God and Country

A college that trains young Christians to be politicians.

The New Yorker/June 27, 2005
By Hanna Rosin

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. Elisa Muench, a junior, was interning in the White House’s Office of Strategic Initiatives, which is overseen by Karl Rove. On Election Day, she stood on the South Lawn with the rest of the White House staff to greet the President and Mrs. Bush as they returned from casting their votes in Texas. Muench cheered along with everyone else, but she was worried. Her office was “keeping up contact with Karl,” and she knew that the early exit polls were worse than expected. Through the night, she watched the results, as Bush’s electoral-vote total began to rise. The next morning, after Kerry conceded, she stood in the crowd at the Bush campaign’s victory party, in clothes she’d been wearing all night, and “cried and screamed and laughed, it was so overwhelming.”

I found Muench in the Patrick Henry cafeteria at lunchtime one day a few months later. She is twenty-one years old and has clear, bright hazel eyes and sandy-brown hair that she straightens and then curls with an iron. Patrick Henry is a Christian college, though it is not affiliated with any denomination, and it gives students guidelines on “glorifying God with their appearance.” During class hours, the college enforces a “business casual” dress code designed to prepare the students for office life—especially for offices in Washington, D.C., fifty miles to the east, where almost all the students have internships, with Republican politicians or in conservative think tanks. When I met Muench, she was wearing a cardigan and a navy skirt. The boys in the cafeteria all had neatly trimmed hair, and wore suits or khakis and button-down shirts; girls wore slacks or skirts just below the knee, and sweaters or blouses. Most said grace before eating, though they did it silently and discreetly, with a quick bow of the head.

Muench told me that she loved working for Rove—answering the phone and having a senator on the line, meeting Andrew Card, the chief of staff (“He’s a nice guy”), and Vice-President Dick Cheney (“He’s really funny”). She took a bus from Patrick Henry at six every morning to arrive at the White House by seven-thirty. Her work with Rove, she told me, affirmed her belief that he was a political genius.

In her sophomore year, Muench had become the first—and, so far, the only—woman at Patrick Henry to run for a student-government executive office, when she entered the race for vice-president. Campaigns are unusually intense at Patrick Henry; candidates hire pollsters and form slates. One of Muench’s friends, Matthew du Mée, was on an opposing slate, and the race caused a strain. (Both lost.) Muench’s internship with Rove has given her a reputation, much envied on campus, as someone worth knowing. The day we spoke, a sophomore leaned across the table and asked, “How much do you make, starting salary, working on the Hill?”

“I’m not sure,” Muench said.

“I heard one of the graduates working for Joe Pitts is making, like, thirty-two thousand dollars. That’s not that much.” (Pitts is a Republican congressman.)

“Well, it’s not too bad if you’re a single person,” Muench told him.

“Do you have any intentions of running for office?” the sophomore asked.

“Yes,” she said.

At that moment, Muench’s cell phone rang. It was Cheney’s office, calling to thank her for volunteering for the Vice-President’s Christmas party, and to ask if she would allow her name to be put on a list for future openings.

Muench, like eighty-five per cent of the students at Patrick Henry, was homeschooled, in her case in rural Idaho. 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 élite, rough around the edges but pure—in their focus, capacity for work, and ideological clarity—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’s president, Michael Farris, is a lawyer and minister who has worked for Christian causes for decades. He founded the school after getting requests from two constituencies: homeschooling parents and conservative congressmen. The parents would ask him where they could find a Christian college with a “courtship” atmosphere, meaning one where dating is regulated and subject to parental approval. The congressmen asked him where they could find homeschoolers as interns and staffers, “which I took to be shorthand for ‘someone who shares my values,’ ” Farris said. “And I knew they didn’t want a fourteen-year-old kid.” So he set out to build what he calls the Evangelical Ivy League, and what the students call Harvard for Homeschoolers.

Farris is fifty-three but seems younger, with thick brown hair and a slightly amused expression. He and his wife, Vickie, began to homeschool their children (they have ten) in 1982, and the next year he founded the Home School Legal Defense Association, to challenge state laws that made it difficult to homeschool children. In 1993, he ran, unsuccessfully, for lieutenant governor of Virginia. At the time, evangelicals had yet to emerge as a national political force; many preferred to keep their distance from secular culture, which is one reason that Patrick Henry parents educated their children at home. Since then, Rove has built an entire campaign around mobilizing Christian conservatives. In a speech at the American Enterprise Institute after the 2000 election, he said that the President had lost the popular vote because fewer than expected “white, evangelical Protestants” had come to the polls. One of Rove’s principal strategies for victory in 2004 was working to increase this group’s numbers, and on Election Day four million more evangelicals voted than in 2000.

