Monday, May 31, 2010

Book review: The Unlikely Disciple

Kevin Roose is the son of Quakers from Oberlin, Ohio, and was a student at Brown University when he decided to spend a semester at Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University. While his friends traveled to Europe for study abroad semesters, Roose decided try someplace more exotic still. He would go undercover at "America's Holiest University" and then write a book about it. So far outside his experience was the world of evangelical Protestantism, that his family and friends expressed the sort of fear you would expect if he were departing for Mogadishu.

Roose was well-advised to present himself as a newly-minted Christian, as evangelical culture was every bit as alien as he expected and it’s not easy to fake. Despite numerous faux pas, he managed to deflect suspicion just well enough to evade exposure. His unfamiliarity with the Bible not only threatened to give him away, but it made his Theology and Old Testament Studies classes surprisingly difficult.

Theology and Old Testament Studies had some genuine academic content, but other classes were pure religious, cultural, and political propaganda. His History of Life class was nothing but a recitation of Young Earth Creationism claims, delivered by a Dr. James Dekker who sported a white lab coat and pointedly announced, “I am a real scientist!” (Roose says that Dekker has done some work in neuroscience, but my Web of Science search didn’t turn up any hits for him) Exams include questions such as “True or False: Evolution can be proven using the scientific method.”*

The GNED II course was unvarnished indoctrination into the right wing political opinion. About this, Roose says, “At first, I couldn’t believe Liberty actually had a course that teaches students how to condemn homosexuals and combat feminism. GNED II is the class a liberal secularist would invent if he were trying to satirize a Liberty education. It’s as if Brown offered a course called Godless Hedonism 101: How to Smoke Pot, Cross-dress, and Lose Your Morals. But unlike that course, GNED II actually exists.”

Roose is closer to the mark here than he probably realizes. Many evangelicals do rather believe that secular university professors creates course content by thinking, "What would seduce students away from the Church? Let's teach that!" Just as many conservatives believe that Fox News is no more biased than the "mainstream media," they believe that relentless propaganda is merely a mirror image of secular education. This is, of course,yet another manifestation of the Paranoid Style.

"The Liberty Way" is all about rules**, covering everything a religious conservative worries about: no visitation to opposite sex dorms, no kissing, and no hugging for more than three seconds. Holding hands is okay, but alcohol and R-rated movies are forbidden. No shorts, no jeans with holes, for men no shirts without collars (you have to have a collar, so they can tell your hair isn’t long enough to touch it). Rooms are inspected three times a week and you cannot spend the night off campus without written permission. Reprimands, and even monetary fines, keep the miscreants in check. Roose gets fined for falling asleep during church.

It may sound like prison, but for devout students it's an effective path to true liberty (thus the school's name). It's the Fifth Freedom, the Freedom from Distraction - here in the cocoon, you can concentrate on God instead of sex and parties. That cocoon is so essential to maintaining the "Liberty Way" that some students rather dread the summer break, when they have to leave the cocoon and fend for themselves, with only God to help them. "I'm scare I won't be able to keep this up over the summer," one friend confides to him, afraid he won't be able to maintain his level of religious commitment when he's no longer subject to so much social control.

That inability to succeed with only God's help is a contradiction at the heart of evangelical religion that I've never been able to get over, and one that Liberty demonstrates in spades: faith is maintained almost entirely by social pressure, and very little by the power of God himself. Tell an evangelical minister that you don't need the church because you commune directly with God and his first order of business will be to convince you that your spiritual journey requires a professional navigator and that he's there to plot your course for you.

Nowhere is this more evident than with that intractable problem, masturbation (and its evil ally, pornography). There are counselors on campus to help students fight the temptation, and there are strategies for resisting temptation. Those strategies consist mainly of making sure you're never entirely alone and you might get found out if you misbehave. Turn your bed so that your computer screen faces the door, and leave that door open to all passersby. Some kids even go so far as to sign up with a service called X3Watch, which sends a copy of your browsing history to designated supervisors - their parents, maybe, or more often their pastor. It's not so much self-control as it is a commitment to eternal supervision.

