For youth, for Christ and for liberty

America's bonkers Christian soldiers save a borderline-dull documentary, writes Andrew Billen


New readers start here: when you peruse Andrew Stephen's next despatches from Washington for this journal, you may hear the distant sound of a seal barking. I think I know what it is trying to say. It is asking our distinguished correspondent a question. "Andrew," it barks, "are you saying that America is as barking as I am?"

The makers of God's Next Army never actually asked the question either but, let's be honest, their documentary hinted that the answer was yes. Look no further, it suggested, than Patrick Henry College, an hour's ride from Washington, DC. It was founded six years ago by Michael Farris, a lawyer and political activist, and its purpose is to groom for high office the most brilliant sons and daughters from America's Christian heartland. The ivy has not yet grown around the Corinthian columns of PHC, but the aim, as Farris told his interviewer, is to create a Christian Ivy League college from where the nation's next leaders will be selected (rather than from Harvard, Yale, Sodom or Gomorrah). One day, he hoped, an Oscar-winner's speech would be interrupted by a phone call from his old PHC room-mate, the US president. The feminists got it wrong when they said the personal was political. It's the personnel.

A belief in God may be dumb, and yet, we must concede, it would be unfair to make it a bar to high office. But PHC is no C of E primary school. Fundamentalism, rather than Christmas carols, permeates everything. Ethics lessons are predicated on the notion that morality is set down by the Bible, international relations classes on the belief that God has chosen America to lead the world. At seminars on creationism Jennifer Gruenke, an assistant biology professor, explains away the fossil evidence - to others an indication the planet is somewhat more than 6,000 years old - by reference to Noah's flood. It is hard, in fact, to know whether PHC students receive an education at all. That they mop up in debating competitions is no surprise: the ability to argue that black is white is the essence of the art.

And the essence of politics, too. At PHC you don't just believe in God: you believe in a right-wing Republicanism; that estate tax is wrong because the Bible says "the earth is the Lord's"; that the right to bear arms is the citizen's protection against federal tyranny; that same-sex marriages are degenerate; and that abortion is an abomination. If you are willing to canvass in elections to this effect, your tutors even let you off class.

And that is the most fun you're likely to have as a PHC student. In the first week, you sign, in solemn silence, a "covenant" and "honour code" that abjure drink, drugs and tobacco (I Corinthians 6:19-20); shun obscenity, pornography and sexually explicit material (Matthew 5:27-28); and acquiesce to sex only within the sanctity of marriage (I Corinthians 6:18). The dean of student life was especially proud of the no-alcohol rule, going one better than Jesus ever did.

A sinner called Chris apologised to his fellow students for drinking and smoking. "You can't imagine," he claimed, "the self-loathing when you watch yourself becoming what you truly hate the most." Derek Archer, a parson's son from Ohio, whose first term we vaguely followed, looked horrified, but then he knew the battle between light and dark had reached a stand-off. A student called Samantha, 18, announced her goal was to "right the heartbeat of America". Another announced himself as the light and salt of the earth, "and if light is contained in one place and salt kept in the shaker I don't see how it is doing any good to anyone".

By now you may be asking where Patrick Henry College finds these guys. The answer is they are hand-bred, educated by their parents at home, a right protected by the Home School Legal Defence Association, founded in 1983 by none other than Farris himself. As a result, these allegedly brilliant students arrive at college not only brainwashed but alarmingly ignorant of life outside their homes. Derek was so excited about going on the Washington subway that you'd have thought he was on a day out to Legoland (aged ten). In DC, the GOP congressmen enthused about what great interns PHC alumni made.

Tom Hurwitz and Jed Rothstein created from this rich material a borderline-dull documentary. No one spoke out against any aspect of the college and no attempt was made to investigate its funding. If anything, it understated how hardline it is. In March, three professors left after daring to suggest students should explore sources outside the Bible. But the documentary's sobriety made its subject all the creepier. You didn't need Michael Moore or Louis Theroux to remind you to sneer.

So has America gone barking? Not quite, not yet. Despite the best efforts of PHC volunteers, the right-wing, pro-life candidate lost the contest for governor of Virginia last November. A spontaneous prayer group formed to pray for the Democratic victor's conversion. Derek, sadly shaking his head, guessed they could have made a few more phone calls (on top of the 14,000 they had made on election eve). God's Barmy Army does not give up that easily. Be very afraid for the 2020 Academy Awards, and more afraid still for that year's presidential election.

Andrew Billen is a staff writer for the TimesDown these mean catwalks a girl must mince. Rags to haute couture.

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Andrew Billen has worked as a celebrity interviewer for, successively, The Observer, the Evening Standard and, currently The Times. For his columns, he was awarded reviewer of the year in 2006 Press Gazette Magazine Awards.