God bless Hanna Rosin

PatrickHenryCollegeThis week brings two online discussions of the book God’s Harvard by Washington Post Style reporter Hanna Rosin. One discussion, on the Post‘s website, features questions from readers, with fairly predictable results. It’s a funny mix of Patrick Henry College alumni and people who are frightened by them.

The other discussion, on the Post-owned Slate, pairs Rosin with David Kuo, author of Tempting Faith and a blogger at Beliefnet.

Rosin is thoughtful and measured in both settings, but especially in responding to a peevish question like this one:

Arlington, Va.: Frankly, these little conservobots scare the living daylights out of me. Because the majority of them are home-schooled, they have no experience in dealing with those of differing opinions or life experiences. I don’t need to be “saved,” and I resent their implication that because I believe in a truly loving God (which they claim they believe in but their actions show otherwise), I am doomed to burn in Hell because I believe that birth control should be freely available to all, and that homosexuals should be allowed equal marriage rights. Their focus on obtaining earthly power rather than helping the poor show what their true beliefs are.

Hanna Rosin: Again, a common view, and I have to confess I had my moments of annoyance. But you have to admit that as a system it works quite well — if you do limit your children’s exposure to outside influence, they tend to believe more strongly in the end. I myself am a consummate democrat, small d, so I couldn’t do it. I place a high value on experience and exposure, even for kids (although watching those commercials that come on during “American Idol,” I sometimes have my doubts).

Rosin also shows an informed, Associated Press-style understanding of the words evangelical and fundamentalist:

Alexandria, Va.: Somebody told me the other day “I’m an evangelical.” What does that mean? How is it different from a fundamentalist?

Hanna Rosin: A very excellent question, as that term is much misunderstood. People used to define an evangelical as anyone who liked Billy Graham, but that’s not so helpful anymore. Fundamentalist is a historical term from the beginning of the century that’s come to be associated with very literal reading of the Bible and a restrictive lifestyle, and also has come to take on negative connotations. I rarely meet people who call themselves fundamentalists anymore.

Theologically speaking, an evangelical believes in the inerrancy of the Bible and has a living, intimate relationship with Jesus Christ. But that term also has taken on political implications, so it has come to mean someone who advocates the “family values” agenda. Right now that term is so overused that anyone who goes to a megachurch can call themselves an evangelical, and it doesn’t really tell you all that much about what the person believes or how they live. Complicated answer, but there it is.

Rosin’s discussions also illustrate the value of what I will call embedded religion reporting. Notions about “little conservobots” are easy to maintain at a distance, whether geographical or emotional. But, as with believers across the religion spectrum, daily reality is far more complicated and funny than that — and thus makes for better reporting.

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  • Chris Bolinger

    Reader: Because the majority of them are home-schooled, they have no experience in dealing with those of differing opinions or life experiences.

    Rosin: …you have to admit that as a system it works quite well — if you do limit your children’s exposure to outside influence, they tend to believe more strongly in the end.

    *sigh* That’s “thoughtful and measured”? To agree with the premise that all home-schoolers are in such a “system”? Come on, Douglas. You don’t need to lower the bar that much.

  • Jerry

    As opposed to Chris’ comments, I think her characterization was well written including being non-judgmental. Whether or not limiting exposure to outside influence is good or bad is another issue. Or more accurately, the question is how much one should limit exposure since kids will pick up things from the culture no matter what.

  • Dan

    When discussing the notion of “limiting exposure” it is important to clarify with regard to what exposure is being limited. If it is sex, that’s one thing, if it’s ideas, that’s quite another. It is good and necessary to limit or if possible eliminate exposure to pornography. It is bad to limit exposure to ideas.

    In my opinion it is sheer liberal conceit if it is claimed that that social conservatives “limit exposure” any more than liberals do insofar as ideas are concerned. How many Upper West Side kids, even if they are not Jewish, are exposed to the Gospel or are given St. Thomas Aquinas, “Mere Christianity,” or Joseph Ratzinger to read during their teenage years?

  • Chris Bolinger

    Define “well written”. First, not everyone who home-schools is politically conservative. Second, there is no evidence that “conservobots” (an undefined term) are home-schooled. Third, many families who home-school go to great lengths to “socialize” their kids and expose them to people with “differing opinions or life experiences”. Fourth, there is no evidence that whatever group the reader is slamming has a “focus on obtaining earthly power rather than helping the poor”.

    Does Rosin challenge any of these assertions by the reader? No. Instead, Rosin says that the reader’s viewpoint is a common one and, in the rest of the response, essentially affirms that viewpoint, including the four dubious points listed above.

    Well written? How much shall we lower the bar for reporters in evaluating the quality of their work? Pretty low, I guess. As long as we agree with the reporter, then that reporter is a hell of a writer.

  • Camassia

    I assume that “these little conservobots” refers to the subject of Rosin’s book, i.e. Patrick Henry students. After all, the book is the reason for the chat session. A majority of them are homeschooled, and they are pretty focused on getting into government.

  • http://www.thegodblog.org Brad A. Greenberg

    True not all parents who home-school are conservative Christians with right-leaning politics, but most are, as home-school proponents openly acknowledge. I’m sure Rosin and I disagree plenty on politics, and even more so on religion — many would consider me a “conservative Christian” — but she is a beautiful writer.

