God Is in the Basement of the Empire State Building

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

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.

Scenes from the King's College midtown campus.Photo: Brian Finke

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.

Scenes from the King's College midtown campus.Photo: Brian Finke

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.”

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.”

God Is in the Basement of the Empire State Building