***1/2 out of ****
Jesus Camp begins like most good horror stories should—with quiet shots of everyday life that could be from any given town in the American Bible Belt. We see cars driving down clean roads, billboards advertising fast-food, people walking up and down the streets. But something isn’t quite right. The gray cloud hovering overhead indicates a heaviness that will soon sink in and take the town hostage. The ominous music doesn’t help to assure us that everything is normal. Neither does the voice on the radio, who insists that “these people” have gained control over America, “they” are corrupting our children, and soon, “it will be too late to do anything about it.” His peculiar wording instantly reminds of the crazed Kevin McCarthy of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, who famously ran up and down interstates warning of impending doom by way of alien clones. “You fools! Don’t you see? They’re coming!” he screamed. Well, no, we didn’t see them coming, because they looked exactly like us. And that’s precisely why Jesus Camp is foremost a horror story.
The voice on the radio belongs to Christian talk show host Mike Papantonio, a liberal believer who provides running commentary throughout this fascinating documentary about the Fundamentalist Evangelicals’ infiltration of America’s mind and soul. Sitting in his dark, isolated radio station while he thunders out apocalyptic warnings about the hostile takeover of America by religious extremists makes him seem very much like a prophetic voice in the wilderness, cautioning his listeners of a clear, neoconservative political agenda disguised as religious dogma. And this agenda isn't secret: “If Evangelicals vote, we determine the election,” a Fundamentalist pastor reveals late in the film, and this is consistently confirmed by polls from America’s voting booths. You know what they say about Absolute Power.
Also like the alien invaders who robbed our identities in Invasion of the Body Snatchers, what makes this agenda all the more threatening (and unstoppable) is that those who instigate it honestly believe that they are a force for good—that their extremist message is doing the world a favor instead of robbing it of its uniqueness. And it’s a message that’s catching on: The film reveals that forty-three percent of the country claims the Evangelical title, and most of them were converted before the age of thirteen.
Enter Pastor Becky Fischer, a Pentecostal children’s minister who runs the camp of the title (called Kids on Fire), which is intended to indoctrinate youth ages 5-12 into the strict religious dogma of the church. Practices at this camp include staunch anti-abortion rallies (which pastors describe to the children as the “murdering of babies” without ever really divulging into specific, crucial details), condemnation of Harry Potter (“He would have been stoned in the Old Testament,” Fischer proclaims), and bringing out a cardboard cut-out of George W. Bush that the children are instructed to bow before (in a later interview, Fischer insists that they were simply praying over the President; fair enough, though I suspect that had John Kerry won the election, his cardboard alter ego would not have made an appearance in this film). Fischer is a genius for marketing her product—we are shown invaluable footage of her in a supply room in which she reveals her various toys and gimmicks for converting children (balloons, children’s religious tracts etc.). She’s interested in saving souls and rising up strong Evangelical “warriors for God;” she recoils at the thought of children in the Middle East being indoctrinated into fundamentalist extremism, and then in her next sentence discusses her vision of teaching her pupils willingness to “sacrifice their lives for the sake of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.” She seems frustrated with the Muslims not because of the extremism that they teach their children, but because they thought of it first.
This article is not the place to offer either praise or scorn to the Fundamentalist Evangelical movement that has this country by the tail. If you are reading this review, you probably already have an opinion about it. I will only point you to the best book on the subject that I have ever read—Stealing Jesus by Bruce Bawer—and strongly, wholeheartedly recommend that you read it to understanding exactly what is going on here, and why there is reason for concern. I don’t care what you believe, but if you take the separation of church and state seriously, then you will probably find Fischer’s strategy disturbing. The film is wise enough not to make any critiques directly, so that those who agree with the minister’s position will take away from Jesus Camp whatever they’d like. For the rest of us, Fischer’s ideology speaks for itself.
