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PRESIDENT'S FORUM

Kevin Roose

Thanks guys, and nice lake you've got here. I grew up on Lake Erie, and it's not the kind of lake you want to spend too much time looking at. It's sort of depressing and gray, but this one's actually really nice. So congrats on that.

How many of you have gone, or are planning to go, abroad? Raise your hand. Wow! They told me. They briefed me a little bit. They said you guys go abroad about 60 percent of the time, which is awesome. I think, as I'll make clear, that's one of the things that's most important as part of a college experience.

Anyway, without sounding too much like someone's mom, I wanted to just sort of take you guys through my project, this experiment that I undertook a little more than three years ago and what it did for me. I didn't have a conservative talk show host in the making, when I went to college, in my room. I grew up in basically the ultimate secular, liberal family. So, my parents worked for Ralph Nader in the 1970s. I have aunts and uncles who are still avowing Communists. This was not a middle-of-the-road childhood. I basically grew up thinking "Republican" was a bad word. And then I went to Brown. (photo shown in slideshow) There's me as a freshman –you know, right? And this was sort of the prototypical liberal arts education. I sang in an a cappella group like every good liberal arts student. And, I had basically no contact with conservative Christianity. I had Jewish friends, and Hindu friends, and Muslim friends, and sort of mainline Christian friends, but no one who could sort of be really classified as an Evangelical. No one for whom the Christian faith was something that was really, really important to them. And this is actually consistent with the data they have on these sort of religious interactions. There's a study done in the mid '90s that says 51 percent of non-Evangelicals didn't know any Evangelicals, even casually. And the question of why that happens is obviously complex and would take a study in and of itself to try to sort through why we've become so fragmented as a populace. But, so that was my situation. I was not in contact with a lot of religious people. My parents were Quakers, which sort of count. They're like Christian; they don't pray or read the Bible and sort of say Grace. My parents didn't. So you sneak in on sort of a technicality.

So the summer after my freshman year at college, I was working for a man named A.J. Jacobs. Have any of you read his book "The Year of Living Biblically"? So we were working on one of his books, and I was his research assistant. He was trying to follow up all the rules of the Bible. My internship with him he called "biblical slavery." He called me his slave. This was apparently hysterically funny to him. My resume says "intern," but he thought this would be fun. So we were down in Lynchburg, Va. at Jerry Falwell's Thomas Road Baptist Church, which is connected to Liberty's campus and is sort of the home base of Falwell's empire. And we were milling around, and he was off doing an interview. I happened to start talking to this group of students who were from Liberty University. We started talking and, very quickly (within a few minutes) it became very clear that something was horribly wrong. I had no way of communicating with these people. They were using this sort of coded –what seemed to me like a coded –religious language. They would ask me, "Do you know Christ?" And I would be sort of taken aback and say, "Well, what do you mean, do I 'know Him?' We don't hang out, you know. I don't know what you want me to say."

It's funny now, but at the time it really depressed me. It really sent me into a funk because I thought, here are these people who look exactly like my friends. They're also 19, 20, 21-years-old. Same generation, same country, same time zone even. And yet, there was this immense cultural gap that separated us. To the point that, frankly, it was like speaking another language. I would have felt more comfortable in Tokyo, trying to get back to my hotel and getting directions in Japanese, than I felt in the lobby of Thomas Road Baptist Church. So that's when I thought maybe this would be a good opportunity to expand my own mind. My friends at that point were talking about study abroad and going to Prague or Barcelona or Rio. And I thought well maybe this would be an opportunity for sort of a domestic study abroad. I could go to Liberty; I could sort of try to blend in there and get the full experience of being Christian, a Right Wing Christian college student. I could see what I could learn. So I pitched the idea to my parents; they were horrified. I pitched it to the dean at Brown; he was amused and horrified. And I pitched it to my friends, who thought it was the funniest thing ever. They saw me trying to fit into a school with these really strict social rules about drinking and sexual conduct and stuff, and they thought it was bliss. They would say things like, "Kevin, it's pretty wild, you know, a semester with no sex— and, uh, how is this different again?" So they were not entirely supportive.

