Jesus Camp (2006)

2006-09-15 (Limited release)

Becky really likes the film, the parents feel they were accurately portrayed. To this day, they don’t consider themselves political at all. So they take issue with the concept that they’re politically active, although we maintain that what they consider a moral life — you know, doing “God’s will” — appears political to a lot of people.

— Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady, “Fundamentalist Camp Trains God’s Little Army” (Alternet 28 September 2006)

And while I’m on the subject, let me say something about Harry Potter… Warlocks are enemies of God!

— Pastor Becky Fischer

“God bless America.” You’ve heard it a million times. Again and again, God is invoked to support an ethos, a cause, a kingdom, a population. As Jesus Camp begins, God is again asked to bless the nation, while the camera passes over the signs of such blessing: McDonalds, yellow ribbons, U.S flags, traffic. God here is called on to justify and make victorious one side in the “culture war.” “By his grace, we’re going to end it” and “to reclaim America for Christ.”

As assembled by Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady (makers of another extraordinary documentary, The Boys of Baraka), Jesus Camp poses a series of questions. Most of these are evoked in the faces of the children who attend Kids on Fire summer camp in Devils Lake, North Dakota, while others are raised by the two primary speakers, evangelical children’s minister Becky Fischer and Air America talk show host Mike Papantonio. She argues that the indoctrination of children is only sensible, because regimes like those in Palestine, Pakistan, and Israel (her examples) train their soldiers early. Because “we have the truth,” she asserts, “we” need to deploy the same methods.

While Fischer claims, “I can go into a playground full of kids and lead them to the Lord in a matter of just no time at all,” Papantonio, as you might guess, thinks this very idea is dangerous. “They have an authoritarian kinda way about them,” he says of the ministers, his voice carried over radio airwaves as the camera offers glimpses of crosses on lawns and manuals on “how to win the lost” handed to children in preparation for camp. The camp counselors see their work as basic life training, helping children to keep off drugs and street corners, showing them the correct path for their futures. The kids — some as young as six — appear eager to please their supervisors.

Framed by the nomination of Samuel Alito to the Supreme Court — which these evangelists see as a step in the fight for life and against wrongheaded abortion rights — the kids’ summer camp experience combines reading, praying, testifying, and more praying. “This is the greatest day of your life,” promises the minister, “The day you got saved.” Kids are thrilled, their faces bright and upturned. A couple of them start “speaking in tongues.” Fischer observes of one such girl, “She’s just hooking up with the spirit. She’s just staying focused.”

This “hooking up” is especially important now, says Pastor Fischer, since President Bush has “really brought some credibility to the Christian faith.” Now, she says, “We have to stand up and take back the land.” The collapsing of concepts in her thinking is all the more remarkable for its being so mundane and pervasive. The administration, the land, the national pride: all are of a piece with the newly galvanized evangelical movement, all available for association, and all wrapped up in Karl Rove’s grand planning for “appealing to the base.” While Jesus Camp allows its subjects to pronounce their faith apart from “politics,” Fischer’s explanations make clear that combinatory interests, corporate, religious, and political, are thoroughly integrated. Such integration provides grids for thinking: as one family prepares for the kids’ departure to camp, the home-schooling mother — photo of George W. Bush framed behind her — puts them in mind of why “global warming” is untrue: “Science doesn’t prove anything.”

Not that proof is especially important in faith. The camp offers a user-friendly concept of God. At the camp, Fischer asks a couple of boys she finds in a hallway, “What are you expecting God to do for you?” They’re stopped by the question, as if unsure if there’s a right answer, perhaps wondering if maybe serving God is the point here, rather than the other way around. Fischer asks again, and finally, one boy sputters, “I want God to help me meet people because I’m shy.” Good enough answer.

Levi, one of these boys, turns out to be a focus for Jesus Camp, a young man with a ponytail and a Reese’s Cups-styled orange t-shirt that proclaims Jesus’ name. He wants to be a minister, writes his own sermons (“Someone’s holding my arm while I write it”), and practices his performance on an outdoor rehearsal stage. He wants to help fix the “sick old world” Pastor Fischer has described to him, and he has plenty of verbal ammunition in the engagement she terms a “war.” “We are a generation that needs to rise up,” he asserts.

Young Victoria first appears dancing to a Christian rock band’s song. “My favorite kind of music,” she explains, is “Christian heavy metal rock and roll. But really, Britney Spears and Lindsay Lohan, I could definitely care less about them.” All they do is sing about “guys or girls.” Victoria’s father is in the military, and her mother runs a tight ship at home. Before each meal, they recite the “pledge of allegiance to the Christian flag” and “to the bible.” When Tory heads off to camp, her mother is confident that her child, “on loan to us from God,” will find her way to proper enlightenment.

Ewing and Grady frame these experiences specifically, though Jesus Camp, to some extent, allows viewers to see what they want. While some will be horrified by shots of eight-year-olds swaying and chanting “in God’s name,” looking forward to changing the world (outlawing abortion, condemning the sins embodied by gay citizens, spreading “democracy” and “Christianity” as interlocked concepts), others will see in the same image a promise for a new, virtuous, spiritually sound generation. The question is, does the lack of a pronounced position — in the mode of an activist filmmaker like Morgan Spurlock — make a film any less “political”? If you take as a starting point that any image and any subject is political, a point this film makes regarding the Kids on Fire Camp, then you might also understand that politics in itself is not the problem.

“I love being in the presence of God,” says little Rachael, who then goes on to act out the difference between “certain churches called dead churches” (sad face, no movement) and the church she likes, where you sing and shout and call for “righteous government.” As the ministers remind their congregation, “America’s supposed to be God’s nation, you know?” And with that, they pull out a George Bush stand-up: “He’s come to visit us.” Um, amen.

RATING 8 / 10