IN AN AFFAIR TO REMEMBER sultry songbird Terry McKay (Deborah Kerr) offers a simple explanation for why the building Kong scaled was the perfect spot for her to rendezvous with wayward soul mate Nickie Ferrante (Cary Grant), marveling, “The Empire State Building is the closest thing to Heaven we have in New York City.” Perhaps this is why The King’s College—a scrappy, recently resurrected Christian institute of higher learning—chose a few floors of the quintessentially American landmark as the perfect place to hang its revitalized shingle back in 1999.
“The idea of starting a Christian college in the Empire State Building probably seems an oxymoronic quest to many,” King’s College provost Marvin Olasky allowed, chuckling. Indeed, a friendly New York Observer write-up nevertheless declared King’s “a Christian university with a mission that seems more Mobile, Alabama than Manhattan,” while the New Yorker deemed it a “curious addition to the tower’s giant roster of misfit tenants.” The feeling is somewhat mutual. When the New Yorker reporter asked J. Stanley Oakes—pegged, of course, as “slightly Rovian”—what it was like to be a conservative Christian in New York City, the King’s Chancellor recited an old Sammy Davis, Jr. bit: “‘Get to the back of the bus,’ the driver says. ‘But I’m Jewish,’ Davis says. ‘Then get off,’ the driver says.’”
During my visit Oakes conceded, “I love it when I’m mocked because it means they have no other rational response to my argument.” There have been unpleasant spots, though. The Village Voice, for example, uncovered a disgruntled gay student who bemoaned the lack of a “progressive Christian movement” on campus and classmates who didn’t dig Brokeback Mountain. Of more consequence, a liberal member of the New York State Board of Regents led a barely veiled (and failed) effort in 2005 to deny the school accreditation against the positive recommendation of the Regents’ own Advisory Council, in part to protect dimwitted applicants to the school who might be tricked into believing they were attending Columbia University, which was, after all, also named King’s…two hundred years ago.
“Secularists and religious liberals have apparently claimed New York City as their inviolable capital,” Stanley Kurtz wrote of the latter outrage in National Review at the time. Still, administrators and students alike remained unbowed in the face of such galling temerity, and Gotham has proven more violable for King’s small but merry band of Christ disciples than any believer or nonbeliever probably ever suspected it could be.
“The New Testament talks about the difficulty of sowing seeds and while New York City certainly appears to be rocky soil, we’re nevertheless finding it to be good soil,” Olasky said, adding he also draws inspiration from the lyrics to “Mad Mission,” a song by Patti Griffin: It’s a mad mission/under difficult conditions/Not everyone makes it to the loving cup/But I’ve got the ambition so sign me up. “Every time you set out to build a new institution, it is something of a mad mission,” the provost mused. “I don’t want this to sound mystical, but in twenty-five years at the University of Texas”—with a diverse faculty composed, he jokes, of liberals and radicals—“I never felt a calling like I’ve felt at King’s College. Something special is happening here.”
There is a precedent for this mad mission. Harvard University was launched in 1636, in the words of a 1643 brochure, “To advance Learning and perpetuate it to Posterity; dreading to leave an illiterate Ministry to the Churches,” with a class of nine students a mere 16 years after settlers had arrived on a much wilder frontier than what King’s faces in New York City—post-Giuliani, anyway. From those inauspicious beginnings Harvard produced seven United States presidents, more than 40 Nobel laureates, and innumerable men and women of consequence, even if its future literate progeny had little use for Ministry to the Churches, illiterate or otherwise.
Who would have predicted such a result at the outset? It is a model from which King’s would like to borrow a la carte: a large order of influence for the new generation of leaders, hold the slavish secularization—which is most certainly not the same as providing future theocrats training wheels.
“The King’s community is, I think, a mix of idealism and skepticism,” Olasky said. “Ancient Israel was a holiness theme park. America is a liberty theme park. We’re not here to impose our worldview on others. We’re here to make the best case for what we believe.”
