It’s midnight at Liberty University, and I’m kneeling on the floor of
my dorm room, praying.
This is not a particularly unusual event. Any night of the week, a
quick stroll through Liberty’s campus would reveal hundreds of students
in the same position, making the same kind of divine appeal. At
this school, we pray for everything: good grades, a winning football
season, religious revival in America, chicken fingers in the dining hall.
Our God is a workhorse God, and as the Bible instructs, we petition
him without ceasing. Put it this way: if prayers emitted light, you’d see
us from space.
Our chancellor, the Reverend Jerry Falwell, always tells us that
prayer is the key to a productive Christian life. And, well, he should
know. In 1971, Rev. Falwell felt God calling him to start a Christian
college in his hometown of Lynchburg, Virginia. He answered the call,
and over the next thirty-six years, while organizing the Moral Majority,
shepherding one of America’s largest megachurches, and establishing
himself as the father of the Religious Right, he found time to transform
that Christian college into what it is today: the world’s largest evangelical
university, a ten thousand–student training ground for America’s
conservative Christian youth. “Bible Boot Camp,” he calls it.
It’s a tongue-in-cheek name, but a fairly accurate one. Like a West
Point drill sergeant, Rev. Falwell prides himself on discipline. His field
manual, a forty-six-page code of conduct called “The Liberty Way,”
governs every aspect of our lives and dispenses concrete punishments
when we veer off course. Such as:
• Possession and/or use of tobacco: 6 reprimands + $25 fine
• Improper personal contact (anything beyond hand-holding):
4 reprimands + $10 fine
• Attendance at, possession or viewing of, an R-rated movie:
12 reprimands + $50 fine
• Spending the night with a person of the opposite sex: 30 reprimands
+ $500 fine + 30 hours community service
Rev. Falwell envisioned Liberty as a Christian safe haven where young
evangelicals could get a college education without being exposed to
binge drinking, pot smoking, sexual experimentation, and all the other
trappings of secular coed culture. He planned to make it the evangelical
equivalent of Notre Dame or Brigham Young, a university where every
student would be trained in the liberal arts, fortified in the evangelical
faith, and sent out into the world as a “Champion for Christ.”
That plan must have worked, because today, our school is still a bastion
of sparkling Christian purity—sort of the anti-Animal House. On
this campus, you’ll find girls who are saving their first kisses for marriage,
guys whose knowledge of the female anatomy is limited to the
parts you can show on basic cable, and students of both sexes who consider
it a wild Friday night when their Bible study group serves Cheetos
and Chex Mix.
Of course, you’ll also find Liberty students who aren’t so sheltered,
who don’t walk around campus humming hymns and speaking
in parables. Like any other religious community, Liberty has its fair
share of nonconformists. A few Liberty students, in fact, choose to
live relatively normal collegiate lives, even when it means violating
“The Liberty Way.” That’s why I’m praying on the floor of my room
tonight—because my friend Dave is in trouble.
It started last Friday afternoon when Dave, a brawny, goateed shot-
putter on Liberty’s track team, approached his friend Wayne with an
“Let’s get out of here for the weekend,” he said.
Dave explained that one of his high school friends, a non-Christian
girl named Jessie, had invited both of them to a special party at her
secular college, three hours away from Lynchburg.
“A lingerie party,” he said. “Wayne, she invited us to a lingerie party.
Like . . . a party . . . where the girls wear lingerie.”
Wayne chuckled. “Naw, man. You know we can’t do that.”
He was right. Attending a party of any type is forbidden under “The
Liberty Way,” but a lingerie party would be off-the-charts sinful. Still,
as Dave talked more about the party and how many beautiful, scantily
clad girls would be there, he felt his resistance weakening. I mean, I
haven’t been off campus all semester. And what harm could one night do? By the
time Dave finished his pitch, Wayne’s mind was made up: he wanted
to go. The party wouldn’t be holy, but it wouldn’t be the worst thing
in the world, either. So the two friends signed out on the campus log
sheet—to the off-campus apartment of an older Liberty student they
knew—and drove to secular school instead.
