Hanna Rosin [Photo by Jona Frank]
Hanna Rosin has covered religion and politics for the Washington Post. She also has written for the New Yorker, the New Republic, GQ, and the New York Times. Her new book, God’s Harvard, is about Patrick Henry College, a Christian school just outside of Washington D.C.
- What is Patrick Henry College? How old is it? What is its mission?
- Patrick Henry College was founded in the year 2000 by Michael Farris, one of the leaders in the homeschooling movement. The school’s mission is to train the next generation of Christian leaders to “shape the culture and take back the nation,” as they like to say. For the first two years the students follow a Christian liberal arts curriculum, studying many of the classics. For the final two years, they are encouraged to find internships in influential institutions, which could mean the White House, Congress, Hollywood or prominent magazines.
- Does the future success of the school depend on Michael Farris or does it have a more solid foundation than the actions of one man?
- The school is very tied up with Mike’s vision and his charisma. But it’s already gotten larger than him. At the end of the year I spent there he had already stepped down as president and become chancellor. Now he serves as more ambassador and fundraiser for the school, and tutors a select group of students. He told me that he started out thinking of the students as his 350 children, but that that view was making him crazy. So at some point he has to let go and let it be an institution that operates outside his scrutiny. This year, I’ve heard, they’ve given up on mandatory chapel attendance, which was one of his priorities.
- How did you research this book?
- In 2005 I spent some time at the school to write a story for the New Yorker magazine. Farris was not unhappy with the story, and agreed to have me spend a year there. I did not live on campus, but I came several days a week, and sometimes spent the night. I also visited students in their homes and went on debate trips with the kids. I tried to choose students and professors with a wide range of views so a reader wouldn’t leave with a Stepford feeling about the school, which doesn’t seem so interesting to me, nor true.
- Who are the kids who attend PHC? What is their previous education and how do they differ from students at other elite colleges?
- About eighty five percent of students at Patrick Henry were homeschooled. This means their parents opted to teach them at home, usually because they decided the values of the public school were at odds with their own. All the students have to sign a statement of faith which would place them at the conservative side of the Christian evangelical spectrum. On the whole, they tend to be smart, ambitious, and committed to the mission.
Is there a tension between the secular teaching they’re exposed to and their Biblical beliefs? How does that play out?
- Tensions often arise between secular teachings and Biblical beliefs. Many students are reading, say Kant and Nietzsche for the first time. They may be alarmed, but they also may find those writers intoxicating. I’ve certainly seen some of the more rebellious students read influential philosophers and then begin to question their beliefs. The school often has a hard time finding a modern novel to teach, because they tend to have a lot of curses, or a nihilistic worldview. In the year I was there the school went through a major intellectual crisis. The administration warred with several of the professors about whether their teaching and writing was consistent with a Biblical worldview, and several of the professors ended up quitting.
- When Christian home-schooled students meet the rough-and-tumble world of Washington politics, how do they deal with that psychologically?
- This, too can often come as a shock, or at least a surprise to some of the students. They have grown up thinking of the Republican party as their natural home. But then they get out there and see that young Republicans drink and sleep around. On a policy level, they begin to realize that Republicans make compromises, or are not always upright in their personal lives. For some, this leaves them disillusioned with politics. For others, it makes them resolve even more forcefully to be a “light unto the unsaved,” as they would say.
- How deeply is an “End Times,” apocalyptic view of the future a part of the students’ belief system? How does this affect their views on topics like global warming or Middle East policy?
- Because they are part of a sophisticated new generation of evangelical elites, they don’t tend to talk about this much. They are often disdainful, for example, of the “Left Behind” series of novels. But their home churches very much subscribe to this philosophy. So they usually toe the evangelical party line on those two issues: unquestioning support for Israel, and particularly Israel in its original borders, and resistance to the idea of global warming.
- Should we be concerned about a new generation of leaders who are not up-front about the Biblical reasons for the policy decisions they make?
- Well that’s part of the reason I wrote this book, to make people aware that the Christian right is not what it used to be. The next generation of leaders will not be as obvious or in your face as the Pat Robertson generation. On the other hand, someone with Patrick Henry on their resume couldn’t exactly hide what they’re all about. And the kids who are really extreme wind up being disillusioned and dropping out of politics.
- What has happened to the first graduates of PHC? Are they successfully working their way into positions of power?
- The graduates have done remarkably well. A handful work at the White House, and dozens more work for conservative congressmen. They work for think tanks and interest groups all over Washington. A couple are making their way in Hollywood, one very successfully. They’ve gotten decent journalism jobs and the first graduate just got into Harvard Law School. So they have a lot to be proud of.