Liberty University, Jerry Falwell’s Evangelical Christian finishing school, gathers three times a week for “convocation”, a worship service with guest speakers from all backgrounds. Attendance is mandatory, but students say the man delivering today’s sermon would have filled the 8,000-capacity venue regardless. Because today, the Ben Shapiro show has come to Liberty.

A lot of people don’t like Shapiro. His critics on the right dislike him even more than his critics on the left – “the alt-right think I’m a cuck Jew,” he tells his podcast audience. A touch of jealousy there, perhaps – Shapiro may be a bit soft for many of his rivals on the internet. What really hurts, however, is that he’s a bigger deal than all of them now. And his fans worship him.

“I don’t think I’ve ever seen someone give such intellectual and thorough arguments to everything,” says Sam Melhuish, a senior at Liberty and the son of missionaries. “I’ve talked about it with my friends – if he ran for president and he laid out a good platform and a good plan of action, I would definitely vote for him.”

One 19-year-old in line, Alex, made a 16-hour trip down from New Jersey for the chance to see his hero. “I do believe that one day, he will be president. I think if he ran against a candidate like Oprah Winfrey, he would destroy her. Joe Biden, he would destroy him.” Ben Shapiro wears a lot of hats – he is at once an author, a podcast host, a regular face on cable news, and the founding editor of a website which last month was one of the most engaged on Facebook in America. Above all, to his admirers, he is a destroyer of libs.

The officiant’s first mention of the day’s speaker prompts whoops around the arena. “I wish some of you would get that excited for the worship songs,” cracks Pastor David Nasser, as he yields the stage. Though the room is undoubtedly imposing, and while many in the crowd spent the opening minutes of the convocation fixated on their phone screens, the reception for the Daily Wire editor is a warm one: 8,000 is the biggest student audience Shapiro has ever addressed, and he enters to a standing ovation from the floor. Wearing a navy suit, a blue shirt with the collar popped, brown shoes and a yarmulke, he settles into an assured sermon on the same topics he’s covered in books and speeches for years: the importance of Judeo-Christian values, and how collectivism is incompatible with the 10 Commandments.

Shapiro is perhaps an unlikely figurehead for the young American right. A child prodigy, skilled in both violin and piano, he began his studies at UCLA aged 16, had his newspaper column nationally syndicated by 17, and was at Harvard Law by 20. This background forms a big part of his appeal for the Liberty students: as one senior, Ryan Conger puts it, “he’s stupid smart, way smarter than I am.”

Shapiro wants to talk about ‘first principles above anything else,’ he tells me as we sit down in the Green Room after his Liberty address. “Most of our politics is being done on the tip of the iceberg, and on the tip of the iceberg we’re all clubbing each other with stones. If we actually dig down deep enough then there may be some areas of agreement. It’s easy to get conservatives to agree on the founding promise – limited government, God-given rights, personal responsibility – you can get people to agree on that stuff, even if they can’t agree on what Trump tweeted about.”

The pitch for civility may surprise a lot of Shapiro’s supporters, especially avid readers of books such as Bullies: How The Left’s Culture of Fear and Intimidation Silences Americans and the pamphlet How To Debate Leftists And Destroy Them. Has Ben Shapiro matured beyond his core brand of “owning the libs”? Has he spotted a new gap in the ideological marketplace?

“One of the things that I’ve tried to do is elucidate positions, it’s not necessarily enough just to be anti-left,” he says.

“Something that’s happened to a lot of the conservative movement is that they fell in love with the ‘owning the libs’ thing so much that it became a ‘if people on the left don’t like it then it must be a good’. This was my argument against the alt-right even before the alt-right came out as openly racist. I was having this argument with Milo Yiannopoulos before Milo’s various other problems came to light. I was saying to him ‘all of this trollery, it’s easy to make the left angry, it’s easy to melt snowflakes, the question is ‘can you actually build anything in the wake of that?’”

Later, while recording his podcast, the fastest growing conservative one in the world, he sits in a debating society pose: fingers laced, shoulders square, feet placed evenly apart, legs spread far enough to upset a radical feminist. The only motion comes from his tommy-gun jaw, and the occasional flick from his plucked eyebrows.

He may be eager to maintain a distinction from the likes of Yiannopoulos and Tomi Lahren, both of whom have a big pull with young people. But his fans don’t necessarily see the difference. In line, a group of high school juniors whose dad drove them up from North Carolina tell me, “the only thing that would be better would be if it was Ben Shapiro and Milo. If it was Ben and Milo I would like die.”

Another fan was Alexandre Bissonnette, who in January last year, killed six worshippers and injured 19 others at a Quebec City mosque. Court documents in his sentencing hearing listed Twitter accounts he had been checking regularly in the month leading up to the shooting. Topping the list, ahead of alt-right figures such as Richard Spencer and Baked Alaska, and conspiracy theorists such as Alex Jones, was Ben Shapiro.

He gets animated when I raise the implication that he could be responsible for ideologically motivated violence. “This is insane. That stuff is just totally wild. I have consistently argued that unless you are explicitly calling for violence then you are not responsible for acts of violence by people who follow you. I said that about Barack Obama after the Dallas police shooting, I said it about Bernie Sanders after the congressional baseball shooting, I said it over and over and over because it is obviously true.”

“I find this completely bizarre. The idea that I’ve ever called for the killing of civilians is just fully insane. Fully insane. Fully crazy. I’ve condemned every killing of a civilian ever. What in the hell are they talking about?”

Ben Shapiro has 1.3 million followers on Twitter. But he’s only ever favourited one tweet – a 2013 message from Captain America actor Chris Evans which reads “I genuinely dislike Ben Shapiro.” It will be intriguing to watch how the man who wears a celebrity Twitter insult as a badge of honour copes with his own rising stock. But nestled here in the Blue Ridge Mountains, he has no critics to deflect. Among the Evangelicals of Liberty University, Ben Shapiro has found his safe space.

Matt McDonald is editor-at-large at Tab Media.