Kevin Roose’s book The Unlikely Disciple: a sinner’s semester at America’s holiest university is a primer for those who want to get an insight into Liberty University, founded and sponsored by the late Rev. Jerry Falwell. It is written much in the style of a Louis Theroux documentary where the reader is assumed not to have any prior knowledge of Falwell’s particular blend of American patriotism and fundamentalist Christianity. You can imagine the meetings with the publisher: we’d like you to bring us to a place where our iPhone-owning, J Crew-wearing, spring break-going sophomore would never go. So Kevin enrolls for a semester at Liberty University in Lynchburg Tennessee from Brown, a place he describes as a regular secular, college. You know: students take philosophy that includes Kant and Sartre, the jocks get to play some ball and everyone gets drunk on the sly. Roose goes from secular ‘normality’ (he’s got a Quaker background) to Falwell’s asylum with a few clicks of a mouse; he might as well have enlisted in the US Marines Corps. His family rallied around him in advance, preparing him for the inevitable indoctrination of this boot camp for Christians. Parents and friends gave sage advice on how best to avoid being contaminated but it was no good. He worried about his dress and his use of expletives (he should have: their use carries penalties) in an extraordinary act of disposition management. Kevin learned something at Liberty: that for some people in his country, their faith is important to how they live.
I am not sure I knew that much about Falwell other than what I picked up through mainstream US media and it would seem that Roose did not either. I’m about half way through this book today and from what I have read already, he was a pretty bitter man. He railed against socialists, Democrats, communists, gay and lesbian people, Darwinians, Muslims and just about everyone who was not ‘saved’. The links between Liberty and Bob Jones University are well documented so on the whole ‘race’ thing, he wasn’t too big on it either. Falwell’s endtimes prophecies have the distinct ring of someone who hates the contingencies of cultures. We await the Rapture for only then will the world be pure is the unfamiliar refrain. For me, there’s also the echo of a relationship between being a good US citizen and following his teachings, but that is another post. The way Kevin puts it, Liberty’s campus is like a little bit of North Korea in Lynchburg: all cult-of-personality and literalist readings. Where I am in the book right now has Kevin a little confused though because he finds himself in relationships with real people (imagine!) rather than cardboard cut-out Christians. Personally, this has resonances for my own situation. I tell people I work for the Catholic Bishops’ Conference and because I don’t preface it with “you’re not going to believe this but…” the reaction is usually on the glazed eye side of things. There’s also sometimes a little double-life stuff at work.
Kevin finds himself falling for a liberal fellow student but feels he has to break it off because he does not want to reveal any more about his ‘other life’ to her. He gets initiated into a particular Dorm because he finds common cause with Jersey Joe and his mischievous ways. Kevin struggles spiritually and seeks the advice of a college dean. In other words, Kevin finds himself making a distinction between the Liberty Way (a tome of rules and regulations about showing affection in public and what time the curfew is) and the lived college experience. This feeds into one of the significant features of my own research: ‘being’ secular is not freedom from every form of religious belief or subjugation of the will. This is a vestige of Cartesian thought and hey, he died in 1650. George Berekely, Nicolas de Caritat, Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, they are all there too, round about the 18th century. They are really important if you are to understand ‘philosophy’. There’s been a good deal of thinking done since then though but the way we still get these messages, you might be forgiven for thinking that we’ve missed our true republican calling. Secularisation is not freedom from will subjugation, it never was. It is a realignment of the basis for it.
Kevin has gone on to form the Jonah Project where he gives copies of his book to pairs of friends who would disagree on the existence / influence / political centrality of God in public life. He’s done US public discourse some service with this. The Unlikely Disciple is the story of a boy, a publishing deal and a couple of questions.