Sunday, June 04, 2006

No fear of Patrick Henry College - the Borg shall assimilate   posted by Razib @ 6/04/2006 12:35:00 PM

Many GNXP readers will at this point probably be aware of Patrick Henry College, the fundamentalist Christian college oriented toward homeschoolers and founded with a mission to influence and reshape mainstream culture. The New Yorker has done the profile thing, and many people forwarded me the piece in The New York Times Magazine. I also recommend this interview on NPR, it is somewhat amsuing in that Michael Farris excoriates the Post Modernism of the modern academy in contrast with his belief in an objective reality, all the while Larry Arnhart chronicles PHC's unsurprising discomfort with the objective realities of biological science (this is the inversion of some on the Left who accept biology in the animal domain, but perceive humans to be a biology-transcending species).

Patrick Henry College has ambitious goals. Michael Farris seems to want to take over the mainstream culture, and he has spoken of the possibility of PHC alums becoming studio heads in Hollywood as well as President of the United States of America. A quick survey of the web shows concern and curiosity from liberals, and some positive vibes from conservatives (though intellectual elite conservatives rarely espouse fundamentalist Protestant Christianity). Myself, I think PHC is going to be an irrelevant flash in the pan. Here is why....

In the 18th century a college was founded to train Calvinist ministers who espoused an "orthodox" theological orientation because Harvard had become notoriously unfriendly to old-style Puritan religion (eventually Harvard's theological seminary became operationally Unitarian). That college? Princeton. Today the Princeton Theological Seminary is not much more conservative than the Harvard Theological Seminary. Today, the "Harvard of evangelical America" is Wheaton College. How fundamentalist is Wheaton? Well, evolutionary theory has been taught in anthropology, and the department chair teaches a course titled "populations and evolution." This is not to say that Wheaton does not have a Protestant evangelical orientation, it does, but it is not "fundamentalist" in a narrow fashion (an issue with some). The American Scientific Affiliation bills itself as "a fellowship of men and women in science and disciplines that relate to science who share a common fidelity to the Word of God and a commitment to integrity in the practice of science." My understanding is that this organization of scientists began with a strong Creationist slant, but today in regards to evolution theistic evolutionists are a majority.

My point overall is that the historical record shows a strong tendency for Christian conservative groups which attempt to "mainstream" and take over the discourse at the center of the culture to be coopted and transformed. In regards to Christian colleges there is a notorious tendency for them to become more ecumenical, liberal and vanilla as time passes. The idea that PHC can change the mainstream culture proactively is naive and ahistorical, the more success it has the more likely it is to be transformed, and the more it resists transformation, the less success it will have.

Part of the problem is probably that fundamentalist Christianity tends to be a populist movement. Once a movement attempts to force its way into the elite it becomes vulnerable to the excessive reflection and compromise that are the hallmark of elite religious movements. When you don't have social status at stake a "hell fire" theology which is intolerant of others does not imply much cost, but when you do do have social status than such intolerance tends to be problematic in your interaction with others outside your own group. I do not believe any movement without an elite leadership can really succeed in transforming society, and I do not believe that fundamentalist Christianity can succeed as the dominant belief system of any elite because of its transparent superficiality and attendant sociological costs.