They're young, they're bright, and they're so eager that they make the rest of us look half asleep. In between canvassing relentlessly for their favorite politicians and earning SAT scores that would turn most other kids chartreuse with envy, these young crusaders remind themselves to "take vitamins, do sit-ups, study, read [the] Bible."
They're the "Joshua Generation," the youthful Evangelicals who hope to "shape the culture and take back the nation." Whether these kids terrify or delight you has everything to do with your political and religious views but, one way or the other, they are people that you should probably start getting to know. God's Harvard: A Christian College on a Mission to Save America by Hanna Rosin offers an intriguing introduction.
Rosin is a reporter for The Washington Post and, as she is a secular Jew, this is hardly her natural constituency. She approaches this world as much an outsider as will many of her readers.
Her subject is Patrick Henry College, a small Christian college outside Washington, D.C. Founded in 2000, by 2002 it had already become a major pipeline supplying youthful interns to the White House.
In fact, such activity is the college's raison d'être. "You are the tip of the spear," the college's founder, homeschooling activist Michael Farris, likes to tell his students. These kids – many of whom were homeschooled – are the academic elite of the evangelical world. Farris aims to mold them into "shape-shifters" – bright kids who, combining Ivy-caliber educations with conservative Christian values, will "move between two worlds with their essential natures intact."
These are students like Derek Archer, an earnest, appealing homeschooler from Ohio, who, Rosin notes, "in any other generation ... probably would have been a missionary, or a pastor."
But Evangelicals like Farris, tired of watching a secular elite (as they see it) run the US, have other hopes for bright lights like Derek: senator, governor, judge, secretary of State, or maybe even president. (Farris dreams of the day when he will introduce his college's ultimate graduation day speaker: "President So and So, an alumnus of Patrick Henry.")
Rosin spent a year and a half visiting Patrick Henry and got to know students like Derek – sometimes even traveling to their family homes – and what she saw were "the children of Ralph Reed ... ambitious, entitled" and unwilling to accept a marginal role in the future of their nation.
This new generation of Evangelicals, writes Rosin, "move easily in and out of the mainstream. They love their iPods almost as much as they love Christ, and they don't see the need to choose."
And yet life at Patrick Henry is not exactly what you'd encounter on the average US campus. iTune lists are monitored and dorm rooms are checked for cleanliness. Flip-flops are prohibited and the only dating permitted is a chaste form of courtship subject to parental approval.
Rosin does a good job of allowing individual students to emerge from the pack. There is free-thinking, stylish Farahn Morgan who's not quite sure she really belongs at Patrick Henry. There's star-struck, Hollywood hopeful Daniel Noa, a home-schooler from a family of Californians so mainstream that "you couldn't pick them out in a crowd." There are couples like Elisa and Aaron who struggle to integrate romance, family, and faith. (The standard assumption at Patrick Henry is that all women – no matter how stratospheric their SAT scores – will one day leave the workforce for motherhood.)
For the most part, Rosin's profiles of Patrick Henry's young charges are sympathetic and even affectionate, despite what occasionally seems to be her bemusement. As a reader, I was utterly intrigued by these kids yet in the end also frustrated that I never got to know any of them very deeply – although I understood Rosin's decision to gain breath by following several students rather focusing on one or two.
Rosin also interviews Patrick Henry faculty members and the showdown that eventually develops between them and Farris is one of the most fascinating parts of the book. Critical thinking slams up against dogmatic certainty and the inevitable collision is not pretty to watch.
"Experimental communities almost always implode," observes Rosin and Patrick Henry is indeed reeling by the book's final chapter. In this case, however, down is not out and there will certainly be more to be heard from both Patrick Henry College and the ambitious young graduates it will produce. "God's Harvard" is a good starting point.
• Marjorie Kehe is the Monitor's book editor. Send comments to Marjorie Kehe.