It's midnight at Liberty University, and I'm kneeling on the floor of my dorm, praying.
This is not a particularly unusual event. Any night of the week, a quick stroll through Liberty's campus would reveal hundreds of students in the same position, making the same kind of divine appeal. At this school, we pray for everything: good grades, a winning football season, religious revival in America, chicken fingers in the dining hall. Our God is a workhorse God, and as the Bible instructs, we petition him without ceasing. Put it this way: If prayers emitted light, you'd see us from space.
Our chancellor, the Rev. Jerry Falwell, always tells us that prayer is the key to a productive Christian life. And, well, he should know. In 1971, the Rev. Falwell felt God calling him to start a Christian college in his hometown of Lynchburg, Virginia. He answered the call, and over the next 36 years, while organizing the Moral Majority, shepherding one of America's largest megachurches and establishing himself as the father of the Religious Right, he found time to transform that Christian college into what it is today: the world's largest evangelical university, a 10,000-student training ground for America's conservative Christian youth. "Bible Boot Camp," he calls it.
It's a tongue-in-cheek name, but a fairly accurate one. Like a West Point drill sergeant, the Rev. Falwell prides himself on discipline. His field manual, a 46-page code of conduct called "The Liberty Way," governs every aspect of our lives and dispenses concrete punishments when we veer off course. Such as:
• Possession and/or use of tobacco: 6 reprimands + $25 fine;
• Improper personal contact (anything beyond hand-holding): 4 reprimands + $10 fine;
• Attendance at, possession or viewing of, an R-rated movie: 12 reprimands + $50 fine;
• Spending the night with a person of the opposite sex: 30 reprimands + $500 fine + 30 hours community service.
Falwell envisioned Liberty as a Christian safe haven where young evangelicals could get a college education without being exposed to binge drinking, pot smoking, sexual experimentation and all the other trappings of secular coed culture. He planned to make it the evangelical equivalent of Notre Dame or Brigham Young, a university where every student would be trained in the liberal arts, fortified in the evangelical faith and sent out into the world as a "Champion for Christ."
That plan must have worked, because today, our school is still a bastion of sparkling Christian purity — sort of the anti-Animal House. On this campus, you'll find girls who are saving their first kisses for marriage, guys whose knowledge of the female anatomy is limited to the parts you can show on basic cable and students of both sexes who consider it a wild Friday night when their Bible study group serves Cheetos and Chex Mix.
Of course, you'll also find Liberty students who aren't so sheltered, who don't walk around campus humming hymns and speaking in parables. Like any other religious community, Liberty has its fair share of nonconformists. A few Liberty students, in fact, choose to live relatively normal collegiate lives, even when it means violating the Liberty Way. That's why I'm praying on the floor of my room tonight — because my friend Dave is in trouble.
It started last Friday afternoon when Dave, a brawny, goateed shot-putter on Liberty's track team, approached his friend Wayne with an idea.
"Let's get out of here for the weekend," he said.
Dave explained that one of his high-school friends, a non-Christian girl named Jessie, had invited both of them to a special party at her secular college, three hours away from Lynchburg.
"A lingerie party," he said. "Wayne, she invited us to a lingerie party.
Like ... a party ... where the girls wear lingerie."
Wayne chuckled. "Naw, man. You know we can't do that."
He was right. Attending a party of any type is forbidden under the Liberty Way, but a lingerie party would be off-the-charts sinful. Still, as Dave talked more about the party and how many beautiful, scantily clad girls would be there, he felt his resistance weakening. I mean, I haven't been off campus all semester. And what harm could one night do?
By the time Dave finished his pitch, Wayne's mind was made up: He wanted to go. The party wouldn't be holy, but it wouldn't be the worst thing in the world, either. So the two friends signed out on the campus log sheet — to the off-campus apartment of an older Liberty student they knew — and drove to secular school instead.
The party was wilder than they'd expected. Girls clad in sheer negligees and lacy bustiers floated around the room, grinding lustily with each other, while loud hip-hop music blared over the rowdy yells of beer-pong players. Dave had gone to some parties in high school, but Wayne was relatively new to the scene, and getting comfortable took three or four cups of a beverage he'd never heard of ("jungle juice," was it?).
