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God Is in the Basement of the Empire State Building


Scenes from the King's College midtown campus.  

In 2005, Oakes hired Peter Wood, an anthropology professor from Boston University, as his first provost. “He brought me in to build the curriculum and remodel the college as a place of high academic standards,” Wood says. But this led to student attrition, and Wood left in 2007. His replacement was Marvin Olasky, a Jewish Marxist turned born-again Christian, who, as a professor at the University of Texas, had helped gubernatorial candidate George W. Bush market himself as a “compassionate conservative.” Olasky hired more theologically inclined faculty and brought in big-name Republican speakers like Rick Santorum and Dick Armey. Though he is an outspoken conservative and a champion of the new apologists, Olasky resigned two months after D’Souza was hired.

Oakes himself briefly resigned as president in 2007 after being diagnosed with brain cancer. I start to offer my sympathies, but he protests. “Don’t worry, it was great,” he says with a sincerity that only a religious person could bring to a discussion of a life-threatening illness. “It gave me time to read and really focus on the Bible.” He returned as chancellor, but ongoing health issues have forced him to leave for good.

Oakes’s last major act as chancellor was handpicking D’Souza for the presidency. I ask him why he chose D’Souza to manage his legacy. “Well, I was going through the old Rolodex,” Oakes recalls, “and when I got to the D’s, I just went, ‘That’s him.’ He’s from India, which is fresh and innovative. I knew what people had said about him, and it reminded me of what they’d said about [William F.] Buckley. And now he’s doing this new-apologists thing—playing offense, not just defense. That was just the direction I wanted to go in.”

When we finish talking in his office, Oakes offers to escort me to the top of the Empire State Building. It is windy and drizzling on the observation deck, and we can’t see much. Still, he does his duty, pointing out landmarks in all four directions, as we wedge ourselves among shivering tourists in hoodies. We end up facing east, and we stop to watch the fog roll over the Chrysler Building. I ask Oakes if he is optimistic about the future. “You know, I’m a realist,” he says. “Do I want my ideas to triumph against the ideas of the left? Sure. But the world is imperfect. You put out there what you believe is right, and you fight for your side, and you hope one day the world moves closer to the truth.”

“A student asked me about gay marriage recently,” D’Souza tells a crowd of about 60 men in a plush midtown restaurant. “I said, ‘If you want to know what marriage means, look it up in the dictionary.’ ” Next to me, a man in a bow tie and a banker shirt whispers, “That’s what I always say!” D’Souza is the guest speaker at the monthly breakfast meeting of the New Canaan Society, a Christian men’s fellowship group frequented by financiers, and he is buttering up the crowd with talk of fighting for values and restoring capitalism’s moral standing. Among the expensively attired guests, D’Souza looks out of place in his rumpled tweed coat and baggy trousers.

Born Catholic in Mumbai, D’Souza was brought to Evangelicalism by his wife, Dixie, whom he met when he was Reagan’s youngest policy analyst and she was a White House intern. Though he was always a man of faith, he wrote primarily about politics. He left the Reagan administration and began work on his first book, Illiberal Education, a sweeping indictment of political correctness at liberal-arts colleges. (In the course of that research, he says, he used his youthful looks and brown skin to “masquerade as a [student] radical.”) From there, D’Souza’s arguments grew less cogent. In his 2007 book The Enemy at Home, he argued that “the cultural left in this country is responsible for causing 9/11.” The New York Times called the book “a nasty stewpot of intellectually untenable premises … that frequently reads like a Saturday Night Live parody of the crackpot right.”

Around that time, D’Souza developed a sideline in Christian apologetics. He joined an Evangelical megachurch, appeared frequently on Christian talk radio, and participated in public “God debates” against atheists like Christopher Hitchens and the philosopher Daniel Dennett. “D’Souza is one kind of intelligent—the smarty-pants kind,” Dennett wrote in an e-mail to me. “He is, in short, a sophist … I usually learn something important from my engagement with critics, but not in his case.”

“These New Atheists have got quite a strong team,” D’Souza tells the New ­Canaan Society. “Peter Singer at Princeton, Richard Dawkins at Oxford. And that got me thinking: Where’s our Christian A-team? The truth is, we don’t have one. So what I want to do with King’s is to keep bringing Christian scholars to New York, until you have a sort of brokerage house of Christians who can go on CNN, who can write for Businessweek—who can engage with the secular world.”


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