REALIZING THIS DREAM should be a bit easier from the Big Apple than from the idyllic but isolated environs the school occupied in Briarcliff Manor, New York, from 1938 until 1994. That year a land deal gone bad essentially ran the school out of existence, presumably forever. King’s charter, however, remained active and Oakes, sensing a providential moment, drew together key donors with his longtime cohorts at Campus Crusade for Christ in hopes of reviving the school as a place where ambitious Christians could have a closer, more meaningful encounter with the culture at large. In 1999 King’s College relaunched in the Empire State Building with 17 students. Enrollment has since jumped to nearly 300, with neo-pioneers from across the nation and 11 countries answering Oakes’s reverberating call without any sign of cessation.
Of course, to no small number of our blue-state brethren evangelical college student likely calls forth an image of a ragamuffin clad in a John 3:16 sandwich board hollering at passersby about the tortures that await them in Hell—perhaps for three transferable credits. Walking through King’s halls, though, you’re as likely to hear debates over the relative merits of Benthamian utilitarianism or the latest superhero blockbuster as biblical doctrine, and the word you’ll hear more often than any other with regard to intellectual opponents is engagement.
No big surprise there. What school doesn’t present itself as a paragon of inclusivity and unhindered truth seeking? What is shocking is how seriously King’s pursues the practice. How many other Christian schools are likely to bring in serious proponents of gay marriage, Marxist economists, and atheist superstar Christopher Hitchens to challenge their beliefs? How many secularized Ivy League schools would respectfully welcome its opponents to argue hot-button issues? (Pie throwing doesn’t count.)
A joyfulness permeates King’s which clearly derives from breaking out of the so-called Holy Huddle. “For too long Christians have let themselves be stereotyped as rural city-avoiders who follow trends rather than set them,” one typical press release from the school reads. Another brochure declares, “After a century in which many Christians have disengaged from the public square, we seek to enter it, declaring truth in a civil and persuasive manner.”
“If you want to affect the culture you have to be where the culture is,” King’s president Andy Mills, the brilliant former CEO of Thomson Financial who many around the school refer to reverentially as “The Operator,” said plainly. “New York City is full of institutions that affect the world and we would like to affect those institutions.” There is a moral component to the choice of location as well. “It’s wrong that many theologians have given up on millions of people in urban areas,” professor Bret Schundler insisted. “What starts in the city doesn’t end in the city and you can’t build a wall high enough to keep the world out even if it was right to build it—and it’s not.”
SCHUNDLER IS THE MUCH-CELEBRATED former Jersey City Republican mayor whose political career was sparked by indignation at inner-city living conditions he experienced while volunteering in food pantries and running adult Bible studies. To him, the social gospel embraced at King’s—students are involved in a series of volunteer and service projects—is a revelation. “When you have a student body that doesn’t believe objective truth exists, they are going for the credential,” he said. “King’s students come to New York City to live out their convictions, which is why I firmly believe this could become one of the most influential religious institutions in the country.”
The students are of a similar mind. King’s senior Bryan Nance still shakes his head when he recalls the “Politically Incorrect Since 1971” T-shirts fellow students at Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University proudly donned, almost reveling in the irrelevance of their beliefs to those beyond the campus walls. “The lack of interest in examining various philosophies or competing ideas objectively definitely led to some nutty thinking,” Nance, a talented singer-songwriter who will frequently stick around clubs in the Village to debate philosophy, religion, and politics with the hoi polloi after performing, explained. “I wanted to be able to open my mouth in front of people who disagreed with me without looking foolish. I wanted to be humbled and sharpened and pruned and readied to make a real difference, not just have elliptical discussions with people who already agree with me.”
“It’s easy to spout ideology and orthodoxy and never bother listening to anyone else,” David Lapp, a junior, concurred. “But to be winsome and gracious and respectfully refute others’ ideas? That’s difficult, but it’s what we came here to learn to do.”
The point isn’t necessarily to fit every class into the box of an Evangelical Sunday service, Schundler said, but to begin with biblical conviction and graft it on to the real world. “There’s nothing in the Bible that says we need to have a low capital gains tax rate,” he argued. “But if you feel a moral responsibility to help the poor, eventually you are going to have to grapple with the various theories to determine what will achieve that end. The question isn’t ‘What does Jesus say about the free market?’ It’s, ‘What is going to help us best alleviate suffering?’”
