Argument

The World According to ‘God’s Harvard’

Patrick Henry College’s focus on governance gives it a unique place among right-wing Christian schools.

Then-Republican presidential candidate Sen. Marco Rubio speaks at Patrick Henry College in Purcellville, Virginia, Feb. 28, 2016.
Then-Republican presidential candidate Sen. Marco Rubio speaks at Patrick Henry College in Purcellville, Virginia, Feb. 28, 2016. Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Recently elected U.S. Rep. Madison Cawthorn has been heralded by some on the right as the new, young face of the Republican Party. But his rise to prominence is wrapped in controversy, whether misleading the public about training for the Paralympics or deploying incendiary rhetoric in the run-up to the storming of the Capitol. Another notable part of Cawthorn’s background, however, is the semester he spent at Patrick Henry College, a small conservative Christian college about an hour from Washington, D.C. His campaign was forced to revise a Facebook endorsement from the school after the school’s founder, Michael Farris, denied endorsing him, thanks in part to accusations by several female students that Cawthorn was a routine sexual harasser.

But Cawthorn is only one of many former Patrick Henry students entering politics in Washington. Although it was only founded in 2000, Patrick Henry College—or, as the reporter Hanna Rosin dubbed it, “God’s Harvard”—has a legacy that reaches deep into U.S. politics. From the start, the college has been deeply focused on government and international relations. The school has several graduates who worked for Donald Trump’s presidential campaign and administration, most notably former Director of Strategic Communications Alyssa Farah. And its unique focus on international affairs offers a window into how the American Christian right views foreign policy as well as the United States’ role in the world.

Patrick Henry College exists as part of a broader spectrum of Christian colleges in the United States. These schools are a diverse group of institutions, ranging from the King’s College in New York City, with less than 600 students, to Liberty University, which has over 100,000 students and a massive online degree program. These colleges, however, often distinguish themselves from their secular counterparts by providing a heavy focus on religious instruction, requiring students to complete coursework in biblical studies and offering programs focused on training students for ministry.

That’s not the case with Patrick Henry, although its origins are squarely within right-wing evangelism. Farris, an ordained Baptist minister, gained prominence for his past efforts to legalize home schooling through the Home School Legal Defense Association. Home schooling is a prominent cause of the American evangelical right, seen as a way to provide children with a biblically centered education in contrast to those offered by public schools. According to the college’s “Mission & History” page, Farris founded the institution to answer a question posed by home-schooling parents: “Where was a college they could trust for Biblical teaching, academic rigor, and a nurturing spiritual environment for their gifted young students?”

Unlike other conservative Christian institutions of higher education like Oral Roberts University or Regent University, Patrick Henry College’s primary focus is to serve the government, hence its location just an hour outside of Washington. Underscoring its position as a feeder into conservative politics, the only major offered in its first year was government. Notably for a Christian college, the school is nondenominational and not affiliated with a church, nor does it offer a major in ministry, just a biblical studies minor. Its catalog includes a pledge of doctrinal neutrality, as it seeks to avoid theological differences that often plague the religious right.

The college’s goals are very apparent in its catalog, which states that its vision is to: “aid in the transformation of American society by training Christian students to serve God and mankind with a passion for righteousness, justice, and mercy, through careers of public service and cultural influence.” The “Biblical Worldview” section further solidifies the tight connections between its conservative political and religious views. It condemns extramarital sex and states that any government that “creates special legal rights and protections based on sexual conduct, is acting immorally and without authority.” The section further argues that socialism and communism violate God’s order because they oppose private property. These conservative views are in turn reflected in the college’s coursework. All students are required to take “Economics for the Citizen,” a course that seeks to develop “an understanding of how markets work and builds to a survey of political economy.”

The assigned books for the course, however, are a showcase of American conservative economic thought, including Milton and Rose Friedman’s Free to Choose and Friedrich Hayek’s The Fatal Conceit: The Errors of Socialism and The Road to Serfdom among the titles featured. These are in turn complemented by more recent titles like Arthur C. Brooks’s The Conservative Heart: How To Build a Fairer, Happier, and More Prosperous America, which further reinforces the ties between the worldview the college advocates and the Republican Party.

