It is worth making clear from the outset that Patrick Henry College in rural Virginia is not your average American university. At Patrick Henry, the students - about 75 per cent of whom have been taught at home rather than in schools - are required to sign a statement of faith before they arrive, confirming (among other things) that they have a literal belief in the teachings of the Bible. At Patrick Henry, students must obey a curfew. They must wear their hair neatly and dress "modestly".
Students must also obey a rule stating that if they wish to hold hands with a member of the opposite sex, they must do so while walking: standing while holding hands is not permitted. And at Patrick Henry, students must sign an honor pledge that bans them from drinking alcohol unless under parental supervision.
Yet these things alone do not make the college special. There are, after all, a number of Christian establishments across the United States that enforce such a strict fundamentalist code for their students.
No, what makes Patrick Henry unique is the increasingly close - critics say alarmingly close - links this recently established, right-wing Christian college has with the Bush administration and the Republican establishment as a whole. This spring, of the almost 100 interns working in the White House, seven are from Patrick Henry. Another intern works for the Bush-Cheney re-election campaign, while another works for President George Bush's senior political adviser, Karl Rove. Yet another works for the Coalition Provisional Authority in Baghdad. Over the past four years, 22 conservative members of Congress have employed one or more Patrick Henry interns. Janet Ashcroft, the wife of Bush's Bible-thumping Attorney General, is one of the college's trustees.
And this is no coincidence. Rather, it is the very point. Students at Patrick Henry are on a mission to change the world: indeed, to lead the world. When, after four years or so of study, they leave their neatly-kept campus with its close-mown lawns, they do so with a drive and commitment to reshape their new environments according to the fundamentalist, right-wing vision of their college.
Critics say that Patrick Henry's system cannot help but produce narrow-minded students with extremist views, but the college's openly stated aim is to train young men and women "who will lead our nation and shape our culture with timeless biblical values".
Nancy Keenan, of the liberal campaign group People for the American Way, says: "The number of interns [from Patrick Henry] going into the White House scares me to death. People have a right to choose [where their children are educated], but we are concerned that they are not exposed to the kind of diversity this country has. They are training people with a very limited ideological and political view. If these young people are going into positions of power, they have to govern with all people in mind, not just a limited number."
It is also worth making clear that the staff and students at Patrick Henry College are extraordinarily pleasant. The campus itself lies in the small town of Purcellville, about 90 minutes' drive west of Washington DC, amid rolling hills and anonymous commuter communities. The campus is small - there are currently only 240 students, all of them white - and dominated by one large building that houses the classrooms, library and cafeteria where the students and staff take their meals. On one wall is a copy of a famous painting of the revolutionary war hero after which the college is named, 10 years before he made the "Give me liberty or give me death" speech for which he is best known. Students are required to attend "chapel" every morning.
The college was established in 2000 by Michael Farris, who runs the Home School Legal Defense Association, itself set up in 1983 to promote the values of Christian home-schooling as an alternative to what he and others considered the increasingly secular and irreligious culture taking hold in America's public schools. Farris - a lawyer who, with his wife, home-schooled their 10 children - is a protégé of Tim LaHaye, well known in the American Christian community as a veteran conservative evangelical author and preacher.
The association has since grown in numbers and influence. It now has 81,000 families, each paying dues of $100. Last year, when George Bush signed legislation banning so-called "partial-birth abortion", Farris was one of five Christian conservatives invited to witness the act in the Oval Office. The college gets so much money from right-wing Christian donors that it operates without debt and yet charges just $15,000 (£8,300) a year for tuition - about $10,000 less than comparable institutions.
Farris, who is also the president of Patrick Henry, was unavailable for an interview when we visited his establishment, but he has told The New York Times: "We are not home-schooling our kids just so they can read. The most common thing I hear is parents telling me that they want their kids to be on the Supreme Court. And if we put enough kids in the system, some may get through to the major leagues."
The man entrusted with the education of Patrick Henry's students is Paul Bonicelli, a former staffer on the House of Representatives international relations committee and now the college's dean of academic affairs. He, too, is terribly pleasant. "I am just sorry that the most important thing we do did not get mentioned," he says, referring to an article in an American newspaper that focused on the strict behavior code. "And that is to provide a very good liberal arts education." He adds: "I think the most important thing is our academic excellence, [and that we] combine it with a serious statement about our faith and values."
