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God Is in the Basement of the Empire State Building

Dinesh D’Souza, the new president of the city’s only Evangelical college, wants to build a “Christian A-team.” But can the man who says Obama supports radical Muslims persuade students to follow him?

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Scenes from the King's College midtown campus, with Dinesh D'Souza at the center.  

Each spring, the King’s College, a Christian school occupying two floors in the Empire State Building, hosts a series of lectures and debates on a single theme. This year’s theme is villainy. In a windowless basement room, Dinesh D’Souza, the college’s newly installed president, is delivering his remarks to a student camera crew, two potential donors, and about 30 undergraduates. In keeping with the college’s dress code, the students wear business suits.

“I want to talk a little bit about what I call the unique villainy of Barack Obama,” D’Souza, 50, says with a grin. “In my view, it’s the villainy of nondisclosure.” Obama campaigned as a standard liberal, D’Souza says, but actually is a vehement anti-colonialist. “For Obama, the radical Muslims are on the right side of history—that’s why he is so unnaturally solicitous toward them.”

This theory, D’Souza’s idiosyncratic twist on birtherism, forms the core of his 2010 book, The Roots of Obama’s Rage, which was, like many of D’Souza’s books, both a New York Times best seller and a piñata for critics of all political stripes. Even the conservative Weekly Standard lamented the book’s “misstatements of fact, leaps in logic, and pointlessly elaborate argumentation.”

An austere young man asks, “Doesn’t the villainy of deception sort of pale in comparison to Obama’s moral villainies, such as supporting the abortion agenda or even the redistribution of wealth, stealing from the rich to give to the poor?”

“In a sense, yes,” D’Souza concedes, and later says, “Frankly, I don’t think Obama cares that much about the poor. What he cares about is bringing down the people at the top … In my opinion, Obama’s animating energies are negative.” By now the two potential donors have left the room looking ashen. Chris Ross, an employee of the college who is “facilitating” my visit by never leaving my side, winces slightly every time I write something down. As he escorts me out of the building, he says, “Remember that President D’Souza speaks for himself, not for the school.”

The King’s College is the only Evangelical college based in New York City. It was founded in New Jersey in 1938, went bankrupt in 1994, and stayed dormant until 1997, when Campus Crusade for Christ International bought the school and transplanted it into the Empire State Building. The first New York class consisted of seventeen students. Last year’s incoming class was over 200, with an average SAT score of 1810 (on par with Penn State’s). But that average may soon fall, as the college plans to double its enrollment within the next four years.

Students earn bachelor’s degrees in one of three majors: PPE (politics, philosophy, and economics); business management; or media, culture, and the arts. There is a core curriculum, which features Shakespeare, Adam Smith, and Augustine. Professors are not eligible for tenure, and all of them must sign a statement of Christian faith. CCCI still owns the King’s College. The Orlando-based nonprofit, which took in $646 million in revenue last year, began by proselytizing to students at secular colleges. With King’s, CCCI hopes to produce students who don’t need saving.

CCCI claims on its website that it “does not take positions on political issues,” but it’s no secret that King’s is as much a conservative school as it is a Christian one. The same August 2010 press release that announced Dinesh D’Souza as the school’s new president also boasted that King’s had been named one of America’s “top conservative colleges” by Young America’s Foundation. Lee Hanley, CEO of the oil-exploration firm Hanley Petroleum and a King’s trustee, told me, “We have never, ever, thought of King’s as nonpolitical.”

Most elite Western universities began as Christian institutions. This includes Oxford, whose PPE course inspired the program at King’s, and every Ivy League school except Cornell. As those schools strayed toward secularism, American preachers like Oral Roberts and Jerry Falwell established their own Christian colleges, where they hoped to shield students from the corrupting influence of modern culture. But an incipient group of “new apologists”—D’Souza chief among them—is arguing that Christians cannot change the culture by condemning it from the outside. “We don’t avoid tough issues; we plunge into them,” D’Souza said in his first speech as president of King’s. “We engage [our opponents] in a civil way, seeking to convince not only with the clarity of our reason but also by our winsome manner.” By handing the reins to D’Souza—rather than a theologian or pastor—the trustees have placed their faith in worldly punditry.

There are easier places to site Christian classrooms than midtown Manhattan, and that is precisely the point. J. Stanley Oakes, a CCCI employee who became the second New York City president of King’s, has said, “Building warriors cannot be done in a holy huddle. Our vision comes out of what it takes to compete with elite secular universities.” If the last generation of Evangelicals sought to distinguish themselves from the fallen world, the King’s College—erstwhile motto: “God, Money, Power”—recognizes that there is only one power structure and seeks to join it.


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