To say this DVD reviewer has his experience with evangelical Christianity is putting it mildly: I was saved at Billy Graham’s Philadelphia crusade stop in June 1992, swept in a wave of aching joy as I clambered onto the Veterans Stadium turf to receive a born-again’s blessing.
Since then, I’ve sat on evangelical ministry boards, prayed backstage with Christian rock bands and forged strong bonds with ministers who continue to guide my faith life. Yet many aspects of evangelical culture alarm me — from the ultra-right wing tilt of some leaders to the type of indoctrination that turns wide-eyed kids into jargon-spouting soldiers in a winner-take-all revival to “take back America for Christ”.
That is why anyone with an interest in America’s faith climate should pick up Jesus Camp. The documentary depicts the action at a North Dakota summer camp where Pastor Becky Fischer trains young troops in “God’s army”. Among her stock tools: a cardboard cutout of President Bush — not unlike some graven image — used to inspire children to pray for the conservative commander-in-chief.
We spoke with filmmakers Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady about their film, which has received high marks for its impartiality and level-headed presentation — a feat not easy given some of what Ewing and Grady saw unfold.
Were there moments when you felt like storming from behind the camera and scolding Fischer for what she was putting these children through?
Ewing: It doesn’t do anyone any good for a documentarian to be faint of heart and be storming out of the place, because we wouldn’t get the story we set out to tell — the one that would make you mad. Plus there’s the protection of the lens; there’s a scene unfolding that will never, never happen again and your only purpose is to capture it as it happens. Obviously it was alarming; neither one of us had been raised in evangelical homes, so a lot of it was disorienting and a nightmare at first — especially to shoot these revival meetings. But once we got past the initial shock, we tried to understand what was really going on. That emotional response? There’s no place for it. A lot of the emotional material we processed in the editing room, and we’d see a scene with a child that would totally break our hearts.
What most surprised you during the making of the film? Was there a big revelation?
Grady: It forever changed the way I look at this country. Having spent the last 30-plus years on the East Coast — in Washington, D.C., or New York — thinking people have the same worldview as me is totally ignorant. I had not grasped the range of differences and furthermore, we’re actually the minority. We live in a very sheltered bubble, being in big cities. I’ll bet you could go an hour and a half outside Chicago and find a church just like Becky’s. And I didn’t know that before.
Ewing: Having been raised a Catholic, I didn’t realize that there was this huge theological difference between the Catholic Church and the born-again Christians: Even being baptized, I’m still considered a sinner and going to hell! This is a different kind of Christianity with different kind of rules.It was also interesting for me to learn that this is a club, and there are certain things you have to do to enter this club. I got the sense that they didn’t really approve of Catholics or other Christians — to me, a Christian’s a Christian’s a Christian and I had gone to Catholic school. I thought I would be on solid ground. But I was on shaky ground, on quicksand.
Other than current issues of American politics and religion you examine, what larger points does this documentary try to drive at?
Grady: There are things in the film that are universal and will be relevant for centuries to come. The most blatant one would be the issue of separation of church and state — and why it may or may not be necessary. We saw that very clearly when (Denver evangelist) Ted Haggard fell so hard (in a sex scandal); his failings created sufferings for the evangelicals, his parishioners, his family — as well as the Republican Party.