Onward, Dobson Soldiers

faked by Sunday, June 26th, 2005

Yeah, so, we’re back. A week at the beach with friends is a good way to spend mid-June, let me tell you. I’d give a blow-by-blow account of the trip, but really, that sort of runs counter to the whole purpose of the beach vacation, which is to go and not do anything that would be especially interesting to recount. An escape from the noteworthy, if you will. We ate, drank, pinkened, swam, reddened, watched NewsRadio on DVD. I can’t say I grew as a person; indeed, I’ll probably be about three inches shorter by the time the dead finishes flaking from the top of my head. I did read Jack Butler’s Nightshade, his sci-fi novel about a vampire on Mars, which was pretty darn great. Contessa, who is awesome, finished Jujitsu for Christ and The Corrections and is currently burning her way through Reading Lolita in Tehran.

But there was fun and scary stuff in the stack of mail waiting on us. The fun: Sufjan Stevens’ new record, Come on, Feel the Illinoise. Yeah, this is pretty great. I’ve been obsessed with an MP3 of “Casimir Pulaski Day” that I downloaded a few weeks back, a song about—well, it’s about a lot of things, including the exact right moment to layer in a trumpet line, but also about the frequent inadequacy of too familiar rituals of faith to say or do anything helpful about true grief, an emotion which Stevens represents as not so much enormous but rather as ungraspably composite, a lurching accumulation of a zillion once insignificant details that gets more complicated, fractal-like, the closer you look at it, that always grows faster than your ability to take it all in.

Stevens gets a lot of press for his quirky Christianity; I don’t know anything specific about his particular beliefs, but it’s clear that it’s a brand of Christianity that embraces, or at least is interested in exploring, contradictions, complexities, ambiguities. These are, of course, the very concepts that modern evangelical Christianity—the tradition I grew up in and still hang around the periphery of—has a pervading and hysterical horror of. Go to any Christian bookstore (most of which tend to be evangelical Christian stores hawking Left Behind and the like) and take a gander at the array of books organized around lists and categories—The 5 Love Languages, the 4 Personality Types, 21 Ways to Conquer Anxiety, Fear, and Discontentment, Your Best Life Now: 7 Steps to Living at Your Full Potential. Now, breaking a complicated issue down into discrete parts to understand it better is not in and of itself a bad thing (and there are plenty of secular self-help books that do the same—7 Habits of Highly Effective People, which of course inspired the 7 Habits of Highly Effective Christians, evangelical culture always being only about five steps behind the mainstream that it decries).

But that’s not what these books do. These books—or, to be charitable, the way in which these books are taught and presented in the churches I’ve been a part of over the years—are about liberating you from the burdensome responsibility of having to think hard about an issue, of having to grapple with questions that don’t have easy answers. They’re about providing a formula—sometimes a Biblical formula, more often a syrupy cocktail of cherry-picked Bible verses, CEO motivation manuals, and nineteenth-century gender politics—that you can apply to world events, workplace stresses, personal relationships, or whatever situation might arise, a formula that does not explain nearly as much as it obscures, but which gives the illusion of deep understanding. It reminds me of a church small group I was in once in which everyone seemed to know exactly one thing about everyone else, and that one thing was used to explain everything each person said or did. “Well, now, as an engineer, Carl, it doesn’t surprise me that you would feel that way about the book of James.” And so on.

So I read “God and Country,” a profile of Patrick Henry College, in the latest issue of the New Yorker with a feeling of dread and recognition. The student body at PHC is made up primarily of former homeschoolers who want to pursue political careers; they want a college degree, but they don’t want to have to deal with things like non-Christian classmates or professors who believe in evolution. They take classes for two years and then they intern with a congressman or other government functionary for two years; there’s even a special program for covert ops which grants students a low-level security clearance when they graduate. So essentially, these kids are going from homeschool to a kind of Ralph Reed Vo-Tech straight into the DC political and bureaucratic system. The recognition I felt when reading the piece came from my own college experience; I went to a Southern Baptist-sponsored college that had a curfew for girls but not for guys, that held an annual I Love America, by Which I Mean I Hate Clinton, Day, and where quite a few students were saving not just sex but even kissing for their wedding night, where some zealous students once decided to perform an exorcism on a Jewish student (who was there for reasons I have not yet fathomed) that left her bruised and made the news, where watching Kids in the Hall was liable to get you prayed over and watching Life of Brian was liable to get you prayed over in Latin, where praying over someone in Latin was liable to get you accused of being a papist idolater whose soul was in mortal danger, we better pray it out right now and maybe sing a chorus of “Awesome God” right now, then we can sing “Amazing Grace” to the tune of “Peaceful Easy Feeling,” what do you mean you hate the Eagles, maybe you’re not worth praying over at all, okay we’ll sing it to the tune of “Gilligan’s Island,” then, hey, where are you going?