That need for human surveillance strikes me as odd, because you're supposed to believe that God is watching you every minute. Somehow, the certainty of divine observation has almost no force at all compared to even a slight possibility that someone you know will see you misbehaving. The internet has exposed this dirty little secret: upstanding Christians, even many pastors, who would never risk being seen entering a porn shop can't keep their browsers off the porn sites. How deeply can even a pastor believe in an omnipresent God if God's presence has less influence over his behavior than the possibility that his wife or kids could come home at any moment?

As Roose self-reports, the bubble was so enveloping that he became partially assimilated himself. He experienced the contagion of religious ecstasy. He began to enjoy church for the camaraderie, as a gathering of his friends, but kept enough awareness to realize that the camaraderie was the bait and religion the hook. Come for the friendship, absorb the dogma. It's not that he started to believe in fundamentalist religion - but he began to forget how ludicrous it all is.

Roose writes surprisingly well (he was only 19 at the time) and, more importantly, learns genuine affection and respect for most of his dorm mates. In many respects, they’re not much different from other college students – except they may be even more sex-obsessed than kids who occasionally get a little action. Their attitudes toward religion, the Bible, and Jesus don’t offend him, but the relentless homophobia does. He finds himself quietly enraged at the way his dorm mates casually throw out the epithet “faggot.” But he also becomes numb to it, and worries that his outrage may be diminishing (Roose has gay relatives, so it's a particularly salient issue).

He finds some reassurance in his dormmates' reaction to Henry, an older student who is exceptionally homophobic and patriarchal. At one point Henry angrily announces, "If my wife ever cuts her hair, she'll learn about submission to her husband." Eventually, Henry acquires the delusion that the majority of his dormmates, and Roose in particular, are gay, and seems almost on the verge of violence. Roose is unsure what to make of Henry. On the one hand, it's a useful reminder that however unserious his friends might seem when they throw out the word "faggot," Christian homophobia is real, intense, and its effects on real people is no joke. On the other hand, no one likes Henry, because even at Liberty University, being a Christian is not as important as just not being an asshole. Dogma does not entirely override the instinct for human decency.

Roose has two reasons for being hopeful about the graduates of Liberty University. One is that he has met a few students who are open-minded, questioning, and critical of the regimentation they experienced at Liberty. He hopes that exposure to the wide world will undo some of the spell that Liberty has woven around them. Second, to be a legitimate university, Liberty has to hire faculty with Ph.D.'s, and some of these long to be doing the sort of work that a real university, not a brainwashing facility, does. They want to be real professors and in time they might gain some influence in that direction.

In short, Roose has faith in the temptations of conventionality in shaping religion and religious people. I'm not sure he knows enough religious history to appreciate how strong that tendency is, but it's a well-founded hope. As much as religious leaders like to imagine themselves standing up to the world, in the end they can only maintain their position by riding the cultural current. One of Roose's friends, who has given extra study to Jerry Falwell, concludes bitterly that while Falwell had toned down his racism in his latter years, he probably hadn't changed his attitudes - he just knew he couldn't remain respectable saying what he really believed.

But it cuts both ways. Religion will conform to the cultural norms it no longer has any hope of undoing. But his friends may also become more conventional, and less open-minded, as they leave youth and approach middle age. Much depends on what passes for conventionality in 10-15 years; let's hope it's a less fearful and authoritarian style than is conventional among the people who support Liberty University nowadays.

* Roose provides a sample quiz at his web site. I got a perfect score; how 'bout you?

** Apparently Liberty doesn't want just anyone to know what those rules are - you need a password just to read the Code of Conduct at their website!


James Hanley said...

"That inability to succeed with only God's help is a contradiction at the heart of evangelical religion that I've never been able to get over,"

And one of the strongest reasons to doubt.

Scott Hanley said...

This wouldn't be a problem with a faith where you're not expected to achieve a state of grace during life. For a religion that views spirituality as an endless journey, it makes perfect sense to emphasize the help people can give one another. Like education or professional advancement, some will gain more than others and appropriate friends can help you there.

On the other hand, the evangelical approach is like depending on your drinking buddies to keep your marriage together. It's a weird, upside-down sort of relationship - if there's a real spouse there somewhere.