  • Chris Bolinger

    Brad, you are equating the term “evangelical Christians” with “conservative Christians with right-leaning politics”. I am tired of the press overloading terms like “evangelical” and presenting the overwhelming majority of religion stories in the very narrow context of today’s political climate.

    Rosin may be a “beautiful writer”, but she uses her experience with Patrick Henry College to paint with a very broad brush. Sweeping generalizations fueled by one’s own biases are not the stuff of good reporting.

  • Dale

    Chris:

    First, not everyone who home-schools is politically conservative.

    In context, both the hothead reader and Ms. Rosin aren’t talking about homeschoolers; they are talking about that subset of homeschoolers who matriculate at Patrick Henry College–a small subset, at that. The mission statement of the college says: “The Mission of Patrick Henry College 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.” Specifically, the Department of Government is “to promote practical application of biblical principles and the original intent of the founding documents of the American republic.” “Original intent”, for those who don’t know, is shorthand for a distinctly conservative interpretation of the U.S. Constitution.

    So, in context, the reader is saying (in a manner that betrays bigotry) that most PHC students have been homeschooled, and are politically conservative. That’s true, even if it’s stated in an offensive manner.

    Second, there is no evidence that “conservobots” (an undefined term) are home-schooled.

    PHC has organized itself particularly to serve students who were home-schooled, so it’s not much of a stretch to say that the majority of the student body is homeschooled. Needless to say, some liberobots find that threatening.

    Third, many families who home-school go to great lengths to “socialize” their kids and expose them to people with “differing opinions or life experiences”.

    Right, but they’re talking about the small subset of homeschoolers who send their children to PHC. While I know a number of homeschoolers who give their children a broad education, I don’t know if that observation applies to those who send students to PHC. The fact that the administration censors movies shown on campus indicates that PHC shelters its students from certain influences in the broader culture. So the students aren’t going to be watching “Brokeback Mountain” in the dormitory lounge.

    Fourth, there is no evidence that whatever group the reader is slamming has a “focus on obtaining earthly power rather than helping the poor”.

    There was an incident at PHC not too long ago where a number of instructors left. If I remember correctly, one of them was reprimanded for assigning readings from Ron Sider and Jim Wallis that were critical of free market economics.

    My problem with the title of the book, and the way that the publisher promotes it, is that it describes PHC as “God’s Harvard”, as if higher education was something new in the evangelical world, and a relatively new, 300 student college was representative of what evangelical Christian colleges teach. The fact is that PHC is distinctive from other Christian colleges, not because some of its students excel, but because the mission of the college conjoins theologically conservative Protestantism with a near-religious regard for conservative American politics. That makes it controversial among evangelicals–so why is it “God’s Harvard”? Why is it merely a “Christian College”?

    Rosin is writing about an institituion on the fringes of American evangelicalism, and it’s presented as representative. That’s misleading.

  • Camassia

    Yeah, that’s the point I was trying to make: I read both the question and the answer as talking strictly about PHC students. Therefore, I don’t see any sweeping generalizations.

    I do think the marketers got pretty carried away with this book, calling it “God’s Harvard” and “the nerve center of American evangelicalism” and the like. Unfortunately, saying “here’s an interesting facet of American culture with a small but notable impact on the government” seems not to be exciting enough.

  • Jerry

    Did some posters here miss that Rosin did not use the conservative pejorative term but that a ‘peevish questioner’ did?

    What a number of people are complaining about here is the loss of what used to be called a ‘liberal’ education (as in liberal arts colleges) where exposure to ideas was the foundation of the educational mandate. Unfortunately today we have a combination of hyper-competitive technical training and prejudice-reinforcing “education” rather than being exposed to a wide range of ideas from many different perspectives.

  • http://www.thegodblog.org Brad A. Greenberg

    Chris,
    I’m not equating evangelicals with political conservatives. I identify as an “evangelical Christian,” but am also uncomfortable with the conservative pol label. It does, however, hold true that most evangelicals who home school their children are of the right-of-center fold, religiously and politically.

    As a religion reporter who used to work at a daily paper, is now on staff at a Jewish paper and contributes most months to Christianity Today, I too am bothered when the media misses the point on the diversity of evangelicals, particularly when they use “fundamentalist” as a synonym for “evangelical.”

    I do not think Rosin makes this mistake in her reporting. And neither do I. As Jerry notes above, it was a ‘peevish questioner’ who made the broadbrush associations.

  • Chris Bolinger

    Folks, thanks for all of the clarifying comments.

    I understand that Rosin did not use the pejorative term, but I still feel that Rosin did not challenge the reader’s assertions, even as applied narrowly to students at PHC.

    Given the tendency of the press to take an extreme example and generalize it, especially in the political realm, the onus is on members of the press to provide context for all statements and even terms such as “evangelical Christian”.

    Brad, I urge you to be cautious in the terms that you use. Just because an “advocate” states that 75% of home-schoolers are “evangelical Christians”, it does not necessarily follow that the majority of “parents who home-school are conservative Christians with right-leaning politics”. Here in Flyover Country, politics takes a back seat to just about everything else, and not just for home-schoolers.