This give-and-take atmosphere makes The King’s College a fascinating place for even a thoroughly secularized journalist to visit. The skittish insularity of many self-professed Christian colleges is entirely absent, replaced by a confidence and open- ness that is rare if not unique. The discussion is well versed and polite, never devolving into demagoguery or dismissive invective, but at the same time firm and grounded. “The secular world shouldn’t be allowed to think we’re hiding or intimidated,” Oakes said. “If secularists do a better job of winning over the country, well, they’ve earned the right to set the national agenda. We plan to train our side to compete vigorously, though.”
An “education of faith and consequence,” as King’s prefers to call it, apparently is an attractive proposition. The Student Voice interviewed T. J. Bramblett, who was planning to attend Virginia Tech until he paid a visit to King’s at his grandmother’s behest. “I’ve never found a group of people so intelligent, who are Christian and have goals or big plans for their lives, but who were also so nor- mal,” he told the college’s newspaper. It doesn’t hurt, as one student eagerly attested, that New York City is the kind of place where you could snap a picture of Jessica Simpson on your cell phone camera en route to hear Justice Breyer speak on constitutional law. Still, the students’ obvious dedication to the school mission proves Oakes’s vision was no pipe dream.
TO BE CLEAR, “ENGAGEMENT” is not code for adopting a milquetoast Christianity to assimilate with the dominant culture. No, pride and seriousness of belief are on unabashed display. Faculty are required to sign “without mental reservation” a “Statement of Faith” affirming their belief in the Bible and, further, pledging themselves to “help fulfill the Great Commission in our generation, depending upon the Holy Spirit to guide and empower me.” There are loosely organized, fervently heart-felt student prayer sessions, and, in the typically unkempt bathroom of a student apartment I visited, a piece of paper taped to the wall noted Philippians 4:8: Whatever things are true, whatever things are noble, whatever things are just, whatever things are pure, whatever things are lovely, whatever things are of good report, if there is any virtue and if there is anything praiseworthy—meditate on these things.
If that’s the level of earnestness taken into the toilet, it is not difficult to see why such a strong bond of trust has developed between students and administrators. King’s College boasts one of the thinnest residential life books in the history of higher education: Don’t lie, cheat, or steal. Otherwise, do what you know is right.
“This isn’t the typical stereotype of a Christian college where guys and girls can’t hold hands after seven or aren’t allowed to watch certain movies or listen to certain songs,” recent graduate Anthony Randazzo said. Yet, the school is hardly slouching toward Gomorrah. There is no mandatory chapel, yet students have a robust faith life with attendance at student-generated worship services and Bible study sessions rivaling or exceeding those at other religious schools. The student living quarters in high-rises—“Houses” with names like Bonhoeffer, Churchill, Reagan and Susan B. Anthony, “like Hogwarts from Harry Potter” one young woman explained—are student-run. However, they are Animal House-esque only if some director’s cut exists with scenes of John Belushi mentoring under- privileged youth and moderating intra-house theological debates.
“Christianity is based on the idea that you work on the principles and beliefs within and that is going to affect how you live out in the world, so it’s odd so many Christian colleges try to work from the outside behavior inward,” Olasky said. “Emphasizing principle rather than setting external standards seems to me to be much healthier and more in keeping with the Christian understanding.”
IF THE AFOREQUOTED KING’S STUDENTS sound frighteningly sharp and articulate for young adults in their late teens and early twenties, trust (but verify) that their words have not been doctored. Visit the school, converse with them for yourself. Check their backs for wires—no Stepford Students here. While there is no air of elitism at King’s, it is clear these young men and women are elite. Yet humility remains the order of the day. A handwritten quote from Touchstone magazine editor James Kushiner is posted in the student lounge: “A discipline won’t bring you closer to God. Only God can bring you closer to Himself. What the discipline is meant to do is to help you get yourself, your ego, out of the way so you are open to His grace.” Exclamation marks in several different ink hues have been added in eager assent. “What makes King’s unique is the disposition of its student body,” David Corbin, a newly minted politics professor at the school, explained. “They possess both smarts and intellectual courage. It’s not enough to go to a prestigious school. They want the real thing when they get there.”
