Kevin Roose pretended to be a fundamentalist Christian, and got himself admitted into Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University. He spent a semester there taking classes in young earth creationism and evangelism and wrote a book about his experience (which included a week spent with other Liberty University students trying to convert nonbelievers during Spring Break at Daytona Beach). Salon.com excerpts the book here.
In the Salon.com excerpt, Roose makes a number of interesting observations, one of them concerning the role of evangelism on the evangelizers. Roose suggests that the evangelizers at Daytona Beach were inadvertently making their own commitments to fundamentalist religion more entrenched. How? Not just by the self-persuasion that takes place when you tell other people—repeatedly—that you REALLY believe something and are full of joy, but by the callousness that comes from persistent rejection of your message by outsiders:
[M]aybe this trip was never all about the Spring Breakers. Battleground evangelism, it turns out, can be just as useful for the evangelists as for the non-believers. For these Liberty students, going to Daytona is a tool for self-anaesthetization, a way to get used to the feeling of being an outcast in the secular world. The first 40 times someone blows you off, it feels awful. The second 40 times, you start reassuring yourself that all of this must serve a higher purpose. By the end of the week, you get the point — you are going to be mocked and scorned for your faith, and this is the way it’s supposed to be.
In other words, evangelism is as much about driving you more deeply into the arms of your fellow religious enthusiasts as it is about making converts. And that’s a good thing, because the convert rate for the week in Daytona was poor, and was destined to be made poorer still (according to Roose) by attrition:
False conversions are a glaring wart on the face of Christian evangelism. In the book that accompanies our Way of the Master program, I found several sobering statistics about the percentage of apparent converts who stay involved with the church in the long term, including one from Peter Wagner, a seminary professor in California who estimated that only 3 to 16 percent of the converts at Christian crusades stay involved.
The false conversion rate is profoundly depressing if you believe in this stuff. After all, if we get ten converts during this week — an optimistic number — and our false conversion numbers are consistent with the average, this group has spent a week’s worth of twelve-hour days, thousands of dollars, and suffered massive amounts of emotional trauma for what? One more Christian? Two?
There must be an easier way.
Yes, there is. Actually, there are several easier ways. You can compel people to convert by force (which was the old way of getting people to yes and keeping them there); you can buy up radio stations and use other other forms of media to get your message out; or you can just go back to Lynchburg, have babies, and homeschool them as fundamentalists—then, when they are eighteen, send them to Liberty University. The third option, at least in actually making the kids, can be fun—like Spring Break in Daytona.
As for the ethics of a journalist or book writer infiltrating a group by deceit, I think it may not be ideal, but it is, in this case, tolerable. And it’s actually not an uncommon journalistic practice. Gloria Steinhem, for example, passed as a Playboy Bunny, and entered into the subculture of the Hugh Hefner empire, to get a magazine story. And Barbara Ehrenreich faked her resume to get jobs she was overqualified for (such as being a Walmart employee), and made a book of her blue collar work experiences (Nickel & Dimed ). Insular subcultures need to be breached and written about, especially when they have social impacts upon the broader society (as the Playboy Mansion, Walmart, and Liberty University so clearly do), and I thus don’t think that Roose did anything unethical to get his book on the Jerry Falwell subculture.
What would be another really interesting book would be for a Liberty University graduate to pass for a secularist and write close observations of an atheist or agnostic group—perhaps getting on the staff of, say, Skeptic magazine. I think that such a book would be fascinating, and as an agnostic myself, I’d like to see what he or she might have to say about a subculture that I identify with. People who are not a part of your subculture frequently see your blindspots, and have other important critiques that you need to hear. Also, they are in an ironic position in relation to something that you don’t take ironically, and so might help you see the absurdity of some of the things that you are doing, and suggest ways for you to not to take yourself always so seriously.