My first year at college involved no drinking, a lot of prayer circles, and five hour exams. This is not an experience I recommend to others.
I paid dearly for the privilege of a year at Patrick Henry College, the conservative Christian school frequently called God’s Harvard. PHC was founded in 2000 by Moral Majority darling Michael Farris, a constitutional lawyer who also began the Home School Legal Defense Association. Homeschooling is both an educational model and a lifestyle, growing from 800,000 in 1999 to over 2 million in 2012. As a homeschooler born at the end of an era of legal oppression, I owed a debt to Mr. Farris. I was taught I must continue his work by challenging the liberals and conquering the culture for Christ. At homeschooling conventions, young men in suits extolled the virtues of PHC, calling it a haven for homeschoolers, a place that would understand my lack of a GED and provide me with the Ivy League experience without the East Coast liberalism. My mother was immediately sold and began pushing for PHC in 2002, while the first class were still sophomores. Ten years later, I was in a Subaru Outback crammed between a printer and a mattress protector, making the drive to my shiny new fundamentalist future.
There are 1,318 miles between my childhood home and my gender-segregated PHC dorm, and I cried for at least 600 of them, but for all the wrong reasons. I should have been questioning the wisdom of leaving behind family, friends, and a newly acquired boyfriend for a school that isn’t accredited. I wish I could blame my mother for this decision—parents are the best scapegoats. But it was me who decided to embrace my childhood religion and sign a statement of faith that promised I would never have premarital sex and always deny the lie of evolution.
Depending how you count, there are five to eight passages in the Bible that refer to homosexuality, and Patrick Henry College made sure I knew each one. Midway through my first semester, a fellow freshman insisted that soy milk turned people gay. Trying not to choke on the ridiculously expensive dining hall food, I asked what he meant. “It’s the estrogen,” he explained to me with all the confidence that came from studying high school biology at the kitchen table. “It turns people gay. How else do you explain California?” I don’t know how to explain California, but this did explain the rumors about my lactose-intolerant Cuban friend who poured soy milk over his cereal and said deviant phrases like “what the hell.”
Another student refused to say the word “naked” because it was too profane. She carried around a stuffed bunny and sang opera at all hours and locations.
To many, PHC is an idyllic sanctuary of innocence nestled in the green Virginia farmland. Set back from Highway 7 on the edge of Purcellville, a small town with southern charm, terrible restaurants, and undertones of racism, the college was close enough to DC to funnel interns to work under the Bush Administration and far enough away to shield us from the liberal rallies. When Loudon County suggested extending the metro line out towards Purcellville, Mr. Farris objected because too much secularism could travel over the metal rails. The 24 hour Harris Teeter grocery store across the street was the most fun PHC students had, especially before they banned kick scooters in the isles.
To drum up numbers, free Chick-fil-a was offered to students who attended an anti-abortion rally. These were the pictures that appeared on my classmates’ instagrams with hashtag phrases like “God is good,” “protect the innocent,” and “Aslan is on the move.”
Student clubs littered stairwell bulletin boards with posters advertising their platforms. I was asked to join the Wilberforce society, a group devoted to moral reform, especially a local government ban on porn. To the best of my knowledge, they pursued this goal by picketing the one adult store near town and drafting legislation proposing a parental control that could be placed on all Loudon county internet.
“How can you tell these stories with a straight face?” My incredulous (and public schooled) friend asked me one night after I mentioned how a senior professor used the term “honey-trap” when referring to a vagina. “Because they’re true,” I shrugged. Later that year, the same professor was the keynote speaker on Faith and Reason Day, the most important event of the semester. Three hundred and fifty students sat in rapt attention as this doctor argued that divorce is a state conspiracy to destroy the family by emasculating the father. He claimed campus rape was over-reported and not a real problem, but rather a feminist ploy of crying “wolf!” and destroying godly young men. Although I heard from faculty members and students who insisted he didn’t speak for the whole school, the speech was edited and approved by the administration.
Of course, this is the same administration that interrogated journalism students, accused them of slander, and threatened to expel them after they circulated an independent article that criticised a professor.*** This is the same administration that ignored accusations that one of their blonde PHC poster boys had blackmailed and sexually abused two female students.
He was later elected class president and his sins conveniently swept under the rug.
One of the most disturbing things about an insulated community is the echo-chamber effect. I’ve met a lot of Christians who don’t believe in Reaganomics or distinct gender roles, but at PHC, they were considered the suspicious fringe believers. In US History, I heard arguments defending the Trail of Tears. In Economics, students leaped to condemn workplace safety laws. To be fair, many of the professors walked the narrow line of challenging these views without telling the students they were wrong. One female professor confided in me that plagiarism was an epidemic in her class, but she feared that if she reported it, the administration would fire her for being a woman and stirring up trouble.
Detachment became a coping mechanism. I realized I was in a nest of crazy, and there was nothing I could do about it. I tried to skip the mandatory daily chapel hour, but my RA caught on and confronted me, so I began sitting in the back and sneaking homework between the pages of my Bible. The cafeteria was a hive of debates about free will vs. predestination and whether slavery had anything to do with the civil war, so I never sat down to eat. The library, built in a basement and stocked with a few rows of carefully selected books, was functionally useless. With only two academic buildings and five dorms—two of which I couldn’t go in, because they were men-only—PHC lacked hiding spots. I holed up in my room and found solstice in the internet, especially when I purchased a virtual private network that shielded me from the nanny software that sent every url I visited to my RD and blocked me from buying a new bra because the product pictures were deemed “pornographic.”
I was raised to believe the Bible is completely inerrant. Although I had struggled with my faith growing up, I always came back to this idea because I thought it gave me a solid, consistent worldview. Worldview is a term fundamentalists love, thanks largely to the work of 20th century theologian Francis Schaeffer, who famously wrote, “Most people catch their presuppositions from their family and surrounding society the way a child catches measles. But people with more understanding realize that their presuppositions should be chosen after a careful consideration of what worldview is true.” I know this quote by heart because I used it over and over in academic papers. PHC made me reconsider my worldview by showing me its conclusion. I entered the school hopeful and convinced I was not a racist and maybe even a feminist, and I fled disillusioned with my own prejudice but also with a better knowledge of ancient Greek.
After two semesters, I left my friends and religion behind. I wrote a letter trying to explain the former, but I resisted publicly admitting the latter. To admit a lack of faith is to lose the soapbox. I will become secular, a honey-trap, a feminazi, a wolf in sheep’s clothing—a homeschool apostate, to use the term recently coined to describe the kids who have grown up and aged out of dogma. When I moved to Austin, one of the few liberal areas of Texas, one student proclaimed “that explains it,” and refused to elaborate.
I wish I could explain things that easily, but a year spent living in black and white opened my eyes to the shades in between.
*** UPDATE 2 pm Pacific, 07/28/14: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that (1) journalism students were threatened with expulsion for writing a critical piece about a professor and (2) the professor whom the critical piece was about was the same aforementioned professor who gave the Faith and Reason Day presentation.