So during my sophomore year, at the midpoint of my sophomore year, I did it. I withdrew from Brown temporarily and I applied to Liberty as a student. I thought I could go in as a journalist; I was studying journalism at the time. I thought I could go in and do interviews on the record, and I'd wear a press pass. But, a.) there was no way they were going to let me. This was a school that protects its public image very closely, and b.) that's not the story I really want to get. I want to see what happens when these kids are just being kids, when they're not being spokespeople for a political and religious ideology. I wanted to see what's it like when they're just in the dorms, what's it like when they're playing intramural sports. So I transferred to Liberty University, which is the world's largest Evangelical Christian college, at 60,000 students. So that's like 30 HWSes or something. They said it's 2,000, is that right? OK, so a lot of people. And it was founded in 1971 by Jerry Falwell, this guy. And those of you in political science classes and the like know that Jerry Falwell is the moral majority leader, famous and infamous for a litany of things he said over the years, including spouting rhetoric about gay people, feminists, and abortionists and they're responsible for the terrorist attacks of September 11th, and on and on and on.

So, pretty clear this was going to be a radical experiment from the beginning. So I arrived, I'll show you a picture. Here's the Liberty Way. The Liberty Way does not come in tablet form, but it's their handbook of student conduct. So when you get to Liberty as a new student, or even before, they hand you this 46 page behemoth code of conduct that says no drinking, no smoking, but also no R-rated movies, no dancing, no cursing and, strangely, no hugs that last for longer than three seconds. So you can hug, but at the four second mark it becomes sinful so you gotta sorta release; it's like a stop and go. I don't know whether you can then re-hug for three more seconds, but I never tried that.

"So here I am on my first day at Liberty. Like the worst yearbook photo ever. I jumped in; I enrolled. I went what I felt okay calling "undercover" in that I was honest with people about my name. I didn't use an alias; I didn't use a back story. And when people asked whether I was Christian, I would say, "Yeah," 'cause my parents are Quakers, and I hadn't gone to church. I didn't know the four Gospels, but so I slide by on that one. And I would tell people that I came from Brown and I expected this to sort of raise eyebrows and cause massive amounts of consternation on campus because who would go from Brown to Liberty, just politically even. Instead what I got was sympathy. They thought I had fled Brown because it was so secular and liberal and that I couldn't take it anymore. So they would say things like, "This must be a breath of fresh air for you." And I would look at them and be like, "You have no idea, really. You have no idea."

I got to Liberty and I had some preparation to do. This was the first book I bought, "The Bible for Dummies," not as a joke. This is a place where people are really biblically literate. The ones who haven't grown up in Sunday school, which is probably about 90 percent of them, make a quick study of it once you get there. Every class at Liberty is sort of taught through this biblical perspective. So they teach things like accounting and French and art, but it's all sort of filtered through this prism of conservative biblical literalism. So if you take French, normally they'll teach you –if you take an introductory language class –they'll teach you "house," "dog," "how are you?" And here they teach you some of that, but they teach you how to preach in a foreign language so that when you're a missionary you can go give a sermon. So everything is sort of prismatically filtered that way. I had a lot of catching up to do in that area.

Then there was the Christian cultural stuff that I had no idea. I got very good at this thing where you're about to dig into your meal at the dining hall and you realize everyone else around you is praying and you sort of catch your fork and pretend you're look at it like, "Oh, this is a shiny fork," and then put it down and pray. I got very good at that particular maneuver. And then there was also just following the rules. I bought a book named "Thirty Days to Taming Your Tongue," which is designed for Christians who want to stop cursing. I don't work blue all that often, but this is a college where even one curse word could get you severely punished. You get reprimands, you get a monetary fine. Every curse word is $10, so that adds up quickly if you're a 21st century college student. What would I do if I stubbed my toe? What do you say? There is no other appropriate word in the English language. So this book sort of led me astray because I think it was written in the '70s. It had advice like, "Instead of cursing, when you're really frustrated, you should just say, 'mercy,' or 'glory be!'" This is not how they talk at Liberty. They just sort of say, "darn," and "crap." So I walked around campus for a couple of days sounding like Beaver Cleaver. People were just like, "who is this kid, and what strange home school is he coming from?" So, that was not a total success, but very quickly I adapted and started learning.