Well, okay: I’ll talk a bit about the Fundamentalist Evangelical position, which to be fair does not represent the majority of Evangelicals. This way, you’ll at least understand exactly what these children are being taught. Fundamentalism’s central premise is that the Bible is the inerrant Word of God, Jesus died on the cross for our sins, and that only by accepting him as our personal Lord and Savior will we be saved from the eternal torment of Hell. They believe that Heaven’s ultimate population will therefore be slim. Fundamentalists also stress both God’s all-encompassing love and His perfect plan. You didn’t ask me, but it is the contrast between the insistence of a loving God and the previous promises of hellfire that I find the religion problematic. If a perfect, sovereign God putting forth a plan for Creation could only fathom a strategy in which only the slimmest margin of humanity would be saved from a place like Hell, then He doesn’t strike me as particularly efficient as an all-powerful Creator, let alone a source of love. Fundamentalists cite our Free Will for this contradiction, but they also insist that God is omnipotent and knows how everything is going to turn out anyway, which brings me back to the fallacy of His original plan as described by the Fundamentalists. To accept the Fundamentalist God is to accept a Creator who’s not any more competent than we are, and I find this perspective to be a little too bleak for my preference.
Fundamentalists chastise those who would point out these contradictions by stressing that our ways are not God’s, and that we shouldn’t question that which we cannot understand. But isn’t it the ability to reason creatively and logically that separates us from all the other animals? For as much as Fundamentalists stress man’s dominion over the earth, they remove our essential, distinguishing characteristic by suggesting all logical critiques of their religion comes from Satan and derives from our personal weakness to overcome his interception. I’d like to think that common sense is a gift from God, not a disadvantage from the Devil.
Fischer’s camp has at least one devastatingly heartbreaking scene in which a bright, articulate youth struggles with such questions. As children pray and lay hands on him, he tearfully admits to not always believing in God and the Bible, and we later see him curled up in a fetal position, wresting with extreme guilt and torment (that seem encouraged by Fischer) for harboring weakness that would make him doubt his faith. If you do not recognize what is happening within this poor child as blatant emotional abuse by his religious overseers, then you are wrong.
The scenes that take place at the camp are some of the most chilling that I have seen in quite a while. To watch them is to get a peak into the strategies used by those same extremists that make Fischer recoil. The children spend most of their time in a large assembly led by Fischer and various other guest speakers. These adults encourage the children to speak in tongues (angelic languages evidently whispered into their ears by the Holy Spirit), sob over the utter hopelessness of the world, and continually ask forgiveness for unspecified sins which have caused them to “backslide” from God. They are taught about the evils of abortion, homosexuality, Charles Darwin, and Harry Potter. Children perform praise songs and dances that have a decidedly militant message (“Become warriors for Christ!” Fischer constantly declares). Fischer admits that what they are doing to these children is a form of brainwashing (she prefers the term “indoctrination”), as they are being ordered exactly what to believe instead of being encouraged to think for themselves. The closest thing we get to dissention is a night when the children want to stay up late to tell ghost stories, but their adult chaperone gently counsels that “God wouldn’t like that.” They nod submissively.
As I watched these meetings, three thoughts kept surfacing in my head:
1. For as much as Fischer stresses the need to “accept Christ,” the children are never given a single word that the man taught. Christ himself has been reduced to a faceless heavenly killjoy who bears no resemblance to the great ethical storyteller of the Gospels. Of course, if the children were to study Jesus’ message carefully, they would see that he had absolutely nothing to say about abortion, homosexuality, or Harry Potter. The majority of his sermons encouraged universal compassion and nonviolence, and he specifically stressed urgency in dealing with hunger and poverty—in fact, the few times Jesus references Hell, he refers to it exclusively as a place that those who do not help the needy will be sent. If Fischer or the other guest speakers ever taught these children about the dangers of world poverty, then it was an inconsequential enough moment that Jesus Camp doesn’t feel a need to mention it. Think about that: If the children don’t know anything about the real Jesus, then who exactly are they accepting as their “personal Lord and Savior?” My theory is that is it Fischer.
2. Fischer, as damaging as she is, is not entirely to blame here. The film chronicles a few specific children who are home-schooled by their God-fearing parents; early passages briefly reveal the curriculum that the parents use, including videos that dismiss Evolution as an effective explanation for the origin of the universe. “Creationism is the only solution that explains everything,” the textbook explains, which goes on to denounce global warming as a liberal scare tactic. With an education like this being drilled into the heads of easily-molded pre-teens, Fischer’s camp doesn't create but only confirms most of these children’s daily practices. One particularly outspoken youth named Levi points out, “I accepted Christ when I was five because I knew I needed to make changes in my life.” At the age of five, did he come to this conclusion, or was this conclusion provided for him? Later, a girl named Tory, who is no older than nine, reveals her affection for dancing and says, “I have to be careful to dance for God and not for the flesh.” What exactly is dancing “for the flesh,” and where did she learn this term? Scenes revealing that she is home-schooled by her mother provide all the necessary clues.
