The problem with Christ on campus

, National Post · Nov. 2, 2011 | Last Updated: Nov. 2, 2011 3:07 AM ET

Canadian liberals are forever fear-mongeringabouttheinfluence of evangelical Christians on Stephen Harper's government. But in truth, the Canadian Evangelical lobby is small compared to its American counterpart, which has fuelled both the Moral Majority and the Tea Party. Hundreds of thousands of young people attend evangelical colleges and universities, whose purpose is to train an army of ideological missionaries. After graduation, they fan out into society and apply their collective weight to shaping America's culture, laws and politics.

What do young evangelicals learn at these institutes of higher learning? In 2007, author Kevin Roose - raised in a nominally Quaker, but mostly secular and liberal home - was an English literature student with journalistic ambitions at ultraliberal Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island. He knew lots of Catholics, Buddhists and Jews, but no evangelicals. He wanted an answer to that question.

So while his peers went off to Paris and Munich for their semester abroad, Roose chose to spend his masquerading as an evangelical at the biggest EC university in the world, Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va., home of Liberty's controversial founder and presiding guru, Reverend Jerry Falwell. The result of his anthropological sojourn at "Bible Boot Camp" was his thoroughly entertaining and informative book The Unlikely Disciple: A Sinner's Semester at America's Holiest University. It came out in 2009, but I discovered it only this year.

You don't often see a writer go to such lengths to combat his own prejudices. Roose shines a high-intensity light on every benefit he can find at Liberty: Almost everyone he meets is optimistic and motivated; dating girls you can't have a physical relationship with (three-second hugs are the maximum allowed; engagement talk is encouraged after four or five dates) means you really talk and listen maturely; routine prayer can be uplifting even for a non-believer; life is healthier and the body fitter without booze; it's nice to escape the cynicism of secular life.

But his difficulty - and the reader's - is that these pleasant side effects are nothing beside the troubling values inherent in Liberty's social and pedagogical culture, especially the college's systemic homophobia and its shameless anti-intellectualism. Because this was his first big assignment, Roose struggled mightily for even-handedness on these and other fronts (racism is no longer overt, but discernible to the observant eye and ear). His Pythonesque attempts to "always look on the bright side of life" at Liberty - a bright side that isn't really there from a rational perspective - is a failing, even though it is part of the book's charm.

Homophobia, Roose writes, was rampant on campus, and a preoccupation amongst his dorm-mates. Why any gay would choose to go to Liberty, God only knows, but one pastor individually counselled about 40 of them (the same pastor helped male students deal with "Every Man's Battle" - masturbation). Roose disagrees with the pastor's approach of trying to change gays' orientation, but felt he offered "genuine custodial love for his students," and concludes, unconvincingly, that "Love with strings attached seems better than no love at all." For himself, he cultivates a "numbness" to the constant talk of "faggots" to preserve his equanimity.

But it is the cognitive dissonance imposed by the belief in the Bible as literal truth that is most unsettling. About 60% of the courses are nonChristian, but all students must take core Christian courses. Amongst them is "History of Life" in the Creation Studies Department, where young-earth creationism is taught: i.e. God created the Earth 6,000 years ago in six 24-hour days. (Only biology majors learn about evolution; otherwise they can't be accredited as public school teachers.)

Roose's professor is a real scientist, who has contributed to Alzheimer's research in peer-reviewed journals. But like every other teacher at Liberty, he is also a believing evangelical, and when there is a conflict, belief wins. To a question about how the dinosaurs fit into Noah's Ark, the prof surmised they must have been "teen" dinosaurs and therefore small enough. A visiting pastor says to them: "My biggest worry about - all of you is that you'll be educated beyond your obedience."

So, as Roose correctly deduces, there is a "cap" on knowledge at Liberty - "a point at which knowledge becomes dangerous rather than useful." There wasn't even a library there until accreditation issues forced the issue.

An evangelical polling firm, Barna, reports that 47% of born-again Christians under 40 think "the political efforts of conservative Christians" are problematic for America. They're right. If you wonder why the Republicans seem to find so much difficulty in fielding serious candidates for national leadership, look no further than Liberty University.