Back in 2005 I came across a New Yorker piece on Patrick Henry College, a small evangelical Christian college in Northern Virginia. Founded only five years earlier by Constitutional lawyer, homeschooling political advocate, and unsuccessful Virginia lieutenant governor candidate Michael Farris as the college of choice for devout, homeschooled evangelical youth. Despite these students’ insular upbringing Patrick Henry, with a student body of only 300 boasts a world-class debate team, frequently besting rivals from the Ivy League to Oxford. All this with a strictly enforced ultra conservative code of conduct which, in addition to prohibiting drinking, recreational drug use, premarital sex and profanity strictly restricts an array of student activities ranging from dress code to musical tastes. Even dating is heavily frowned upon, instead prospective couples are encouraged to engage in archaic courtship rituals straight out of a Jane Austen novel.
Fast forward to late 2020 when I heard a discussion on one of my favorite podcasts, Friendly Atheist about Madison Cawthorn, a 25-year-old MAGA wackadoodle from North Carolina who was running for a seat in the US House of Representatives. According to news sources sited by podcast co-host Hemant Mehta, even though Cawthorn is a self-identifying conservative Christian, while attending Patrick Henry for a semester before leaving due to poor academic performance he apparently “earn[ed] a reputation for sexually predatory behavior, lying, and vandalism.” As a result, 176 current students, former students, and alumni of Patrick Henry signed a letter condemning Cawthorn’s past behavior and urging voters to reject him at the polls. Mehta also went on to mention a surprisingly large number of hyper conservative Republican staffers and interns in DC are Patrick Henry grads and interns.
In the weeks following the Trump and his allies’ unsuccessful coup at the Capitol I found myself in the mood to read up on the world of conservative evangelicals and figured now was a good time to finally borrow an overdrive copy of the book spawned by Hanna Rosin’s original New Yorker article. Published in 2007 God’s Harvard: A Christian College on a Mission to Save America is an intimate, detailed and even-handed look at life inside Patrick Henry College, the conservative Christian subculture that produced it and the America its students and graduates would like to build.
If conservative Christians were to take back the reigns of power in a morally corrupt America they would need a generation of intelligent, driven and upstanding believers to do it. With the Ivy League and other elite colleges seen as dens of vice and atheism, as well as closed to the ranks of the homeschooled, the solution, according to founder Farris was to create their own Ivy League institution. While construction began creating a small campus that in the end would resemble as Rosin put it a “tiny, less like an Ivy League college than like a Hollywood set of an old Ivy League school” Farris criss-crossed the country speaking at homeschooling events and other evangelical get-togethers recruiting promising prospective students with an eye towards academic overachievers (especially the “1600 club” or those with a perfect SAT score) debate superstars and teens active in conservative political causes.
After reading Rosin’s outstanding look inside Patrick Henry I’m left wondering if the small Virginia college runs the risk of collapsing under the weight of its own contradictions. Can a bastion of conservative Christian orthodoxy also promote intellectual freedom, allowing students to pursue knowledge for knowledge’s sake within the liberal arts? As challenging as this might be for any church-affiliated institution of higher learning a majority of the college’s professors, at least during Rosin’s visit loathed Farris’s puritanical micromanaging of the curriculum, demanding they put a deliberate evangelical spin on everything. Built on a commitment to biblical literalism, the college’s science courses refuse to acknowledge evolution as a bedrock foundation instead embracing religious-based pseudo theories like young earth creationism and intelligent design.
On top of the above-mention questions of intellectual honesty, even the college’s raison d’être could be in jeopardy. Rosin encounters more than a few female students aspiring to work in positions of authority and responsibility in politics and government, but also feeling obligated to marry and have children after graduation, embracing the role of “helpmeet”, a more wholesome calling for Christian women. While many evangelicals take comfort in the biblical command “be in the world but not of it” how realistic is it expect young Patrick Henry graduates to maintain the courage of their convictions once they enter the messy, rough and tumble world of politics. In Washington DC, a mere 40 miles away social drinking is the norm, temptations of the flesh abound, and lying and political backstabbing are time honored practices.
I thoroughly enjoyed God’s Harvard finding Rosin’s portrayal of life at Patrick Henry insightful and nuanced. It’s also the perfect follow-up read to Kevin Roose’s undercover adventure at Liberty University The Unlikely Disciple: A Sinner’s Semester at America’s Holiest University. Even though it’s the first week of February there’s strong likelihood God’s Harvard will make my year-end list of Favorite Nonfiction.