Faith, Learning, and Politics: The Case of Patrick Henry College

Joseph M. Knippenberg

May 1, 2006

If Patrick Henry College were an ordinary place, almost no one other than its immediate stakeholders—students, faculty, staff, trustees, and alumni—would have noticed the departure through firing and resignation of a small number of faculty. People leave colleges and universities all the time, moving on to greener pastures or sadly discovering that the academic life, or this particular academic life, just isn’t for them.

That Patrick Henry has a religious mission makes this churn seem even more understandable. Americans are notorious church-hoppers, changing congregations and denominations all the time. You don’t like the preaching or the youth programs, or find yourself no longer in theological harmony, you move on.

What’s the big deal, then, with PHC? Why should reporters from the Los Angeles Times, Christianity Today, and the Chronicle of Higher Education, not to mention an on-line columnist for the Washington Post, care about the goings-on at a small religious college in the Virginia exurbs?

The short answer is the Patrick Henry College is no ordinary small religious college. It has already garnered all sorts of national, and even international, attention. Founded by Michael Farris, president of the Home School Legal Defense Association, and populated largely by home-schoolers, PHC students are meant, in Farris’ words, “to be world changers.” The college’s mission is “to prepare Christian men and women who will lead our nation and shape our culture with timeless biblical values and fidelity to the spirit of the American founding.” Of course, lots of places talk about leadership and lots engage in education with a religious foundation. What makes PHC different is the way in which it emphasizes the political dimension of its religious mission, not only in its location (close to Washington, D.C.), but in its academic programs (focusing on government, journalism, and strategic intelligence, as well as requiring students to undertake internships). Its students have internships in the White House, with members of Congress, and with parties and campaigns (all Republican, so far as I can tell).

Michael Farris wants us to be interested in Patrick Henry College, its students, and its alumni. They’re going to change our world. He’s got my attention.

Once again, if PHC were an ordinary place, I might have a passing professional interest in its campus politics and about how faith and learning interact within its walls. It’s an occupational hazard for me: I read academic novels, abstruse essays on liberal education, and all sorts of material on the relationship between religion and higher education. These reading materials are not to everyone’s taste, or even to many people’s, but, then again, neither am I.

If PHC were an ordinary place, I’d say that administrations and faculties at religious institutions engage in theological disputation quite frequently, that the bosses usually win, and that the faculty move on, either by accepting the correction and instruction offered or by leaving. A religiously-affiliated college or university ought, I think, to try to remain faithful to its mission statement. Its people ought to take it seriously, making sure that everyone is on board.

Some might argue that this way of approaching higher education is at odds with liberal learning, not to mention academic freedom. I’m not so sure. There is a tradition of liberal education intimately connected with religion that has as its goal the cultivation of the Christian gentleman (and now, I’d add, also the Christian gentlewoman). For such institutions, “liberal” doesn’t mean free in the sense of unfettered, but rather in the sense of “self-governing.” That is, a liberally educated or free human being is someone who is capable of governing himself or herself, where governing is understood to require virtue and self-discipline, which are understood to require a religious foundation. There is “academic freedom” within such a context, but it’s the freedom of an academic community to devote itself to this moral and religious goal, rather than to the unfettered advancement of human learning for any and every end. There is inquiry and conversation—often quite spirited—but it begins from shared presuppositions. (In that respect, it’s not unlike certain secular academic departments and disciplines: few psychologists, for example, speak professionally about “the soul,” despite the fact that a logos about psyche originally meant precisely that. Imagine how hard it would be for professional psychologists to get anything done if they couldn’t just begin from the presupposition that what matters to them is what’s in some way measurable.) I’d also argue that such religious institutions contribute immensely to the diversity of American higher education. They are enclaves of “difference,” preserving old and developing new ways of looking at things.

If that’s all that needed to be said, I’d conclude that Patrick Henry College surely is different, thanks to Michael Farris’ vision. It has a niche, just as do “Great Books” colleges like St. John’s and free-form places like Goddard and Hampshire. If I didn’t like it, I wouldn’t send my kids there or be interested in teaching there. Thank God there are other “different places” that will or might have them (and me), just as there is a different place like Patrick Henry for those who want what it has to offer.

