleges also went through a boom in the Eighties and Nineties, but they were originally founded after World War II with the idea that you would take smart Christian kids and teach them a kind of parallel world view, and a different set of values. It was almost like they lived in parallel worlds. Now it doesn't work like that. Most Christian colleges have this tremendous baggage they're fighting against of seeing things the first way. Patrick Henry was founded in this new atmosphere -- years after the Christian right and the Christian Coalition were already established. The lingering idea that we want to stay sheltered and be in this parallel world is just not part of their mentality. Their mentality is, we want to influence the nation.
The thing that's attractive to me about Patrick Henry is that you have people straight out of the home school bubble. It's college, and straight into this idea of taking over the nation. It's quite a jarring transition.
BuzzFlash: This college teaches you to go out and make the American government more Christian.
Hanna Rosin: Right. You go there with that goal. Even on graduation day, that's kind of swirling around everyone's head. It's like, okay; here I am; time to launch the mission. What am I going to do?
A tremendous anxiety takes over at the end of senior year. It's greatly shameful if you don't have a job, if there's a graduate who's working at Chili's for awhile. You really don't show your face until you have accomplished your mission -- that is, you're working in Congress, or you're working at the White House, or you're working someplace that's a center of influence.
There are some girls -- they call them the home school girls -- who are really pretty shy. They grew up really sheltered. They wear long, long skirts. They have braids, and they sort of stay that way through four years, and they're the minority. But even those girls, at the end of the four years, will say, well, my dream is to become the First Lady. It's deeply ingrained into people's minds. That's what they see as their goal.
BuzzFlash: You are not a fundamentalist Christian, and you were raised in New York.
Hanna Rosin: I'm Jewish. I belong to and attend the synagogue. I'm not as religious as anybody at Patrick Henry, but we are solidly Jewish.
BuzzFlash: You talk about being an Old Testament sort of person.
Hanna Rosin: There is a sense of certainty about belief that I find alien. That is true, and that's very strong at Patrick Henry. It's very strong in the Bush administration, that kind of attitude about religion. You still hear it in Bush's Iraq speeches.
BuzzFlash: He told the author of the new Bush biography that he weeps on God's shoulder at night, which is pretty extraordinary for a President of the United States to be saying. Whether it's true or not, who can say?
Hanna Rosin: Right.
BuzzFlash: The ongoing narrative in the Bush administration is his confidence that he is doing God's work, and that he can't be wrong because God has spoken to him, and he now says that he cries and weeps on God's shoulder. It would be something, I assume, that the students at Patrick Henry could relate to.
Hanna Rosin: Absolutely -- turning to God and going to God. Weeping on God's shoulder could evoke the image of failure -- that you've failed and you're weeping on God's shoulder to ask for forgiveness, or to say that you're sorry. In the early days of the war, you really got a sense from Bush that God had sort of approved the mission.
There's always been a tension in American history between the Lincoln mode of pleading to God in the hope that we have done the right thing, and the other mode of implying that God has really sanctioned this thing that you're doing, and you know that in some way you're carrying out God's will. In the more confident moments in the administration, you've certainly gotten the sense that Bush believes the latter -- that he's fairly confident that this mission was ordained by God. In the less confident moments, it turns more personal -- you know, I plead with God. I rely on God, and not so much certainty about knowing that God approves what you're doing.
BuzzFlash: As a non-Christian, you go to this college that is as new-age Evangelical and fundamentalist as one can get. You spend a lot of time there. First of all, I applaud you for your patience. You're clearly a reporter. You listen very well without being judgmental. Otherwise, I don't think you could have gotten the feel and portraiture of the people at this school. You do a tremendous job of trying to understand what is going on with these people, as a journalist who is doing their job well tries to do. What are they thinking? Trying to get inside them, and respecting their viewpoint without necessarily agreeing with them. You talk a little bit in the book about this.
But I'm still wondering, how did they come to accept you? A lot of us who are on the other side of this might imagine the young people as robotic automatons who are a threat to the Constitutional guarantees of individual liberties in the United States. You were able to suspend that, and you felt comfortable in respecting their viewpoints. What made it work? How did they come to let you into their lives?
Hanna Rosin: That's a very good question. Part of it is just patience, and part of it is a genuine curiosity. I tend not to be interested at just the polemical level, so I wind up being genuinely curious and asking them a lot of questions. Their being Christians is something that works to my advantage. Their mission is supposed to be evangelizing, they are meant to be open to other people, and particularly people who aren't Christians. I think they like to engage in those conversations. Maybe somewhere in their mind, there's some hope they might convert me or sway me. But it's more just the sense that they should be open to it.
