When I stepped on to the campus of Liberty University for my first day as a new transfer student, I thought I knew what I was getting myself into.
I knew that Liberty was a Christian college in Lynchburg, Virginia, founded in 1971 by the late Reverend Jerry Falwell to train "Champions for Christ." I knew it had required courses in Creationist Biology and Evangelism 101, a student body whose political views ranged from conservative to arch-conservative, and a 46-page code of conduct - called "The Liberty Way" - that outlawed drinking, smoking, cursing, dancing, R-rated movies, and hugs that last for longer than three seconds.
I knew all those things, which is why I decided to transfer to Liberty from Brown University, one of the nation's most liberal colleges, and write a book (The Unlikely Disciple: A Sinner's Semester at America's Holiest University) about my experience. Before Liberty, I'd never been exposed to conservative Christian culture - my parents are secular Quakers who once worked for Ralph Nader - but during my sophomore year at Brown, I decided to break out of my left-wing enclave and learn about my Christian peers by experiencing their world firsthand. For an entire semester, I took Bible classes, lived in Liberty's single-sex dorms, and sang in Rev. Falwell's church choir, trying to expand my horizons while studying "abroad" in a subculture more foreign to me than Barcelona or Tokyo. A slew of adjectives could describe my Liberty semester - "enlightening," "difficult," and "weird," to name a few - but perhaps the most apt one is "surprising."
Some of the surprises I saw at Liberty were off-putting and worrisome. I remember opening my first Creationist Biology exam to find the question: "True or False: Noah's Ark was large enough to accommodate various species of dinosaurs." (According to my professor, the answer was "True" - since dinosaurs and humans cohabited the earth after the Flood, they would have had to find a way to squeeze onto the Ark. He suggested that they could have been teenage dinosaurs, so as to take up less space.) Also troubling was Liberty's extreme social and political conservatism, which made for classroom lessons like "The Consequences of Immoral Sex" and textbook chapters like "Myths Behind the Homosexual Agenda."
A few surprises were strange but harmless. I'm thinking of my spring break mission trip to Daytona Beach, Florida, where a group of Liberty students and I tried (and mostly failed) to convert drunken coeds to Christianity. Or when I paid a visit to "Every Man's Battle," Liberty's on-campus support group for chronic masturbators. (Insert your own "hands-on research" joke here.)
But many - maybe even most - of the surprises I encountered at Liberty were much more pleasant. For starters, I learned that my stereotypes about evangelical college students - that they were all knuckle-dragging ideologues who spent their free time writing angry letters to the ACLU - were almost entirely wrong. Far from crazy, the friends I made at Liberty were some of the warmest, funniest, most intellectually curious college students I've ever met. After a few weeks of frantic acclimation to life in the dorms (aided by a Christian self-help book, 30 Days to Taming Your Tongue, that helped me kick my cursing habit), I began to fit in on my hall, and I found that Liberty students had a lot of the same day-to-day anxieties as my friends back at Brown. They gossiped about girls, complained about their homework, and worried about their post-graduation plans. Many even doubted their faith.
I was also surprised to learn that Liberty's strict religious discipline can actually be a good thing. I've always assumed that college students and freewheeling social climates went hand-in-hand, but most of the students I met were thankful for Liberty's rules. (Although I did find a few subversive Facebook groups, like one called "I Hug For Three Seconds, Sometimes Four.")
A sociologist named Margarita Mooney has shown that college students who attend regular religious services report being happier, more diligent, and more satisfied with their college experience than students who practice no religion. I still don't consider myself an evangelical Christian, but I can understand now what millions of Christian college students see in faith-based education, and why Liberty's enrollment has grown at a rate that few colleges, secular or religious, have ever matched.
Since the book came out, I've taken some heat from people who have argued that, by going to Liberty with an open mind, I was turning a blind eye to intolerance - or worse, that I'd been brainwashed by my time under Rev. Falwell's tutelage. But no community is all bad, and to dismiss Liberty as a place of wall-to-wall insanity is to reduce it, and the evangelical movement that birthed it, to a lazy caricature.
I still disagree with a lot of the values Liberty stands for, but seeing the human faces on the other side of the American culture wars made me question my own assumptions and realize that, in some ways, I had just as much to learn about tolerance as the most hard-line fundamentalist.
We can all be surprised by our ideological opponents. We just have to give them a chance.