Visiting Patrick Henry

Give Me Liberty, Give Me Debate

By Barry W. Lynn

I do a lot of traveling for Americans United. Anyone who is on the road as much as I am is going to have some horror stories. Re­cent ones included a small on-board airplane fire and a 15-hour delay getting from Baltimore to Charleston, S.C.

In mid-April, I found myself in my car stuck in a three-hour backup on Interstate 95 between Richmond and Washington, D.C., caused by a serious crash involving a beer truck. In between telephone calls to the staff – if I had had the full Americans United membership list, you too might have heard your own phone ringing – I had time to ponder the question, “What am I doing here?”

I mean this question literally. Why was I on my way to speak to students at Patrick Henry College in Purcellville, Va.?  Patrick Henry has only 300 students and is populated almost exclusively by young people who were home schooled in a strict fundamentalist Chris­tian environment. Moreover, I had agreed to a debate with John C. Rankin, a Har­vard-trained theologian who, while perfectly amiable, usually takes the opposite view of Americans United.

Couldn’t I have better spent my time appearing on a local call-in talk show, meeting with a senator or writing another book? Given that all of life is a series of trade-offs, though, my answer is “no.”

Patrick Henry’s founder, Michael Farris, has ambitious plans. He has talked about how he’d like his graduates to be highly placed in government and the courts.

Don’t think it’s ridiculous. Farris is proud of the extraordinarily high number of interns he places in the White House. Bluntly, he is paving a path to power. In this political climate, how can we fail to try to experience (if only for a brief visit) how this college works?

The debate considered the question, “What is the nature of the separation between church and state?” Rankin, who frequently debates through his Mars Hill Forums, claims that those Jeffersonian “unalienable rights” (life, liberty and property equaling the “pursuit of happiness” in his view) could only be derived from a biblically based view of humanity. This is pretty heady stuff reflecting what I think is an exceedingly tall house of cards built on all manner of dubious theological and historical arguments. But the students were absolutely riveted by our interchange; many took copious notes.

When the question-and-answer period arrived, a line formed at the microphone immediately. It obvious these young people had been paying attention. They asked pointed, probing questions about specific conflicts like the “faith-based” initiative and “intelligent design.”

At first, all the questions were directed at me, but then students started questioning some of Rankin’s reasoning. After the event (which would probably still be going on today if there hadn’t been a time limit and a school curfew), students approached me with more inquiries and observations sometimes engaging in little mini-debates themselves as we chatted. The most frequent comment was that they had never heard “the other side” (that would be “mine”) explained in any systematic way. Unless they were all going into acting, it seemed some were genuinely struggling with these issues for the first time. If I can be the catalyst for that, great.

I’ve encountered this same phenomenon at Pat Robertson’s Regent Univer­sity, where I’ve spoken on more than one occasion. The recent controversy about Monica Goodling, Attorney General Al­berto Gonzales’ deputy and keeper of potentially damaging e-mails, has elevated media interest in that school from which Goodling is a graduate.

A Boston Globe reporter was doing a profile of the place, which he seemed to assume (since it was ranked poorly by a U.S. News & World Report study of law schools) was filled by young rejects of more prestigious institutions. When he spoke with me, I said my recent contacts with Regent students painted a very different picture. Students there were highly motivated and often chose to go to Regent instead of some other school precisely because they could learn how to “transform” the courts into vehicles that serve a specific brand of faith.

I told the reporter that if somebody with a separationist view walks into a courtroom and is looking forward to easy pickings because his adversary is a Regent grad, he is likely to be handed his head on a platter. Add competence to ideological passion and you get a volatile mix, made more dangerous in a judicial climate warmed by the increased presence of ultraconservative jurists who have already passed some presidential “litmus test.”

The point of this column is not that Americans United ought to set up a college or a law school. It is that all of us need to spend more time really understanding the opposition in no small measure so that we better comprehend what best counters their assumptions. We also need to work on the cultivation of students in our midst to make sure that we afford them opportunities for learning and leadership to start to combat those forces that genuinely want a nation drastically different from the one most of you think our forebears crafted.

Barry W. Lynn is executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.