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03.23.09

Inside America's Holiest University

Kevin Roose went undercover at Liberty University for his new exposé about the dorm life of evangelicals. Jo Piazza talks to school chancellor Jerry Falwell Jr. about why he’s turning the other cheek and still hopes to save Roose’s immortal soul.

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Jerry Falwell Jr., chancellor of the world’s largest evangelical Christian college, Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia, will not be reading the undercover memoir of life at his school that's hitting bookstores this week. But he won’t exactly be boycotting Kevin Roose’s An Unlikely Disciple: A Sinner’s Semester at America’s Holiest University anytime soon. In fact, Falwell’s quiet acceptance of the tell-all seems to signal a quiet breach of the cultural divide between the Christian right and the rest of America.

Falwell, a University of Virginia-trained lawyer, left the job of reading Roose’s book up to his wife, Becki, who filled him in on what she thought he needed to know. And after her review, Falwell doesn’t have any plans to take to the pulpit and preach against a book that uncovers what life as a Christian soldier in training at a school referred to as “Bible Boot camp” is really like. Of course, that doesn’t mean he is going to be recommending it to his friends, either.

While most of them planned to get married before college graduation, at least one of Roose’s new pals was intent on losing his virginity before marriage.

“We will not promote the book, but we will not discourage anyone from reading it,” says Falwell Jr., who took over as Liberty University chancellor after his father Jerry Falwell Sr., founder of the Moral Majority, passed away in 2007. “Barnes & Noble operates the campus bookstore. I am sure students will be able to order the book, but I am unsure whether they will stock it.”

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The Unlikely Disciple. By Kevin Roose. 336 pages. Grand Central Publishing. $24.99. ()

That’s a far cry from some of the more volatile reactions Falwell Jr.’s late father had during his three decades of clashes with secular America. In his more famous statements, the senior Falwell said that if you weren’t a born-again Christian, you were a “failure as a human being,” and blamed civil libertarians, homosexuals, and feminists for the terror attacks of September 11.

In fact, Liberty’s reaction to Roose’s book seems to be one of tepid acceptance and encouragement instead of the expected reactionary outrage.

“We appreciate Kevin’s fairness to Liberty. I think he did an excellent job. No college president can be expected to like every part of any book about his/her school but, all in all, I think the book will give outsiders a better understanding about what Liberty University is all about,” Falwell Jr., told The Daily Beast.

While most college students spend a semester backpacking through Europe, taking advantage of lax drinking laws and all-night Eastern European discos, Roose embedded himself in the Liberty crowd, and took courses in creationism, Evangelism 101 and the Old Testament. He spent his Spring Break with his fellow students in Daytona Beach proselytizing to drunken revelers (most of whom would have been his old buddies at Brown). Now back at the liberal-arts school, Roose’s Spring Break plans are a little different this year. He plans to practice Guitar Hero in his sweatpants for most of the break.

He got the idea for his book while working as an intern for Esquire magazine’s editor-at large A.J. Jacobs, while Jacobs was working on his own book, The Year of Living Biblically. Roose showed up on Jacobs’ doorstep one day asking to be his lackey, and so Jacobs got to test out a law in the Bible that allows a man to have his own personal slave. While working with Jacobs, Roose visited Liberty and was fascinated by their sports teams, their award-winning debate team, and of course, the students’ faith. For Roose, it was the equivalent of an US Weekly spread. Evangelicals—they’re just like us!

So he asked permission from a Brown dean to “study abroad” for a semester at the college. "I don't think a student has ever asked me that," the dean told Roose. "Actually, I'm sure no one has."

As the semester wore on, Roose’s view of Liberty and its students became more nuanced. He learned that soldiers for Christ weren’t all angry zealots. They gossiped about their friends and their professors. They talked about sex and drugs. While most of them planned to get married before college graduation, at least one of Roose’s new pals was intent on losing his virginity before marriage.

It is Falwell’s contention and one major complaint that Roose spent too much of the tome focusing on what he calls, “the bad kids” at Liberty, and not enough time focusing on the “good” champions for Christ. These so-called rebels, who do feature prominently in the book, are those students who manage to sneak R-rated movies like Gladiator into their dorms, leave campus to attend a party at a nearby secular college, and admit to having a lengthy makeout session with their significant others, a strict violation of Liberty’s rules that monitor any interaction beyond handholding.

“I believe that over 90 percent of LU students try hard to comply with the behavioral code and are supportive of the school’s mission,” says Falwell. “It seemed like Kevin gave a disproportionate amount of ink to the relatively small number of who disregarded the school’s policies.”

Or maybe what Falwell was referring to when he said Roose spent too much time focusing on the “bad kids” was a section in the book that deals with Roose attending a meeting of Every Man’s Battle, a support group for chronic masturbators that, similar to other support systems like Alcoholics Anonymous, offers 24-hour support to men trying to suppress their onanastic urges.

While self-pleasure and open-mouthed kissing and watching a gory movie are infractions that wouldn’t even warrant a tongue-lashing at any other college, a violation of this magnitude at Liberty can mean a student faces expulsion.

There is no doubt that Roose’s journey through Evangelicalism is a long strange trip for anyone raised with a secular background, but what makes An Unlikely Disciple remarkable is that it doesn’t take the cheap shot or make the easy joke, like so many across the religious divide—like comedian Bill Maher, who, in his 2008 documentary Religulous, sought to “examine and satirize organized religion and religious belief.” Roose was careful to let evangelicals explain their beliefs for themselves and sometimes, to fall on their own swords. And while some of it may come across as humorous to a lay audience, unfamiliar with the ways of this particular community, Roose was never anything but fair, and on that, Falwell agrees.

This could be why Falwell and Liberty’s students haven’t given up on saving Kevin just yet. Instead of angry text messages from Liberty students pissed off at Roose’s portrayal of them in the book, Kevin gets texts from his old friends telling them they are praying for him.

“ [My dad] would make it his mission to recruit Kevin to attend seminary at LU when he finishes Brown,” Falwell says. “He would want to see Kevin become a convert and Liberty’s number one promoter. The apostle Paul had a similar experience.”

Roose does not plan on this course of action, but does concede that “Before Liberty I was God ambivalent and now I am thinking about spiritual issues constantly. I grew up as a Quaker and now I am very comfortable calling myself a Christian. I try to pray every morning.”

So maybe the god divide really isn’t as deep a chasm as we think it is? Sure there is a cultural schism within America between the Christian right and the Liberal left but the disconnect between the two isn’t so great that a liberal-minded, party loving, gay rights championing, Quaker-raised, a cappella singing student from hippy-dippy Ivy League Brown University couldn’t fit in and make friends with the Christian soldiers. Roose even plans to promote the book at Liberty this spring, and from the messages on his Facebook page, his Liberty friends are excited to have him back—and even more excited to get the chance to talk to him about the peril of his immortal soul.

Johanna Piazza wrote the Full Disclosure column for the New York Daily News. A Masters candidate in Religious Studies at NYU, she has contributed to the New York Times, Glamour, Blender, and is a regular contributor to CNN.