But, as I noted above, the folks at Patrick Henry College want its difference to matter to me. They want to influence American politics and culture, returning us to our roots in the Bible (“timeless biblical values”) and the principles (or “the spirit”) of the American Founding. On some level, I sympathize with this mission. On some level—surely more intensely and intimately than I, an interested outsider, do—so do (or did?) the faculty members who resigned or were fired.

What I have to offer to the folks who remain at Patrick Henry College is some well-meaning political advice. They can conceive the theological basis for their undertaking as narrowly as they wish. As a commentator, I would defend their freedom to do so. As an accreditator, I would ask above all whether they were faithful to the mission they described and had the resources to carry it out. But PHC’s mission, as I understand it, requires preparing students to be effective on behalf of their principles in the world outside the college’s gates. This does not mean that they have to become Machiavellian, but it surely may require the capacity to find common ground with potential allies with whom they don’t necessarily agree on the finer points of theology, ecclesiology, or eschatology. It may require using language and arguments not inconsistent with but not found in Scripture. Different people call this sort of language different things: natural law, common grace, public reason, or general revelation. The place to begin to practice this language and this approach is on campus.

What I see—and as an outsider, I surely don’t see everything—seems to be some suspicion and hesitancy about this. I’ve read a couple of the faculty essays that seem either to have sparked the controversy at PHC or brought it to a head. All three authors will not return to PHC for the fall semester.

The first, published in February of this year and written by government instructor Erik Root, is entitled “Of St. Augustine, the Teacher, and Politics.” In it, Root makes the following two points. First,

[St. Augustine] made political philosophy respectable to Christians and taught Christians how to engage the culture around them. In a most serious way, Augustine’s project fulfills, on the deepest level, the mission of PHC; he understood that to make the case for Christianity, we must be prepared to meet the non-Christian, or irreligious, on their level by appealing to them via something common to all men. Note Father Ernest Fortin on Augustine: “philosophy provides a common ground on which all believers and nonbelievers can meet.
Only by means of philosophy is the Christian able to make his position intelligible to outsiders and, if need be, to combat with their own weapons the objections that they raise against it.”

In other words, Christians need reason and its fruit, political philosophy, in order to engage with and make themselves intelligible to their non-Christian neighbors and fellow citizens. Assuming that for the foreseeable future Christians are going to live in a world with non-Christians, any effective political action on behalf of Christianity or Christian goals is going to have to proceed over common ground forged by means of the reason God gave to all human beings.

Root’s second point is that, on some level, all our relations with others can be conceived as political, since they all are conducted by means of speech (or logos, reason):

It is true that the politics in a household is different from the politics in a city, but the essential principle remains: we have friends, marry, etc., in order to attain something better than we can gain uno solo. That the city is made up of many households does not make the home or private sphere anti-political. God, we might say, sewed it into the nature of man that he needed others. The notion that, in marriage, the man and the woman complete each other represents a variation on this political truth.

In “The Teacher,” our Saint notes that man has the capacity for logos, or reason. According to Augustine, “it would be foolish to think that [H]e hates in us ’that very quality by which he has raised us above the beasts.’” The capacity for speech and reason is specific to man and it is that quality of our nature that, according to Larry Arnhart, permits the actualization of our potentiality; it allows us to become fully human and, cultivated rightly, makes us truly Happy.

While I might in Root’s shoes have formulated the final point a little more precisely, since St. Augustine surely doesn’t believe that human beings can become “truly Happy” by their own efforts in this world, the point again is that human beings engage with one another by means of reason, God’s gift, even in their most intimate domestic moments. Husband and wife, parent and child speak, and hence reason, with one another.

