Jesus Camp begins with snippets of conservative Christian radio personalities asking their listeners to think about and pray "for God's perfect will to be done" in an upcoming Supreme Court nomination. Focus on the Family's Dr. James Dobson is one of them, as is Coral Ridge Ministry's Dr. D. James Kennedy. It ends with a group of children protesting abortion on the steps of our highest court in Washington, D.C.
What lies 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," Kennedy preaches. But he's all but drowned out by another voice—the voice of Air America radio talk show host Mike Papantonio. As the documentary's de facto narrator, Papantonio interjects what ultimately appears to be the sentiments of the film's directors, Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady. "Up in the pulpit, this mean-spirited message [is of] us against them," he intones early on. "And that's what the religious right is doing in the United States now; it is dividing this country."
Who are on the front lines of this division? To our great shame, it's children, says Jesus Camp. And much of the remainder of the film focuses on a group of them who are being "indoctrinated" by Becky Fischer, the director of Kids in Ministry International. From Christ Triumphant Church in Lee's Summit, 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 out their faith.
Adults Are Lazy, Kids Are the Key
"Kids, you've got to change things," Fischer tells them. "We've got too many Christian grownups that are fat and lazy. ... Now I want everyone to raise your hands and we're going to pray in tongues." And that's when things start to get a bit manipulative. While watching "her kids" utter unintelligible words, cry, sway, and even lie on the floor writhing and twitching, we hear her lecturing the camera, "You go into Palestine ... and they're taking their kids to camps like we take our 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're teaching them how to use rifles. They're teaching them how to use machine guns. It's no wonder with that kind of intense training and discipling that those young people are ready to kill themselves for the cause of Islam."
Because of what we're watching while she says it, and because we've just seen the children wearing camouflage and other warlike face paint, and acting out a militant-themed dance, there's little else viewers can conclude other than what musician David Byrne (of Talking Heads fame) concluded after seeing the film at the AFI/Discovery Silver Docs Film Festival: "OK, these are the Christian version of the Madrassas ... so both sides are pretty much equally sick."
Fischer may want to see young people just as committed to Christ as terror-minded Islamic children are to their jihad. But the 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.
The Science of Homeschooling
Meet 12-year-old Levi and 9-year-old Rachael. These two kids get the lion's share of screen time as they journey to Fischer's camp, New Life Church (in Colorado Springs) and finally, Washington, D.C. It's through them that several "hot-button" side issues are raised. Homeschooled, Levi learns from his mom that creationism is "the only possible answer to all the questions." Fair enough. But when his younger brother is told that "science doesn't prove anything," one can only imagine how far up into his skull David Byrne's eyes rolled.
Papantonio is quick to scorn creationism and intelligent design, of course. Referencing a decision in Kansas to teach "ID" alongside Darwin's theory, he scoffs, "You've got 600,000 children that are being lied to."
The Weight of the World on Their Shoulders
Not much time is devoted to this kind of "periphery" though. Jesus Camp has bigger fish to fry. Papantonio quickly reorients himself and again broadsides Christians' concerns about our nation and its politics. "They're very tenacious and they 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 gotta tell ya, you don't. There is a religious political army of foot soldiers out there that is being directed by a political right. This is not tinfoil-hat conspiracy stuff. It's happening."
And once again, as if to prove his point, the camera points at Ms. Fischer, Levi and Rachael. A skeptical, sometimes sinister undercurrent always flows just beneath their words. Soundtrack music accentuates it. Edits and sequencing also lend a hand. As do languid, almost eerie shots of rustic crosses alongside highways—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 blurts out that every time he meets a non-Christian, "There's always something that makes my spirit feel yucky."
Because indeed, much of what's shown of Fischer's camps and conferences seems designed to make kids feel "yucky." The weight of the world is placed on their slight shoulders (some look to be as young as 6) as adult leaders teach them to stand up against abortion, ungodly politicians and all kinds of sin. They're taught to chant, "Righteous judges! Righteous judges! Righteous judges!" And "call-and-response" includes, "Jesus, I plead Your blood over my sins and the sins of my nation. God, end abortion and send revival to America." To hammer the message home, hammers are handed out and the kids smash cups with words such as "government" written on them. Fischer concludes with a stern admonition: "You made a covenant with God tonight, that you're going to pray to end abortion in America. Don't take that lightly. Don't be a promise breaker. ... Be a history maker."
Speaking candidly 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 has spent years as an adult studying both Christian and secular culture, I can say that as a young child I was taught (just as most Christian kids today are taught) 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 flee temptation. And I was taught the Golden Rule. But I was never asked to assume responsibility for the sins of my fathers—or my congressmen. I was never told I 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 hit kids with these kinds of demands. Because, clearly, the film is trying to assert 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," it wants us to understand that the "Christian Right" is unified in these kinds of ideas and ideals.
A Growing Understanding
In Colorado Springs, New Life Church pastor Ted Haggard, also the head of the National Association of Evangelicals, is shown playfully interacting with the camera. With his guard down as if among friends, he quips, "If the evangelicals vote, they determine the election. It's a fabulous life!" But after seeing the finished film, he was far from pleased. 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 does represent a small portion of the charismatic movement, but I think it demonizes it. Secularists are hoping that evangelical Christians and radicalized Muslims are essentially the same, which is why they will love this film."
Ron Reno, Focus on the Family's assistant to the chairman, told Plugged In Online, "The directors' claims that they were simply trying to create an 'objective' film about children and faith ring hollow. I don't question the motives of the Christians shown in the film. Indeed, the earnestness and zeal with which the young people pictured attempt to live out their faith are admirable. Unfortunately, however, it appears that they were unknowingly being manipulated by the directors in their effort to cast evangelical Christianity in an unflattering light."
In a reflective moment, Rachael declares, "Churches that God likes to go to are churches where they're jumpin' up and down, shoutin' his name." Many Christians of good will and faith will disagree with her. And that's as it should be; it's 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. It would rather insist that conservative Christian children are being taught that debate and reason are antithetical to the faith. That you cannot disagree about anything. Everything is set in stone. "This means war. Are you a part of it or not?" Fischer demands.
Shortly after Rachael relays what she calls a "cool" story about missionary kids chanting "martyr, martyr, martyr" when their father travels to a dangerous preaching assignment, Papantonio pronounces his final apocalyptic judgment: "It's a witches brew. It's going to take over democracy."