But for all that—and I should say that this was a culture perpetuated by the students, mostly, not the faculty, most of whom were great, especially in the English department—there were plenty of cracks and fissures, places where pockets of outsiders and oddities could thrive. Along with missionary kids who didn’t want to be there, future seminarians who were putting their holiness on hold for a few years, transplanted northerners whose roots were still in shock from the hyper-rich Southern soil, and a reliable contingent of people who hated everything and were funny about it, you could find refuge in the (sadly recently bulldozed) truckstop across the highway, in the abandoned weed-strangled speedway, or in other, less picturesque places. Anyway, all I mean is, the place might have been lost in a fog of poorly understood orthodoxy, but there was also plenty of room for the unorthodox to cock an eyebrow and crack a beer or a joke about the absurd seriousness of the campus goings-on. Students might have been more sheltered than they would have been at a big state school, but it wasn’t a total echo chamber.

But if this New Yorker article is to be believed, the Patrick Henry students are getting nothing but echo. (Yeah, they’re good at debates, the article says, but of course debates are usually about finding ways to articulate your claims more persuasively than the other side’s points, not actually compromising, learning from each other, et cetera). I was kind of kidding when I called it a Vo-Tech above (and apologies to all the perfectly good Vo-Techs around, seriously), but only kind of—there’s no sense of the horizon-broadening mission of higher education, the learning more about being human that’s part of the humanities, all that naive stuff that I still pretty much believe in. And even more horrifying, there’s no sense—not just in the student body, which is to be expected, but also not even in the article, if I recall correctly—that there might be something a wee bit problematic about assuming that wanting to be a “Christian politician” automatically means wanting to be a Republican politician.

Scary stuff. Afraid for the future of the country, et cetera. As Darren and I were discussing this week, though, it’s possible that the Republican party is headed for a big honkin’ split, with actual, principled conservatives on one side and Dobsocrats on the other. Maybe that’s just wishful thinking, though.

13 Responses to “Onward, Dobson Soldiers”

  1. gorjus says:

    Whew. I avoided that article just as to avoid having to feel bad down in my stomach, and yr summary confirms my suspicions.

    The ultimate reason the Dobsocrats will fail in the large scale is because their perception of reality—a single race, single religion, “our Forefathers believed this” originalism ain’t work up in a Melting Pot. It can work perfectly well in the hallways and byways of the conservative world (which are quite wide and welcoming to those of that faith). In the actual Real World, I think we’re going to see them getting less and less traction.

    I like the idea of Yankees being a little “shocked” at our rich soil. Exxxcellent! Welcome back!

  2. Mr. Mooch says:

    damn! your college was like the college version of Saved. as for PHC, i thouht the Ralph Reed Vo-Tech moniker was perfect. i’m a little too familiar with PHC and it somewhat worries me. Originally i scoffed at the idea of a school who’s purpose seemed to be to provide political activist footsoldiers. as for long-term political work, there is a finite number of jobs out there and this seemed like a good way to produce unemployed people (i don’t believe the school is accredited). what is scary is the possiblity that i’m totally wrong on that count. what if there IS no shortage of jobs bc of the political shift?

    While i do not believe there has been a seismic shift in the public, i DO believe there’s been such a shift in the political power.

  3. I hadn’t thought about the accreditation thing; the article makes a big point of noting how high the SAT scores of its students are, but yeah, the training is so narrow that, if there aren’t DC jobs, where will these kids work? The article raises some of the points that Gorjus makes, too—that it’s going to be very strange for these students who spend four years in a relig-ish bubble to have to go into a workplace environment w/ rough-talking, booze-swilling politicos. Like, um, President Bush. Aheh.

    And yeah, I felt many a tingle of recognition watching Saved.

  4. Mr. Mooch says:


    any of you read the Jack Kirby Black Panther comics? i’ve been reading them and WOW. they’re just eye poping. i sometimes think that kirby art is harder to appreciate in small samples. a t-shirt or a cover or whatever. i mean, it is good stuff, but that’s not the same as the way you see his craft come out when you are flipping pages and you see some of these big panels that are simply kenetic, but not always just the hero punching somebody, etc. great stuff. some of it is just crazy though.

  5. Mr. Mooch says:

    as for the students in the article. these guys have always been around the perifory for anyone in this area of the U.S. My concern isn’t that they’ll learn to be good political soldiers (a formitable problem). my concern is that they’ll learn to APPEAR human and get people behind them. as long as they are devoted to avoiding “pre-marital kissing”, people like me (and Gorj.) can beat ‘em.

  6. Polly says:

    the author of the New Yorker piece was on the daily show tonite.

  7. Aw, man. The one! thing! I miss about cable.

  8. [...] reality that had crossed over into ours for a while. I’m embarassed to say that my undergrad experience didn’t do much to shake me out of my complacency. Sure, by that point I’d finally [...]

  9. Polly says:

    i’ve been thinking about “Reading Lolita in Tehran.” any word on that one?

  10. Contessa loves it, but is taking a break to read Harry Potter, I believe.

  11. Fernmonkey says:

    I hadn’t thought about the accreditation thing; the article makes a big point of noting how high the SAT scores of its students are, but yeah, the training is so narrow that, if there aren’t DC jobs, where will these kids work?

    Well, apparently all of the female students are planning to quit their jobs as soon as they marry and have kids, so it’s only half the problem one might expect.

  12. [...] rs. 1. Sufjan Stevens, Illinois. I seem to be writing a lot about Stevens this year–here and here, for instance. Well, for good reason. This album is a lot of things–among them, it’s the [...]

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