Farris’s manifesto for the school, “The Joshua Generation,” embraces the Rove principle: the “Moses generation,” he wrote, had “left Egypt,” and now it was time for their children to “take the land.” Farris is the author of nine nonfiction books and three novels, all with Christian themes, and in them he warns against “MTV, Internet porn, abortion, homosexuality, greed and accomplished selfishness”; he calls public schools “godless monstrosities.” But 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, he’ll get a cell-phone call; it will be the President, who happens to be his old Patrick Henry roommate, calling to congratulate him.”

When the Farrises began homeschooling their kids, they were one of only a few thousand American families who did so. Now about a million and a half children, as many as two-thirds of whom are thought to be evangelicals, are taught at home. Farris bought the land for the Patrick Henry campus with four hundred thousand dollars from the Home School Legal Defense Association’s reserves; he raised the rest of the money for the college, nine million dollars, from parents and donors such as Tim LaHaye, the author of the best-selling “Left Behind” series. LaHaye’s portrait hangs in the main hall.

Farris was competing against established Christian schools such as Bob Jones University, which sells textbooks and videos for homeschoolers. Some families, though, believe that a traditionalist approach to Christian education is limiting, and Patrick Henry was designed to appeal both to the protectiveness of these parents and to their ambitions, promising an “authentic Christian environment” as well as preparation for “careers of influence” in politics.

Three times a year, the White House chooses a hundred students for a three-month internship. Patrick Henry, with only three hundred students, has taken between one and five of the spots in each of the past five years—roughly the same as Georgetown. Other Patrick Henry students volunteer in the White House. Tim Goeglein, the Administration’s liaison to the evangelical community, said that the numbers reflect the abilities of the Patrick Henry students, who “have learned a way to integrate faith and action.” For the White House, it is also a way to reach out to its base while building a network of young political operatives.

Of the school’s sixty-one graduates through the class of 2004, two have jobs in the White House; six are on the staffs of conservative members of Congress; eight are in federal agencies; and one helps Senator Rick Santorum, of Pennsylvania, and his wife, Karen, homeschool their six children. Two are at the F.B.I., and another worked for the Coalition Provisional Authority, in Iraq. Last year, the college began offering a major in strategic intelligence; the students learn the history of covert operations and take internships that allow them to graduate with a security clearance.

All seniors do a directed research project that is designed, Farris told me, to mimic the work that an entry-level staffer would be assigned. “A whole lot of elected members of Congress started off as Hill staffers,” Farris said. “If you want to train a new generation of leaders, you have to get in on the ground floor.”

One afternoon in March, Matthew du Mée sat at a counsels’ table in the Virginia Supreme Court. Behind him was an audience of two hundred people, including many of Patrick Henry’s donors. Du Mée and another senior, Rayel Papke, were representing one side of a mock case against a team from Balliol College, at Oxford University. The details of the case, which involved an international treaty, were fictitious, but Farris had persuaded three of the court’s justices to preside. Papke had got up at 1 a.m. to prepare. Du Mée was calmer; as he waited for the debate to begin, he said, “The only help I need is the Lord’s.”

Du Mée is twenty-two years old but, like many homeschooled boys, can seem both younger and older. He is tall, with an angular face and ears that stick out a bit. His hair usually bears the fresh imprints of a comb, like a schoolboy’s or a senator’s. When the round began, he was both deliberate and aggressive, and he deployed legal jargon with ease: he reminded me of a youthful version of Theodore Olson, Bush’s former Solicitor General. Each team had to answer questions from the justices about dozens of legal precedents; du Mée seemed to have all the decisions memorized.

Last year, two Patrick Henry teams flew to Oxford for a mock trial that turned on the intricacies of British contract law. The Oxford kids hadn’t known much about Patrick Henry back then. When one of them noticed that Papke looked nervous, he said, “Don’t worry, we’ll get drunk tonight.” Papke just smiled. Patrick Henry won; Oxford drank alone.

Faith Brobst, a former White House intern, and Christy Ross, du Mée’s fiancée, who was also the debate-team captain, were at the Virginia Supreme Court, helping out. Brobst was wearing a cherry-red suit, Ross a peacock-blue one, with stockings and pumps—the uniform of Washington wives in waiting. The Oxford boys seemed to blink when they saw them. “So bright, and they match,” one of them said, politely.

