God's Precinct Walkers

Derek Archer's tall frame was squeezed into the backseat with another freshman, his online Bible out on his lap. The pastor's son with the freshly combed blonde hair was heading down to Virginia Beach to campaign for Jerry Kilgore, the 2005 Republican candidate for governor. As they saw it, Kilgore needed their prayers and hard work: Virginia Lt. Gov. Timothy Kaine had caught up to Kilgore over the summer, and now polls showed them even.

A child of missionaries who'd settled in Akron, Ohio, Derek, like many of the students at Patrick Henry College (PHC), had been homeschooled all the way through high school. Although the college was only six years old, Derek had chosen Patrick Henry because he knew about its reputation as a feeder to White House internships and as the perfect place to pursue " the ministry of political activism," as he called it.

Patrick Henry College is located in Purcellville, Virginia, an hour outside of Washington, D.C. As the students drove away from campus the roads were clear, so it was not the traffic that was annoying the driver, junior Shant Boyajian, the former head of Patrick Henry's College Republicans.

"I read that President Bush is coming to speak for Kilgore," Derek said.

"Yes, well, that can be a sign that the campaign is in trouble," Shant pointed out. " And last time Bush came, Kilgore did not even want to be seen with him."

This did not compute with the freshmen. Not want to be seen with Bush? Who would not want to be seen with Bush?

"The Lord will provide," Derek said. " The Lord will provide."

Shant answered with a resigned, " yes." Later, when he was out of the car where the others couldn't hear him, he seethed. " I wish they would stop with that crap: They're all like, ‘God is on our side, God is on our side. We can do everything.' I mean, I know it's terrible, but I'm just trying to be more realistic. I mean, maybe I'm being cynical or something, but I don't want to lie."

When he opened Patrick Henry College, founder and president Michael Farris traveled the country recruiting conservative Christian kids like Derek who were bright, politically minded, and itching to be near the president. The school would enlist the purest of born-again Christians in a war to "transform America," he told his recruits, by training its students to occupy the " highest offices in the land."

Farris' timing was perfect. Christian conservatives were poised to move from a protest group to a permanent part of the Washington scene. Their man was in the White House; a third of all congressmen defined themselves as evangelical. In the school's short life so far, Farris' students would see evangelicals at the peak of their power -- in the 2004 election year -- and in disappointing decline two years later. But unlike previous generations of fundamentalists, they were never going to retreat.

They were the children of Ralph Reed, the first head of the Christian Coalition -- ambitious, entitled, and fearful, above all, of being irrelevant. They were determined to form the new evangelical establishment, and Farris was going to get them ready.

Now, Derek and his teammates were undergoing a Patrick Henry rite of passage -- grassroots organizing. Much like fraternity hazing or basic training, every campaign gives you more hair on your chest and bigger bragging rights, pushes you from tender young thing into impatient veteran. The kids start near home, working on races for school boards or state legislatures, and eventually graduate to Senate or presidential campaigns. By the time they get to Patrick Henry, they can compare histories in shorthand: "I did a bunch of lit drops in '04," or "I was on GOTV in Ohio."

By junior year, the political junkies of PHC have picked up the habits of Washington insiders, including their irritability. Shant sported the trademark of a Patrick Henry rebel: the trim goatee, a gentle nod to the demonic. He talked about Derek and the other freshmen the way one imagines George Bush's advisers talk about James Dobson and the other titans of the Christian right once the microphones are turned off: "nuts" and " goofy" -- something David Kuo, second-in-command of Bush's Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, describes in his tell-all book, Tempting Faith. It's not that Shant and Derek disagreed about candidates or policy positions or even matters of faith. It's just that Shant had a checklist to get through and state party professionals to answer to, and only three days to get everything done, so he didn't have time for the happy-happy praise-the-Lord talk. "I don't have a problem manipulating them to get them to do what I need them to do for this campaign," Shant said. " Maybe, eventually, they'll learn something."

