Patrick Henry College Is Not That Influential September 17, 2007

Patrick Henry College Is Not That Influential

Patrick Henry College is the ultra-conservative Christian college. They groom students to serve in the US government. Hanna Rosin has spent a lot of time (over a year and a half) there writing about the school and its students. An article she wrote for The New Yorker a couple years ago was particularly compelling.

Rosin now has a book out about the school called God’s Harvard: A Christian College on a Mission to Save America.

She has an illuminating discussion with the author of Tempting Faith, David Kuo, on Slate.

Kuo asks Rosin a number of questions:

Isn’t it a bit of a stretch to make generalizations about evangelicals based on Patrick Henry?

Do you think that we need to be scared of kids coming from Patrick Henry and/or of evangelicals in politics?

… do you sense that the Patrick Henry kids you profile will be entering a world in which they will meet evangelicals who love Jesus as much as they do, but who are working for Sen. Hillary Clinton or Sen. Barack Obama?

Kuo also makes some admissions from when he was the Deputy Director of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives:

I don’t recall ever meeting a student from Patrick Henry, and maybe only one or two from Regent (Pat Robertson’s school). The evangelicals I knew were all educated at places like Stanford, Georgetown, Yale, and Princeton. And they tended to be very comfortable not only with a universe that is billions of years old but also with someone like Francis Collins, head of the Human Genome Project, who has no difficulty reconciling his evangelical Christian faith with evolution. In short, they weren’t nut cases trying to create some theocratic state.

Rosin responds to the questions:

Who really is an evangelical, and is it fair to have a tiny—and some would say fringe—school stand in for an entire movement? Well, you and I both know that evangelical is a fairly meaningless term these days. Catholics use it. Democrats use it. In social science statistics on divorce, teenage sexuality, even abortion, people who call themselves “evangelical” look just like the rest of America.

When I say “evangelical,” I am thinking of that elite subgroup that goes to church at least once a week. The Patrick Henry kids are in that 29 percent of Christian teens who say religion is “extremely important” in their lives, who don’t cut classes or do drugs, and who wouldn’t succumb if you left Scarlett Johansson waiting for them in their bedrooms.

… should we be scared of them? I certainly met some Patrick Henry students who would be happy to establish a theocracy. But they tend not to be chosen for White House jobs. As you well know, there is usually an inverse relationship between vocalized extremism and political success, which is why the impending theocracy thesis is not all that convincing.

The biggest question is, what will happen to these guys after Bush? You’re right that the landscape has changed. It looks like they’ll be choosing between a Mormon and some second marriages when they go to vote in the Republican primaries. Of all the candidates, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama have the most plausible Christian testimonies. Still, spending so much time with the new elites left me feeling that no matter what happens, they are not going away. We are seeing something like the Peace Corps generation in reverse, and they’ll be popping up in politics and elsewhere for years to come.

Rosin also adds these comments about recent Patrick Henry grads:

Probably a Stanford evangelical conversant in the Human Genome Project would better know how to keep his mouth shut and rise up in the rankings, while a Patrick Henry intern would still be figuring that out. (I once heard a senior explain testily to a sophomore that no, he shouldn’t put on his White House application that the Bible was the book that influenced him the most.) Pat Robertson’s Regent University says that 150 of its graduates have worked at the White House. But maybe there was still enough stigma attached to a Regent or a Patrick Henry degree that, except for Monica Goodling, they were ghettoized in junior staff. The couple of Patrick Henry grads who did well at the White House declined to have their names appear in promotional materials or do interviews on behalf of the school. Many declined Michael Farris’ offer to use his name as a reference. I’m not sure if this says more about them or the Bush administration’s ambivalence about “the nuts,” to use Karl Rove’s infamous phrase from your book.

[tags]atheist, atheism, evangelical, Christian, fundamentalist, conservative, Republican[/tags]

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  • As I have come to understand it, evangelical includes any Christian who is out to “spread the good news” about Jesus. This can include both liberals and conservatives. Fundamentalist is a particular movement within the church that stands for the inerrancy of the Bible. This, too, can have either liberal or conservative adherents, though these days the latter are more prominent.

  • I agree, ultra-conservative Right-wing fundagelicals (like the ones at Patrick Henry, or Regent, or Liberty) are far less influential and less of a threat than many liberal scare-mongers would make them out to be. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t support them in anyway, and I’m far to the left of liberal myself too, but at the same time I don’t think we should assume that we’re only one step away from theocracy either. These things come in degrees, and there are still far more moderates than extremists in this country as far as I can tell.

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