Should We Be Scared of the Evangelical Elites?

Hi David,

It’s nice to be discussing my book with a real, live evangelical who worked at the White House and lived to write about it. You, of all people, could accurately predict what the Bush administration would do with a staffer who walked around the West Wing lecturing colleagues on how the Earth was 6,000 years old or which of them was going to hell.

This is perhaps why you immediately got to the heart of the matter: Who really is an evangelical, and is it fair to have a tiny—and some would say fringe—school stand in for an entire movement? Well, you and I both know that evangelical is a fairly meaningless term these days. Catholics use it. Democrats use it. In social science statistics on divorce, teenage sexuality, even abortion, people who call themselves “evangelical” look just like the rest of America.

When I say “evangelical,” I am thinking of that elite subgroup that goes to church at least once a week. The Patrick Henry kids are in that 29 percent of Christian teens who say religion is “extremely important” in their lives, who don’t cut classes or do drugs, and who wouldn’t succumb if you left Scarlett Johansson waiting for them in their bedrooms.

That said, Patrick Henry is still not “typical.” I thought of them more as an extreme version of the norm, the Delta Force of young Christians. The place feels less like a trend than a social experiment—one that could only exist at this peculiar moment in American evangelical history, when it’s possible to be both perfectly pure in your faith and your political ambitions simultaneously.

I imagine that in the hierarchy of White House staffers, they ended up beneath your paygrade. Probably a Stanford evangelical conversant in the Human Genome Project would better know how to keep his mouth shut and rise up in the rankings, while a Patrick Henry intern would still be figuring that out. (I once heard a senior explain testily to a sophomore that no, he shouldn’t put on his White House application that the Bible was the book that influenced him the most.) Pat Robertson’s Regent University says that 150 of its graduates have worked at the White House. But maybe there was still enough stigma attached to a Regent or a Patrick Henry degree that, except for Monica Goodling, they were ghettoized in junior staff. The couple of Patrick Henry grads who did well at the White House declined to have their names appear in promotional materials or do interviews on behalf of the school. Many declined Michael Farris’ offer to use his name as a reference. I’m not sure if this says more about them or the Bush administration’s ambivalence about “the nuts,” to use Karl Rove’s infamous phrase from your book.

So, should we be scared of them? I certainly met some Patrick Henry students who would be happy to establish a theocracy. But they tend not to be chosen for White House jobs. As you well know, there is usually an inverse relationship between vocalized extremism and political success, which is why the impending theocracy thesis is not all that convincing. That said, the Bush administration accomplished something unique in American history. It provided formal training for hundreds of what I call the evangelical elites, the first generation of conservative Christians who take political power for granted and feel entitled—in fact, compelled—by their faith to hold public office.

Patrick Henry kids were usually transformed by their White House internships. They went out drinking with Republican staffers or argued with them about Iraq. Theologically, the first thing to go was the six-day creationism. But they didn’t change their views about homosexuality or the environment or taxes, or the overall view that a Christian could feel at home only among Republicans.

I often had the fantasy that I rubbed off a little on the kids I knew well. Maybe they came over for dinner and saw that my husband and I seemed to love each other and my kids were nice and reasonably well-behaved, and so where was the wickedness? But then I would hear what they did at work that day or how they talked about people they knew and realize I’d made no difference at all.

Scary is a word my lefty friends use. When I had negative thoughts, that was never the adjective that came to my mind. Maybe smug, or arrogant or naive. In his new book about Bush, Robert Draper calls it “dead certain,” and this seems about right. In this sense, the Patrick Henry kids and Bush had a lot in common.

The biggest question is, what will happen to these guys after Bush? You’re right that the landscape has changed. It looks like they’ll be choosing between a Mormon and some second marriages when they go to vote in the Republican primaries. Of all the candidates, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama have the most plausible Christian testimonies. Still, spending so much time with the new elites left me feeling that no matter what happens, they are not going away. We are seeing something like the Peace Corps generation in reverse, and they’ll be popping up in politics and elsewhere for years to come.