God’s Harvard?

In his column for Books and Culture, John Wilson mentions the publication of the new book by Hanna Rosin on Patrick Henry College, God’s Harvard: A Christian College on a Mission to Save America. Wilson aptly calls this a “tragicomedy,” and he goes on to criticize the overblown statements in the book that Patrick Henry College is the “nerve center of the evangelical movement.” In response to this, Wilson writes, “This is a bit like homing in on a single madrassah and making ludicrously exaggerated claims for its centrality to the global Islamist movement.” Brilliant.

Patrick Henry College is a strange place, to say the least! (1) The school presents itself as an institution that has “a deliberate outreach to home schooled students.” In one of their core documents, they write, “PHC arose out of the Christian home schooling movement and will seek to continue to be the most home schooling-friendly college in the nation.” In practice, this means that the college will simply confirm what these students already believe and have been taught at home. PHC is a college for students whose parents are afraid of the world and want their children to be “protected” from views that are not acceptable. All of this begs the question: Is Christianity so fragile and difficult to support that any exposure to different views threatens to shatter the entire edifice? If so, it would be better off leaving Christianity behind altogether. (2) The school’s statement of “biblical worldview” makes creationism an article of faith: “God created man in a distinct and supernatural creative act, forming the specific man Adam from non-living material, and the specific woman Eve from Adam. The first man and woman were therefore the progenitors of all people, and humans do not share a common physical ancestry with earlier life forms.” (3) In the same statement of faith, the college discusses civil government as a divinely ordained institution; in this section, they place the Bible alongside the early American documents: “In keeping with scriptural principles and the American Declaration of Independence ...” This allows them to justify American political actions by appealing to the original documents of the United States where they cannot find justification from Scripture. And so they posit reason and natural law as an equal authority to Scripture in order to circumvent the sociopolitical challenges that God places upon us in the Bible: “While there are various types, scopes, and levels of government, there are some basic principles that God requires all general governments to follow. Moreover, there are other principles that, while not commanded, ought to be followed. All of these principles are derived from the tenor of the whole of scripture and from God-given reason, which makes plain the fact that human beings ... should govern themselves in equal submission to the laws of nature and nature's God” (italics mine). (4) Similarly, in the mission statement for their Department of Government, they place biblical interpretation alongside the interpretation of the Constitution. Moreover, they view both documents—Scripture and Constitution—in the same way, promoting originalism (“the original intent of the founding documents of the American republic”) alongside literalistic inerrancy. (5) According to their list of nonnegotiable principles, the college states: “We also support the parents' role in courtship.”

Wilson says that, unlike Steve Coll, he never found anything in this book “unnerving.” I gather that, by this, he means PHC is not a big enough deal to cause any real anxiety. The school isn’t the “nerve center of evangelicalism,” even if it wants to be. I disagree with Wilson here, because even though the school is certainly not the center of American evangelicalism, it still represents what I think is a growing contingent of evangelical fundamentalists (or fundalits, as L’Engle calls them). I, for one, am definitely unnerved by this school’s presence.

Interestingly enough, I grew up in the particular segment of society that sends children to PHC. Wilson writes: “To many of these students and their parents, evangelical institutions such as Wheaton College, Calvin College, Fuller Theological Seminary, and Christianity Today magazine would seem to have lost their way, caught up in accommodation to secular cultural norms.” To a certain extent, this includes my own family. Certain members of my extended family denounced Wheaton after it allowed students to dance. In the movie, Minority Report, one of the main characters mentions Fuller Seminary. A family member of mine asked, “Isn’t that a liberal school?” I was also home schooled for a few years, and my family mingled in home schooling circles for much of my childhood.

The end of Wilson’s column is intriguing and suggestive:
Rosin shows how difficult it is for Patrick Henry's students to pursue a strong commitment to conservative activism—requiring them to penetrate the citadels of the mainstream culture—without compromising their own understanding of Christian discipleship and what it entails. Indeed, she shows how even within the narrow, self-defined boundaries of the Patrick Henry community, tensions over how best to be true to the college's mission and the demands of the faith led to a devastating schism. It's a story many lifelong evangelicals will find all too familiar.
I suppose I will have to read the book to find out what the schism was all about. But I can guess. On the basis of my own experience, there is a difficult tension between conservative politics and following Christ’s call. The two do not mesh nearly as well as I was taught to believe growing up. Jesus is radically nonviolent. Jesus is radically against individual possessions and property. Jesus challenged the religious and political structures of his time. And the call to discipleship involves being on the margins of society rather than at the center of influence and power. The PHC mission of training cultural warriors to bring America back to its roots (assuming the myth of an original American Eden is true) requires that these graduates pursue the center over the margin—power over service, influence over discipleship, the way of America over the way of the cross. PHC is thus torn between training Christians and training Americans.

This is the fundamental decision of our time. Will we identify ourselves primarily as Christians or as Americans (or insert your nation of origin)? Will we try to combine the two in some creative fashion that ends up compromising the gospel? How will we raise our children? How will we preach the gospel? Will it be wed to a particular national politic? These are important questions that we need to ask ourselves. If it takes a schism to reclaim the gospel, then the pain will be worth it. But if we can avoid division and pursue unity, let us do so diligently.

In conclusion, is Patrick Henry College really “God’s Harvard”? It depends on what we mean. If we mean that PHC is a central part of contemporary culture and academic learning, then no. But if we mean that PHC is as confused and distorted in their views as many are at Harvard, then yes.

Update: See Hanna Rosin’s responses to questions about PHC at the Washington Post. And also check out the debate between David Kuo and Hanna Rosin at Slate.com.


::aaron g:: said…

I enjoyed this post and your observations, especially the personal notes. I remember when some of my Bible college professors were dismayed that some students were considering attending Fuller because it was too liberal!
PHC was a live option for me when college application time rolled around, but (thank God!) I somehow had the good sense to go to Wheaton, the real “nerve center of the evangelical movement.” :-P
Camassia said…
If you haven't seen it already, you might be interested in the article that Rosin's book grew out of.


Thanks for the link!
Anonymous said…
This is an excellent review, David. Isn't ironic that such a fundamentalist school should name itself after a Deist? Your column has encouraged me to post in the near future on the pros and cons of attending Christian colleges. I also need to reprint my objections to the practice of homeschooling.
Anonymous said…
>it still represents what I think is a growing contingent of evangelical fundamentalists

Why call them evangelical fundamentalists? I am coming to the conclusion that there is not as much of a distinction as we like to believe -- whatever dream that might have existed in earlier years seems to be dissipated. Maybe people of this ilk are just reverting to fundamentalism – in fact I am not sure they would even want to be called evangelicals.