Patrick Henry College, in Purcellville, Va., is the kind of place that would make most coastal liberals run screaming. A tiny college with about 500 students, its stated goal is to “prepare Christian men and women who will lead our nation and shape our culture.” Its dorms are filled mostly with kids who have been home-schooled all their lives by Bible-believing Christian parents and who were taught that homosexuality is an abomination and that Adam and Eve cavorted with dinosaurs in the Garden of Eden. They aim for White House internships, Supreme Court clerkships and positions with lobbying groups. The minority of Patrick Henry students who don’t have Washington in their sights dream of directing Christian movies or, in the case of many of the women there, raising (and home-schooling) families of Christian children.
The challenge for any responsible journalist approaching this subject, then, is twofold. She must approach with compassion, avoiding the stereotyping that so often characterizes books and articles about religious groups. This tendency among reporters to see people of strong faith as freaks or oddities (whether Mormons or Muslims or Orthodox Jews or evangelical Christians) only exacerbates misunderstandings between Red and Blue Staters and fans the flames of the culture war. At the same time, she must retain her skepticism, wrestling with the fact that what liberal intellectuals fear most about evangelical Christians is in this case partially true: the students at Patrick Henry College do want to take over the world and they do think that anyone without a personal relationship with Jesus Christ is going to hell.
With “God’s Harvard,” Hanna Rosin aces this balancing act. The narrative itself is a barometer of Rosin’s own falling and rising compassion for her subjects. The book, which started in 2005 as a story in The New Yorker, traces more than a year in the life of the college and homes in on a handful of students, teachers and administrators who illustrate the school’s ambitions and internal conflicts. Rosin comes clean at the outset: she is a former Washington Post reporter, a member of the educated East Coast elite, and a Jew. She describes the experience, familiar to anyone who has traversed this world at all, of liking and even admiring smart, sophisticated people who believe that she is damned.
Zealots are less interesting than believers who genuinely struggle with faith. The stars of Rosin’s story, then, are not Michael Farris, the home-schooling visionary who started Patrick Henry in 2000, or the students who speak as though from an evangelical script, but a pair of characters who embrace the college’s aims but not its cookie-cutter approach to life. Robert Stacey is the cult teacher on campus, the man who forces sheltered kids to read Kant and Nietzsche and to wrestle with how they can sustain their Christian world view in light of these philosophies. He signs—and believes in—the college’s statement of faith and yet runs afoul of administrators who can’t get comfortable with the heresies they say he teaches. Farahn Morgan is the campus beauty, an iconoclast who plays by the rules but barely, preferring to live off campus and listen to church services on her car radio rather than join the reindeer games in the girls’ dorms. We—and Rosin, by the looks of it—grow to love these two, and even if we don’t agree with their politics we can see them as committed Christians who take a thoughtful view of the world we all have to share.
Because this book preys so heavily on liberal anxieties, one wishes Rosin had grappled more deeply with this question: does Patrick Henry College actually pose a threat to American values of pluralism, equality and democracy? Certainly, its students are culture warriors in the extreme—committed to breaking down church-state separation and debunking evolution, as well as to overturning Roe and banning gay marriage. But will they be any more influential for having attended a tiny evangelical school than if they had gone to Harvard, say, or Georgetown? I don’t think so. Patrick Henry will give students the verses and the vernacular they need to fight their ideological fights, but it’s an insular environment. As Rosin’s story shows, the world is a big and messy place, and the problem with individuals—even like-minded warriors—is that they don’t always do as they’re told.