According to Stephen Baskerville, a former international relations professor at Patrick Henry College I interviewed, the college’s approach seeks to both teach the concepts of international affairs and bring religious themes into the curriculum. For example, Baskerville’s classes would include discussion of church-state relations by comparing religion’s role in various European countries. An ideal Patrick Henry College graduate is described in the catalog as having “knowledge and appreciation of our roots and the value of Western civilization and the philosophical foundation of this civilization in the Christian tradition.”

This Eurocentric view continues in the college’s core curriculum. Although students are required to take two semesters of both the history of the United States and Western civilization, the college’s history offerings of other regions of the globe are much less present. The college does not offer a permanent course on Latin American or African history. Unsurprisingly for a conservative Christian institution, Patrick Henry places a heavy emphasis on the Middle East, with the college offering a student trip to Israel. The college also offers a course on the history of Islam, the description of which includes the phrase “Islamofascist movements,” a term popularized by right-wing author David Horowitz that is widely dismissed by scholars of Islam. Baskerville, however, told me that he sought to bring in perspectives from other regions of the globe in his coursework, such as by talking about Muslim-Christian relations in Nigeria.

Another unique part of the college is its Strategic Intelligence Program, which seeks to educate students on “defending a free society” and cultivate their ability to anticipate “moral, ethical, and mission challenges in defending the nation’s security.” The program’s faculty contains several retired career U.S. security officials, including those from the FBI, Defense Department, and Defense Intelligence Agency, and its site is replete with testimonials from anonymous graduates who speak of the great benefits they received from their education in their careers. The page advertises special projects monitoring the U.S.-Mexico border and tracking human trafficking, both of which are major political issues for the U.S. right.

Patrick Henry’s faculty and staff establish the college’s connections to the greater Washington conservative foreign-policy world.

Patrick Henry’s faculty and staff establish the college’s connections to the greater Washington conservative foreign-policy world. Katie Gorka, a former Trump advisor and the wife of right-wing media personality Sebastian Gorka, serves as a board member on the college’s Strategic Intelligence Program, which is also an academic partner of the Heritage Foundation think tank. A key part of the college’s mission is the apprenticeship program, which requires students to pursue supplemental activities where they can develop their skills, such as by interning with nonprofits or with political campaigns. The college, in turn, prominently advertises students who have gone on to work in Congress, conservative media, and the White House. I reached out to several former students for comment on the school’s program but got no response.

Several staff members affiliated with the college also have ties to the far-right at home and abroad—although some have now left the school. One of these is Baskerville, who reportedly made several homophobic statements during his time as a professor at Patrick Henry. This included claiming in a speech to the college that “homosexual activists” played a key role in the rise of Nazism and that “sexual ideologues” had worsened the AIDS crisis in the developing world by distributing condoms instead of promoting abstinence. Baskerville also attended the conference of the anti-LGBTQ World Congress of Families as well speaking in front of the white nationalist H.L. Mencken Club in 2013 alongside the neo-Nazi activist Richard Spencer.

Patrick Henry College provides a vastly different education from other international affairs programs. Understanding the college and what makes it unique, however, helps elucidate how the American Christian right seeks to shape U.S. foreign policy. The college’s mission hearkens back not just to a “classical education” but also an older, Western-dominated era of international affairs of which the far-right faculty are merely the most visible example. Although the college is relatively new and small, its alumni have entered a host of prestigious roles in Washington and have the power to shape the development of U.S. foreign policy in the decades to come.

Correction, Feb. 11, 2021: A previous version of this story incorrectly implied that Cawthorn was a graduate of Patrick Henry College. He never graduated.

Correction, Feb. 19, 2021: An earlier version of this article mischaracterized some statements attributed to Marek J. Chodakiewicz, who has spent time on the faculty at Patrick Henry College. Also, Chodakiewicz completed a five-year term on the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum Council; a previous version inaccurately described his tenure. Because of these inaccuracies, a paragraph concerning Chodakiewicz has been removed from this article. Foreign Policy regrets these errors.

Mark Thomas-Patterson is an undergraduate student majoring in history at the George Washington University. Twitter: @MTPIII

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