Undercover At An Evangelical University Brown University student Kevin Roose passed himself off as an evangelical Christian to blend in with students at Liberty University — the school founded by the late Moral Majority leader Jerry Falwell.
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Undercover At An Evangelical University

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Undercover At An Evangelical University

Undercover At An Evangelical University

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Welcome back to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Jacki Lyden.

Taking a semester to travel and focus on your writing, not that unusual for a student at Brown University.

But instead of studying comparative literature in Europe, Kevin Roose decided to go to Lynchburg, Virginia. He passed himself off as an evangelical Christian to blend in with students at Liberty University - the school founded by Moral Majority leader, Jerry Falwell.

Kevin Roose is back at Brown and he wrote a book about his semester at Liberty called "The Unlikely Disciple: A Sinner's Semester at America's Holiest University." And he's in our New York studios.


Mr. KEVIN ROOSE (Author of "The Unlikely Disciple: A Sinner's Semester at America's Holiest University"): Thanks for having me, Jacki.

LYDEN: First, the mechanics of this. You decided to go undercover posing as an evangelical Christian. And I understand that you already had a book deal. Why couldn't you be honest?

Mr. ROOSE: My goal was to see the real unfiltered picture of life at Liberty University. The first time I met a group of Liberty students, I was a freshman at Brown and I had had this ultimate secular liberal upbringing. My parents worked for Ralph Nader in the 1970s and I had never really come into contact with conservative Christian culture. So when I met these Liberty students and started talking to them, it became clear very quickly that we had almost no way to communicate with each other. I think it was just as hard for them as it was for me and so I wanted investigate that and see, you know, what are our differences? What do they believe? And then also, what do we have in common and to see if I could try to build a bridge between my world, the world of this sort of the secular liberals and the world of conservative Christianity at Liberty.

LYDEN: Tell me about some of the classes that you enrolled in at Liberty, like History of Life and Evangelism 101.

Mr. ROOSE: I enrolled in the entire, almost the entire core curriculum, the classes that every Liberty student is required to take.

So Old Testament, New Testament, theology, and then as you mentioned, History of Life, which is a creationist biology course, and also Evangelism 101, which teaches you how to convert nonbelievers. I remember walking into class for the exam day for History of Life and sitting down to the test and seeing a question that said, true or false, Noah's Ark was big enough to accommodate various species of dinosaurs. And so, I was sort of taken aback by that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

I decided to brownnose and go for the credit instead of standing up for evolution. But the classes on the whole that I took were hard and also very informative and I'm glad I took them.

LYDEN: Now, no one knew that you were writing a book. They did know that you had come from Brown. You transferred to dorm 22 at Liberty. Tell me about dorm life there.

Mr. ROOSE: Well, dorm life is vastly different from what I had experienced at Brown.

For starters, there's Liberty's 46-page code of conduct and then it's called the "Liberty Way." And it outlines a whole host of rules and regulations concerning student life. So there's no drinking, no smoking, no R-rated movies, but also no dancing, no cursing and no hugs that last for longer than three seconds. I sort of felt like a, you know, a Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's court and I wanted to try to follow all the rules, so I had to do some behavioral adjustments. I actually bought a self-help book for Christians called "30 Days to Taming Your Tongue."

It's all about how to avoid cursing. You're supposed to say things like glory be and mercy. And so I took this advice and I walked around campus for a couple weeks sort of, you know, sounding like Beaver Cleaver.

(Soundbite of laughter)

And actually Liberty students don't talk like that, of course. They say, you know, they just use the sort of radio-safe versions of the curse words, the Nerf curses. And so they would look at me like, who is this guy and what strange, isolated home school did he come from?

LYDEN: Tell me what led you to "Every Man's Battle?"

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ROOSE: "Every Man's Battle" is a strange chapter in my book because it is Liberty's on-campus support group for chronic masturbators. And so I decided to check it out out of journalistic interest, I assure you. And it was an incredible experience because on the one hand, it's very bizarre and you have a bunch of male Liberty students sitting around a conference room table and talking sort of like, you know, people who are at Alcoholics Anonymous meetings about, you know, it's been 16 days since the last time I fell. That's the word they use, is fell. You know, they're congratulating each other and coming up with various strategies to stop touching yourself. But, you know, on another hand, it's really sort of compassionate. But I wish that these guys didn't have to be made to feel guilty. But I think given that they are guilty, I think this was a good way to cope with that.

LYDEN: I want to know how this experience changed your own sense of faith and prayer.

Mr. ROOSE: Well, I still do try to pray every day. And I do this because I think the process of praying changes me.

Oswald Chambers, who's a Christian writer, he said that it's not so much that prayer changes things as the prayer changes me and then I change things. And so I think that's going to be important for me to sit down every day and think about the problems and the challenges facing the people in my life, and really trying to increase my own compassion that way.

LYDEN: You left Liberty University without telling any of these people, your friends and your teachers who you really were, although one or two people had suspicions. Later, after you're back at Brown, you go back and you tell people the truth. What was that like?

Mr. ROOSE: Oh, it was hard. It was one of the hardest things I've ever done, because these had become some of my best friends. I sort of expected them to feel betrayed and to have to do a lot of apologizing. And what happened amazingly, was that everyone forgave me immediately. It was unreal how quickly their sort of surprise turned to real compassion and excitement. They were all excited about the book and excited that, you know, I had given Liberty a fair look and an open-minded look instead of just doing sort of a drive-by, you know, article or something like that that I think they've had a lot of.

LYDEN: One of your friends there says all those chances you had, Kevin, to be saved and you didn't take it. So the real regret is not that you wrote about them, but that you didn't go down that route and say the Sinner's Prayer.

Mr. ROOSE: Right. I mean, they weren't angry. They were just sort of disappointed, I guess, in - they thought, given the semester with me, that they would've done a better job of converting me, and this has led to some funny encounters.

Like at Christmas, one of my Liberty friends calls me and he says, I'm doing some Christmas shopping and I have to get a present for my brother-in-law. He's unsaved, he's not a Christian and I don't know what to get him. Can you help me out? So I've sort of become this, you know, concierge to the godless, which I don't mind, which is great but also very strange.

LYDEN: Kevin Roose, author of "The Unlikely Disciple: A Sinner's Semester at America's Holiest University." Thanks for speaking with us, Kevin.

Mr. ROOSE: Of course. Thanks for having me on.

LYDEN: For more on Kevin Roose's book, including an excerpt, go to our Web site, npr.org.

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