The PHC students arrived in Virginia Beach in the evening and drove to a Comfort Inn at the end of a strip mall. Inside, a cheerless forest-green and maroon two-room lobby had been transformed into an impromptu war room crowded with about 200 high school and middle school kids from Generation Joshua, a group founded to involve homeschoolers in politics. For the next three days they would serve as the flunkies' flunkies, doing the bidding of their Patrick Henry elders. For the high schoolers, it was a civic-education field trip. For the Patrick Henry students it was a test run at leadership -- the local party officials were actually counting on them to get out the vote. At 11 p.m., in this distant corner of Karl Rove's empire, no one showed any signs of flagging.

In a speech at the American Enterprise Institute after the 2000 election, Rove said that the president had lost the popular vote because fewer than expected "white, evangelical Protestants" had come to the polls. During the off-year in 2001, a handful of races did a test run of the "72-hour task force," an organized grassroots get-out-the-vote campaign. One of Rove's principal strategies for victory in 2004 was to combine these two election strategies. He mobilized evangelicals, and he put them to work in 72-hour task forces. On Election Day, four million more evangelicals voted than in 2000, a margin Rove often credited for Bush's victory.

From their inception, both Generation Joshua and Patrick Henry College served as satellites of this Republican get-out-the-vote operation. Gen J, as it's known, was launched officially in 2004, although it existed in other forms for several years before that. In 2001 Patrick Henry students participated in Rove's Virginia experiment. They worked on Mark Earley's race for governor. Earley lost, but the strategy worked in the lower-profile races.

In 2004 Gen J paid around $60,000 for hundreds of homeschool kids to work on campaigns of mostly conservative Christian candidates, coordinating closely with the Republican Party hierarchy. The group is run by Ned Ryun, a former presidential writer for Bush and son of former Kansas Rep. Jim Ryun. Its offices are on the campus of Patrick Henry and their philosophies are identical: "to ignite a vision in young people to help America return to her Judeo-Christian foundations," as Gen J's mission statement reads. The Gen Jers are the evangelical version of child soldiers, armed with clipboards instead of guns.

In 2004 Derek had been right down there with them, a Gen-J kid working the Bush campaign in Ohio, having his mom drive him around, and being told by some college kid what to do. This time he was on the other side, a team leader with his own group of high school students to manage.

"It's like a whole paradigm shift, from being told what to do to taking charge. I don't really feel older, but my responsibilities are a whole lot different. I've been given a position of authority, but it hasn't really sunk in yet. I still kinda feel like a kid."

The van ride the next morning was rocky at first. The maps were faded, and they didn't seem to track the streets perfectly. Everyone was wishing they had access to MapQuest. At some point Derek called his mom and she said, "I'm praying for you." Derek seemed greatly relieved at lunchtime. No one had gotten lost and everyone had food, and he could sit and just be one of the kids eating tacos and sucking on strawberry Blizzards.

When they got back to the hotel in the late afternoon, the other team leaders from Patrick Henry were buzzing around the war room. Kyle, Shant, and Amber, a blond, blue-eyed Republican press-secretary-in-the-making, seemed as if they had been born with clipboards in their hands. "Listen up," they said, and their tired team members sat up straight. Young as they were, they'd already participated in the making of history, helping usher in a right-wing revolution in American politics. Their stripes were their T-shirts, mementos from the campaigns they'd worked on: Thune '04 and Coburn for Oklahoma and Women for Bush! Some had worked on successful races in 2004, when a critical mass of outspoken, ambitious Christian conservatives won seats in Congress: Jim DeMint and Bobby Jindal and John Thune and John Hostetler and Tom Coburn.

After church that afternoon the PHC students drove to church parking lots to put flyers in car windows. Derek was pleased. Earlier that week he'd seen Kilgore at a campaign rally. The candidate had given his standard stump speech, calling himself a "pro–gun owner, anti-tax, limited government, anti–illegal immigration, pro–public safety, trust-the-people conservative," and labeling Kaine a "typical liberal" who couldn't be trusted with the state's death-penalty laws.

