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God Is in the Basement of the Empire State Building

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Scenes from the King's College midtown campus.  

The college’s main entrance, with two hip-high lion statues and three receptionists seated behind a wide desk, looks like the waiting room of an imperial dentist’s office. A chart on an easel announces the debate schedule: Ronald Reagan will battle Susan B. Anthony in Classroom 2. King’s students are divided randomly into ten gender-segregated houses, each named after a hero of modern Christianity: House of Margaret Thatcher, House of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, House of Sojourner Truth. (“Like Hogwarts!,” one student explained.) Because competition breeds excellence, the houses are regularly pitted against one another in intramural sports, art competitions, GPA contests, and debates.

In Classroom 2, students chat and drink Frappuccinos as they wait. A few House of Reagan men watch Stephen Colbert singing on a laptop. Then order is called, and the resolution is announced: “Democracy would be the best form of government in Muslim-majority countries.” Affirming the resolution on behalf of the House of Reagan is TJ Bramblett, a junior from Virginia. With his strong jaw, pomaded hair, and calm southern drawl, he reminds me of Matthew McConaughey portraying a Dixiecrat senator. “Democracy can, and should, work for the Muslims,” he says. “I think two good examples of that would be Iraq and Afghanistan.” Kristin Rudolph, a jumpy senior representing the House of Susan B. Anthony, retorts, “These people are not ready for democracy. Compromise is not a value in Muslim nations.” Two professors acting as judges nod as they take notes.

I skip the second round (“Women should be ordained as clergy”) and wander through the student canteen. It is decorated like a diner, with red pleather banquettes and chrome-sided tables. At one booth, five young women wearing lipstick bow their heads in prayer. At another, young men in shirtsleeves eat ­Sbarro pizza and argue amiably about tax policy. A miniature canon of leather-bound texts has been planted on each ­table—A History of the American People; Fourier’s Analytical Theory of Heat; the Bible translated into Bengali. Two students walk by, and one says, “If I was gonna get a tattoo, it would for sure be a C. S. Lewis tramp stamp.”

“What you’re supposed to be when you come out of King’s is an infiltrator.”

At another table, Josh Smith, a freshman, and David Dantzler, a sophomore, are continuing the discussion from Classroom 2. Though they are nearing consensus on what distinguishes extremist Islam from mainstream Islam, they pause and graciously invite me to sit. In the intellectual culture of King’s, frank discourse with outsiders is perhaps the chief virtue (the word I hear most frequently on campus is “engage”). A poster above the Red Bull vending machine reads, in part: our antagonist is our helper.

Smith tells me that, as the child of a pastor, he grew up “all over the country.” For a brief time, he called himself an atheist. Dantzler, from Arkansas, had planned to attend Samford University, a Baptist college in Birmingham, Alabama, until King’s offered him more financial aid. “I’m a Christian, but I don’t go to church much,” he says, choosing his words carefully. “I’m more spiritual.” Like many of the school’s male students, they live in a dorm on Ludlow Street that King’s shares with the School of Visual Arts. Next semester, they hope to rent an apartment together in Williamsburg.

That night, there’s an open mike in the student lounge. The entrance is located in a particularly forbidding section of the Empire State Building’s innards, near heavy metal doors marked SPLICE ­CHAMBER AND ELEVATOR PITS, but the lounge itself is recreative in the expected ways: creaky sofas, a foosball table, a spread of generic-brand cookies. One student delivers a Cicero oration in the original Latin; another sings Merle Haggard’s anti-­hippie anthem “Okie From Muskogee.” The roughly 80 students in the audience, dressed down in T-shirts and sandals, meet each act with generous applause. The overall vibe is that of a nerdy but inclusive summer camp.

Stan Oakes, the man who brought King’s to New York City, dresses like a powerful man at play—navy blazer, brown loafers, what Tag Heuer calls a “sports watch.” At 61, he employs a rhetorical strategy that is subtle but firm, doddering away from topics he’d rather avoid and ­returning to his talking points with vigor.

Oakes tells me he’s glad to meet me, though he assumes we will disagree politically. “I love talking to people with whom I disagree,” he says. “My new thing is talking to the Muslims, the ones who drive the taxicabs.” His office on the fifteenth floor of the Empire State Building affords decent views of midtown; the items on his bookshelf include a multi­volume biography of Lincoln and a stuffed pheasant.

“Everyone was all mad at me for using the motto ‘God, Money, Power’ when I started this place,” he says. “Well, what you’re dealing with is so-called religious people who haven’t actually read the Bible. I have, and the words city and economy and power are in there thousands of times. The Bible is not just about spiritual life; God wants us to know how to govern and how to create wealth, and He wants us to bring that discussion into the public square.” In the end, Oakes lost the debate: A fresco featuring the words “God, Money, Power” has been removed.


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