Sunday, November 25, 2007

Reactions to God’s Harvard (Part II)

In addition to considering the ways in which Patrick Henry College’s students disagree with founder Michael Farris, it is also important that Rosin documents the growing pains of the university and how even many of its professors become discontent with Farris’ vision. In Lauren Sandler’s 2006 book Righteous: Dispatches from the Evangelical Youth Movement, Sandler cites Robert Stacey’s “Freedom’s Foundations” course as just another example of an “education that constantly circles back to the Bible” (173). Rosin’s impressions, on the other hand, are completely different: Stacey challenges what he calls “Christian revisionism” regarding the Founding Fathers, and teaches his students “to read widely and critically…to question all received wisdom” (112). When Farris eventually fires Stacey after a power struggle over his teaching methods, the students refer to the crisis in terms of 9/11, and the resulting fallout eventually leads to the (voluntary) departures of several other professors. Rosin acknowledges the possibility that Farris’ curriculum can create ready-made, power-hungry future politicians, but she also convincingly points out that the school’s inability to reconcile its faith objectives with classic liberal arts is ultimately not conducive to producing the expected ends.

While these documentations of subjectivity and infighting may not seem all that remarkable, they are extremely significant when considering the broader context of God’s Harvard. As Jeff Sharlet recently analyzed for The Revealer, many non-evangelicals who write about evangelicalism often lapse into oversimplified generalizations, including framing the subculture as a monolithic movement or a voting bloc without much diversity or dissent. This tended to be a problem with the aforementioned anti-religious right books from last year, where many of the authors tended to paint a rigid, conformist picture of their subjects. There are certainly severe problems that have manifested within evangelicalism due to insufficient critical self-analysis, and I think Rosin’s narrative demonstrates how the inherent myopia of Farris’ mission can negatively affect PHC students. Yet it’s crucial to remember that evangelicals rarely find agreement among even theological issues, and while conservative evangelicals in particular have formed majority opinions on certain social policies, those opinions remain malleable and are rarely transferred to future generations in a tidy manner. In short, evangelicals are much like any other subculture: internal conflicts arise as cultural and historical changes affect their priorities. Rosin—who is Jewish and an East Coast native—understands this quite well, which is what makes her study so compelling.

With that said, I still would have liked to see Rosin wrestle more with the question of how those who disagree with PHC’s mission should respond, especially if it is able to overcome its problems and gain tangible ground in the culture war. Her bigger-picture outlook in the book’s conclusion is limited to statements such as, “Evangelicals are far too entrenched in American politics and culture to drop out en masse” (271). In a recent Beliefnet debate entitled “Evangelicals in Power,” she offers some important insights, such as arguing against having “political disagreements” that are “loaded with the weight of sin and evil.” This is helpful (as is the rest of the debate), but it would have been nice to see her articulate such thoughts in God’s Harvard. Nevertheless, it’s an excellent book, and her strong research and engaging analysis provides a model for future investigations of evangelical politics.

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