In the fall of 2000, a failed politician named Michael Farris threw open the doors to a Christian college in rural northern Virginia, named for a founding father who opposed the Constitution and favored state-supported religion. The mission of Patrick Henry College was to attract and cultivate academic stars from the ranks of home-schooled evangelicals, then send them off on graduation day to "shape the culture and take back the nation," in the words of a common home-schooling rallying cry.
Patrick Henry College students, whose SAT scores put them a tier below an Ivy League freshman class, hit the campaign trail on behalf of Republican candidates and won prime internships on Capitol Hill and inside the White House. Back at their red-brick colonial campus 45 miles from Washington, they were taught that the Earth was literally created in seven days and that those who weren't born again in Christ faced an afterlife of "conscious torment for eternity." They studied subjects like Greek philosophy, but mostly as a form of "opposition research."
A desire to rescue secular America from fallen grace has driven conservative evangelicals at least since the 1970s, when Jerry Falwell formed the Moral Majority as a vehicle for conservative Christians to muscle their way into national politics. In "God's Harvard," Hanna Rosin finds Patrick Henry College an ideal case study for what happens when fundamentalist faith and political action are combined. It's a pool of ambitious and religiously ardent college students expressly groomed to take their beliefs into the public arena. The book is revealing and often insightful but ultimately stands as a journalistic survey rather than a gripping story that might deepen our understanding of its central characters, their motivations and the life conflicts they attempt to navigate.
"God's Harvard" opens with a promising flourish of Rosin's wit. "Although they are unfailingly gracious, evangelicals are not so good at respecting professional boundaries," she writes. "The first time someone tried to share the Gospel with me, I naïvely explained that I was Jewish and born in Israel, thank you. ... This was a big mistake. In certain parts of Christian America, admitting I was an Israeli-born Jew turned me into walking catnip." Over breakfast once, an associate of the Christian activist James Dobson blurted, "When I look at you, I see the blood of our Savior coursing through your veins." "Thank you," I gulped. "More maple syrup?"
Despite these early encounters as a religion reporter, primarily for The Washington Post, Rosin approaches the year and a half she spends at Patrick Henry determined to understand the inner emotional workings of the students, most of whom arrive on campus — and then encounter Washington politics — after leaving the confines of a home-school education.
We meet Derek Archer of Akron, Ohio, whose father is a former pot-smoking Hare Krishna turned Christian missionary and whose mother has never even been to the local mall. Derek found his true faith after a teenage crush unnerved him, and by the time he applies to Patrick Henry he has achieved "the near-perfect balance of ambition and humility" that the college strives to foster in its students. Derek worked on George W. Bush's 2004 campaign and arranges his room like "a Republican Felix Unger," Rosin writes. He was shaken to encounter an "ungodly man" like Ted Kennedy in the halls of the Capitol.
The young women portrayed in "God's Harvard" are more complex. Elisa Muench, who interned with Karl Rove and was the first woman at Patrick Henry to run for a student government executive office, struggles to reconcile her professional ambition with a culture in which women are expected to marry — after supervised "courtship" — and stay home with their children. Farahn Morgan is a ballet dancer and a social outcast at Patrick Henry who likes to chide her classmates with comments like "Is God talking behind my back again?"
The person facing the most difficult predicament is the college founder himself. But Rosin leaves his story, too, largely untold. Farris, who became a high-profile home-school activist after losing his 1993 race for lieutenant governor of Virginia, has produced at Patrick Henry College an unyielding and punitive culture at a time when much of American evangelism is embracing the more gentle doctrines of figures like the Rev. Rick Warren, the author of the wildly best-selling "Purpose-Driven Life." Even within the universe of home-schoolers — estimates are that there are more than a million home-schooled students in the United States, though not all of them religious — Farris represents a strict wing that emphasizes a father-dominated hierarchy and eschews nearly all popular culture.
Yet he finds his worldview challenged inside his own school. "He didn't like to think of it this way, but sometimes it was hard not to notice a pattern: On one side were the devout kids who were not quite so successful. On the other were the smart, successful ones who were shaky in their faith," Rosin writes. To make matters worse, the most popular professor on campus is the historian Robert Stacey, who refuses to propagate the myth that all the founding fathers were devoted Christians and offers lectures on Kant and Nietzsche, who questioned the existence of God.
Stacey and a handful of other professors upend the students' regimented thinking, causing doubts that must be reconciled with their faith. " 'The more you know, the more you question,' one especially astute sophomore told me." Rosin adds: "If everything your home-school textbook taught you wasn't true, then everything the esteemed Dr. Farris said wasn't necessarily true, and what your parents said might not be true either. The hierarchy was starting to unravel." So, too, was Farris's faculty, as Rosin reports at the end of her book.
The coverage of religious fundamentalists by mainstream journalists — and many have visited Patrick Henry since its opening — tends to take on the trappings of an anthropological exercise: outsiders arriving to study the rituals and mating habits of a strange native tribe. There is an "us and them" quality that is difficult to transcend. The question must be asked of any writer undertaking this enterprise: Are you trying to horrify your like-minded readers or enlighten them? Rosin clearly intended to enlighten. Her empathy for the students and families she interviews is apparent. But there are suggestions that this is a cultural divide she can't quite cross (a reference to the "eerily independent and well-behaved" small children at a student event, descriptions of "goofy love songs to Jesus") and a politics she spurns (George Bush's "fixed" view of God's will leads to arrogance; Barack Obama offers a "humbler" version of Christianity).
In the end, Rosin hints at much drama to be mined at Patrick Henry. But in her journalistic telling, the stories of Farris and his students — and their determination to become leaders inside a culture that their belief systems reject — come up short.
Nina Easton, Washington bureau chief for Fortune Magazine, is the author of "Gang of Five: Leaders at the Center of the Conservative Ascendancy."