3. A line from the similarly-themed Saved! from a few years back occurred to me. In that film, a teenager who thinks he is gay is sent to a placed called the Mercy House for “ungayification;” a sad insider says of the incident, “Mercy House doesn't really exist for the people that go there, but for the people who send them.” I wonder if the same isn’t true for Fischer’s camp. Watch the way directors Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady linger on the children’s faces in the camp and how, in the midst of their praying and sobbing, the kids will periodically glance inquisitively at the cameras. Such glances force to wonder: How much of their “conviction” is really just a performance for the cameras and for the adults who lead the camp? Scenes showing the children goofing off and acting, well, childlike away from the services hit us like bursts of oxygen after almost drowning in dark water; they are particularly insightful because they reveal how candid and un-zealous even the most serious of the children are when they are not in the presence of Fischer and her adult cohorts. The camp seems to exist more for the pride they take in their ability to brainwash than specifically for the children’s susceptibility to their aggressive influence.
By the time Jesus Camp arrived in theaters, it was practically outdated already; Ted Haggard, former head of the National Association of Evangelicals, is interviewed here just months before he was outed as a drug abuser and closet homosexual. It is difficult now not to smirk at his tongue-in-cheek comments to the camera to “repent of your secret sins,” though we chuckle more because of what we now know than for the consequences of that knowledge, which are disastrous for the Evangelical community and humiliating for poor Haggard. No doubt that at the time of this writing, he’s undergoing his own Mercy House experience, as the Association’s way of justifying its own existence (we have to save people from their sins, after all). A fleeting but crucial exchange between Haggard and little Levi occurs in the film’s closing moments, in which Haggard counsels the boy in methods for preaching. You can tell that Levi idolizes the man and that Haggard appreciates the adoration. Haggard’s words to the boy intend to point him in a path that will encourage him to grow up to become just like the evangelical minister. Now here is a prospect we should be praying over.
As for Levi’s home-schooling mother, who certainly perpetuates her son’s religious zeal, she makes her own convictions clear when she states with all sincerity: “There are two types of people in the world—people who love Jesus and people who don’t.” Technically correct, but such dehumanization of your fellow man with such simple words makes it easier to speculate where random bursts of violence like those against Matthew Shepard find their source: Every statement a child hears that separates them from an “inferior” people group is a small act of violence and eventually accumulates and takes its toll. Anyone who doesn’t accept Jesus isn’t a real person; they are “everybody else.” This notion is confirmed when Rachael, Levi’s little sister, is politely turned away by some African American men with whom she tries to share Jesus. Her solution to their disinterest: “I think they were Muslim.” Personally, I prefer Henry Thoreau's response when asked if he'd made his peace with Jesus: "I was never aware that we'd quarrelled."
Radio host Mike Papantonio provides the film’s soothing, fleeting moments of spiritual logic, and it is appropriate that the man is a dedicated Christian himself. He has to be a Christian; otherwise he’s part of the “everybody else” crowd who Evangelicals are encouraged to dismiss. For them, he’s an alternative perspective that the movie will force Fundamentalists to consider, at least for the film’s running time. For those of us on the outside looking in, he’s a comforting reminder that not all of Jesus’ followers are extremists; in fact, many are sound, tolerant, and life-affirming. I’m reminded of Martin Scorsese’s revisionist Sermon on the Mount in The Last Temptation of Christ: Jesus encourages his small group of listeners to embrace love instead of hatred; when he suggests that God will deal with injustices through compassion, the people rise up and scream, “Death to our enemies,” and dash away. Jesus tries to persuade them otherwise, tries to convince them that bigotry and intolerance is not the answer. “I didn’t say death,” he insists, “I said love!” To watch Jesus Camp is to confirm that he has been making the same appeal for 2000 years, and that it is still falling on the deaf ears of his would-be disciples.
A&E Indiefilms presents a Loki Films production. Directed by Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady. Rated PG-13, for intense subject matter involving children. Running time: 87 minutes. Original United States theatrical release date: September 15, 2006.
Questions? Comments? E-mail me: