Student Body Right

It was over cantaloupe and cottage cheese that the Lord told Pat Robertson to build a university. The year was 1975, and the minister, then 45, was running so late for a meeting that he decided to head to a nearby coffee shop, get his “famous” snack, and wait the meeting out. It was at the beginning of this fateful, hooky-playing repast, as Robertson said grace, that the Heavenly Father told him to buy a vacant patch of land the minister had recently seen in Virginia Beach “and build a school for My glory.”

Robertson was recounting the creation story of Regent University to a crowd of about 200 people inside a Baptist church on a cool May evening in Chesapeake, Virginia, 15 miles from Regent's main campus. Smiling beatifically, dressed in full academic regalia, and draped with a massive medallion reminiscent of Run-DMC–era bling, he seemed to be genuinely enjoying himself.

And why not? Twenty-seven years after the school opened its doors to 77 communications (naturally) graduate students, its student body now exceeds 3,000 in nine different graduate schools, including law, psychology, and government. Recently, Regent has begun teaching undergraduates as well. It has opened a new campus in Washington, D.C., and started a distance-learning program over the Internet that now enrolls 900 students. This past year, it bagged John Ashcroft as a lecturer, and Regent Law School grad and trustee Bob McDonnell just won the Republican nomination for state attorney general in Virginia.

Robertson began his sermon with a news report about General Motors President Rick Wagoner, who was facing pressure from shareholders in a year in which the company had $200 billion in sales. “If I had $200 billion in sales,” Robertson said, “I'd be happy.” The crowd seemed a little baffled by the reference, but Robertson got them when he explained that, as the Bible says, “To whom much is given, much will be expected.” Much, he went on to explain, had been given to the students sitting before him, and so much would be expected in return, nothing less than “Christian leadership to change the world … . We're not going to be content just doing a little bit,” Robertson said. “I want the whole world!”

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In the constant drumbeat of press about the political muscle of the nation's 60 million evangelicals, a key fact is often overlooked: Even after all of Karl Rove's efforts, white evangelicals are still involved in politics -- whether it's volunteering, giving money, or simply voting -- at rates below those of their nonevangelical peers. In 2004, 63 percent of eligible evangelicals voted, their highest showing on record but a turnout rate still below Jews and mainline Protestants. Activating evangelicals to participate in politics is a bit like turning around a barge.

The explosion in evangelical colleges in recent years may portend vast change on that front. Evangelical colleges have undergone a kind of renaissance both in the quality and the quantity of their scholarly production -- what religious historian Alan Wolfe referred to, in an October 2001 article for The Atlantic Monthly, as “The Opening of the Evangelical Mind” -- and in their enrollment, which has risen dramatically. As America's evangelicals continue to rise in socioeconomic status, more are going to college, and they are swelling the ranks of the nation's Christian universities. Between 1990 and 2003, enrollment in the 101 schools that make up the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities, or CCCU (of which Regent is an affiliate member), jumped 64 percent, twice the growth rate at public schools and one and a half times the growth rate at private schools. Generally, CCCU schools hire only Christian faculty, and they often ask students to sign declarations of faith and follow strict codes of conduct.

But something else has changed at evangelical colleges besides the number of students: What were once institutions designed to protect students from the secular world have become launching pads that prepare students to radically change it. For the duration of the life of the republic, evangelicals have waxed and waned in their involvement in public life, taking up the mantle of causes with an unmatched devotion and effectiveness, as they did during abolition and Prohibition, and then withdrawing for long periods, as they did in the middle of the 20th century, into a more hermetic and spiritually focused outlook.

Joel Carpenter, provost at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and a historian who studies American evangelicals, refers to these two competing strains in evangelical life as the “puritan” and “pietistic,” respectively. The puritan strain, Carpenter says, emerges out of the “idea that God made covenants with nations and held nations accountable according to how well they met divine norms: ‘Righteousness exalteth the nations.'” The pietistic strain, on the other hand, might best be summed up by this sentiment: “Preachers are not called upon to be politicians but soul-winners. Nowhere are we commissioned to reform the externals.”

The man who said that was none other than Jerry Falwell, and he was responding to the unseemly activism of a young minister-reformer named Martin Luther King Jr. (Given the circumstances, that quote might also serve as a cautionary note to those progressives who'd like to see politics completely neutered of religion.) Of course, Falwell eventually changed his tune. But his words bring into relief just what a U-turn the country's evangelicals took beginning in the mid-1970s. And while most American evangelicals retain a strong vestigial instinct to devote themselves to being “soul-winners” and to view their faith as a matter of personal devotion rather than the source of a mandate to wage cultural war, Robertson and his ilk realize that if evangelicals are to achieve their full electoral potential, that kind of thinking must be eliminated. And there are few more powerful means of doing just that than education.

In the last few years, several conservative activists have followed in Robertson's footsteps. In 2000, activist, lawyer, and homeschooling maven Michael Farris founded Patrick Henry College in Virginia, the idea for which, he told The New Yorker's Hannah Rosin, grew partly out of conversations with conservative members of Congress eager to find homeschooled evangelicals to work on their staffs (85 percent of Patrick Henry's students were homeschooled). In 1999, conservative multibillionaire and Domino's Pizza founder Tom Monaghan donated $50 million to start the Ave Maria School of Law in Ann Arbor, Michigan. The school, which boasts of its “outstanding legal education in fidelity to the Catholic Faith as expressed through Sacred Tradition, Sacred Scripture, and the teaching authority of the Church,” promptly landed Robert Bork on its faculty and Clarence Thomas and Antonin Scalia as speakers. In 2003, its graduates achieved the highest average bar score in the state of Michigan. (Ave Maria, Regent, and Patrick Henry are all fully accredited, though the process hasn't necessarily been easy; Patrick Henry, for instance, was involved in a protracted scuffle with the American Academy for Liberal Education over the creationist language in its statement of faith.) This year, Ave Maria Dean Bernard Dobranski helped Falwell's Liberty University open its own law school, one that Falwell vows will “be as far to the right as Harvard is to the left … . We want to infiltrate the culture with men and women of God who are skilled in the legal profession.”

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Regent's 700-acre campus is not so much bucolic as a facsimile of bucolic-ness. The landscaped lawns and breezy woods are rimmed by a highway, the low, persistent drone of which follows you wherever you walk. The red brick buildings, all built in a graceful colonial style, feel just-finished, as if gallons of water from the nearby Batten Bay were added to an Instant Colonial Village cake mix. Turn the wrong corner and you'll end up behind the Christian Broadcasting Network headquarters, staring at loading docks and massive white satellite dishes.

Today Regent calls itself the “preeminent Christian graduate university,” but its success has been somewhat improbable. Unlike the overwhelming majority of Christian schools, most of which are either four-year liberal-arts colleges or seminaries, Regent has focused on graduate programs, becoming an institution that, as Robertson said in a promotional video, “would have the various disciplines that would address the major areas of most influence in the country.”

Robertson didn't want to just train journalists, lawyers, and business leaders who happened to be Christian; he wanted to produce a new class of Christian journalists, Christian lawyers, and Christian business leaders -- well-trained, influential, and guided in their professional lives by a sense of Christian mission (as Robertson, of course, defines it). Regent's central insight -- one that's come to dominate Christian higher education -- is that in order to create Christian lawyers or journalists or film editors, the school would need to do more than simply augment its professional education with Bible study and group prayer. Students would be given a road map of what sort of life and career a Christian lawyer or journalist or film editor might have. They would, in the fashionable argot of evangelical pedagogy, be given a “worldview.”

The concept of worldview has come to occupy such a central place in Christian higher education that some administrators now fear that it's turning into a buzzword. Simply put, a Christian worldview is one that takes as its ultimate premises the truth of both testaments of the Bible: God's creation of the earth and the fall of man through original sin from the Old Testament, and, from the New, redemption through Christ.

This framework can be, and is, interpreted and applied in myriad contradictory ways. At its best, worldview pushes students to rethink settled positions, to wrestle with what a Christian's duty is to the poor or the infirm or those on death row. It can create a sense of mission and moral obligation that produces students who sound strikingly like liberals -- vowing never to “sell out,” determined to do more than simply make a lot of money. At its worst, though, worldview reduces to an uncritical acceptance of a handful of issue positions that have come to dominate the political energies of the religious right; it is the ideological bus that picks people up at church and drops them off at the voting booth. For this reason, understanding what a Christian worldview means and how it plays out in the professional and political sphere is crucial to understanding not only the explosive growth of evangelical higher education but the mechanism by which American evangelicals increasingly identify a specific political party and set of policies as the one true expression of the Christian faith.

“There are a lot of people who are strong in their faith, but it doesn't affect every part of their lives,” says Lynne Marie Kohm, John Brown McCarty Professor of Family Law at Regent. “If you're really strong in your faith,” she told me, it affects everything from how you raise your children to how you view criminal justice. “[I]f you think there's responsibility,” she says, “then that entails some things in terms of crime and punishment.” Whereas at the College of William & Mary, where she formerly taught law, she felt she couldn't access biblical truths, Regent requires her to integrate the Bible into discussions of family law. “The Bible does say that any person who doesn't support his family is worse than an unbeliever,” she says. “I can look to Timothy 5:8, and then look to the problem of someone not paying child support … . At any school people will say, ‘Oh yeah, people should be responsible for their kids.' But the authenticity of biblical truth adds to the truth of the empirical research.”

Kohm says her goal is to not only to provide her students with a sound legal education -- “We want to see [our students] get those top clerkship positions and be the leaders and gatekeepers of the future” -- but also to encourage them to view the law, their faith, and politics holistically, so that they are “thinking about [their] worldview in every way.”

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At a school designed explicitly to produce influential professionals, worldview plays an especially crucial role; it is the bridge from inner spiritual beliefs to public action in the professional sphere. It's for this reason that Regent's professors are required to integrate “biblical principles” into every subject area, and it's the reason that law students take a class their first year in the Christian foundations of law. Regent Law School Dean Jeffrey Brauch calls the result a “JD-plus.” Students take the standard canon of legal education -- torts, property, constitutional law -- but supplement discussions of what the law is with discussions of what the Bible and Christian tradition say the law should be, reading Leviticus, the Gospel of Matthew, and Thomas Aquinas alongside their case law. The same model extends throughout Regent's nine schools, which offer courses like “Redemptive Cinema” and “Church-based Counseling Programs,” while infusing standard professional training with insights and injunctions from the Judeo-Christian (read: Christian) tradition.

James Davids, an attorney whose undergraduate degree is from Calvin College and who is now assistant dean of Regent's Robertson School of Government, teaches a course called “Christian Foundations of Government.” He explained to me how worldview informs his curriculum. Every philosophy, he told me, is constructed around a couple of key questions: Where did we come from, and who are we? The answers determine what kind of government people favor.

Davids: “If we have been designed by God in His image, then we are uniquely made … and we have certain inalienable rights … . The state didn't give them to us; only God did, therefore the state can't take them away. For the secular worldview, if we were not created by God, we owe no duty to God, no duty to follow his precepts and the way he has revealed himself, then … the laws wouldn't be based on anything other than just the will of the populace, who's got power. Therefore those laws would change, they're not immutable. Those are two fundamentally different points of view.”

The other dividing line, in Davids' view, is between those with a generally rosy outlook of human nature and those who believe that humans are inherently sinful. Here I started to get a little lost. “The implication for the secular point of view,” he says, “is that, doggone it, we need more money for education, and through education we will eventually perfect man. Therefore government is certainly very necessary and a good thing. [We need] greater control so that man can become a better being. For Christians, the implication that man is by nature sinful leads to the conclusion that you much prefer limited government. You prefer a separation of powers … because you don't trust anyone to be all too powerful. You tend to not like dictators because you know that man with enough power will create evil … . That kind of flows out of the philosophy or viewpoint.”

But wait a second: The dominant form of government in the West for more then a thousand years was divine-right monarchy -- Christians who ruled absolutely with the supposed sanction of God. And the belief that humans are inherently sinful could just as well lead to the idea that, à la Thomas Hobbes, a strong central government is needed to keep that sinfulness from manifesting itself in a state of unceasing civil war. Or to quote Rick Santorum, “When people can't control their desires, we have to pass laws to stop their desires.”

Davids responded by reeling off a list of authors to read so I could more fully understand his view. One of them was Nancy Pearcey. A fellow at the World Journalism Institute, which provides training for Christian journalists, and a former fellow of the leading “Intelligent Design” think tank, the Discovery Institute, Pearcey recently published Total Truth: Liberating Christianity from Its Cultural Captivity, a book that Davids, Kohm, and others referenced as seminal in their approach to teaching worldview.

Pearcey's argument, which borrows heavily from the influential conservative theologian Francis Schaeffer, begins fairly straightforwardly: “Christianity is not just religious truth, it is total truth -- covering all of reality.” As Pearcey sees it, contemporary secular society imposes a series of debilitating dichotomies on Christians that create a kind of DuBoisian double consciousness. She cites, as an example of this “divided mind,” a Christian woman who works at a Planned Parenthood clinic and a physicist who says, “Quantum mechanics is like auto mechanics; it has nothing to do with my faith.” (This recalls Scalia's dissent in Lee v. Weisman, in which he charged the majority with turning religion into a “purely personal avocation that can be indulged entirely in secret, like pornography, in the privacy of one's room.”) The goal for Christians is to overcome this division and live a life of integrity, or wholeness.

According to Pearcey, what underlies the supposedly false distinction between private faith and public behavior is a deeper philosophical distinction between fact and value, one which crops up in many undergraduate philosophy classes and serves to distinguish between propositions like, on the one hand, the theorems that make up Newtonian physics and the date of the Pearl Harbor bombing, and, on the other, the convictions that it is wrong to eat animals and that homosexuality is a sin. Pearcey points out that for a believer, there is no distinction between these two kinds of truth: If you believe that the wrongness of homosexual relationships is God's truth, it has the same status as the laws of physics, the same objective immutability as a date. For her, the distinction serves only as a sly means for secularists to undermine the revealed truth of the faithful; it “functions as a gatekeeper that defines what it is to be taken seriously as genuine knowledge and what can be dismissed as mere wish fulfillment.”

Pearcey then takes a clever turn. She borrows from postmodernism (!) to argue against the possibility of truly “neutral” worldviews and to undermine the distinction between facts and values. “All facts are theory-laden,” she quotes philosophers of science as saying, and all theories of the world are colored by certain assumptions, none of which, even from a secular, rational perspective, exists on any elevated epistemic plane: Faith in reason is just the same as faith in God. “In this sense,” Pearcey writes, “we could say that every alternative to Christianity is a religion.”

It's important to note just how fundamental this fact-value split is to a functioning, pluralist society. One way of viewing the division is as purely sociological categories: Anywhere you go in the world, people generally agree about how to build a bridge or a dam, or what year the United Nations came into existence. But they don't agree about whether or not women should be veiled from head to foot, or whether cows should be eaten. To have a functioning public sphere, participants have to make arguments about values that appeal to publicly accessible moral intuitions and shared principles, and not to the will of God, interpretations of religious texts, or sectarian revelations (whether biblical, Koranic, Talmudic, or Vedic). Most important, pluralist democracies require that we make distinctions between private matters of conscience (dietary choices, which day to worship) and public matters of law (the optimal way to punish criminals). This is not to say that religion has no place in the public sphere, or that people's values, premises, and worldviews don't color their views on public problems of governance. But as a brute fact of coexistence, the fact-value distinction embodies a kind of forced humility that, frankly, keeps the entire liberal democratic enterprise running. “The spirit of liberty,” as Justice Learned Hand once wrote, “is the spirit that is not too certain it is right.”

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Students, professors, and administrators alike are eager to dispel the notion that their schools engage in brute indoctrination, and from interviews with more than a dozen current and former Regent students, it's clear that there's little consensus about what, exactly, “Christian leadership” actually means. Interpretations run the gamut, from a government-school grad who ran for Congress in North Carolina to a film student who said he'll just try to avoid “sexuality or, to a degree, brutality” in the films he edits. In a promotional video, Brauch says that Regent has more academic freedom than secular schools because it's not tied down by “political correctness.” This was a common refrain. Davids made the point that while people of faith aren't made to feel welcome in secular classrooms, “There are people in my class who are very much scientific naturalists. Most interestingly, they typically come from public universities. I probably engage them more than the others. In one class there is this one wonderful African American lady. She is an absolute delight in class because we have a running conversation, and that, to me, is just a gem of a class.”

