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The ambitious aim of Patrick Henry College is different from that of many conservative Christian colleges. It plans on transforming what it sees as a secular America into a God-fearing one — from the top down.
For her book, God's Harvard: A Christian College on a Mission to Save America, former Washington Post reporter Hanna Rosin embedded herself for a year and a half at Patrick Henry, following students and faculty. College founder and president Michael Farris was an attorney and early activist behind the home-schooling movement, and when those children started reaching college age, he established Patrick Henry in 2000 to provide them with both Christian training and a secular, Ivy League-quality education — as "opposition research."
The plan is to groom smart, ambitious young evangelicals for influential careers in Congress, in the media, in the sciences and on the Supreme Court. But while they must succeed in the dirty worlds of Washington and Hollywood, they must also retain and spread their fundamentalist faith in creationism or their opposition to gay rights or abortion. In Farris' words, these future leaders must become "shape shifters."
At the tiny college located in Virginia near Washington, D.C., Rosin found eager, clean-cut young people who "love their iPods as much as they love Christ." She talked to sharp, thoughtful students who canvassed for politicians and believed that anyone without a personal relationship with Jesus is going to hell. And in its short existence, Patrick Henry has been remarkably successful: The school has had more White House interns than the bigger, more established Georgetown University. Dozens of graduates work for conservative Congressmen. Patrick Henry alums are pitching Christian-themed movies to Hollywood studios.
But how does one gain the world without being swayed by it? How do high-achieving teens learn about Plato and Nietzsche and not have their minds changed? On campus, conservative Christian values are enforced right down to the monitoring of the students' iTunes playlists. Rosin found female students who struggled to reconcile their tremendous ambitions with the school's expressed teaching that one day they must become stay-at-home moms.
And Rosin was there when faculty dissent erupted over precisely the issue of critical thinking versus school dogma. What began as a 2005 New Yorker article became, Rosin says, a work of anthropology and an examination of how one school has become an experiment in shaping the future of Christian politics and education.
This discussion of God's Harvard took place in September 2007 at the Politics and Prose bookstore in Washington, D.C.