Two other PHC faculty members, J. Kevin Culberson and David C. Noe, published another small piece this past March, this one entitled “The Role of General Revelation in Education.” They begin by explaining the distinction between general and special revelation:

There are many ways to explain this distinction between what we know from the Scriptures in a certain and salvific sense, and what we know from our study of the world around us. Perhaps the most common set of descriptive terms is general and special revelation. The term special here is not used in the sense of higher or exalted, but in the sense of a distinction between genus and species. The subset of knowledge that we know from the scriptures is specific, thus special. It is knowledge unto salvation.

By definition then, this is a smaller class of things than what we know from general revelation, which represents the entire genus of knowable things. Because the knowledge from Scripture reconciles us to God and saves us from eternal damnation, the second signification of special has come to predominate in our conversation about these matters. It would be wrong, however, to forget that this knowledge is part of a broader whole.

Christians may be inclined to accept this proposition when it comes to things like carpentry and the law. After all the Bible does not tell us how to fix a door jamb or file a brief in appellate court. They are less inclined or sometimes refuse to accept this when it comes to matters of ethics and the nature of the soul. But while it is true that the Bible contains all we need to know for reconciliation with God, it does not include all the information we need to live happy and productive lives. That is not what the sufficiency of Scripture means. The majority of the knowledge we need comes to us from God’s grace revealed in nature, and the bulk of that through the efforts of irreligious and ungodly men.

They draw out the implication of this understanding for their educational enterprise:

What implications does this have for liberal arts? The ancients rightly believed that since man is the pinnacle of creation, so the best place to find evidence of Providential handiwork is not in mountains, birdsong, and sunsets, but in the works of men: chiefly philosophy, poetry, and the sciences. In the liberal arts, therefore, a Christian must refuse to view special and general revelation as hostile to one another. Nor should he hesitate to learn from a pagan. There is much wisdom to be gained from Parmenides and Plato, as well Machiavelli and Marx. That Plato understood there is a standard of absolute justice by which we shall all be measured is a profound insight.

When we examine the writings of any author, professed Christian or otherwise, the proper question is not, “Was this man a Christian?” but “Is this true?” Nor should we spend much time looking for points of disagreement. Rather we should focus on taking what has been rightly said and submitting it to the service of Christ.

We can’t be saved, they argue, without faith in the special revelation offered by and through the life of Jesus Christ. But much of how we make our way in the world we can learn through the study of authors who participate in general revelation by way of the reason God gave them.

Especially with respect to matters of politics and the sort of republican self-government we practice in the U.S., it is difficult to quarrel with the claims made here. Indeed, portions of PHC’s “Statement of Biblical Worldview” are surely consistent with what Culberson and Noe say. Consider this discussion of civil government, for example:

God himself has ordained government and commands that everyone must submit to government; moreover, there is no authority except that which God has established. (Romans 13: 1-5) Consequently, he who rebels against lawful authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment upon themselves. It is necessary to submit to government, not only because of possible punishment but also because of conscience. We are to pray for all who hold public office, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness. (Proverbs 14: 34-35; I Timothy 2: 1-2)

Some governments are not legitimate; some authorities are not lawful. (Hosea 8:1-4) These are governments that do not recognize or that choose to ignore that human beings are created in God’s image and therefore are entitled to the enjoyment of certain rights and responsibilities that inhere in their nature. Such societies and such governments are under God’s judgment. (Jeremiah 18: 7-10) Nevertheless, there is a proper way to rectify this situation.

In keeping with scriptural principles and the American Declaration of Independence, we recognize that “Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient Causes; and accordingly all Experience hath shewn, that Mankind is more disposed to suffer, while Evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the Forms to which they are accustomed.” But when such a government 1) commands disobedience to God, 2) enjoins the right and duty of human beings to worship God, 3) denies other God-ordained rights by extreme oppression and tyranny, or 4) “when a long Train of Abuses and Usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object (tyranny), evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism” it is the right and duty of godly men and women “to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future Security.” Importantly, this action must be taken in accordance with God’s laws and in submission to other legitimate authorities, anarchy being as illegitimate as tyranny. (Jeremiah 32: 32-35; Acts 5: 29)