Secondly, the fact that I'm Jewish, and I was born in Israel, and my whole family is Israeli, really sparks their interest. Evangelicals and Israelis have a pretty tight bond. In their case, it has to do with this theoretical notion of what an Israelite is, or what a Jew is. They are very curious about Israel and about Jews, and a lot of American foreign policy is made on the Evangelical support for Israeli policy. So that's the second thing.
The third is, I had written a story for The New Yorker, and while they took issue with parts of it, they generally were not unhappy with it. They felt that I had done a fair portrayal. It was at least balanced, so they felt they could let me come back on campus a second time. As it happens, it was a year full of turmoil and probably the worst year in their short history. I'm not sure that they don't regret it, but they did let me around campus.
The final reason is that people are busy, and they don't necessarily know that I'm here and there, and talking to that student, and visiting that person at home. Eventually people forget about you, which is when reporting gets good and interesting.
BuzzFlash: You become like the furniture. You're just there.
Hanna Rosin: Right. Some reporters serve almost the same role as psychiatrists, in some ways. People like to talk and reflect on their lives. They need to do it, at some level. At its most humane, that's the role that reporting serves. It's sort of holding up the mirror and letting somebody actually justify their own merit, and talk about themselves, and talk about how they construct their life, and what it means to them and why.
Some of it is that process, and some of it is just pure observation. You really have to be around for a long time just to see the unexpected moments. If you just have a sit-down, you won't necessarily get those small details that are very, very revealing about somebody or some situation.
BuzzFlash: What do you think is the right-wing Evangelical Christian's real relationship to Israel? Do these students feel that they can relate better to a Jew, perhaps, than to some other faiths, because of the JudeoChristian heritage? Or is the relationship with Israel one of those ironies, a matter of mutual convenience, since many ardent Christian Zionists see Israel as simply a vehicle for the heralding of Armageddon and the rapture, in which most Jews will be destroyed?
Did you get to that level with these students?
Hanna Rosin: I'm always frank when people ask me what I believe. I'm not wallpaper in the sense that I try to hide my identity. Second only to the conversation about homosexuality, which would make me crazy, was the conversation about Israel.
They do have what I think of as a completely unrealistic notion of what Israel's like, and who Israelis are. They inherited this notion that you have to support Israel deeply. They've actually been taught or thought about this idea that the reason you so closely support Israel is because it plays a critical role in the Second Coming of Christ. But I also think they just have a deep connection to Israel, in that a lot of the Bible takes place there. The Jews are the chosen people, so for that reason alone, they feel quite warmly towards the Jews.
There was a moment when I was there when the discussion was about the Gaza pullout. They would go home for spring break or their Christmas break, and their churches were running petitions to oppose the Gaza pullout. I would get into conversations with students about this, and they really never considered an alternate view. It never occurred to them that there could be any other position but keeping the Holy Land together, and that you'd have these apostate leaders of Israel who every once in awhile would come up with these crazy ideas about breaking up the original Holy Land. That's just the way they thought.
I would patiently explain, do you understand what it means for an Israeli soldier to serve in Gaza? Do you know geographically how distant Gaza is? I don't mean to be condescending, but, you know, they're young. They don't necessarily know, and they don't necessarily question what their parents say.
A lot of students are studying Arabic, intending to serve overseas. I remember when a couple of students went over to Israel to study Arabic, and they ended up at Hebrew University. They had a roommate -- I know this from e-mailing with them -- who was kind of a lefty. I can't remember if he was Jewish, or an Arab, or a lefty Christian, or what, but he was slowly kind of indoctrinating them in this other view of the Palestinians as having rights in this competing system. I think they really had just never thought of it.
That's a problem with their "take back the culture" and "take back the nation" ideas. Wen you send your students out to accomplish these great things in the world, inevitably there comes a contact with alternate views, and things that question their very determined world view. That's what happened in this case, in Israel. That was the first time I saw students really, on their own, kind of organically question the received wisdom about Israel and its role in the Evangelical world view.
BuzzFlash: Their perception is that Israel is all of one mind, when Israel is a democracy that has diverse viewpoints toward relationships with the Palestinians. They probably don't understand that Israel is a thriving democracy with a diversity of perspectives on Gaza or the war with Hezbollah and Lebanon. Just as they feel that the U.S. government should be of one Christian mind, they probably think Israel is of one mind.
