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Cut, Thrust and Christ: Evangelicals practicing to impinge their views and lifestyles upon the rest of the country

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02/01/2006 10:29 AM
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Cut, Thrust and Christ: Evangelicals practicing to impinge their views and lifestyles upon the rest of the country
Cut, Thrust and Christ

Why evangelicals are mastering the art of college debate.

Word Power: Liberty’s Bender wants to become a lawyer and work toward making abortion illegal

Lauren Fleishman for Newsweek

By Susannah Meadows

Feb. 6, 2006 issue - When you believe the end of the world is coming, you learn to talk fast. On a Friday afternoon the debate team from Liberty University, Jerry Falwell's fundamentalist Baptist college, is madly rehearsing for the tournament about to begin. This year's topic: should the United States increase diplomatic and economic pressure on China. They may just be practicing, but you wouldn't know it from the menacing mosquito-buzz rising as all 20 debaters read their speeches at once, as fast as they can.

Policy debate on the college level has become a rapid-fire verbal assault, an arguments-per-minute game, that sounds more like the guy at the end of the car commercial than an eloquent Oxford intellectual. There is tension and more than a little spittle in the air. The Liberty team is currently ranked No. 1 in the country, above Harvard (14th) and all the other big names. But for the evangelicals, there's a lot more at stake than a trophy. Falwell and the religious right figure that if they can raise a generation that knows how to argue, they can stem the tide of sin in the country. Seventy-five percent of Liberty's debaters go on to be lawyers with an eye toward transforming society. "I think I can make an impact in the field of law on abortion and gay rights, to get back to Americans' godly heritage," says freshman debater Cole Bender.

Debaters are the new missionaries, having realized they can save a lot more souls from a seat at the top—perhaps even on the highest court in the land. "Evangelicals have always wanted to persuade people to the faith," says John Green, a senior fellow at the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. "The new thing is that evangelicals want to be more involved in the world now.

Conservative Christian leaders would like to have a cadre of conservative Christian attorneys, who then become judges, politicians and political appointees." At Patrick Henry College, an evangelical school outside Washington, D.C.—where 30 percent of the student body engages in some form of debate—the president is so committed to producing leaders that he's also the moot-court coach. Baptist Cedarville University in Ohio just tripled its budget for debate scholarships.

Falwell's school, in Lynchburg, Va., pours a half million dollars into the debate program every year, with the goal of eventually flooding the system with "thousands" of conservative Christian lawyers. "We are training debaters who can perform a salt ministry, meaning becoming the conscience of the culture," says Falwell, who is also hoping the team will elevate the humble academic reputation of Liberty itself. "So while we have the preaching of the Gospel on the one side—certainly a priority—we have the confronting of the culture on moral default on the other side."

The Liberty squad, which can spend 40 hours on debate prep the week of a tournament, is by far the most successful of the evangelical debaters. And among their secular opposition, they're widely respected—notwithstanding the times they've quoted dubious sources, such as PatRobertson.com. But part of the reason Liberty is at the top is that it hits as many tournaments as it can, racking up the points that determine national rankings. While the powerhouses like Harvard and Northwestern concentrate on nabbing the prestigious varsity titles, Liberty is competitive at all three levels—varsity, JV and novice. "They're tough. [But] we're not afraid to debate Liberty," says Harvard coach Dallas Perkins Jr., whose varsity team was beaten by Falwell's last month.

Karl Rove was impressed enough by the squad that he tapped Liberty coach Brett O'Donnell to prep George W. Bush for all three presidential debates in 2004. O'Donnell briefed the president on his nonverbal tics. "They didn't listen to me until after the debacle," says O'Donnell, of Bush's awkward first debate performance. O'Donnell, who recently started his own consulting business, has already been contacted by two potential Republican candidates about the 2008 race. If all goes well, maybe he'll get some business down the road from some ex-students.

Correction: In the original version of this report, NEWSWEEK misquoted Falwell as referring to "assault ministry." In fact, Falwell was referring to "a salt ministry"—a reference to Matthew 5:13, where Jesus says "Ye are the salt of the earth." We regret the error.

[link to www.msnbc.msn.com]