docWhen you watch a British documentary you expect cynicism, especially when it’s about a controversial American sub-culture, all the more so if there’s a religious link.  The recent Cutting Edge documentary ‘The Virgin Daughters’, about the American purity movement, actually manages to overcome its instincts and seem sympathetic.

The program is structured around families who attend an elaborate annual purity ball in Colorado Springs, where fathers pledge to be loving and honourable, and their daughters pledge their chastity until marriage.

 From the father’s perspective, if their daughter feel loved they won’t need to go looking for male affirmation outside the home.  The daughters just seem happy to be loved, all be it in a somewhat overbearing way.

These are well-meaning people trying to clear a pathway for their children through a morally turbulent world.  There is no damning by editor, there’s hardly even any sinister music, the whole experience was quite refreshing.

As bonkers as the idea of kissing your husband for the first time on your wedding day may seem to some, and as tightly controlled as these children are, I couldn’t help but be won-over by the big-hearted sincerity of these terribly earnest Americans.

The interviewees were given just enough rope to hang themselves, and to the frustration of Times critic Tim Teeman, none of them did:

“It was not as savage as it could have been, nor as insightful. It didn’t investigate, it observed almost without any perspective – as if the camera had no one holding it. A depressingly wasted hour.”

“The retreat of God from education has left a moral and spiritual vacuum and the breakdown of any shared value system.” Tim Hastie-Smith, Chairman of the Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference said yesterday.

As a fairly liberal, fairly lapsed, British Anglican, preparing to settle down in America’s Bible Belt I can see both sides of the coin. The hole left in the individual by our national secularism isn’t satisfactorily filled by our blossoming individualism, since it lacks any unifying moral and philosophical content. To rework an old phrase, there is a God shaped hole in the heart of Britain, and for many secularism, individualism and rationalism cannot fill it, no matter how fanatical the incarnation.

Americans in the southern states are often conservative, they live more comfortably under authority than the British, and are more readily accepting of dogma, which despite being heavy on faith and light on fact, provides them with a personal spiritual bulwark and unites their communities. American schools have a thing called ‘school spirit’, an anathema to cynical Brits where there could be no more assured social suicide than cheerleading for you school, or for any other authoritative institution.

In Britain we often look down our noses at the Individualistic Americans, but we are, in many cases, more individualist than they are, since they at least have God. As a nation we struggle and chafe against anything bigger than ourselves: we have stripped ourselves of religion; of any useful expression of national pride; we routinely besmirch our fine institutions and national heroes; and gradually let our social idealism turn to greed.