I enrolled in the core curriculum. Those are some of my textbooks. (photo shown in slideshow) The core curriculum at Liberty includes Old Testament, New Testament, Theology; you have a class in Christian ethics, and there's a course in creationist science –a required class for all Liberty students that teaches that the Earth is somewhere between six and seven thousand years old and that the Genesis account of creation is not only religiously orthodox but scientifically true. So, I remember going into class for the first exam and seeing the question, sitting down and whipping out my pencil, and I saw, "True or False: Noah's ark was large enough to accommodate various species of dinosaurs." And this took me aback. Obviously this is not a question you get at HWS or Brown or any other secular school. So a lot of catching up to do.

Is it true or false? The question is true according to Liberty. They say that they would have had to be teenage dinosaurs to take up less space; these are not full grown dinosaurs that we're talking about. You laugh. Every graduate of Liberty University comes out having been taught this. It's funny, and it's not funny.

And then I lived in a dorm. This is my dorm, 22 male. (photo shown in slideshow) I don't know what I was posing for here. The GQ Christian college spread. I was 19, forgive me. And so I lived in this dorm with 60 other Christian guys. This dorm was notable in that it had the most hilarious cast; this was the best people I could have been randomly selected to live with. You had pastors' kids, you had sort of missionaries in training, but you also had rebels. By rebels, I mean Liberty rebels. So they would curse, they would watch an R-rated movie and this would be very, very bad of them. But what surprised me very quickly was how normal the social scene was. I was down at a Bible school last week, and I gave a talk there, and someone came up to me. They said, "How can you say that it was so surprising that Christian's were normal?" I sort of felt like I was saying, "Oh, you know, monkeys can use silverware too. They're just like us." And it's not that. It's just the way I had been raised, the sort of social circles I had run in. It was surprising to me that 85 percent of the time, in the dorms, on the sports fields, at the movie theater, these were just normal college kids. I sort of had this vision that when I got to Liberty it would be like 60,000 theocrats plotting in dark rooms and writing angry letters to the ACLU, and that's not what it is. It's kids who are gossiping about girls; they're complaining about how much homework they have; they're worrying about what they're going to do after they graduate. And, not to say there aren't distinct differences between the student body there and the student body that I come from. Does anyone remember Facebook used to have this feature called "Network Statistics"? You could say, "Oh, students at HWS, their most -listed favorite book is 'Catcher in the Rye'" or whatever. At Liberty, the most listed interest was God, and at Brown it was Ultimate Frisbee. So here's a study in contrast here. It was very different, but very familiar. These kids were some of the nicest people I've ever met. They took me in with open arms, and they never ceased to amaze me. So that was a good surprise.

I wanted to do everything possible at Liberty, to sort of live the life of a Liberty student, which included going to all of the Bible study groups on Friday night; this was how I spent my Friday nights at Liberty, at Bible study. And I tried to experience every facet of life. One of these things, that you can read about in the book, is I went on a spring break evangelism trip to Daytona Beach in Florida with a group of Liberty students who were there to basically proselytize the co-eds, the drunken senior fog co-eds, and hand out gospel tracks and ask them, "Have you ever considered accepting Jesus as your savior?" This was the picture Salon.com used to illustrate it. It's not that far from that. I could have taken it with my camera, basically. So that was a bizarre experience. At one point, we were witnessing a person-to-person, one-on-one evangelism, trying to convert non-believers, and we were witnessing outside a night club, one of these huge Daytona laser light shows. It's sort of a raucous place, and we were outside handing out gospel tracks and asking, "Have you considered having Jesus as your personal savior?" Then here comes this truck from the "Girls Gone Wild" film crew, and they start shooting a movie right there next to us on the sidewalk. So the girls are lifting their shirts, and they're screaming, getting their Mardi Gras beads. And then they come to us, and we tell them about Jesus. It was a very strange sin and repentance assembly line here. So again, very bizarre. One of the most fun things, honestly, because parts of this were excruciating and hard; it's hard to be a teenage evangelist. I didn't understand the sympathy I felt for these kids because they're getting spit on and berated.

Some of the parts were really fun. I have a video for you. I have to go run over to the computer and do that real quick, but I think you'll like it.