The judges announced that the Patrick Henry team had won, by a 3-0 decision. Don Hodel, the former president of Focus on the Family, a Christian advocacy group, who is a Patrick Henry supporter, came up and congratulated du Mée, and invited him and Ross to visit him at his home in Colorado.

At Patrick Henry, debate plays roughly the role that football does at Notre Dame. When I asked Farris why, he said, “No one ever asked George Bush or John Kerry to arm wrestle. They need these verbal-communications skills to defend their ideas. There’s no training like arguing against the best minds, and then beating them.” Referring to du Mée, he said, “Maybe one day he’ll be the one standing before the Supreme Court, arguing to overturn Roe v. Wade.”

When du Mée arrived at Patrick Henry, in 2001, after being homeschooled by his parents, in Phoenix, Arizona (his father was a computer analyst, and his mother stayed at home), the school issued a press release. He’d got a perfect 1600 on the S.A.T. but ignored solicitation letters from Yale, Harvard, and Stanford, and the fact that he chose Patrick Henry was seen as a turning point for the school, which was then less than two years old. Du Mée told me, “I considered going to an Ivy League, where I could have been more of a Christian witness”—meaning an example to others who might not share his faith. But he decided that he wanted a school “more edifying to Christ.”

Du Mée’s transcript reads as though he had gone through a Beltway-staffer training camp. He took classes on the Presidency, on Congress, and on constitutional law. In his senior year, he volunteered at the White House one day a week, answering the telephone comment line, and he has interned twice with Representative Trent Franks, an Arizona Republican. Du Mée’s first directed research project was a thirty-page evaluation of a bill giving tax credits for donations to fund private-school scholarships, which Franks had introduced. He wrote another with Ross, on reforming the U.N., complete with policy briefs.

Ross is du Mée’s usual debate partner, and this year they won four of the six national tournaments they competed in. Some of the younger Patrick Henry teams make a point of taking explicitly Christian positions, such as arguing for teaching alternatives to evolution, but du Mée and Ross tend to be more subtle; they focus, instead, on issues like merit pay for teachers. They met during freshman orientation, and before they began spending “exclusive time” together, in junior year, du Mée called Ross’s father to tell him. Last year, du Mée asked if he could court her by writing her father an eighteen-page single-spaced letter that began “My name is Matthew du Mée and I was a good kid.”

When Ross was sixteen, she wrote in her journal, “I don’t want to spend my life having crushes on different guys.” She pledged to “love Christ with my whole heart and not fall in love with a guy for five years,” a period that she chose after hearing a lecture that compared committing to Christ to sticking to a long-term business plan. Du Mée’s courtship proposal came exactly five days before her pledge expired.

Over Christmas break, du Mée drove to Ross’s house, in Evansville, Indiana, to propose in front of her parents and six siblings. She accepted, and gave him a hug—they wanted their first kiss to be at their wedding. They decided to get married right after graduation and move to Phoenix. Ross would look for a job, but only to pay back loans. Eventually, they want to adjust to living on one salary so that she can homeschool their kids. Du Mée would “really, really like to run for political office,” he said. “U.S. Congress would be great.” First, he’s hoping for a government-relations job at a private company. The next year, he’ll apply to law school. When he graduates, he’ll be ready, he thinks, “to do some little state offices.” The fact that he was homeschooled and keeps a running conversation with Jesus in his head does not seem to him a barrier. “It’s pretty normal,” he said.

On a Wednesday afternoon, I sat in on a class on the Presidency. There were fourteen students, all of whom arrived on time and got out their laptops to take notes. Today, they were talking about Machiavelli. The professor, Robert Stacey, who has a trim ginger-colored beard and is a popular, lively teacher, pushed the students to think about Machiavelli’s suggestion that leaders create fear to maintain their authority. He brought up the example of the federal raid on the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas, in 1993. One student asked, “Did they really represent such a big threat to our country?”

“No, but it unified the country, in an us-versus-them sort of way,” another answered.

Then Stacey moved on to Machiavelli’s principle that politics is governed by conspiracies and lies. “Come on, we know politicians lie,” he began. “This is a bit sensitive. How about our beloved George W. Bush? Does he deceive us with what he says in public? Does he lie?”

