jesus camp opens with excerpts from conservative christian radio personalities asking their listeners to think and pray “for god’s perfect will to be done” in an upcoming supreme court nomination. focus on the family dr. james dobson is one of them, as is dr. d. James Kennedy ends with a group of children protesting abortion on the steps of our Supreme Court in Washington, D.C.
What stands in the middle of this documentary attempts to prove that Christianity is little more than an effective means to a political end.
“yes, we want to reclaim america for christ”, preaches kennedy. But he’s nearly drowned out by another voice: the voice of Air America radio talk show host Mike Papantonio. As the documentary’s de facto narrator, Papantonio intersperses what ultimately appears to be the sentiments of the film’s directors, Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady. “In the pulpit, this petty message [is from] us against them,” he intones himself from the start. “And that is what the religious right in the United States is doing now; It’s dividing this country.”
Who is in charge of this division? to our great shame, they are children, says jesus camp. And much of the rest of the film focuses on a group of them being “indoctrinated” by Becky Fischer, the children’s director at the international ministry. From Christ Triumphant Church in Lee’s Cumbre, Mo., to Kids On Fire Summer Camp in Devil’s Lake, N.D., she urges them to repent, pray, worship, fast, and speak in tongues, all in an effort to deepen their commitment. to actively live outside of their faith.
adults are lazy, children are the key “children, you have to change things,” says fischer. “We have too many Christian adults who are fat and lazy. …now I want everyone to raise their hands and let’s pray in tongues.” and that’s when things start to get a little manipulative. As we watch “her children” utter unintelligible words, cry, sway, and even lie on the ground writhing and writhing, we hear her lecturing the camera, “You go to Palestine… and they are taking their children to camps like we take our children.” ”. kids to Bible camps, and they’re putting hand grenades in their hands, and they’re teaching them how to put on bomb belts. they are teaching them how to use rifles. they are teaching them how to use machine guns. it is no wonder that with that kind of intense training and discipleship, these young people are ready to commit suicide for the cause of Islam.”
Because of what we’re seeing as she says it, and because we’ve just seen the kids donning camouflage and other warlike face paint, and performing a militant-themed dance, there’s little else viewers can conclude other than what musician david byrne (of talking head fame) concluded after seeing the film at the afi/discovery silver docs film festival: “okay these are the christian version of madrasas…so both sides They’re just as sick.”
Fischer may want to see young people as committed to Christ as terrorist-minded Islamic children are to their jihad. But filmmakers David Byrne and many others see the two as synonymous. and it’s a theme that continues to resonate throughout the rest of the film.
homeschool science meets 12-year-old levi and 9-year-old rachael. These two kids get the most screen time as they travel to Camp Fischer, New Life Church (in Colorado Springs), and eventually Washington, D.C. it is through them that various secondary “burning” issues are raised. Homeschooled, Levi learns from her mother that creationism is “the only possible answer to all questions.” seem right. But when his younger brother is told that “science proves nothing,” one can only imagine how deep inside his skull David Byrne’s eyes rolled back.
Papantonius is quick to disparage creationism and intelligent design, of course. Referencing a decision in Kansas to teach “ID” in conjunction with Darwin’s theory, he scoffs, “You’ve got 600,000 kids being lied to.”
the weight of the world on their shoulders although not much time is spent on this type of “periphery”. Jesus’ camp has bigger fish to fry. Papantonio quickly reorients himself and again criticizes the concerns of Christians about our nation and its politics. “They are very tenacious and elbow their way into positions of power in America,” he warns his listeners. “Do you think you know America? I mean, do you think you know your own country? Well, I have to tell you no. there is a religious political army of foot soldiers that is being led by a political right. this is not a conspiracy of tinfoil hats. is happening.”
and once again, as if to prove his point, the camera is pointed at mrs. Fischer, Levi, and Rachael. a skeptical, sometimes sinister undertone always flows right under his words. the music of the soundtrack accentuates it. edits and sequencing also help. as are languid, almost creepy shots of rustic roadside intersections, juxtaposed with giant signs for adult bookstores and bowling alleys. So it doesn’t seem out of place at all when at one point Levi says that whenever he meets a non-Christian, “there’s always something that makes my spirit feel disgusting.”
because, in fact, much of what is shown at fischer camps and conferences seems to be designed to make children feel “gross”. the weight of the world is placed on their little shoulders (some look as young as 6) as adult leaders teach them to stand up to abortion, ungodly politicians and all manner of sin. they are taught to sing, “righteous judges! fair judges! righteous judges!” and “call and response” includes, “jesus, i implore your blood on my sins and the sins of my nation. god, end abortion and send revival to america.” To hammer out the message, hammers are handed out and children break glasses with words like “government” written on them. Fischer concludes with a stern warning: “You made a pact with God tonight, that you are going to pray to end abortion in America. don’t take it lightly. Don’t be a promise breaker. … be a history maker.”
Speaking frankly for a moment as a man who grew up in a very conservative home and went to Sunday school and church in a very conservative congregation, and who spent years as an adult studying both Christian and secular culture, I can say that as a child i was taught (as are most christian children today) that i was a sinner and in need of god’s grace and salvation. I was taught to study the Bible and apply its truths. I was taught to run away from temptation. And they taught me the golden rule. but I was never asked to take responsibility for the sins of my parents, or my congressmen. I was never told that he had to end abortion. So, on a significantly personal level, I am saddened by Jesus Camp’s efforts to try to convince moviegoers that Christians routinely beat up children with these kinds of demands. because clearly the movie is trying to claim that what you’re seeing is broadly representative and repetitive. By using the voices of Dobson, Kennedy and the like as bookends to the main “action”, he wants us to understand that the “Christian right” is unified in these kinds of ideas and ideals.
growing understanding in colorado springs, new life church pastor ted haggard, also president of the national association of evangelicals, is shown playfully interacting with the camera. off guard as among friends, he jokes, “if evangelicals vote, they determine the election. It’s a fabulous life!” but after seeing the finished film, he was far from satisfied. He wrote, “[you] can learn as much about the Catholic Church from Nacho Libre” as you can learn about evangelicalism from Jesus Camp. he continued, “it represents a small portion of the charismatic movement, but I think it demonizes it. secularists expect evangelical Christians and radicalized Muslims to be essentially the same, which is why they will love this movie.”
Ron Reno, focused on the family’s assistant to the president, said online, “The directors’ claims that they were simply trying to create an ‘objective’ film about children and the void of the ring of faith. I do not question the motives of the Christians shown in the film. In fact, the seriousness and zeal with which the young people depicted try to live their faith is admirable. Unfortunately, however, it seems that they were unknowingly being manipulated by the directors in their effort to cast evangelical Christianity in an unflattering light.”
In a moment of reflection, Rachael declares, “The churches God likes to go to are the churches where they jump up and down, screaming his name.” many Christians of good will and faith will not agree with it. and this is how it should be; it is our personalities that tend to dictate how we like to worship, not our commitment to truth. but jesus camp doesn’t want to make that point. he would rather insist that conservative Christian children are taught that debate and reason are antithetical to faith. that you can’t disagree with anything. everything is set in stone. “This means war. Are you a part of it or not?” Fischer demands.
Shortly after Rachael broadcasts what she calls a “cool” story about missionary kids singing “martyr, martyr, martyr” when their father travels on a dangerous preaching assignment, Papantonio pronounces his final apocalyptic judgment: “it’s a witches’ brew is going to take over democracy.”