May 22, 2006
The Trouble with Patrick Henry College
— Martin E. Marty
"If you draw a giraffe, you must draw him with a long neck. If in your bold creative way you hold yourself free to draw a giraffe with a short neck you will really find that you are not free to draw a giraffe." (That's G. K. Chesterton, of course.) If you want to form a Bible college, you are free to draw it as such, and it can be checked out. Fine. You can also form a liberal arts college in a recognizable way. Fine. Patrick Henry College, a rural Virginia school that commands big funds for its (so far) tiny enrollment (300) and faculty (sixteen), lost five of those sixteen professors this month, and others speak of leaving. They are having trouble with the school president's image of what a giraffe looks like. That is, he disciplines them when they "do" liberal arts, while he insists that his pact with them demands that everything they teach must be congruent with "the biblical world view."
Thinkers at a true liberal arts college with Christian church and culture ties, influences, reminiscences, or Catholic and Evangelical expression, would ask about "the biblical world view." Is it that of the Song of Songs, or Lamentations, pro-polygamy Pentateuch writings, or what? No matter: At Patrick Henry College, it is Michael P. Farris, founder and president, who determines what the biblical world view is. In his vision, for instance, St. Augustine is to be ruled off the campus and in hell as a pagan, not a saint. And Professor M. Todd Bates, who quoted Augustine in a formal campus lecture and did not repent for doing so, was threatened and then fired from the non-tenuring faculty.
The rest of us might not care about Patrick Henry, were it not so well poised to take its place as shaper of the shakers and movers who move this nation. Farris and company take them from home schooling (for the most part) to the halls of power. Some have interned for Karl Rove, Tom DeLay, Bill Frist, and the like, a fact that does not have to be condemning but does raise questions about the single-minded and even obsessive character of this training school for tomorrow's right-wing leadership. It might be nice to think that even Augustine and also the suspect Reformed Protestant tradition could have their place among the Bible-believing power people there. These five professors learned: not.
New administrators are being appointed. Bible college-type professors can be found to replace those five very conservative Bible believers who are having to move on and look for jobs. The leadership is scrambling to get accreditation from some agency, any agency, that will let the Bible be basically the only book, and accept Patrick Henry's "biblical world view" as the mental home for a generation of office-seekers, office-holders, and those who will judge in this pluralistic republic. To the degree that Patrick Henry wins, we'll see a less liberal, less artful, less liberal-artful politics and culture.
Christianity Today is covering the subject fairly, and a long story (by Thomas Bartlett) is in the Chronicle of Higher Education (May 19). Those who care (as, I confess, I do) that Christian influences and ties freely be part of Christian-related-type colleges are more likely to be embarrassed—because of guilt by association—than cheered by this example of those who would "lead our nation and shape our culture with timeless biblical values."
References and Further Reading:
The New Yorker's (June 27, 2005) treatment of this matter is available here. Christianity Today provides links to other internet references (including a Los Angeles Times report from May 13, 2006), and may be accessed here. Patrick Henry College offers a response to media coverage here.
Martin E. Marty's biography, current projects, upcoming events, publications, and contact information can be found at www.illuminos.com.