I've been too slow to praise Hanna Rosin's profile of Patrick Henry College in the June 27 New Yorker, but it's still available online. As a private school training mostly homeschooled Christians for careers in bare-knuckled politics, the college is a target-rich environment for this fundamentalist-sighting safari in the Independent and this wry satire on McSweeney's website.
Rosin's article would be dull if it offered no critical distance, and she delivers claustrophobia-inducing details like these:
Often, the campus looks like a scene from "Meet Me in St. Louis," with young men and women talking to one another through open windows, or exchanging a chaste goodbye at the downstairs door -- men and women are not allowed in the living areas of each others' dorms. Girls talk about not "stumbling" a guy, the equivalent of tempting him, and resident advisers keep a close eye on them to make sure they don't wear shirts that show any bra. If they do, they'll get a friendly e-mail -- "I think I saw you in dress code violation," followed by a smiley emoticon. (Not everyone takes the strictures well: one woman I spoke to would sometimes cry in the stairwell after being criticized by other girls for dressing inappropriately; she is transferring.) Smoking, drinking, and "public displays of affection in any campus building" are forbidden. Matthew du MÃ©e, who was an R.A., told me that if he saw a boy and girl sitting too close for too long he would pull the boy aside and tell him to stop, because "the guy is supposed to be the leader in the relationship."
But Rosin clearly spent time with enough students to show that they're not easily dismissed. Patrick Henry College has its share of both the sanctimonious and the sardonic:
The school has to make room for a student like Farahn Morgan, a ballerina who is trying out to be a Rockette and likes to provoke her roommates by saying she's going to Victoria's Secret ("People, everyone wears a bra!"), and for a junior like Ben Adams, who sent out a nine-page e-mail to the entire student body before the spring formal reminding the girls to dress modestly. "Lust is sin," it said. "It is sin for you to tempt us. It is . . . unloving. Unsisterly. Un-Christlike." Nearly every week, minor culture wars break out on campus. One student wrote an article entitled "Why Bono May Be a Better Christian Than You." Another responded, in an outraged op-ed, that the band members "live like heathens."
And in the person of Robert Stacey, it has a professor who takes seriously his job of making students think for themselves:
Then Stacey moved on to Machiavelli's principle that politics is governed by conspiracies and lies. "Come on, we know politicians lie," he began. "This is a bit sensitive. How about our beloved George W. Bush? Does he deceive us with what he says in public? Does he lie?"
The students, who had been fully engaged on the subject of Machiavelli and Waco, were silent. Bush has been President since they were teen-agers, and the school newspaper's editorials never deviate from the White House position. Finally, one student said, "No, I don't think so."
Stacey didn't say anything. After a pause, the student said, "I mean, it would be nice if he didn't."
Stacey, who has a Ph.D. in government from the University of Virginia, told me that he loved Patrick Henry, because the students "really want to be here, which is very satisfying for a professor." He is an evangelical Christian, but he worries that his students sometimes revert to jargon they picked up from their parents, "that the nation's founders just fell out of Heaven, that America is a Christian Nation, capital 'C' capital 'N.' I want them to understand that these are myths, that the claims they're making are superficial." When he asks his students to defend a position, Stacey said, "'The Bible says so' is never the answer."
Rosin's article is a fine example of how a thoroughly urban publication can depict conservative Christians accurately, critically and fairly. It is excellent work.