But the insistence on the quantity and even the rigor of the debate obscures the real issue: just what is subject to debate. What a worldview does is cleave the world into two, identifying in one column those first principles that are taken as given (there is a God, Jesus Christ is His only son) and, in the other column, the many beliefs, values, and positions that one might hold that are less certain (like under what conditions preemptive war is justified). Exactly which beliefs get put in which column is going to have profound political consequences, even if the worldview isn't taught with an explicitly or predominantly political end in mind. If you suggest to students that an opposition to abortion and a defense of “traditional marriage” are foundational aspects of a Christian worldview, you will very likely produce reliable Republican voters.

During an afternoon I spent at Wheaton College in Illinois, I asked professor Mark Noll, a renowned evangelical historian who is as thoughtful and as dedicated to free inquiry as anyone in Christian intellectual circles, how the faculty at Wheaton would react to a student who became a socialist. “Almost all of the faculty would love to have a graduate who becomes a socialist,” Noll said with some relish, “who can explain, in patient, thorough terms, why the mandates of the Christian gospel demand socialism.” What about a student whose faith led him or her to endorse gay marriage or to support choice on abortion? “It would be much harder to get a hearing,” Noll says. “Marriage and abortion are close to where the pietism and puritanism intersect.” Put another way, they're pretty firmly in that first column.

What political positions are or are not mandated by a Christian worldview is the source of heated debate among Christian academics. Joel Carpenter, of Michigan's Calvin College (and a self-described “lifelong Democrat”), stresses that worldview properly understood doesn't prescribe a single party platform or set of political convictions. He noted the controversy that broke out in May, when President Bush visited Calvin's campus and a third of the school's faculty took out an ad in the school paper expressing their belief that the Iraq War was immoral (although he admitted that the dissenters “just got hammered for that”).

Others I spoke to expressed serious misgivings about the ways in which putatively apolitical educational institutions have come to be tightly aligned with a specific partisan agenda. “I think like Esau, who sold his birthright for a bowl of soup, we sold our academic freedom,” said one faculty member at an evangelical university that recently landed on the Young America's Foundation's first-ever “Top Ten Conservative Schools” list. “[The foundation is] willing to fund anything you want … . A lot of people associated with the conservative movement show up on campus because their way is paid … . Not all of us are pleased.”

Bob Andringa, president of the CCCU, says his members don't want to associate themselves with the Christian right and are now turning their attention to “social justice” issues like “HIV/AIDS” and “global warming.” It's possible Andringa was just telling me what I wanted to hear. (In the age of Google, everyone you interview knows exactly where you're coming from; Andringa, a former GOP House staffer, was so focused on “social justice” during our 20-minute interview that I half expected him to tell me that the CCCU was gearing up for a big “Free Mumia” push.) But many of the students I spoke to at Regent and other schools seemed to be on the same wavelength. Amy Black, a political-science professor at Wheaton, told me the biggest source of campus activism was a movement to increase funding to fight aids in Africa, which started after Bono came to Wheaton and challenged the students to end the scourge.

These sorts of rumblings are a reflection of the fact that there is a whole host of issues that animate young conservative Christians, and a fairly high degree of diversity in the ideological positions that students at Christian schools hold. In 1982, James Davidson Hunter conducted a survey of students at 16 different evangelical colleges on their political attitudes and published his findings in the book Evangelicalism: The Coming Generation. In 1996, Corwin Smidt, a political scientist at Calvin College, distributed the same survey to students at the same schools in order to track the changes in attitudes of young evangelicals. He found that “evangelical college students exhibit little overall consistency in the issue positions they adopt,” and that nearly half favored “greater environmental protection even if it raises prices or costs jobs.” Students were also evenly divided on whether to ban all abortions, strongly in favor of registering firearms, and strongly opposed to affirmative action and nationalized health insurance.

But the students were strikingly uniform in their political identification: More than two-thirds identified as Republicans and only 9 percent identified as Democrats. “On many issues, the evangelical college students in '96 expressed what might be called more liberal positions” than they had in 1982, Smidt says. But “who they define themselves as politically is much more conservative. And they moved much more toward the Republican Party and abandoned their independence.”

It just might be that what students are taught at a place like Regent, or even Calvin and Wheaton, is to live out a Christ-centered existence in all facets of their lives. But what they learn is to become Republicans.

As it turns out, that's proving to be enough to change the world.

Christopher Hayes is a contributing editor of In These Times.