After an hour of drinking, Dave and Wayne felt loose enough to unveil their big surprise: two pairs of special underwear, purchased in advance for the occasion. Dave stripped down to a black man-thong, and Wayne, a bit more reserved, wore a pair of SpongeBob SquarePants boxers. They drank and danced and cavorted with the secular students until the wee hours, using Dave's digital camera to snap the photos he would eventually post, for posterity, on his MySpace profile.
That was the fatal step, of course, and no one can quite understand why Dave did it. Did he really think his secrets were safe on the Internet? Was he trying to get kicked out?
These are the questions that have circulated the halls of our dorm for the past week. By now, we've heard all the stories. We've heard how, a few days after the party, Dave found an urgent e-mail from the dean of men waiting in his inbox. How, when he was brought in to the dean's office, Dave tried to make the case that he hadn't been at the party. How the dean had pulled from his desk a stack of photos, culled from Dave's MySpace page, that proved otherwise. How some of the photos had been shockingly lewd, including one of Dave in his man-thong, holding a bottle of liquor in each hand while looking up a girl's skirt. How Dave had broken maybe half the rules in the Liberty Way, including "attendance at a dance," "sexual misconduct and/or any state of undress" and "possession or consumption of alcoholic beverages." How he was served with the biggest punishment on our hall — and maybe at Liberty — all year: 78 reprimands, a $650 fine and 30 hours of community service. How, at that point, adding up Dave's punishments was a matter of procedure, like sentencing a serial killer to 23 consecutive life sentences, because the alcohol alone was enough to expel him.
In short, the guy needs a lot of prayer.
After rising from my knees, I walk to Dave's room. He's in there with Wayne and a few other friends, still discussing his dean's office debacle. Dave is still waiting for the official news of his punishment, but he seems to have made peace with the fact that, barring a miracle, he'll be gone by next week.
"I should have done more bad stuff while I was at it," says Dave, chuckling as he picks at a bag of Jiffy-Pop. "I mean, they can't kick me out twice, right? I could have snorted some coke or something."
"Come on, Dave," says Joey, a Jersey-born freshman who lives at the end of the hall. "At least try to be serious about this."
"I can't, dude," says Dave. "When I get serious, I feel pain. In my heart."
Wayne is in better shape, we think. There were no photos of him on Dave's MySpace page, just photos of their car ride together. Wayne's meeting with the dean of men is tomorrow, and he's planning to say that he dropped Dave off and went somewhere else, skipping the party altogether.
"Are you positive he doesn't have any pictures of you at the party?" asks Joey.
"No, not positive," says Wayne. "But there are none on the Internet. He would have to have another source."
"If he catches you," says Dave, "you should bust out a Jesus quote."
Wayne's eyes widen. "What?"
"Jesus hung with sinners and tax collectors, dude. If He can hang with sinners, you can too."
"Yo, that's a pretty good idea."
"You guys are retards," says Joey. "Jesus hung with sinners, but he didn't sin with them. It's not like the tax collectors had a lingerie party and said, 'Yo J.C., you gotta get over here, it's off the hook!'"
Laughter rises, then sharply fades, as it does with gallows humor. In truth, this is no laughing matter. Our dorm has hosted its share of controversy this semester, but no one expected a potential double-expulsion. What Dave and Wayne did was against the rules, no doubt, but some of us wonder whether, in this case, the punishment truly fits the crime.
"I heard about a guy who got more reprimands than you, Dave," says Wayne.
"No way. More than 78?" says Dave.
"Yeah. A few years ago. This guy got triple-digits. Broke every rule in one night. He went to a few parties, smoked weed, had sex with a girl, went dancing, destroyed some property. I think he might have even done some homosexual stuff too."
Joey sweeps his eyes around the room.
"Pretty much what secular kids do every weekend, huh?"
Reprinted with permission from Unlikely Disciple: A Sinner's Guide to America's Holiest University, by Kevin Roose, from Grand Central Publishing. Roose, an Oberlin native, will speak about the book at Oberlin College's West Lecture Hall, in the Science Center, 119 Woodland St., at 8 p.m. April 2. For more about Roose and the book, visit kevinroose.com.