The Brave New Evangelical World

Dear Hanna,

I am excited about our exchange. I just finished  God’s Harvard: A Christian College on a Mission To Save America, in which you followed students at Patrick Henry College, a small, recently founded school designed to further the education of ambitious, home-schooled Christians. I enjoyed it immensely both because of the moving stories it told of kids trying to “find themselves” in an insular Christian environment and because of the broader theme of Christian political and cultural engagement it explored. There’s plenty for us to discuss.

I’ll begin with a confession of sorts. I really disliked certain parts of the book. For instance, I hated the descriptions of the all-too-eager Christian kids who equated conservative politics with Jesus. The problem wasn’t with you but with me. Those parts hit just a bit too close to home, making me squirm because that is the mind-set in which I lived for too many years. I’ve come to realize such an attitude is many things—but Christian isn’t one of them.

Let me use that as an opening to explore my only substantive concern about the book.

In examining Patrick Henry College, you are looking at a very narrow slice of the evangelical world. Most studies conclude that there are at least 20 million, and perhaps as many as 70 million, Americans who fit the “evangelical” classification. Patrick Henry’s first class in 1999 had 92 students, and it currently has only 325 students. It’s run by a man who makes no apologies for saying that Jesus would be a social conservative. Isn’t it a bit of a stretch to make generalizations about evangelicals based on Patrick Henry?

That leads me to my next question. Do you think that we need to be scared of kids coming from Patrick Henry and/or of evangelicals in politics? The subtext for many books and articles about evangelicals I’ve read is that evangelicals are trying to take over America, and everyone else should be very, very afraid. Do you think that is the case? My own sense about the kids in your book, who have mostly been in a sheltered environment all their lives, is that five years in the “real world” will do a lot to temper their zeal. You write about that a bit in the closing chapters of your book—Derek, who becomes disenchanted with national politics; a graduate who says it will take only a few months for Patrick Henry students to realize their idealism is misplaced.

As I think back to my experience in the Bush White House in general and the faith-based office in particular, I don’t recall ever meeting a student from Patrick Henry, and maybe only one or two from Regent (Pat Robertson’s school). The evangelicals I knew were all educated at places like Stanford, Georgetown, Yale, and Princeton. And they tended to be very comfortable not only with a universe that is billions of years old but also with someone like Francis Collins, head of the Human Genome Project, who has no difficulty reconciling his evangelical Christian faith with evolution. In short, they weren’t nut cases trying to create some theocratic state.

Lastly—and I’ve probably asked too many questions already—do you sense that the Patrick Henry kids you profile will be entering a world in which they will meet evangelicals who love Jesus as much as they do, but who are working for Sen. Hillary Clinton or Sen. Barack Obama? A couple of weeks ago, I met with Clinton’s head of religious outreach, for instance. This man was a Southern Baptist missionary to Hong Kong. He was steeped in scripture. He was from Mississippi. And he made a passionate case that a vote for Clinton was the moral vote. Similarly, novelist Anne Rice, who publicly returned to her Catholic faith a few years ago, has declared on her Web site that she was both pro-life and pro-Hillary. It seems to me there is a new evangelical world out there that will challenge these kids and challenge all evangelicals to think differently.

That’s it for now. I look forward to our conversation.