Hanna Rosin: Diversity of thought is not that common when you come from a home-schooling culture. We shouldn't be surprised that they have never considered an alternate view. It does come as a surprise to them that I'm an Israeli, and I disagree with them about the state of Israel, about what we should do with Gaza or the Left Bank. I don't think they've considered that there are lefty Israelis. They do have the sense that there's the secular left in America. They hear all these terms about the degraded secular left, or gay pride parades, but it's a very theoretical evil to them. It's like a science fiction evil. They've really never seen it. For the most part, they don't have any realistic context for it.
BuzzFlash: So you're an apostate now, because you don't have the beliefs they think a Jew born in Israel should have.
Hanna Rosin: That would be true. Although they think of "apostate" as a religious thing. I think I'm kind of off the grid. I think the people they have the hardest time with, though, are sort of lapsed Christians. They kind of can box me off in the Jewish Israeli box. If you're a Christian who's not really practicing, I think that's hard for them to deal with.
BuzzFlash: I while ago you mentioned the topic of homosexuality. Given the recent Larry Craig dust-up, why is homosexuality such an issue?
Hanna Rosin: It's such an issue, that it's not an issue. In most Christian colleges, you hear of homosexuality in some ways. There may be the first inklings, in many Christian colleges these days, of a sort of gay group, but it won't be recognized. There will be Christians who come out and say, hey, I'm gay. They may end up kicked out of school.
Patrick Henry is not at that point yet. Again, it's one of those things you hear whispers about -- oh, that student is gay, you know -- but it's so under the radar, it's not really discussed. They take a very hard line. This is true of even among the least conservative students on campus. Their view of homosexuality is that it's a sin.
On the other hand, they're not of the Jerry Falwell-Pat Robertson generation, so you probably would not find them one day in their political future giving one of those speeches blaming gays and lesbians for some disaster. They do have a sense of homophobia being unacceptable, as much as they have a sense of homosexuality being unacceptable. So they find very delicate ways to dance around the question.
BuzzFlash: You're saying that they're smart enough to be in some ways politically pragmatic?
Hanna Rosin: Right. They have learned from the political mistakes of others. And they believe that they're totally entitled to political leadership. It doesn't seem strange to them that they should be elected to Congress. It's not a new thing, the way it was for Michael Farris, who was one of the first generation of Bible-quoting politicians. They feel, of course we would be in Congress, that's our destiny. We are not going to do anything to mess that up.
At times there would be students who didn't want to talk to me. It was because they just didn't want to risk messing up their resumes. They knew that I was a reporter. They knew I worked for The Washington Post, and they didn't want to say things that might come back to haunt them politically. At nineteen, they are already thinking about their future political career.
BuzzFlash: What do you think the future holds for Patrick Henry College? Is it going to continue to grow in terms of perceived power and prestige? Or is this something faddish?
Hanna Rosin: It's hard to say. It's my impression that it will continue to grow, and grow strong. They're hitting a lot of bumps along the road. They're hiring and firing professors. Every year, they kind of rewrite the student code of ethics. I think eventually they will settle down and become known as the place for really ambitious, politically minded Christians to go. They'll settle into that reputation and work out the kinks, and move forward. That is my impression, from what's happened in the year since I've written the book.
BuzzFlash: The way you describe it, it is not unlike Yale University, where I studied in the Seventies. You had this confluence of high profile undergraduates and law students -- everyone from Bill and Hillary Clinton, John Kerry, George W. Bush. Now you have a Christian college with that same government/public policy sort of bent to it, but with a very distinct theological and political perspective.
Hanna Rosin: People have made that comparison. These kids remind some people of the Peace Corps generation -- that kind of fervor. They take ideas very seriously, and they really, really argue about the role of art, and what's appropriate art to look at and not look at. Their conclusions are not what you would necessarily come to, but the spirit of the debate is very much like what was seen in the Sixties and Seventies -- I mean the earnestness with which they tackle various ideas.
BuzzFlash: And ergo, we end up where your fine book is entitled God's Harvard.
Hanna Rosin: Exactly.
BuzzFlash: These are intelligent young people who are very energized by ideas, but ideas that are directed through a distinct prism.
Hanna, thank you so much. Again, we admire your reporting. You're to be commended for treating these young people, with whom you don't necessarily agree politically, with such dignity, even though they have a mission that's very different than yours or ours. You do a great job of illuminating what they're thinking.
Hanna Rosin: Thank you.
BuzzFlash interview conducted by Mark Karlin.
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God's Harvard: A Christian College on a Mission To Save America, by Hanna Rosin, a BuzzFlash premium.
God and Country: A college that trains young Christians to be politicians (Hanna Rosin/The New Yorker)
A BUZZFLASH INTERVIEW