God’s Harvard, by Hannah Rosin
I’ve just read the most entertaining non-fiction book ever. Long-time blog readers will know that I am a huge fan of trashy non-fiction books about weird subcultures. My previous most entertaining book ever was Neil Strauss’ examination of the pickup artist subculture, before that my most entertaining book ever was Carolyn Jessop’s Escape, which is about a woman who was raised in the compound of a polygamous Mormon off-shoot.
But Hanna Rosin’s God’s Harvard is way better than both of those books, because it lacks much of the underlying creepiness. It’s just about a nice Jewish Washington Post reporter doing some in-depth year-long reporting on a bunch of happy-go-lucky kids at a small fundamentalist Christian college near DC: Patrick Henry University (which is also, btdubs, the name of the made-up university in Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged).
This college’s niche is homeschooled kids. It basically markets itself as the post-secondary destination for kids whose parents kept them home from public school because they were afraid of tank tops and evolution. This is a book about the most fundamentalist Christians that you could ever find. Their parents taught them that evolution was wrong. They don’t even believe in kissing before marriage. They don’t think that Mormons, Catholics, and Jehovah’s witnesses are Christians at all, and they’re not too sure about Anglicans and the other mainline Protestant sects. Many think it’s a good idea to ask a father’s permission to date his (adult) daughter. They don’t watch any movie that has profanity or nudity. They’re not allowed to drink or smoke on campus. They believe the earth was created 6000 years ago. The reporter never met a single kid at the college (even amongst the “rebels”) who thought that homosexuality was not a sin.
And these kids are huge type A nerds. I swear, if you went to college, you’ve met people who are exactly like them. They’re total student council president types. The author interviews a dozen people who want to be President of the United States. They volunteer for political campaigns. They intern at the White House. They all wanna go to law school.
The university has positioned itself right at the junction between politics and evangelical Christianity. It basically requires its students to engage in political activity. And for most of them, this is the attraction. They’re kids who were kept at home for eighteen years and told that everyone outside their doors was corrupt and desperately in need of saving…and now they’re ready to do the saving.
They’re incredibly slick and sure of themselves. And they have a seriousness that can’t help but be compelling. They really do think deeply about whether it’s right to watch a movie with a sex scene or to wear lipstick. They suffer panic attacks over having consumed a few beers in their rooms and then go to the dean and start confessing and snitching on everyone. And some of them get all bent out of joint and have crises of confidence. They start to wonder whether God really cares about their hemlines or their CD collections. They start traveling to the dark side: Anglicanism! Yes, for these kids, rebellion means becoming a regular centrist Republican who just attends church on Sunday. Basically, it would not be an exaggeration to say that George W. Bush is significantly to the left of these kids.
I just found the whole thing so adorable. It’s all so terribly serious, you see. If there’s one thing that I admire about the right, it’s how they really do take the youth seriously. They’re the ones who start schools like these with the express purpose of grooming kids with the right mindset and action. They founder of this school basically started the place out of a dream of creating some kind of Kwizatch Haderich-style hybrid who is equal parts religious warrior and political operative.
And the kids lap it up. They absolutely believe in the hype. They have nervous breakdowns over the thought that they might not someday become senators. They schedule each moment of their day, breaking it into fifteen minute segments where everything, even Bible study, is slotted into just the right place.
I’m not sure how representative these kids are of fundamentalist / evangelical Christians (and yes, I do use the terms interchangeably, even though these kids are way more on the fundamentalist than the evangelical side). I mean, Wikipedia says there are only 330,000 or so kids in the U.S. who are homeschooled for religious reasons, so I imagine that they’re somewhat on the minority side.
But part of me hopes that kids like these are incredibly numerous. It’s so adorable to think of them going through their chaste courtship rituals and trying to find R&B songs that are sexy enough to groove to but not sexy enough to make anyone wanna get all sexy. The girls in this book often have a thing for Jane Austen. They see themselves as a modern embodiment of the culture that Austen depicts. And I can totally see that. They definitely have some thrilling Regency action going on. I mean, there are all kinds of silly moralistic parts of Jane Austen. Like remember how Fanny, in Mansfield Park, considers her cousins to be unspeakably depraved because they dared to put on a play in the living room? Or remember how Elizabeth Bennett and Mr. Darcy, in Pride and Prejudice, constantly imply that Mrs. Bennett’s levity and lack of strictness will eventually lead to Dire Consequences?
Yes, these evangelicals seem to have all the highly mannered fun of the 19th century, and I salute them for it. I am happy to know that they’re out there doing their thing.
It’s hard for me to feel scared of evangelical Christians. Yes, I know that many of them feel my sexual preference to be an abomination and that many of them would be happier if it was against the law. And they’re in favor of a whole bunch of other bad stuff that I don’t believe in. And they’re also very numerous and quite politically powerful.
But they’re also stuck in the same boat as the true liberals. They’re patsies. They get strung along by the centrists and tossed a little red meat here and there, but their social agenda never even comes close to being implemented. They’re sort of our mirror image.
You know, it’s like…when you grow up on the East Coast, you just never think of the rest of the country. Even California is kind of a mythical place. Sometimes when I was growing up, I’d think, “Wow, isn’t it weird that there are thirty million Americans living in a state that is so unimaginably far away and only tenuously connected to my life.”
And it’s the same with the evangelical world. It’s kind of weird that, like, a quarter of America is a part of this world that is so utterly different from my world.
Some people make fun of Christians for the way that they use all this embattled rhetoric. There’s a portion of Christianity that very clearly feels itself to be a minority that is struggling to survive. Critics will say something like, “Umm, 78% of the country is Christian.”
I think that’s missing the point. There’s a huge portion of U.S. Christendom that is really culturally distinct from the rest of America. They’re so distinct that stuff from their world only leaks into our world by accident. Like, the Left Behind series sold millions and millions of copies through Christian bookstores before anyone in the mainstream literary world even realized that it existed. They’re the reason why the 700 Club–a show whose host practices faith healing–appears on a major network. They’re the listeners for the notches on the radio that I skip immediately.
They possess the cultural hallmark of a minority: they’re familiar with majority culture, but that culture contains few depictions of them. Well, God’s Harvard is definitely a mainstream cultural depiction. It’s written in a highly exoticied way, and it’s clearly meant for liberal elites, like me, who’ll use it to laugh at them in sophisticated ways. But, like most underrepresented minorities, they’re probably just happy to be getting a little attention.
P.S. I’ve always wondered why so many liberals have such a problem with the notion that fundamentalist/evangelical Christians believe that we’re all going to hell. To me, that’s not a problem at all. We believe that their hell is totally made-up place. Why get worked up about who they put there?