Midway between homeschools and Capitol Hill

PHCcampusI’ve been too slow to praise Hanna Rosin’s profile of Patrick Henry College in the June 27 New Yorker, but it’s still available online.

As a private school training mostly homeschooled Christians for careers in bare-knuckled politics, the college is a target-rich environment for this fundamentalist-sighting safari in the Independent and this wry satire on McSweeney’s website.

Rosin’s article would be dull if it offered no critical distance, and she delivers claustrophobia-inducing details like these:

Often, the campus looks like a scene from “Meet Me in St. Louis,” with young men and women talking to one another through open windows, or exchanging a chaste goodbye at the downstairs door — men and women are not allowed in the living areas of each others’ dorms. Girls talk about not “stumbling” a guy, the equivalent of tempting him, and resident advisers keep a close eye on them to make sure they don’t wear shirts that show any bra. If they do, they’ll get a friendly e-mail — “I think I saw you in dress code violation,” followed by a smiley emoticon. (Not everyone takes the strictures well: one woman I spoke to would sometimes cry in the stairwell after being criticized by other girls for dressing inappropriately; she is transferring.) Smoking, drinking, and “public displays of affection in any campus building” are forbidden. Matthew du Mée, who was an R.A., told me that if he saw a boy and girl sitting too close for too long he would pull the boy aside and tell him to stop, because “the guy is supposed to be the leader in the relationship.”

But Rosin clearly spent time with enough students to show that they’re not easily dismissed. Patrick Henry College has its share of both the sanctimonious and the sardonic:

The school has to make room for a student like Farahn Morgan, a ballerina who is trying out to be a Rockette and likes to provoke her roommates by saying she’s going to Victoria’s Secret (“People, everyone wears a bra!”), and for a junior like Ben Adams, who sent out a nine-page e-mail to the entire student body before the spring formal reminding the girls to dress modestly. “Lust is sin,” it said. “It is sin for you to tempt us. It is . . . unloving. Unsisterly. Un-Christlike.” Nearly every week, minor culture wars break out on campus. One student wrote an article entitled “Why Bono May Be a Better Christian Than You.” Another responded, in an outraged op-ed, that the band members “live like heathens.”

And in the person of Robert Stacey, it has a professor who takes seriously his job of making students think for themselves:

Then Stacey moved on to Machiavelli’s principle that politics is governed by conspiracies and lies. “Come on, we know politicians lie,” he began. “This is a bit sensitive. How about our beloved George W. Bush? Does he deceive us with what he says in public? Does he lie?”

The students, who had been fully engaged on the subject of Machiavelli and Waco, were silent. Bush has been President since they were teen-agers, and the school newspaper’s editorials never deviate from the White House position. Finally, one student said, “No, I don’t think so.”

Stacey didn’t say anything. After a pause, the student said, “I mean, it would be nice if he didn’t.”

Stacey, who has a Ph.D. in government from the University of Virginia, told me that he loved Patrick Henry, because the students “really want to be here, which is very satisfying for a professor.” He is an evangelical Christian, but he worries that his students sometimes revert to jargon they picked up from their parents, “that the nation’s founders just fell out of Heaven, that America is a Christian Nation, capital ‘C’ capital ‘N.’ I want them to understand that these are myths, that the claims they’re making are superficial.” When he asks his students to defend a position, Stacey said, “‘The Bible says so’ is never the answer.”

Rosin’s article is a fine example of how a thoroughly urban publication can depict conservative Christians accurately, critically and fairly. It is excellent work.

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  • ceemac

    Interesting contrast between the young adults in the New Yorker article and those in the Rolling Stone article.

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  • http://www.newpantagruel.com Dan Knauss

    And an interesting contrast with Allan Guelzo’s story of decline and secularization in CCCU schools for Books & Culture. (Not online yet.)

  • http://guildedlilies.tripod.com/index.html Steve Nicoloso

    Yeah, Dan, this has got me thinking too. I’m a HSLDA member and homeschooling father of a 5 kids, the oldest of which will be considering college in about 4 years. I myself went to a Christian college in the 80′s that was undergoing its own transformation from the Bob Jones style of Christian College to more the CCCU-style. Ya know, the dress codes get relaxed, then they allow beards, then they allow movies, then they allow maybe holding hands, and then… well you know where that leads… Of course, at the time I thought that anything we could do to be UN-like the Bob Jones style was great. After all, what price can you put on being cool… errr… culturally relevant… yeah, you know, to reach “our generation” for the Lord?

    But looking back I think that being cool was really way overrated, and there’s now a soft spot in my heart for those hyper-separatist Bob Jones-style colleges–not that I don’t think it likely that they’d shipwreck the faith of my children. This is still dangerously likely, but just less likely that if I sent them to a CCCU-”style” college.

    Of course, the decision will probably be made easier by the fact that my oldest (at least) is not the type of over-acheiver that would easily get admitted to, or be terribly competitive in, the political meatgrinder that PHC appears to be. That plus the fact that I’m WAY too cheap to plunk down $20k/year for his education, virtually assures me that he’ll be educated in the good ol’ Secularist Stronghold of Morris County College… followed by a brief 2-3 year stint at Rutgers if he proves worthy… Aiming low may not be terribly trendy, but it is substantially more affordable ;-)


  • NateBorcherding

    It was a fair piece -they handed the rope to the students and let them hang themselves with it. I’m thinking, for instance, of the Christian schoolgirl, who won’t hold hands with her boyfriend in public, but hangs up pictures of debauched, foul mouthed politicians like Bush and Cheney in her bedroom. The author cheekily ends the piece by asking whether politics might sully the integrity of PHC’s students.

    Now, a return to schools that actively uphold traditional, Christian morality would be highly desirable, but the emphasis this school places on politics is regrettable and ulitmately pointless, with regards to spreading Christian faith. If it were really as simple as changing the laws, I imagine Spain (one of the last nations which seriously enforced Christian morals in it’s legal code) wouldn’t have just defined away marriage, in the same manner that it recently legalized abortion, divorce, cloning, etc.

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  • http://blog.jlleblanc.com Joseph LeBlanc

    I agree that this was a very fair article. Knowing where the HSLDA comes from, I really wouldn’t have expected to see a significantly different story.

    Anyone know where I might be able to get a copy of “Why Bono May Be a Better Christian Than You.”? ;)