Before being hired by Patrick Henry, all members of the teaching faculty, too, have to sign a pledge stating that they share a generally literalist belief in the Bible. Oddly, only staff teaching biology and theology have to hold a literal view specifically of the six-day creation story. And what is Bonicelli's own view? He smiles. "I am basically persuaded by the young Earth. I believe in six literal days, but I remain open to someone persuading me otherwise."
Internships or apprenticeships, which all students are required to do in their final year, form a major part of their courses. Many spend time working for Republican members of the House or Senate, or in the White House. Only one student has interned for a Democrat. "Most students' values don't link up with [those of] the Democrats," Bonicelli says.
"Values" are something the students here seem to think about an awful lot - values and focus. Indeed, it must be rare to find a group of students so apparently focused as those at Patrick Henry. (Perhaps they are mindful that the admissions document they sign warns that "Satan exists as a personal, malevolent being who acts as tempter and accuser".)
"It's a very focused campus," confirms Marian Braaksma, 21, a charming, third-year creative and professional writing student, who was home-schooled by her parents in Arizona until the age of 18. "We know why we are here and we want to learn everything we can here. The professors give us a great opportunity to learn. We do work awfully hard; more than most colleges."
But what about student life? What about having fun, what about those usual student experiences that one might struggle to enjoy while obeying the rule about hand-holding and walking? What about those aspects of student life that I, frankly, felt a little too embarrassed to ask about directly? "We do have fun, but it is not the sort of student life of a normal college," insists Braaksma. "There are no heavy parties, we have a curfew. But there are sports and games. It is a very musical college. We have a drama team. We also have a debate team that does very well. Mr Farris has said the debate team is our college sports team. Often we will stay up to welcome them back if they have been away debating against another college."
On a tour of the campus, we bumped into a bright young man called Jordan Estrada, from Pennsylvania. Estrada, 18, carried a book entitled Systematic Theology. He had played the part of Creon in Sophocles' Greek tragedy Antigone when it was performed recently by the drama team. He said he was interested in science fiction and wanted to be a writer.
Why had he wanted to study at Patrick Henry? "A lot of what they teach in public schools is not based in reality. I am a believer in creation," he says. Did that belief lead to a conflict with his pursuit of science? "None whatsoever. I have discussed this and spoken to many scientists and I found that there is no contradiction."
A little further on we stopped to speak to Leeann Walker from San Diego, a 20-year-old due to be among the college's first students to graduate next month. Unlike most of the students, Walker had not been home schooled, but she had nothing but praise for her friends who had. "I have found them to be some of the most responsible, most hardworking people I have ever met," she says.
Walker says she feels the college has prepared her for the real world, and that she is looking to work for one of the many conservative think tanks in Washington. "The mindset of most students is of denial of reality. They want to stay in their own, self-centered world for as long as possible."
It was at this point, walking past the single-sex dormitories and the campaign posters of suited students running for college office, towards the main building with its classrooms of attentive students, that one was struck with a sense of being on a film set. One could not help but recall the 1998 film Pleasantville, in which two teenagers are transported back to their parents' 1950s town of bland, unquestioning niceness.
The staff and students at Patrick Henry may laugh at this - if, that is, they have seen the film. The MTV and VH1 pop-culture channels are blocked from campus televisions, because their contents are considered inappropriate. The students' computers are set up with a program called Covenant Eyes, which monitors the websites they visit.
For all the warm welcomes, for all the smiles, for all the openness, there is something a little unsettling about Patrick Henry and the cultish devotion of its students. This is, after all, an establishment that claims to challenge its students to think for themselves, and yet establishes a fixed, rigid framework - both culturally and intellectually - in which they are to operate.
But, to its critics, what is perhaps most striking about this small, influential college with its self-confidence and focus, and its links with America's neoconservative political elite, is its utter transparency. Patrick Henry College is an institution devoted to spreading its word, spreading its view of the world, and helping to place its students in positions of authority and influence. And it does so in plain view.
© 2003 Independent Digital (UK) Ltd