No drinking, smoking, cursing, dancing or kissing. Author Kevin Roose embraced all of it during his semester undercover at Liberty University, the college founded by the late televangelist Jerry Falwell. Roose, a Brown University student who grew up in Oberlin, recounts the experience in his bookThe Unlikely Disciple: A Sinner’s Semester at America’s Holiest University.Along with buying into the puritanical lifestyle, Roose also faced cramming enough of the good book in his head to keep up with detailed Biblical conversations that occurred not just in his weekly Bible study, but in his daily coursework, too. Pretty good for a 19-year-old lapsed Quaker, eh? We recently talked to Roose about his time at Liberty.
How has your opinion on religious faith changed since you enrolled at Liberty University?
Before I went to Liberty, I was not really an atheist, but I also wasn’t a believer. I was sort of God-ambivalent. Now I think about God constantly. Even though I’m back at Brown, I still try to pray every day. Even if I don’t always believe God answers these prayers, taking time to sit down and think about other people’s problems actually improves my life. The Christian writer Oswald Chambers says it’s not so much that prayer changes things. Prayer changes me, and I change things.
Do you still have friends at Liberty?
My Liberty friends see me as not quite one of them, but not quite an outsider. I fill this role as mediator. They ask me questions about how to relate to secular people. I’ve become this concierge to the Godless.
You said in the book you were going to try a Liberty-style date (no kissing, hugs lasting no more than three seconds) once you got back to Brown. How did it go?
You can’t exactly use the same lines on secular girls as you do on Liberty girls. I do think I’ve kept some of the lessons about how emotional intimacy can be more rewarding than physical intimacy. I haven’t had the opportunity to really try it out, though.
Talk about the God Divide. How strong is it, and does it really matter?
I used to think the God Divide was huge. What could I possibly have in common with a Liberty student who takes Bible classes and believes in Young Earth Creationism and spends Friday nights at prayer meetings? The real answer isa lot. For the most part, these are not mini-Falwells. Liberty students doubt. They’re skeptical. They really do think critically about their faith. They’re not culture warriors-in-training who spend their nights sewing Hillary Clinton voodoo dolls and writing letters to the ACLU.
Have you learned more about the faith of other friends since this book published?
At Brown, my friends have become more comfortable discussing their faith with me. It will be awhile before I start having Bible study groups at Brown, though.
Rank these places in order of most liberal to least: Brown, Liberty and Oberlin.
Oberlin, Brown, Liberty. The day after my [book] signing in Oberlin, they had their annual drag ball, which I can’t imagine happening at Liberty and probably not at Brown, either.InterventionDivineKevin Roose (above), who grew up in ultraliberal Oberlin, wrote The Unlikely Disciple after spending a semester at Liberty University.