So one of the things I decided to do was join the church choir from Thomas Road. This is a clip from one of their nationally-televised sermons [shows clip].So as you can see, I didn't really know the words. They give you the words and you're not supposed to look at them, but I was like help me here please. So my mom actually started watching these sermons from home in Ohio, and she would call me and say, "You didn't know the words to that one honey. You should really study your music before services." That was her way of helping. That was about the closest she came to support the whole time.

I'll start talking now about the part I learned because that's what you guys came for. One of the things I learned was the scholarly lessons; there were three big categories. The first was scholarly. I learned a ton about the Bible, a ton. Some of it has sort of atrophied, and any first-year seminary student could whip me in a Bible trivia contest, but it was really fun to sort of get a handle on the Scripture and the Christian theological principles, the history of the Christian Church. On a scholarly level, it was so interesting and so important; I'll talk about that a little bit later.

But the other type of lesson was a social lesson. This was a photo of one of my reprimands, so I got in trouble. This one says, "Student was sleeping during convocation." So this was not one of my finer moments. It was a Monday morning, like 10 o'clock; you're tired. But I found it being far from oppressive, well in a way, I mean. Having a 46 page code of conduct is not something a lot of people would willingly sign up for, but for the students who do, the rules, I came to see, actually provide a framework for your life, one that can be really enriching. It really does guide your life in a way I had never experienced at Brown, where it's sort of anything goes, no requirements, no curfew certainly, no rules at all. And then to go to a place where every aspect of your life is micromanaged, it has a sort of penitentiary quality to it, but it also gives a certain type of freedom. It's almost like a freedom from choice. A sociologist from Chapel Hill named Margarita Mooney has done a study on religious college students, students not necessarily at religious colleges but who practice a religion regularly while they're at college. She found that almost across the board they were happier. They were more diligent in their schoolwork, and they reported being more satisfied with their college experience when they were done. And you look at them, and you say how could that be? I think I came part of the way towards understanding how that feels. When you have that overarching framework and every day is a struggle to follow the rules and you have a hundred chances to slip up, everyday you go to bed like you sort of conquered this behemoth. Everyday you go to bed thinking, "I did everything I was supposed to. I am a moral person, and I do have a purpose." It's almost a sort of substitute for a university advisory, like God is your advisor. I think it's not for everyone; it's certainly not for me for four years, but I was actually really happy there. I got e-mails from my friends at Brown saying, "You must be ripping your toenails out," or something. I sort of prospered there, but there were obviously moments that I didn't. This is dorm 22; this is our intramural softball team.

The other sort of lesson I learned was about friendship, making friends with people who were nothing like you. You can see me over there. Again with, like, the horrible poses. I'm, like, throwing the peace sign on the left, just like a bad trip down memory lane. But these were some of the most genuine and lasting friendships I ever made, with the guys I lived with every day. There's a certain camaraderie, sort of like the Army builds really strong friendships. Going through Liberty is a gauntlet. You come out of it, and you have this group of, sort of brothers. You pray with them. There's a built in social impetus there that may not be there at other types of colleges.

There was some things I didn't like. The things I didn't like very quickly were the sort of quick biblical literalism and the effect it had on the classes and the sort of anti-intellectual vibe I got at Liberty. This is a page from my Creation Studies textbook, and you can sort of see it has the dimensions of Noah's Ark; on the right it says, "People and dinosaurs are shown to scale." On one level, this was the sort of thing I would've laughed at. The introduction of a faith system like Liberty's into higher education comes with a price tag, and the price tag is a true spirit of academic inquiry. I heard professors there say things like, "My biggest fear about Christian college students is that they will be educated beyond their obedience." It's not everyone; there were people at Liberty who disagreed with this party line. But, on the whole, not a very strong climate of academic honesty and academic fulfillment. What that means in practical terms, this is what I told the Bible college, I said, "You guys can keep debate and this sort of critical thinking out of your classroom, but you can't keep it out of your college." The guys I lived with would come back at night and have some of the most amazing debates and discussions about evolution and the rapture and all of the tenets of the Christian life. They would sort of rip them apart and examine them piece by piece. They're not dumb; these kids are not automatons. I just think that sort of energy would be good in the classroom. How cool would it be if you could go to a Christian college and question Christianity, question the elements of the faith?

