In his corner office, D’Souza tells me he was “flabbergasted” when he was first approached for the presidency. “I am not a traditional academic,” he explains. Although he has held fellowships at the American Enterprise Institute and the Hoover Institution, he has never earned an advanced degree or been employed as a full-time professor. But he and the King’s board shared a vision of “a school that is unabashedly Christian, drawing on smart students from around the country and equipping them to go to mainstream institutions.” He clarifies which institutions he means: Goldman Sachs, Congress, CNN. (A brochure listing jobs and internships held by King’s students in the past five years cites the Colorado state legislature, NBC News, and Morgan Stanley. Congress and CNN are not mentioned.) “If you’re reduced to handing out pamphlets at Penn Station,” he tells me, “you’re clearly extremely marginal to the public debate.”
Smith and Dantzler are on a bench in Greeley Square. Smith is speaking in quick bursts, exuding the breathless candor of a young person under the thrall of ideas. “I came here believing that society should legislate equality,” he says. “But King’s is bursting that particular bubble, I’ve got to say. Now I think, if you want to set up a socialist commune, go for it, but don’t coerce people into it.” So far, King’s has failed to instill in either young man a strict Christian observance, but Dantzler predicts another impending conversion. “I think we’re both becoming libertarians,” he says with a shy grin.
Smith and Dantzler take me to their dorm on Ludlow Street. Like dorm rooms everywhere, Dantzler’s smells of pizza boxes and unwashed socks. There is no King’s meal plan, Smith explains, so “the wealthier kids go out a lot, and the rest of us eat ramen and paninis.” (A female student later tells me that some young men at King’s have a different strategy: They gather in the women’s dorm and ask the ladies to cook for them.)
I offer to treat them to a meal at a Lower East Side bistro. At the restaurant, they squint at the menu by candlelight and ask for a crash course in French culinary vocabulary. When I ask them to describe their teachers and classmates, each uses the phrase “the smartest people I’ve ever met.” But when talk turns to D’Souza, their enthusiasm seems to dim. “I think he has some … interesting ideas,” Smith stammers.
If the board of trustees hoped a marquee conservative would help with fund-raising, their gamble could still pay off. Yet signs suggest that the King’s community may find D’Souza more divisive than galvanizing. Some King’s professors are considering resignation next fall rather than pledging allegiance to their new president. “I mean, I’m a conservative,” one tells me. “I didn’t vote for Obama. But I don’t hate him.”
Rynn Reed, a rising sophomore from Dallas with blonde hair and a nose ring, identifies herself as a progressive. “The students and most of the professors are totally smart and open to argument,” she says, but D’Souza can be too strident. “I would hate to see King’s written off as a right-wing breeding ground, but there’s definitely potential for that with him.” Another student who wishes to remain anonymous says of D’Souza, “He’d rather shout at his opponents than listen to them. That kind of aggressive rhetoric gives us no credibility and is not what I thought King’s was supposed to be all about.”
Jonathan Fitzgerald, a writer who grew up Pentecostal and now identifies as a “post-Evangelical,” was an adjunct at King’s for one semester. He was not asked to renew his contract, which he suspects had to do with the fact that he considers himself a liberal. “What you’re supposed to be when you come out of King’s is an infiltrator,” Fitzgerald tells me. “There’s a definite sense of, ‘Imagine what we could do if all the courts were Christian, if all the banks were Christian.’ You know, I grew up around people talking about ‘engaging’ the culture. What does engage mean except ‘infiltrate’?”
Last spring, D’Souza taught a seminar called “Defending God and Christianity in Secular Culture.” In the fall, he’ll bring to King’s an array of “presidential scholars,” including several theologians, a conservative economist, and a Catholic physicist. And this summer, the college will send students on trips to Turkey, China, and Uganda, where they will “engage in the competitive marketplace of ideas.”
“We are living, for perhaps the first time in history, in a society whose basic assumptions are secular,” D’Souza told the 36 members of the King’s class of 2011. “Some Christians hope to change this through bottom-up, grassroots techniques. But I’m skeptical about that approach. Consider minority groups like Jews and gays, groups whose influence far outweighs their relatively small numbers. How do they do it? By focusing on strategic institutions—finance, media, law. At the King’s College, our mission is to prepare you to go into that world. It’s, frankly, an elitist mission, which says that culture is formed from the top down. I can only hope we have given you the tools to complete that mission, the tools to be dangerous Christians.”