It’s true: The average ACT score of the incoming class is 28, which puts King’s students in the top 90th percentile nationwide. Prospective students this year have been simultaneously offered slots at NYU, Brown, Duke, and Pepperdine. These are not students bereft of options slinking off to the only school that will take them. “Type-A personalities with teachable spirits,” is how Bryan Nance describes the student body. Students are well aware before they arrive that, as Oakes tells me, King’s “makes no apologies for the rigors of the program.”
“We’re pushed, relentlessly, and most of us rise to the occasion,” Jonathon Seidl, a junior who recently had an op-ed accepted by the Wall Street Journal, said. “We came here knowing you can’t get by at King’s with a basketful of easy electives.”
“There is no Underwater Basket-Weaving 101,” Randazzo assured.
There is an offshoot to training clear-eyed students of such high caliber, however, one that is fairly novel in the world of higher education: to make the program work, The King’s College must practice what it preaches. The school has taught its students to see through equivocation too well to do otherwise. So the school that explicates the virtues of independent thinking and free market capitalism for its students strives also to embody those ideas by living outside the socialistic government and grant economies in which most state institutions currently exist. Adopting what President Mills calls an “ethos of efficiency,” the school is hurtling toward full self-sufficiency even as other schools beg and creak under bloated budgets. The day King’s reaches 850 students the school will run on tuition alone, freeing administrators to streamline operations and focus on educating students rather than constantly prostrating themselves for donations and running complex funding schemes like the “Leviathan Universities,” as Olasky calls them, currently do.
How? Professors are on contract, not tenured. Hundreds of diffuse potential majors have been whittled down to just two profound, broad ones— Business Management and Politics, Philosophy, and Economics. New York City serves as the school’s campus. There is no cafeteria, no football stadium to maintain, no gym. When the school needs a theater for events, it rents one. “Most infrastructure at schools has nothing to do with teaching students,” Mills said, adding that he believes King’s can learn from its competitors’ decades of mistakes, succeed where others have failed, and provide a superior education at a relatively low tuition.
The example of perseverance and strategy necessary to beat a path according to one’s own principles is not lost on students. “When I first came to King’s I wanted to change the world—who doesn’t?” junior Hope Hodge said. “You see firsthand at King’s how much work bringing something new and special into existence takes. And it’s daunting. But you also see it is possible. So I’ve ended up feeling like maybe I was a little naïve before to just think, ‘I’m going to make this happen.’ At the same time, I actually feel like I’m becoming someone who can have a real impact.”
“One of our greatest advantages is we’re not afraid of the truth,” Mills later noted when I told him what Hodge said. “I can tell you from my experience in the business world, other schools are churning out classes of students with a sense of entitlement. Those kids quickly become disillusioned when they arrive in the real world and realize how challenging it is to distinguish oneself and succeed. We try to impart as few illusions to our students as possible.”
THE KING’S COLLEGE DOES HAVE at least one drawback: The school is still building its reputation, and the small class sizes mean fewer direct alumni networking opportunities, in the short run at least. As Anthony Randazzo put it, “No potential employer is going to ask, ‘What’s Duke University?’ I’ve gotten used to describing myself and King’s in the same breath. But when I look at the amazing people who believe in this school and got it off the ground, that’s incredibly encouraging to me and something I’m proud to be a part of. Having been through the program, I’d make the same decision in a heartbeat.”
Olasky recognizes the difficulty of entering the “paperocracy” the United States has become, in which so many evaluations of a prospective employee’s worth emanate from a few keywords on a résumé. “It’s true: our students are going to have to do things the old-fashioned way and earn the respect and trust of their employers,” Olasky said. “They won’t be able to just fly in on a paper airplane. In C. S. Lewis’s Narnia books, at various times, people ask of Aslan, ‘Is he safe?’ and the response is, ‘Well, no, he’s not safe, but he’s good.’ This is a good education, but it is not at all a safe education.”