The party was wilder than they’d expected. Girls in sheer negligees
and lacy bustiers floated around the room, grinding lustily with
each other while loud hip-hop music blared over the rowdy yells of
beer pong players. Dave had gone to some parties in high school, but
Wayne was relatively new to the scene, and getting comfortable took
three or four cups of a beverage he’d never heard of (“jungle juice,”
After an hour of drinking, Dave and Wayne felt loose enough to
unveil their big surprise: two pairs of special underwear, purchased in
advance for the occasion. Dave stripped down to a black man-thong,
and Wayne, a bit more reserved, wore a pair of SpongeBob SquarePants
boxers. They drank and danced and cavorted with the secular students
until the wee hours, using Dave’s digital camera to snap the photos he
would eventually post, for posterity, on his MySpace profile.
That was the fatal step, of course, and no one can quite understand
why Dave did it. Did he really think his secrets were safe on the Internet?
Was he trying to get kicked out?
These are the questions that have circulated through our dorm for
the past week. By now, we’ve heard all the stories. We’ve heard how, a
few days after the party, Dave found an urgent e-mail from the dean of
men waiting in his inbox. How, when he was brought in to the dean’s
office, Dave tried to make the case that he hadn’t been at a party. How
the dean had pulled from his desk a stack of photos, culled from Dave’s
MySpace page, that proved otherwise. How some of the photos had
been shockingly lewd, including one of Dave in his man-thong, holding
a bottle of liquor in each hand while looking up a girl’s skirt. How
Dave had broken maybe half the rules in “The Liberty Way,” including
“Attendance at a dance,” “Sexual misconduct and/or any state of undress,”
and “Possession or consumption of alcoholic beverages.” How
he was served with the biggest punishment on our hall—and maybe at
Liberty—all year: seventy-eight reprimands, a $650 fine, and thirty
hours of community service. How, at that point, adding up Dave’s punishments
was a matter of procedure, like sentencing a serial killer to
twenty-three consecutive life sentences, because the alcohol alone was
enough to expel him.
In short, the guy needs a lot of prayer.
After rising from my knees, I walk to Dave’s room. He’s in there
with Wayne and a few other friends, still discussing his dean’s office
debacle. Dave is still waiting for the official news of his punishment,
but he seems to have made peace with the fact that, barring a miracle,
he’ll be gone by next week.
“I should have done more bad stuff while I was at it,” Dave says,
chuckling as he picks at a bag of popcorn. “I mean, they can’t kick me
out twice, right? I could have snorted some coke or something.”
“Come on, Dave,” says Joey, a Jersey-born freshman who lives at the
end of the hall. “At least try to be serious about this.”
“I can’t, dude,” Dave says. “When I get serious, I feel pain in my
Wayne is in better shape, it seems. There were no photos of him
on Dave’s MySpace page, just photos of their car ride together. His
meeting with the dean of men is tomorrow, and he’s planning to say
that he dropped Dave off and went somewhere else, skipping the party
“Are you positive he doesn’t have any pictures of you at the party?”
“No, not positive,” Wayne says. “But there are none on the Internet.
He would have to have another source.”
“If he catches you,” Dave says, “you should bust out a Jesus quote.”
Wayne’s eyes widen. “What?”
“Jesus hung with sinners and tax collectors, dude. If he can hang
with sinners, you can, too.”
“Yo, that’s a pretty good idea.”
“You guys are retards,” says Joey. “Jesus hung with sinners, but he
didn’t sin with them. It’s not like the tax collectors had a lingerie party
and said, ‘Yo, J.C., you gotta get over here, it’s off the hook!’ ”
We’re screwing around, but in truth, this is no laughing matter.
Dave, our friend and hallmate, is about to be expelled from school, and
Wayne may go with him. Our dorm has hosted its share of controversy
this semester, but no one expected this. What Dave and Wayne did was
against the rules, of course, but some of us wonder whether, in this
case, the punishment truly fits the crime.
“I heard about a guy who got more reprimands than you, Dave,” says
“No way. More than seventy-eight?” says Dave.
“Yeah. A few years ago. This guy got triple digits. Broke every rule
in one night. He went to a few parties, smoked weed, had sex with a
girl, went dancing, destroyed some property. I think he might have
even done some homosexual stuff, too.”
Joey sweeps his eyes around the room.
“Pretty much what secular kids do every weekend, huh?”
I used to be a secular kid. Still am, I guess. It’s hard to tell sometimes.
These days, I go through the motions of a model Liberty student.
I attend prayer groups, I sing in the church choir, I spend my Friday
nights at Bible study. When it comes to socializing, I follow the old
Baptist moral code: “Don’t drink, smoke, or chew, and don’t go with
girls who do.”
