Student undercover at evangelical college

  • Kevin Roose, a senior at Brown University, went undercover at Liberty University and wrote about about his experience.
  • Liberty University is one of the most conservative Christian colleges in the United States.
  • The book has provoked controversy for Roose's tactics, but his portrayal is tamer than he expected.

When Kevin Roose decided to attend Liberty University, the world's largest evangelical Christian college, according to his Web site, he went for a slightly different reason than most college-bound students: He was writing a book.

The book, "The Unlikely Disciple: A Sinner's Semester at America's Holiest University," was released in late March, and depicted an inside look at what a semester is like for students at Liberty. Roose, now a senior at Brown University, decided to go undercover at Liberty for the second semester of his sophomore year after meeting some students from Liberty his freshman year at Brown.

He said he remembered thinking how hard it was to communicate with students who were exactly like him in every other way.

"I was absolutely flabbergasted," Roose said. "They had such a parallel culture from my own."

Once at Liberty, Roose said he found it very hard to fit in with the students there.

"It's not a mainstream Christian college," Roose said, recalling the strictness of Liberty's code of conduct. Roose said students at Liberty are not allowed to curse, drink, stay out late, listen to offensive music, or watch R-rated movies.

"There goes 90 percent of my day," Roose joked.

However, Roose said he slowly adapted to Liberty, and found that the students there were not what he had anticipated.

"I expected to struggle to find good things to say about them or about Liberty," he said.

Having gone in looking to write an exposé on the university, Roose said he was surprised to find that people at Liberty University were generally friendly, even if he didn't agree with everything they believed.

"The book was not what I expected to write because Liberty was not what I expected it to be," Roose said.

Andrew Claudio, a sophomore at Liberty, echoes this sentiment.

"People at Liberty are pretty down to earth," Claudio said.

He adds that, while there are people at both extremes who are either forced to attend and hate it or incredibly conservative, most are in the middle.

Claudio also said people at Liberty aren't expected to be perfect or innately good.

"Everybody makes mistakes," Claudio said. "That's why you go to a Christian college, so you can surround yourself with the right people."

Roose said he has met with the current president of Liberty since his semester there to discuss the book, and said he feels the university has an attitude of "tempered acceptance" toward the book. They have stocked the book on the university bookshelves, but have packaged it with a disclaimer alleging factual inaccuracies and offensive sexual references.

"They're doing their best to accept the book," Roose said.

Karen Swallow Prior, a professor at Liberty who reviewed the book for Christianity Today magazine, said that Roose's integrity and openness surprised her.

"Kevin's honesty, fairness and objectivity greatly exceeded my expectations," Swallow Prior said. "As an undercover reporter, Kevin brought as much integrity to that position as he possibly could."

Swallow Prior also said the simple fact that Roose was able to blend in at Liberty without being exposed is an important lesson for the university.

"How many others might there be here who have the same questions, doubts and concerns Kevin had?" she asked. "One doesn't need to be an undercover reporter to have such."

However, Swallow Prior is critical of one particular aspect of his study: Roose only took freshman-level, required general education courses, and none of the courses in his major, English. She said she feels this is an inaccurate portrayal of the academic experience at Liberty.

"Even the typical freshman takes an academic course or two in addition to the required general education courses," Swallow Prior said.

Overall, Swallow Prior said the book will be helpful in closing the very "God divide" that is made apparent by the book and the reaction to it.

"Kevin's book will go a great way towards helping those on both sides who wish to close the gap do exactly that," Swallow Prior said.