While most of his buddies studied abroad last year, Kevin Roose, a 21-year-old English major at Brown University, tried a different kind of cultural immersion: he spent a semester undercover at Liberty University, the college founded by Jerry Falwell. Roose joined the student newspaper, the school choir and even spent his spring break proselytizing drunk kids in Daytona Beach, Fla. Now a senior back at Brown, Roose wrote a book about his experience, called “The Unlikely Disciple.” He spoke with NEWSWEEK’s Jessica Bennett.
How has Liberty reacted?
They’ve been very receptive. It’s in the campus bookstore, although it has a little disclaimer at the top saying, “Some of this may not be appropriate.”
Why take on this experiment?
I had the ultimate secular liberal upbringing. At the same time, a third of American teens identify themselves as born-again Christians. I thought it was irresponsible of me not to know about my peers. What do they do for fun? Do they use Facebook? Watch “Gossip Girl”? What’s their deal?
What did you think would be their deal?
I guess I had this secular paranoia that they were all plotting abortion-clinic protests or sewing Hillary Clinton voodoo dolls.
Well, on Facebook, God was the No. 1 most-listed interest among Liberty students. At Brown, it was ultimate Frisbee. So it was just a 180-degree turn. I had to follow their 46-page code of conduct: no drinking, no cursing, no hugs lasting longer than three seconds. So there goes, like, 95 percent of my day. But Liberty students aren’t hostile demagogues. They’re normal college kids. They worry about homework and gossip about girls, and they question their faith much more than you’d guess. We think of evangelicals as unflinching, but Liberty students spend a lot of time thinking critically—and they don’t always agree with what they’re taught.
I bought a Christian self-help book to help with the cursing, “30 Days to Taming Your Tongue,” where you’re supposed to say things like “Glory be!” and “Mercy!” I had also read an article about how Liberty students were buttoned up, so I brought a suitcase full of cardigans and penny loafers—the kind of stuff I’d wear to my grandparents’ retirement home. But Liberty students aren’t a bunch of Beaver Cleavers. They say things like “darn” and “crap.”
What were classes like?
Hard. On one exam, we had to name all the 27 books of the New Testament, in order. I was up all night. Finally I went to one of my hallmates and said, “Dude, this is killing me!” He said, “It’s so easy, just sing the song!” He taught me this song he’d learned in Sunday school. The next day, I heard this hum all around me of all the other students singing this song.
Did you date at all?
I went on a few Christian dates, and I even had a quasi girlfriend. But at Liberty you can barely hug, so it was like, what am I supposed to do on these dates? Even if I was Jake Gyllenhaal, these girls weren’t going to hook up with me. But in a way, that was freeing. I didn’t have to worry about what lines I was going to use and it took away the pressure.
Did you ever feel guilty about deceiving your new friends?
I did, and I tried to be as honest as I could. When people asked, I told them I’d come from Brown. I expected raised eyebrows, but often what I got was pity. They thought I was fleeing secularism, and they’d say, “Oh, Liberty must be a breath of fresh air.” And I’d be like, “You have no idea.”