Then there was obviously the socio-political stuff. A page from my Christian Ethics book, where it's talking about myths behind the homosexual agenda. Whatever your personal view is on the issues of gay marriage, on the issues of abortion, on the issues of religious freedom and things of that nature, clearly this is not productive. Clearly teaching kids that homosexuals, that the average gay has multiple sex partners during their gay life, many of which are anonymous encounters in bathhouses, nightclubs, and porn shops, obviously this is not constructive towards a tolerant social climate at the school. I actually went to talk with a pastor whose job it was to council gay Liberty students out of their gayness; his job was to convert them. I walked in. I wanted to meet this guy for journalistic reasons, to see why a college employs a guy solely for this purpose. I went in. I'm saying, "Oh I have a lot of friends who struggle with this stuff, and I'm really interested in how you might convert someone." Midway through I realize he isn't buying this, he totally thinks I'm struggling with this. He kept asking, "Are you sure you're not struggling with this? Are you sure you're not feeling attracted to men?" It was sad. Here's this productive energy about helping students and supporting them, serving as an adviser to them but in this totally, to me, misguided way. That I didn't like.

Then there was this weird fanaticism with Jerry Falwell on campus. Even now, he's dead, he died, and it's like North Korea almost. He will never die. Always Jerry Falwell school. I think you should get some T-shirts. I think you guys should get some T-shirts saying "Team Mark." It must be a huge ego boost for him. I think someone here tonight should screen-print a Team Mark T-shirt, and I'll buy one. They do pay a lot of attention to Jerry Falwell and to the sort of life he led. It's part of the school culture. I actually got a chance to meet Jerry Falwell near the end of my semester. I decided I couldn't really spend this semester studying this college without meeting Jerry Falwell. He's not really easy to get to; he's not an approachable, congenial college president. He was always behind closed doors and very inaccessible. I got on staff at the student newspaper and I pitched them a story. I said, "I want to write about 'Dr. Falwell' as they call him. And to my shock they were like, "Yeah. Go ahead. Sure. What do you need from us?" They didn't know me from Adam, and they assigned me like this major feature. I was very glad for the low standards of their college journalism program. So they sent me in to interview Jerry Falwell, and here I am; I'm terrified. My family had remained relatively calm throughout this whole traumatic semester. They freaked out. I got e-mails in all capitals from my aunts and uncles being like, 'BE CAREFUL. DON'T TELL HIM WHERE YOU LIVE.' Then, this was like going to meet with Voldemort. It was not something sane people do. But I went in to talk to him, and despite my disagreement with 90, 98 percent of everything Jerry Falwell stood for and believed and said and did, the guy is really charming. He is charismatic beyond all belief. He had this southern demeanor that just draws you in, and there's no way to come away from spending an hour as I did and not feel affection for the guy. That coexisted for me with this hatred, this at least mild annoyance and, at times, hatred of everything he stood for. I had to sort of hold those feelings in juxtaposition. He signed my Bible, "To my Friend Kevin." I showed this to the Bible college kids, and they were like, "Whoa!" This is like A-Rod for them.

Then this article came out, and it was in the Liberty paper. Two weeks later, during my finals week, word came to campus that Jerry Falwell was gravely ill and that he had a massive heart attack, and he died that same afternoon. So here was this founder, spiritual leader, pater familias to this campus, and all of a sudden at the end of my semester, he's gone. I can't tell you how cataclysmic this was to Liberty campus. It was the most horrifying scene of human agony that I've ever seen, and it sounds like I'm being melodramatic, but he was everything to everyone at this campus. So through this whole semester in a huge loop, I did get to sort of process my feelings about Jerry Falwell and in large about Liberty over this interview. So I think that was really good and allowed me to come to grips with this.

Before I take questions, and I want to get to the questions, because I'm interested in what you guys have to say and ask, I just want to give a final, not Commandments because that would be presumptuous of me, but blessings. They have this part in the New Testament called the Beatitudes where Jesus says, "Blessed are the…" I just thought I would give you my Beatitudes. So, blessed are those who love their neighbors as themselves, whether they agree with them or not. I mean this is not a negotiable part of the Christian Gospel, and it's something a lot of Christian leaders and followers alike tend to forget . We can take a lesson from that commandment, even if we're not Christian or are of no faith. It is really an important thing to be able to do, to get outside. We're this hyper-segmented nation right now. We've got the Tea Party and the Glenn Becks and the Keith Olbermanns, and hatred and dehumanized anger is very popular right now. What's less popular, but to me much more heartening, is the people who say, "I disagree with you on abortion, but I can see how you feel that way. I appreciate you're not coming from a place of bad faith on this. I can see that you have a stance that is informed by your worldview, and I respect that even though I disagree with it." As Jerry Falwell said, "We need to always disagree without being disagreeable." Pretty standard stuff there.

