Sunday, September 18, 2022

The Unlikely Disciple: A Sinner's Semester at America's Holiest University by Kevin Roose


I don't remember where I heard about this book-- NPR, probably. Even though I'm not religious at all, I really enjoy undercover journalism and there was something titillating about a Quaker from a liberal family going to one of the most conservative religious colleges in secret. I don't think I actually fully understand what Liberty College was before picking up UNLIKELY DISCIPLE. I've heard the name bandied around, but I didn't realize it was a school for evangelicals.

Liberty College was founded by Jerry Falwell, and it has a strict moral code that students have to abide by, ranging from no sex to no R-rated movies, violations of which are enforced by RAs and staff, who then force students to pay fines. (I kept wondering who got to pocket this fine money. I don't think Roose ever mentioned-- the fines quickly stack up, which definitely give the place a for-profit vibe.) There are religious classes up the wazoo and the school teaches young-earth creationism, which is the belief that the earth is only about six thousand years old. Homophobia runs rampant and it sounds like their pastors offer conversion therapy services to students who think they might be gay. Out of the love of their and God's own hearts, of course.

Roose acknowledges this himself, but this experiment definitely would not have worked if Roose was not white, straight, and cis-gendered, and already coming from a background of some religious knowledge. Every time he started talking about how these people weren't so bad, or how they didn't match the screaming, red-faced stereotypes from liberal straw-man arguments, I wanted to bang my head against the wall. It reminded me of this essay I read recently by Rebecca Solnit, which talked about how people in minority groups (whether it is ethnic minority, gender/orientation minority, religious minority, etc.) are constantly having to make room for people in dominant groups and take care not to step on their toes so they don't feel like the status quo changing is a big owie to their egos. This school is literally full of people like that, who seem to take it for granted that everyone should think and act the way they do, even going so far as to evangelize innocent passerby in public, and the fact that they couch it in "good intentions" and coming from a "good place" makes it even more messed up. Creationism is NOT science, it is not testable like science, and it should not be taught alongside science, and the fact that the creationism teacher kept desperately emphasizing that he was in fact a "real scientist" and that he came to Liberty College because even other religious colleges in the U.S. didn't employ a strong enough teaching of creationism with the wishy-washy intelligent design tells you basically everything you need to know about this place and what it stands for.

It was fascinating to see what this school was like at the peak of mid-aughts party/raunch culture, and the cognitive dissonance students employed to indulge in things they knew they shouldn't, and would probably still condemn others for doing. Religious faith seemed to place hierarchically over moral faith, which was interesting to me, because there are a lot of people who believe that you can't be moral if you aren't also religious. I also enjoyed some of the dated cultural references, like BarlowGirls, Girls Gone Wild, and Facebook being a social networking site for college students (lol now it's where your racist aunt sends you anti-immigration memes and MLM hunbots you knew from high school try to sell you essential oil protein shake candles).

Overall, I liked this book just fine and I think Roose was as impartial as it was possible for him to be (I'm actually shocked that there are negative reviews condemning him for being too critical-- if anything, I found the opposite to be true, especially with how he brushed off all those casual homophobic jokes, but hey, you know what they say; if both sides are mad at you, you probably ARE impartial). I think he's a talented journalist and I can see why he got the book deal. It was an interesting experiment and as a student writer, he was able to get Jerry Falwell's last interview before his death. It was just also emotionally draining to read, and with the far-right becoming what they are now, reading this book just made me kind of sad, because it just kind of showed me that extremists just seem to get even more extreme, so all of this "they're just like us" stuff just ends up feeling like a warped funhouse mirror where you're just like, "Oh God, I hope not."

3 to 3.5 out of 5 stars

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