The students, who had been fully engaged on the subject of Machiavelli and Waco, were silent. Bush has been President since they were teen-agers, and the school newspaper’s editorials never deviate from the White House position. Finally, one student said, “No, I don’t think so.”

Stacey didn’t say anything. After a pause, the student said, “I mean, it would be nice if he didn’t.”

Stacey, who has a Ph.D. in government from the University of Virginia, told me that he loved Patrick Henry, because the students “really want to be here, which is very satisfying for a professor.” He is an evangelical Christian, but he worries that his students sometimes revert to jargon they picked up from their parents, “that the nation’s founders just fell out of Heaven, that America is a Christian Nation, capital ‘C’ capital ‘N.’ I want them to understand that these are myths, that the claims they’re making are superficial.” When he asks his students to defend a position, Stacey said, “ ‘The Bible says so’ is never the answer.”

Still, 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.” The curriculum for the first two years follows a “Christian Classical” model—basically, Western Civ from a Biblical perspective. Students read Plato, Aristotle, Virgil, Locke, Shakespeare, Milton, Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Beckett. They also study Euclidean geometry and biology; the school uses a standard science textbook, but the professor, Jennifer Gruenke, who also has a Ph.D. from the University of Virginia, tells students that the earth was created in a week. For the last two years, they switch to a “vocational” model, and receive credit for internships and research projects. Elisa Muench, for example, took a class on how to analyze polls, and is preparing a senior project on political realignments. Most of the students major in government; the few literature majors tend to be girls.

Patrick Henry’s campus is small, with one main building and a group of dorms clustered around a lake; the kids call it “the fishbowl.” It can be a competitive, anxious place. Many students schedule their days in fifteen-minute increments and keep daily checklists over their desks (do crunches, read Bible, take vitamins, study). “Everyone here is going for the same prize,” Abby Pilgrim, a junior, told me. “Nothing here is chill.”

So far, each class has lost about a fifth of its students, either because they can’t keep up or because they want a less intense college experience. The S.A.T. scores are in the 1220-1410 range, and tuition and board cost around twenty thousand dollars, although some students are offered scholarships. The students are almost all white, with about a dozen who are Asian or Hispanic. At the moment, there are no African-American students, although Farris says that he is trying to recruit them through the National Black Home Educators Resource Association.

The school has to make room for a student like Farahn Morgan, a ballerina who is trying out to be a Rockette and likes to provoke her roommates by saying she’s going to Victoria’s Secret (“People, everyone wears a bra!”), and for a junior like Ben Adams, who sent out a nine-page e-mail to the entire student body before the spring formal reminding the girls to dress modestly. “Lust is sin,” it said. “It is sin for you to tempt us. It is . . . unloving. Unsisterly. Un-Christlike.” Nearly every week, minor culture wars break out on campus. One student wrote an article entitled “Why Bono May Be a Better Christian Than You.” Another responded, in an outraged op-ed, that the band members “live like heathens.”

Often, the campus looks like a scene from “Meet Me in St. Louis,” with young men and women talking to one another through open windows, or exchanging a chaste goodbye at the downstairs door—men and women are not allowed in the living areas of each others’ dorms. Girls talk about not “stumbling” a guy, the equivalent of tempting him, and resident advisers keep a close eye on them to make sure they don’t wear shirts that show any bra. If they do, they’ll get a friendly e-mail—“I think I saw you in dress code violation,” followed by a smiley emoticon. (Not everyone takes the strictures well: one woman I spoke to would sometimes cry in the stairwell after being criticized by other girls for dressing inappropriately; she is transferring.) Smoking, drinking, and “public displays of affection in any campus building” are forbidden. Matthew du Mée, who was an R.A., told me that if he saw a boy and girl sitting too close for too long he would pull the boy aside and tell him to stop, because “the guy is supposed to be the leader in the relationship.”

A faction of homeschooling parents lobbied Farris not to admit girls to the college, but he told me that he considered that an “extreme” position. “All women, moms included, benefit from a great education,” he said. Men and women compete openly. When all the best papers in a constitutional-law class that Farris taught were turned in by girls—and not for the first time—Farris yelled at the boys to grow up. 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.