Blessed are the religiously literate. Again, terrible problem in this country. There is this amazing book called "Religious Literacy" by Stephen Prothero, and the funniest statistic in there is that there was a study done, and 50 percent of graduating high school seniors in America think Sodom and Gomorrah were a married couple. So we have a long way to go on this. Take Bible classes, even if you're not religious, even if you're anti-religious. It's the foundational text of the Western canon. You can't understand anything without studying the Bible. You can't understand political rhetoric; you can't understand these grand cultural debates. You just sorta gotta do it, and I didn't before I went to Liberty, and that's one of the most important things I got from the semester.

Blessed, sort of , are those who pray. And I don't mean blessed that I believe God is granting these prayers. People ask me, especially when I go to churches and Bible colleges and things, "How did you become a Christian? Did you become an Evangelical?" The answer is no; I didn't convert to the Liberty style, the Liberty strain of Evangelicalism. I still have doubts. I call myself a Christian because I am one, but it doesn't mean the same thing that they mean. I haven't had that sort of road to Damascus moment. But I do still pray, and this strikes people, especially in Christian communities, as very weird because why would you pray if you don't believe that God is Heaven or sort of checking these things off His to-do list? The answer for me is that I don't know why I pray. I don't know who's listening, but I know that it helps me when I pray for my friends and I make a list of what everyone's going through and what they need help with. I do that for 15 minutes every morning. It brightens my entire life; it really does. It makes me more compassionate. I remember to return people's calls. I'm a much more conscientious member of human society when I pray. And so, for me, the fact that this might not have some cosmic effect is really besides the point. There's this Christian writer named Oswald Chambers who said, 'It's not so much that prayer changes things as that prayer changes me, and I change things. If you don't believe me, just do it and try it and write me an angry email if I'm wrong. I think it'll make your life better.

Blessed are those who forgive undercover journalists. This was one of the best things about the project. I was so worried when I left that these people were going to feel betrayed, that when the book came out they were going to run me out of town and I would be tarred and feathered. I went back to tell my friends at Liberty what I'd actually done, and one by one they forgave me. They weren't angry; they didn't hold a grudge. They all went back through their mental inventory and were like, "Oh so that's why you were taking notes in church," "That's why you pronounced it 'Philippines' instead of 'Philippians.'" They got it, but they weren't mad, and they're still some of my best friends to this day. I got a call from one of my friends a while ago. It was around Christmas time and he says, "I'm shopping for my Christmas presents, and I can't figure out what to get my brother-in-law. He's secular; he's not a Christian. What do I get him?" So, I've sort of become a concierge to the Godless here. But they see me as sort of one of them and sort of not, and I'm okay with that. And what's surprising is that they're okay with it. I went back this winter to watch two of my hall mates in dorm 22 get married—not to each other! But get married, and it was a lot of fun.

And then last, blessed are those who leave their comfort zones. You guys are pros at this. HWS is a place that really appreciates the value of having you leave. Not all colleges do that. They want you to go have experiences that get you outside the bubble, that will put you in contact with people who disagree with you, whose lifestyles and upbringings are radically different from your own. And that's huge; I don't need to lecture you guys about that. Honestly, it's the most important thing you can do to be a functional member of American civic society, and I say that as someone –how is this kid saying this? He's 22, and I have not spiritual, political, or educational authority— but I do know this is where it's at right now. We're at a place right now where we need this desperately. We need to reverse our political climate of aggression, and we need to get to a place of compassion and empathy. It's not like, "Let's all just get along." It really is life or death, at least of democracy and maybe of actual people. I can't stress it strongly enough. If you don't know any Republicans, watch Glenn Beck. If none of your friends are liberal, read the "Daily Cause." Do it. Just do it, and you might hate it, but eventually you'll come to see that these are people too and that you can have widely different opinions but still sort of be cool.

That's all I got. So thank you guys.

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