But what Dave, Wayne, Joey, and the rest of my friends at Liberty
don’t know is this: I haven’t always lived this way. In fact, everything
I do here—the Bible study, the choir, the clean-cut morality—it’s all
part of a borrowed life.
Three months ago, I was a student at Brown University, a school
known for everything Liberty is not. In fact, it wouldn’t be unfair to
call the schools polar opposites. Liberty was founded as a conservative
Christian utopia, and by those standards, Brown, with its free-spirited student body, its grades-optional academic scene, and its active
chapter of the Young Communist League, is a notch or two above
Sodom and Gomorrah.
If such a thing exists, I considered myself a fairly typical Brown student.
I studied English lit, drank fair-trade coffee, attended the occasional
anti-war protest, and sang in an a cappella group.
This semester, I transferred to Liberty precisely because it was so
different—not just from my old school, but from anything I’d ever
I grew up in the tiny college town of Oberlin, Ohio, a crunchy liberal
enclave plopped down improbably in the middle of the Lake Erie Rust
Belt. My parents are Quakers, a rather free-spirited sect of Christianity
whose members (called Friends) spend a lot of time talking about peace
and working for social justice. But despite our affiliation, our house
was practically religion-free. We never read the Bible or said grace over
our meals, and our attendance at Quaker services was spotty—though
we did visit a small Baptist church once a year to sing Christmas carols.
(To be clear: this is the kind of Baptist church where the pastor swaps
out the gendered language in the carols, like in “Lo! How a Rose E’er
Blooming” when “as men of old have sung” becomes “as those of old have
When high school came around, I left home to attend a boarding
school in the Philadelphia suburbs. It happened to be a Quaker boarding
school, but going there was hardly a religious decision. In fact, during
high school, I wasn’t sure what I thought about my parents’ religion,
or about religion in general. I liked learning about the Quaker moral
tenets—simplicity, peace, integrity, and equality—but when the subject
of God came up, I always found myself lagging behind. Quakers
talk about God as an “inner light,” and while I understood that position
intellectually, I couldn’t bring myself to think that there was a divine
being who existed independent of the human mind, who guided our
decisions and heard our prayers. To put it in Quaker terms, my inner
light flickered a lot, like the overhead fluorescent at a Motel 6, and
sometimes, it burnt out altogether. The closest I came to consistent
faith was during my senior year religion class, when we learned about
the Central and South American liberation theology movements and I
became briefly convinced that God was a left-wing superhero who led
the global struggle against imperialism and corporate greed. Sort of a
celestial Michael Moore.
You can probably guess, then, how I felt during college, when by
virtue of a job I had taken as a writer’s assistant, I found myself standing
in the lobby of Jerry Falwell’s twenty thousand–member Thomas Road
Baptist Church, which occupies the entire northern end of Liberty’s
My boss, the journalist A. J. Jacobs, had taken me to Thomas Road
on a research trip for his book, The Year of Living Biblically
. I had never
been to a megachurch before, and there was something thrilling about
the idea of seeing Jerry Falwell in action. Like many non-evangelicals,
I knew Rev. Falwell only as the arch-conservative televangelist with
the least effective brain-to-mouth filter in the English-speaking world.
I remembered that he had gone on TV to blame the terrorist attacks of
September 11, 2001, on feminists, homosexuals, abortionists, and the
ACLU, among others. I had seen some of his other inflammatory remarks,
like when he told CBS’s 60 minutes that the prophet Muhammed
was “a terrorist,” or when he said that AIDS was “God’s punishment for
the society that tolerates homosexuals.”
But Jerry Falwell in theory and Jerry Falwell in practice are two
very different things, and by the time I was standing in Thomas Road’s
cavernous lobby on a mild Sunday morning in July, watching a few
thousand Falwell devotees mill around, my thrill had turned into
stomach-clenching anxiety. My inner monologue was going a mile a
minute: Who are these people? Do they really love Jerry Falwell? Do
they believe 9/11 was caused by gay people, too? How is that even possible?
And what’s a coffee shop doing in a church lobby?
When A. J. left to take notes on another part of the church, I chatted
up a group of Thomas Roaders I found in the lobby, two girls and
a guy who looked to be around my age. I introduced myself, told them
why I was visiting, and asked how long they’d been coming to Thomas
“We come here every week,” they said. “We go to Liberty.”
I wasn’t sure whether “go to Liberty” was some sort of coded religious
language, like “walk the path” or “seek the kingdom,” so I asked. I
had to chuckle when they told me that “Liberty” meant Liberty University,
a Christian liberal arts college founded and presided over by Rev.
