There’s a little remembered Bing Crosby film from 1960 called High Time. In it Crosby plays a restaurateur loosely based on Ray Croc, the entrepreneur who made McDonald’s the supreme restaurant franchise, who decides, in his fifties, to attend college with cornily amusing results. The college he attends is a small Southern school modeled on the Ivies (the school is also a basketball power, so that should be a hint). Of course that school has now become a rival to its Ivy League role models….
Fast forward to 2007. At Patrick Henry College in Purcellville, VA, (about 50 miles from DC) Michael Farris, one of the founders of the home schooling movement, has founded a new kind of evangelical/fundamentalist higher education institution. Modeled not on the “religion first, last and always” closed models of Bob Jones, Liberty, or Regent Universities, Patrick Henry seeks to model itself on the Ivies and on the “power goals,” particularly the political power goals, the Ivies aspire to….
Hanna Rosin, former religion reporter for The Washington Post, in her new book God’s Harvard, has done a thorough examination of Patrick Henry, its fast rising reputation as a “quality” educational institution, and its goals – particularly its chief goal – to turn out as many government leaders as it possibly can over the next decades. Rosin “embedded” at Patrick Henry for 18 months in order to gather an in-depth understanding of the school, its founder, its students, and its mission. Her book, and the excerpt she published from it in The New Yorker some two years ago, offer a more nuanced and complex reading of both the people and the ideas behind this new phenomenon in Christian education.
Rosin describes the students at PHC, who come largely from the home schooled evangelical population, as earnest, bright, and, while inexperienced in “the ways of the world,” perfect fodder for the PHC goals:
Homeschoolers are not the most obvious raw material for a college whose main mission, since its founding, five years ago, has been to train a new generation of Christian politicians. Politics, after all, is the most social of professions, and many students arrive at Patrick Henry having never shared a classroom with anyone other than their siblings. In conservative circles, however, homeschoolers are considered something of an Ã©lite, rough around the edges but pureâ€”in their focus, capacity for work, and ideological clarityâ€”a view that helps explain why the Republican establishment has placed its support behind Patrick Henry, and why so many conservative politicians are hiring its graduates.
Patrick Henry College offers two years of what is known in evangelical/fundamentalist education circles as “Christian liberal arts” preparation. After that come two years of “vocational” education designed to prepare students for careers as Congressional staffers – students perform internships on Capitol Hill, in the White House, and in other branches of the government. The internships are done exclusively for Republicans, it seems. And the political commitment of PHC students is intense:
In the last days before the 2004 Presidential election, Patrick Henry College, in Purcellville, Virginia, excused all its students from classes, because so many of them were working on campaigns or wanted to go to the swing states to get out the vote for George W. Bush.
These students are bright and talented – Patrick Henry’s mock-court team has defeated Oxford in competitions three of the last four years. And the school’s founder, Michael Farris, believes that PHC students will make a significant impact in not just politics, but all areas of life. In a sort of evangelical nod to Howe and Strauss, calls the students at his school the “Joshua Generation” – this differentiates them from their parents, the “Moses Generation” who “fled Egypt” (i.e., withdrew from the “evil outside world” of MTV, abortion, and tolerance for homosexuality) – the “Joshua Generation” are being trained to, in Farris’s words, “take the land back.” Farris envisions a world where this scenario would take place:
…students are not expected to avoid the secular world entirely. Farris told them at chapel recently that one day ‘an Academy Award winner will walk down the aisle to accept his trophy. On his way, heâ€™ll get a cell-phone call; it will be the President, who happens to be his old Patrick Henry roommate, calling to congratulate him.’
Notice the pronouns. Patrick Henry College is an enforcer of the evangelical creed that men are the heads of the household, and women are to be their helpmeets and wives, bearing their children and performing wifely duties:
The new careerist code of the Joshua Generation can become a problem for the girls, however. Even the most ambitious ones, those who wake up at 3 a.m. to study, told me without reservation that as soon as they had children they would quit their jobs to raise them.
And that’s not the only evangelical creed that PHC students adhere to. As matriculates at the school they sign a ten part statement that includes the following:
…when students enroll at Patrick Henry, they sign a ten-part statement of faith, agreeing that, among other things, Hell is a place where ‘all who die outside of Christ shall be confined in conscious torment for eternity.’
Still, because Patrick Henry College does try to balance its evangelical beliefs with its political mission, it runs risks:
Some of the alumni are already demonstrating the risks of Farrisâ€™s experiment. Having left Patrick Henry, they confront women at work who curse, colleagues who look at them skeptically when they talk about Jesus, or their own guilt when they fail to share the Word. They find that itâ€™s not easy to reconcile being a witness and working in Washington. The development office at Patrick Henry has asked graduates who work at the White House and in Congress if it can use their pictures in promotional materials, but almost all have declined.
So maybe all is not perfect for “God’s Harvard.” But it keeps to its mission. And it has hopes:
Patrick Henry is trying a complicated experiment: taking young evangelicals who have been raised in rarefied, controlled atmospheres and training them to become political leaders without somehow being corrupted by the secular worldâ€™s demandsâ€”or, for that matter, moving to the middle. There are already young, ambitious politicians who talk openly about their relationship with Jesus and still get ahead. Whether someone like Matthew du MÃ©e could actually climb the Republican Party hierarchy is far from clear, however. And, if he and his classmates do succeed, the real question may be how their party changes in response to them.
The Matthew du Mee mentioned in the quote scored 1600 on his SAT exam and spurned Harvard, Yale, and Stanford to attend Patrick Henry College. He’s recently been accepted at Harvard Law and has every intention of being in Congress, not as an aide but as a representative. He almost certainly will attempt to go farther. He might be that future President that Farris spoke of.
And that must cause one to wonder whether his roommate is working on a screenplay….