While there are various types, scopes and levels of government, there are some basic principles that God requires all general governments to follow. (Jeremiah 18: 7-10) Moreover, there are other principles that, while not commanded, ought to be followed. All of these principles are derived from the tenor of the whole of scripture and from God-given reason, which makes plain the fact that human beings are created in God’s image and should live as he intended human beings to live—in ordered liberty—and not as beasts subject to ownership and coercion; and that they should govern themselves in equal submission to the laws of nature and nature’s God. (Genesis 1-2)

I note—and emphasize—in passing that the principles of the Declaration of Independence might certainly be understood to be consistent with the reading of Scripture offered above, but that they were articulated by someone—Thomas Jefferson—who was surely a good deal less orthodox than Professors Root, Culberson, and Noe.

Another portion of this Statement proceeds as follows:

Any legitimate system of government must be built on the dual realizations that all people (i) bear God’s image and are therefore entitled to enjoy a number of fundamental, inalienable rights, but (ii) are tainted by sin and therefore cannot be trusted to be free of all government restraint. Importantly, sin affects not only those governed, but also those who govern. In the words of James Madison:

If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary.

Therefore, governmental and legal systems:

  1. must be of law, not of men; with rules and processes that apply equally to all persons regardless of their ethnicity, national origin, or skin color; their wealth; or their influence or prestige;
  2. must provide the right of self-government, so that citizens may either directly decide questions of law and policy or have a voice in selecting those who make such decisions;
  3. should-in order to achieve the highest possible level of stability and fairness-be based on the firm foundation of a written constitution and laws, whose meanings are determined by their text and the original intent of those who enacted them, with appropriate processes for change and amendment over time and with the approval of the people; to do otherwise invites governments to recognize the acts of men to be the highest laws of the land rather than the laws of nature and of nature’s God that have been committed to a written text; and finally,
  4. should maintain a separation of power among national, regional and local governments and among the legislative, executive and judicial functions of government, so that no leader or group of leaders may ever acquire unchecked power. (Deuteronomy 17: 14-20)

This amounts to an articulation of the principles of American government that certainly does not contradict Scripture and finds some points of contact in it, but cannot be directly derived from it. Those who signed our Declaration of Independence and devised our Constitution were—many, though not all, of them—men of faith, but they looked to places other than Scripture for guidance as to how to construct that government. Thus, for example, James Madison, quoted favorably above, recommended John Locke, Algernon Sydney, the Declaration of Independence, the Federalist, and George Washington’s First Inaugural and Farewell Addresses, among others, for inclusion in the law curriculum at the University of Virginia. Madison, who studied at Princeton under the great Presbyterian clergyman John Witherspoon, was certainly willing to look beyond Scripture to educate leaders for Virginia and the new nation.

Far be it from me to suggest either that the essays written by erstwhile Patrick Henry College faculty should stand unchallenged, and that their arguments and interpretations can’t be the subject of very interesting and fruitful discussions among friends and colleagues, or that James Madison’s curricular preferences ought to be authoritative for the folks in Purcellville. But if PHC’s faculty, students, and alumni are to play the role envisioned in the mission statement, they have to be able to speak reasonably—”apologetically,” in the religious sense—to their fellow citizens outside the gates. This, in my view, requires honest encounters with and learning from thinkers who use their God-given reason, not just from Scripture.

To become good at that, they don’t have to invite “outsiders” or “enemies” in, but they may have to widen just a little their definition of friend and colleague. The attitude currently on display seems more suited to protecting an enclave than to reaching out to engage a culture. Both are defensible Christian responses to a disorderly—un-Godly, if you will—culture, society, and polity. Patrick Henry College has attracted attention as an experiment in the latter. I wonder, however, if it’s on its way to becoming an exemplar of the former.

Joseph M. Knippenberg is an adjunct fellow of the Ashbrook Center. He is Professor of Politics and Associate Provost for Student Achievement at Oglethorpe University.