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Book Review: God’s Harvard

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A couple of weeks ago, Slate held a dialogue about Hanna Rosin’s new book God’s Harvard. The book is about Patrick Henry College, a small evangelical college of recent vintage in northern Virginia. Patrick Henry caters to evangelical homeschoolers with an interest in conservative political activism, and is envisioned by its founder as an integral part of movement conservatism. Rosin, a religion journalist for the Washington Post, had what amounted to a privileged outsider’s view of the operation of Patrick Henry for about a year.

In the Slate dialogue, Rosin writes in response to David Kuo:

Scary is a word my lefty friends use. When I had negative thoughts, that was never the adjective that came to my mind. Maybe smug, or arrogant or naive.

Call me a lefty, but I found the book kind of scary. Patrick Henry was founded by homeschool advocate Michael Farris as the natural next step; a place where evangelicals sequestered from mainstream society through their teens could be trained a cultural and political warriors for movement conservatism. Patrick Henry (the name apparently originating in some statement by the actual Patrick Henry that American should have an established Christian character) quickly became known as the place to be for up-and-coming young conservatives, and began placing interns at high levels in the Republican Party machine, relative at least to its size, age, and academic rank.

Patrick Henry was established explicitly to counter what its founder believed was leftist bias in the mainstream university community. Patrick Henry isn’t so much a college for evangelicals as it is a college for extremely conservative evangelicals directly interested in working for the Republican party. As such, it’s founded on a profound misconception about the left and the mainstream American university. While it’s true that a large majority of faculty (especially in the liberal arts) are on the left politically, and also true that there is, as Michael Berube argues, something specifically liberal about the liberal arts, there is in my experience simply no counter-part to the Republican political machine that exists at Patrick Henry. Anyone who has spent five minutes on college campus should realize that, whatever may be going on, political action in service of the Democratic Party isn’t it. For a time at the University of Oregon, one of the most leftist campuses in the country, there was no Democratic Party organization on campus at all. The Democrats had disintegrated as a result of vicious infighting between various of their elements, for reasons so arcane that the terms “moderate” and “radical” don’t supply an accurate description. Even if, as David Horowitz would have it, lefty college professors were trying to recruit soldiers for the coming revolution, that project does not manifest itself in terms of institutional support for the Democratic Party. Patrick Henry, conversely, is directly tied in to conservative think tanks, NGOs, and Republican elected officials.

On a related point, most of the students that Rosin describes seem to believe firmly that Jesus hates the estate tax, would exclude young children from government health care, and loves the F-22. That is to say, they don’t think about Republican Party political goals as necessary compromises or means towards alliance building. Rather, they believe that the goals of the Republican Party are firmly in line with the teachings of Jesus himself. Again from the Kuo-Rosin dialogue, this time with a direct quote from a Patrick Henry graduate:

As long as your faith is an ambiguous thing that’s determined by your culture and personality and the parts of the Bible that you like best—that’s fine with most liberals. But the moment your faith becomes grounded in a God that has revealed his opinions and principles in a document (the Bible) that people rally around, study, learn, and believe despite their personalities and personal convictions (which is the sort of “elite” evangelicals you hung around with at PHC)—you’re dealing with a united force with a relatively united voice.

Right; to which the immediate rejoinder ought to be “But where did Jesus express support for supply-side economics? And where did he say that unions were evil? And where did he say that extraordinary rendition was cool?” Rosin may be giving an unfair account of how the typical Patrick Henry student thinks about these questions, but given that a large number of students have been homeschooled, and that the connection of the rest with mainstream American culture is tenuous at best, it’s a plausible account.

Several of the students that Rosin interviewed described an interest in intelligence work. On the surface this isn’t that surprising; intelligence services tend to draw from those who are particularly inclined towards nationalism, and Patrick Henry draws from upper and upper-middle class families that don’t often opt for military service. Still, intelligence work is the kind of field that invariably involves ethical and moral compromise. It is the job of case officers at the CIA to steal things, to work with corrupt foreigners, and indeed to produce as many corrupt foreigners as possible. In the abstract, I can’t think of a profession less likely to attract committed, principled Christians. Nevertheless, as I mentioned in my review of James Olson’s Fair Play, intel work seems to hold a bizarre attraction for evangelicals. I’m also forcibly reminded of Breach, in which Robert Hanssen is notable both for his strong attachment to the Catholic Church and for his fondness for trading secrets for Soviet money. As best as I can tell, the answer seems to be that the evangelicals who really like intelligence work also tend to believe that the United States is uniquely blessed by God. I suppose that this belief could even make the compromises associated with intelligence work slightly easier, since they don’t involve grubby national interest so much as the greater glory of the country selected by God to lead the world.

Patrick Henry’s focus on political power is in some tension with its gender program. The female students at Patrick Henry seem content to say that they’ll be happy in the “traditional Christian” roles of wife, mother, and support system to go-getter husbands, but in practice they’re often as ambitious as the men are. Rosin details some incidents in which these smart, ambitious young women begin to figure out that yes, the men really are serious about the idea that the place of the woman is in the home, and no, they won’t vote for a women for student body president, or marry a woman who they suspect of being too ambitious. For a while this tension can be finessed, but the strains it creates are obvious and unavoidable. Eventually, the young women run smack into not simply the patriarchy, but rather a force that believes the patriarchy is insufficiently patriarchal. We don’t get to see all of this, because Rosin only follows the students for about a year, but we get to see a lot of it.

New St. Andrews College, profiled in last Sunday’s NYT magazine, makes a lot more sense to me than Patrick Henry. I don’t support its project or agree with its political stance, but its easier for me to wrap my head around its conservative Christian rejectionist view than Patrick Henry’s tight association with movement conservatism. Indeed, Pastor Doug Wilson of New St. Andrews joked “They [Idaho conservatives] voted for Bush; I’d vote for Jefferson Davis,” a statement which should eliminate any doubt as to whether the school’s project is admirable or not. Nevertheless, it at least reveals an understanding of how far outside the mainstream the ideas are, and implies that there are some fundamental contradictions between evangelical Christianity and the contemporary political agenda of the Republican Party. Moreover, NSA actually seems to value intellectual inquiry, while Patrick Henry recently fired several faculty over a dispute that had its origins in the teaching of material necessary to any basic political theory course. Indeed, Michael Farris apparently refers to the reading of Plato in roughly the same terms that one might treat a reading of Mein Kampf; know your enemy.

In any case, it’s quite an interesting book. Scary, but interesting.

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