During spring break, in April, I went to see Elisa Muench at her parents’ ranch, in Idaho, off a gravel road at the edge of the Camas prairie. The family has three horses, and they galloped down at the sound of Elisa’s voice. In the living room, antlers and an antique gun were mounted over a piano. Around the house, I saw scattered signs of devotion: a newsletter from Focus on the Family, a pile of Christian best-sellers. Elisa’s mother, Mary, who retired as a lieutenant colonel in the Army reserve, was at her one-day-a-week job as a nurse anesthetist in Clarkston, an hour and a half away. Her father, Alan, who was a surgeon in the Army, and retired as a colonel, now works full time on the ranch. While I talked to him about Elisa, her younger brother, Lee, who is fifteen years old and is being homeschooled, sat with us.

As a child, Elisa lived on Army bases in Italy and Alaska. Then, when she was twelve, her parents left the military and moved the family to the ranch. They worried about the local public schools’ test scores and “social atmosphere.” So they ordered textbooks and videos from a Christian publisher, and taught Elisa and her brother and sister themselves. The Muenches told Elisa that she could go to the public high school, but she thought her education was better at home and, she told me, “I liked having a Christian curriculum. I knew if I was in a biology class or something I’d just start debating them on evolution.”

Elisa took part in Idaho’s mock legislative session for high-school students, and was elected Speaker of the House. She read biographies of Ronald Reagan and the Bushes. On her desk at home hangs a poster that a friend made for her: “Elisa Muench, Republican, for Idaho’s Senator.” When she was near graduation, her mother read about Patrick Henry in a Christian magazine. They visited the school and prayed about it, and, when Elisa was offered a scholarship, they saw it as a sign that Patrick Henry was the right place for her.

At Patrick Henry, where she has hung photographs of the Bushes and the Cheneys on her walls, Elisa tries to read the Bible every day, usually in the morning before working out. She told me that in any other school she’d be considered a true conservative, which is what she considers herself, “but at Patrick Henry I’m more liberal.” Elisa has another year to go, but school has already changed in an important way: last semester, ten of her friends got engaged, including her roommate. “It was insane,” Elisa said. She herself has courted twice, but courtship presumes that couples are considering marriage, and that, she told me, makes everything move too fast, before a relationship has gone anywhere at all. She would have serious discussions about children and insurance before the first kiss. Then, at some point, the boys realized “how much I really loved politics and wanted to be a part of it,” and the prospect of her commitment to a career became a problem.

Elisa believes the Bible dictates that “there are different roles for men and women”; as a White House intern, she saw women with young children working “long, long hours,” and she doesn’t want that. Her mother, who had her first child at twenty-seven, tells her that she regrets having waited so long. But the expectation of most of the guys she knows at Patrick Henry—that wives should just “fade out,” that she should instantly take on the identity of a wife and mother “and consider it a blessing”—is not something that she’s comfortable with. “I just think there’s more that God called me to do, and that’s a hard thing to say around here,” she told me.

Elisa Muench often has the feeling that nothing in her life is settled. When she tells her father or her old drama teacher that she wants to work at the White House, she does it tentatively, like someone testing out an identity. She knows that she is different from some of the other interns she has worked with—they had fake I.D.s and slept with their boyfriends—but she told me that the kids in school who annoy her the most are the ones locked into their Bibles, like one who, when they were studying Nietzsche, kept saying, “But God isn’t dead!” She said, “What happens when they meet people who don’t even read the Bible?” Once, she shook hands with George Bush and noticed that his hands were soft, not real rancher’s hands, like her dad’s. “You meet him and think, He’s just a man. What’s that expression? He puts on pants just like you.”

At lunch one day, I talked with Farahn Morgan, the dancer, about the other students. Morgan had been homeschooled but also spent a lot of time in dance studios, and had a keener sense of social dynamics than many of her peers. The predominant view among Patrick Henry students is that “you choose your life path, not that things happen to you,” she said. “A lot of people here, if they lose control—even for a second—they have a breakdown.” Sometimes, instead of going to church, Morgan sits in her car alone and listens to sermons on the radio.

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 world’s demands—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 Mée 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.

Some of the alumni are already demonstrating the risks of Farris’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 it’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. Even Elisa Muench says that when she’s in Washington she won’t advertise her connection.

But Matthew du Mée is not at that point yet; he has every reason to feel secure and happy. He and Christy Ross were married on June 4th, at a church near her home in Indiana, and he has a lead on a good job in Phoenix. He told me that he was glad to move on; his view of what’s out there hasn’t changed much since he was choosing a college, and imagined all the people who were waiting to hear his message. “We are all called to be lights out there in this world,” he said, “and I’m looking forward to that.”

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