Religion and Spirituality

Stew Milne/AP
Kevin Roose, Brown University senior and author of "The Unlikely Disciple."

Undercover Student Author Infiltrates Christian School for Book

April 24, 2009 11:00 AM
by Ellen Shapiro
Kevin Roose took a semester off from Brown University to infiltrate Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University. His new book chronicles that experience.

Author Undercover

When Brown University sophomore Kevin Roose decided to spend a semester at Liberty University, Jerry Falwell’s “Bible Boot Camp” for young evangelicals, the English major and budding journalist knew he’d be crossing a great divide. As the son of liberal Quakers attending one of America’s most free-spirited schools, Roose was hardly the “young Champion of Christ” that Falwell envisioned for his student body. At Liberty, he could not smoke, drink or dance—and he prepared for the ban on cursing by consulting the Christian self-help book, “30 Days to Taming Your Tongue.”

It wasn’t long before Roose blended right in: attending classes on creationism and the evils of homosexuality, trying to convert partiers while on spring break at Daytona Beach and checking out  “Every Man's Battle,” Liberty's support group for chronic masturbators.

What he wasn’t telling his new friends was that he was surreptitiously taking notes for his planned book, “The Unlikely Disciple: A Sinner’s Semester at America’s Holiest University.” Published last month and called a “vivid, sunny and skeptical portrait of life among the saved” by The New York Times, the book is hardly a sledgehammer in the cultural war between secularists and evangelicals. “This is not an expose,” Roose told the Brown Daily Herald, “It's not pro-Liberty, but it's not anti-Liberty.”

But is what he did ethical? Roose admits that he felt a lot of guilt while hiding his secular background from Liberty classmates, especially as his friendships solidified. “I was really dreading the day I would have to tell them what I was up to. It was hard. It was excruciating.” On the other hand, Roose’s ruse has introduced many secular readers to a world they would not have otherwise experienced. “Real people are never as simple or unambiguous as the ideologies we choose to adopt,” he wrote in the Brown Alumni magazine, and in the Brown Daily Herald he noted, “My Brown friends and my Liberty friends would have a lot in common even though they would disagree about just about everything.”

Background: Extreme makeovers and minor deceptions

Kevin Roose joins a long list of journalists who have gone undercover to get compelling stories. In 1884, Nellie Bly posed as an insane woman and wrote articles for the New York World that brought reform to the city’s health care policies. John Howard Griffin created a sensation when he dyed his skin and passed as a black man for his groundbreaking 1961 book, “Black Like Me.” In “Nickel and Dimed,” Barbara Ehrenreich exposed the harsh lives of the “working poor,” and Norah Vincent transformed her sexual identity for “Self-Made Man.” On the lighter side, George Plimpton wrote “Paper Lion” after he posed as a wannabe pro quarterback; it was one of many books he wrote about his incarnations as various “professional” athletes.

Opinion and Analysis: Is undercover journalism ethical?

Kevin Roose claims that his friends at Liberty U. “forgave” him when he confessed his deception. But many question the ethics of such undercover methods, claiming there are no clear standards and are often invasions of privacy. The Washington Post media reporter Howard Kurtz wrote, “No matter how good the story, lying to get it raises as many questions about journalists as their subjects.” But other journalists claim that undercover journalism is a time-tested method of getting at the truth when other methods fail.

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