Falwell. I mean, come on. A liberal arts college run by Jerry Falwell?
How about an etiquette workshop run by Courtney Love?
But I wanted to give them the benefit of the doubt, so I asked them
to tell me more about their school.
“Oh, I love Liberty!” said one of the girls, an effusive blonde in a
green sundress. She spent five minutes making an enthusiastic pitch,
which included statistics about Liberty’s recently opened law school,
its top-ranked debate team, and its Division I athletic program. She
told me that Liberty has grown at a rate—from 154 students in 1971
to nearly 25,000 in 2007 (including more than 15,000 taking courses
via the Internet)—that few colleges, secular or religious, have ever
It was impressive stuff, but it wasn’t quite what I wanted to know.
“So, what do you guys do for fun?” I asked.
They looked at each other quizzically, then back at me. The blonde
stammered, “I mean, we do different . . . things. I don’t really know
what you’re asking.”
This wasn’t getting me off on the right foot. Maybe I needed to break
“Any good parties around here? ”
But I got no chuckles, only blank stares. The guy, a long, lean
boy-band type with jutting platinum hair, squinted and peered down
“Do you know Christ?”
I was new to evangelical argot, so I didn’t know that if a Liberty
student has to ask this question, he probably knows the answer already.
The way I saw it, I could (a) tell him I did know Christ, which might
not go so well if he decided to follow up, (b) try to deflect with sarcasm
again, something like, “Yeah, he’s a friend of a friend. We don’t really
hang out much,” or (c) admit that I was a foreigner.
Too scared for (a) or (b), I chose (c). I told him I didn’t know Christ,
and after he spent five minutes explaining why I should consider meeting
him, I said, as gently as I could, that I wasn’t interested in converting.
“Please don’t be offended,” I said. “It’s just not my thing.”
They glanced at each other, all three a little mystified. Not my thing?
How could it not be my thing? They didn’t browbeat me, but I had definitely
made them uneasy. We made a little more small talk, and then,
since church was starting, we parted ways with nods and hesitant half-
On the plane ride back from Virginia, I replayed those fifteen minutes
over and over in my mind. Every time, I got more frustrated with
myself. Why wasn’t I able to hold down that conversation? I mean, I’ve
heard of the God Divide before, in a thousand Newsweek
one-hour CNN specials. I’m aware that a tree-hugging Brown student
isn’t supposed to be able to talk to a Bible-thumping Liberty student.
But why not? Aren’t we all part of the Millennial generation? Don’t
we all carry the same iPhones and suffer from the same entitlement
One recent study showed that 51 percent of Americans don’t know
any evangelical Christians, even casually. And until I visited Thomas
Road, that was me. My social circle at Brown included atheists, agnostics,
lapsed Catholics, Buddhists, Wiccans, and more non-observant
Jews than you can shake a shofar at, but exactly zero born-again Christians.
The evangelical world, in my mind, was a cloistered, slightly
frightening community whose values and customs I wasn’t supposed to
understand. So I ignored it.
After my visit to Thomas Road, though, I was hooked. I started
reading up on Liberty and other evangelical colleges, and the more I
read, the more I began to realize the importance of knowing about my
Christian peers. This isn’t a fringe culture, after all. According to the
Barna Group, an evangelical polling firm, a full one-third of America’s
teenagers self-identify as born-again Christians. Liberty has almost ten
thousand students living on its campus, and it’s just one of hundreds
of evangelical colleges across America. Alumni of evangelical colleges
run blue-chip corporations, work in big media, and sit in elected office.
If I ever get a real job, my cubicle might well be next to a Liberty
As a college student who doubles as a journalist, what fascinated me
most about Liberty was its student culture. I still had so many unanswered
questions. Like, what do Champions for Christ learn in class?
Do they date? Do they use Facebook? What exactly do they believe?
And are we really that different? I also felt intuitively that there was
something limiting about being an outsider in the evangelical world.
When I told the Liberty students at Thomas Road that I hadn’t accepted
Christ as my savior, the entire dynamic of the conversation changed.
It began to feel distant and rehearsed, like a pitch for Ginsu knives. So
how could I, a curious non-evangelical, get the inside scoop?
Several months after my Thomas Road visit, while browsing Liberty’s
website one morning, it clicked: What if I spent a semester at
Liberty as a student? What if, instead of speculating about Christian
college life from afar, I jumped over the God Divide and tried to experience