But Derek felt something was missing. "He mentioned the culture of life briefly, but I wished he would talk about his pro-life stance more," he said. "Kilgore is very pro-life. Kaine is not whatsoever." Kaine had made his faith a central part of his campaign strategy. He had talked about growing up a devout Catholic, and how a mission trip changed his life. In a pro–death-penalty state, he rejected the practice because his faith demanded it. But Derek didn't take this into account. He called him "very very very liberal," and the church flyers echoed his thoughts: " LIBERAL TIM KAINE: Supports abortion without restriction. Opposes a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage. Supports gay adoption. Believes the effort to place the motto ‘In God We Trust' in schools is ridiculous."

The first stop went without a hitch. Derek and the others rushed out and placed the flyers under windshield wipers. At the second stop, they ran into trouble. One of the deacons saw them drive up and came out a side door. "We'd really rather you didn't do this on a Sunday. We're worshipping in there. We'd like a break from all this."

The kids apologized, removed all the flyers, and got back in the car. Kyle was a little annoyed. In a good operation, the campaign would have called the pastor or the assistant pastor to let them know they were coming "but the RNC must have called the secretary or something." Derek was more puzzled. It had never really occurred to him that a church would consider campaigning and worship to be at odds with each other; in his mind, they served the same purpose. Now he could see, "it's rather controversial."

After a day in charge, Derek had cemented his role, and now his team was lost without him. "I need to talk to Derek. Where is he?" one 15-year-old boy asked, roaming the lobby. At that moment, Derek walked out of the elevator, in a flannel shirt and jeans, with his gangly Jim Carrey walk, but in control. "Yes, I'm the team captain. I have the maps." Kyle and Amber and Shant had been up all night strategizing. Kyle, who looked like a pinup boy on a good day, was looking pale and ragged, with a three-day growth and flip-flops. Amber was sick, too sick to drive. The rental-car agreement stipulated that a driver must be at least 21, and there was only one such person available: me. Amber handed over the keys.

Mothers of older kids have always told me that driving your kids around affords a unique opportunity for spying because they talk to their friends and forget that you're there. This piece of wisdom turned out to be true. Six hours of uncensored backseat talk (no radio, because you never know what might come on) gave me a window into the mind of the homeschooled child. Here is the secret file: They love George Bush so much they sometimes dream about him. They also love The Princess Bride and The Incredibles, a Pixar movie about a race of domesticated freaks trying to pass as normal who save the planet. On public schools: "Don't get me started. They teach you that kids are descended from monkeys and a godless view of history. No wonder they live such a degraded lifestyle. That's really not something I want to be exposed to right now." On extracurricular activities: "I socialize with the heathens on my swim team." On college: "I want to go to Cornell. Have you heard of it?"

"Yeah," answered one boy. "I heard football players get really drunk and they almost, like, rape the girls."

During the long stretches of driving, they got a little naughty. One girl suggested ripping down some Kaine signs that were stuck near a highway overpass. ("Let's not and say we did.") They gossiped, but the news was slightly out of date: Britney is "pretty much a slut" and "Jennifer doesn't want a baby." And "that girl with Tom Cruise, she's pregnant." When we got to McDonald's, they perked up because they got to watch CNN. (Gen-J rules allow Fox News only.)

One time I looked in the rearview mirror and was shocked to see a girl leaning her head against the boy seated next to her. What should I do? Pry them apart? Tell their moms? And then I put the clues together: They were brother and sister, and four of the others were siblings, too. When the girl lifted her head, she asked, "Is playing spin the bottle, like, illegal?"

When we got to a designated neighborhood, they launched with Von Trapp efficiency. Someone would open the van door, and then Derek or another team leader in the car yelled, "This is it! Go for smiles! Go for Christ!" and the blitz was on. They ran out -- yes, ran -- to their assigned houses. From a distance, the scene must have looked like a heist. By nightfall Derek was exhausted, but he worked himself up for one more round of phone banking.

On Election Day, it was Derek's turn to give the troops a pep talk. Before he talked he jumped up and down like a pogo stick to shake out his excess energy. He began with a parable from Luke that Jesus told to a restless crowd. A king wants to test the loyalty of his subjects by asking them to invest his money. Those who fail to invest he punishes. The one who invests wisely he rewards with rule over 10 cities.

The day before, the 200 kids had knocked on 5,337 doors and made 1,400 phone calls. "What we're doing here is grassroots work, knocking on doors and the like, and it might not seem significant, and it might seem boring. But God wants you to be trustworthy, to be faithful in the small things. If you're not faithful in the small things, God won't trust you with the big things. If you're not faithful in the small things, when it comes time to say, ‘Hey, I want to be president of the U.S.,' God will not give you those things.

"So let's knock on those doors and make those calls, okay? Now let's pray …" Because the kids didn't listen to the radio, they didn't know anything about the polls, and missing a few hours of sleep had made them light-headed. They stood by the side of the main road holding campaign signs, singing, doing the wave, yelling, "Vote Jerry Kilgore! Have a Blessed Day!" and hoping the truckers honked.

In the afternoon, they did one last stretch of calling: "Only a few hours left," Derek said. "Give it all you got." By 6:30 the lady in charge told them to quit because the polls were about to close. "I'm almost done with this page, ma'am. May I finish it up?" Derek went on for about 15 more minutes. "Now we go to the victory party. And it will be a victory party, God willing."

Derek rode with a Patrick Henry junior in an old Dodge for the hour drive to Richmond; fortunately the radio was broken, so they couldn't be tempted to listen to exit polls. As they climbed the stairs to the main hall, the kids trailed Derek like a pack of puppies.

"I hope we win," one boy said.

"Absolutely," Derek answered.

"Amen."

"If God wills it."

"It's all up to Him."

Upstairs the trappings of a Republican frat-style victory party had been laid out: orange balloons, beer, wine, martinis, no food. People were drinking but they were doing it grimly, huddled in corners. Many were sitting down and talking on cell phones. One little kid was already asleep under a Kilgore sign. The Gen-J kids didn't notice the subdued atmosphere. They charged in from a side door, yelling, "Kil-gore! Kil-gore!"

Derek did not join in, but he didn't stay outside with Kyle and Shant, either. He stayed at the edge of the group chatting with some old Gen-J friends. I asked him about the race but he didn't want to talk. "Do you mind asking me when it's more concrete?"

At 10 p.m. Fox called the race; with 88 percent of the vote counted, Kilgore had lost, 46 to 51.6 percent.

"Yes, ma'am."

"We lost, ma'am."

On the three huge TV screens at the front of the room, the Fox analysts had launched a postmortem designed to break Derek's heart. They were saying that the race was the most closely watched of the election season, that it meant "the Bush magic is over," and that "Bush is at the lowest point of his presidency." They were already predicting that "the Republicans can see their own doom," and they would probably lose control of Congress in 2006. They were saying that Bush's favored strategy of "mobilizing conservative voters by dividing the electorate on hot-button cultural issues failed." They were saying that Kaine proved a "Democrat can talk about his faith and make an enormous difference," and that in the future other Democrats could "win back the faith vote." They were saying that Derek's formula for understanding the world was no longer making sense.

But Derek was not listening. He had been swept away on one of those oceans of prayer that sometimes overtake Christians in hours of desperation, confusion, and need. They stood close, in circles of 20 or more, eyes closed and bodies pressed against bodies, nobody worried or noticing. They held each other up as if they were in a mosh pit. There was no leader or obvious direction, but the words flowed smoothly, coming from here, now from over there, like waves of light:

"Dear Lord. Please help us to understand. We campaigned with all of our hearts for Kilgore. Please help us to get over this."

"Lord, please help us to learn from this, to understand."

"Lord, regardless of who wins, You are in control."

"Yes, Lord, it's not about Democrat or Republican. We are working for You. Whoever You put in office, that's in Your control."

"Lord, You have Your reasons. I just pray You help us accept that."

Later, much later, when he had opened his eyes again, Derek began to work through it. " I don't think I approached this race with quite the same sincerity as I did last year. Last year I took it more seriously. I prayed a lot more.

"If I look at it through my eyes, I say, ‘Oh no, oh dear.' But God has His own plan," he said, and quoted an eighteenth-century Lutheran hymn:

Blind unbelief is sure to err

And scan His work in vain;

God is His own Interpreter,

And He will make it plain.

Outside the ballroom, Kyle had already moved on and was outlining a paper on Aristotle. Shant was pacing, wishing he went to a different school so that he could drink. Derek stayed inside with the kids; one of them had turned 16 that day, and he wanted them all to sing "Happy Birthday."

Kilgore's loss was the students' first lesson in the confusing realities of politics. What did it mean that the man they thought God had chosen had lost? What were they supposed to understand from that defeat?

In the 2006 midterm election, Derek placed his hope in Republican Kenneth Blackwell, an African American former football star with a preacher streak who was running for governor back in Derek's home state of Ohio. To Derek, Blackwell was a dream candidate. At church rallies, Blackwell talked about "forces that were running God, faith, and religion out of the public square."

But it happened again: Blackwell lost by 23 percentage points. Other titans of the Christian right lost that year as well: Rick Santorum in Pennsylvania, Jim Talent in Missouri, Jim Ryun in Kansas. Bush's approval ratings plummeted to record lows. In the months after the election, Derek acknowledged a fact he'd long avoided: Republicans were not all good Christian men. There had been the scandal involving Republican lobbyist Jack Abramoff and House Majority Leader Tom DeLay. In March 2007 Derek was shocked to hear Newt Gingrich, one of his heroes, admit to having had his own affair while he was fighting to impeach Bill Clinton for lying about Monica Lewinsky. "I've become in some ways disenchanted with national politics," Derek told me when I caught up with him this spring.

A historian of the Christian right might perk up at the phrase "disenchanted with national politics." In the past, Derek's sentiment would have been a sign that evangelicals were about to go back into the wilderness, that we could soon expect to hear a modern-day evangelical prophet telling his flock to drop out of mainstream culture, to see a boom in the homeschooling movement and a dip in the number of Bible-quoting politicians.

But this time around, the cycle is unlikely to repeat itself. Evangelicals are far too entrenched in American politics and culture to drop out en masse. It took the conservative political movement 30 years to become a fixture in American politics, and it has taken evangelicals about the same amount of time. Like conservatives, evangelicals may remain chronically ambivalent, afflicted with a persecution complex despite their obvious successes. But they now control enough interest groups and think tanks and state and federal offices and movie-production companies to employ bright Christian interns for generations to come. They are secure enough in their power to know that they can respond to trying times without falling apart as a movement.

Much as I marveled at the Patrick Henry students, I doubted that any of them -- not even the most rebellious of the campus rebels, not even the least conservative kid there -- would ever moderate their views enough to win my vote -- not for president, congressman, or even city councilman.

Toward the end of my reporting, my recalcitrance began to bother the students, and I could feel their frustration. After two years of long, intense, often personal conversations with me, they hadn't managed to move me much. Much as I hated to disappoint, I remained constitutionally incapable of the modern conservative Christian's brand of certainty. I just feel more at home with the God of what they call the Old Testament, merciful one moment and cruel the next, but fundamentally unpredictable. To me this is much closer to life as we live it.

"Intellectual suicide!" one Patrick Henry graduate warned me. But underneath the arrogance, there must have been some concern for their own predicament: If they couldn't take back one friendly reporter, what about the rest of America?

This article is excerpted from God's Harvard, © 2007 by Hanna Rosin. Reprinted by permission of Harcourt, Inc.

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