As a first-year student at Brown University, Kevin Roose became familiar with the phrase “leaving your comfort zone,” but when he decided to leave Brown to experience the student culture at Liberty University, the phrase took on a whole new meaning.
“I was raised in a typical, secular, liberal household,” Roose told the crowd at his President’s Forum lecture Wednesday night. “I had basically no contact with conservative Christianity. I basically grew up thinking ‘Republican’ was a bad word.”
In his lecture, “The Unlikely Disciple: My Semester Undercover at Liberty University,” Roose discussed what led him to his semester at the late Jerry Falwell’s evangelical college of 60,000 students, how it changed him and how it led him to write his book on the subject, “The Unlikely Disciple: A Sinner’s Semester at America’s Holiest University.”
While traveling during an internship, Roose had his first encounter with Liberty students, “who looked exactly like my friends-the same generation, in the same country, the same time zone even-but there was a huge cultural gap. It was like speaking a different language.”
Upon returning to Brown, he proposed to his dean and advisors his idea for a semester at Liberty.
“I thought it would be a good opportunity to expand my own outlook-a domestic study-abroad,” he said. “I wanted to get the full experience of a right wing evangelical college student-to see what it was like in the dorms, playing intramural sports.”
The first weeks at Liberty took some adjusting, Roose admitted-from the school’s code of conduct to the “biblical prism” through which he said courses were taught. To brush up, Roose purchased “The Bible for Dummies.”
But aside from the “strict biblical literalism,” Roose said he “learned a ton about the Bible. It was really fun to get a handle on scripture and the Christian theological foundations.”
During his immersion in the Liberty culture, Roose played softball, joined the church choir and became a member of the college’s newspaper, which afforded him the opportunity to conduct the last print interview with Falwell before his death.
“Even though I disagree with 99 percent of what he stood for, there was no way to spend an hour with the guy, like I did, and not feel affection for him,” Roose said of Falwell. “And like he always said, ‘You can disagree without being disagreeable.'”
In that vein, winding down his lecture, Roose said that his semester opened his eyes and his sense of understanding.
“Because of this experience, I’m a much more conscientious person,” he said. “As a country, we need to get to a place of compassion and empathy. It’s a life or death issues-for democracy and for people.”
Before a lively question-and-answer session, in which Roose fielded questions from students and faculty ranging from the dating scene at Liberty to politics intertwined in the school’s curriculum, he gave his version of the beatitudes to the audience: “Blessed are those who love their neighbors, whether they agree with them or not; blessed are the religiously literate; blessed are those who (sort of) pray; blessed are those who forgive undercover journalists; blessed are those who leave their comfort zones.”
The President’s Forum Series, established in the winter of 2000 by President Mark D. Gearan, is designed to bring a variety of speakers to campus to share their knowledge and ideas with students, faculty, staff of the Colleges, as well as with interested community members. Many speakers draw audience members from the surrounding cities of Rochester, Syracuse and Ithaca.
On Thursday, April 22, Michael Tanner, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute, will conclude this year’s President’s Forum Series with a talk focused on health care reform at 7:30 p.m. in the Geneva Room in the Warren Hunting Smith Library.
At the Cato Institute, Tanner heads research into a variety of domestic policies with a particular emphasis on health care reform, social welfare policy, and Social Security. His most recent book, “Leviathan on the Right: How Big-Government Conservatism Brought Down the Republican Revolution” (2007), chronicles the demise of the Republican party as it has shifted away from its limited government roots and warns that reform is necessary to avoid continual electoral defeat.