Jesus Camp

on September 15, 2006 by Mark Keizer
Becky Fischer, a round, middle-aged, gently forceful pastor, asks the members of her Evangelical Christian congregation to raise their hand if they “believe that God can do anything.” In the audience, a mother lifts her young children's hands into the air. It's a telling moment in Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady's fascinating and uncomfortable “Jesus Camp” because it betrays what really drives impressionable kids to believe in born-again Christian dogma: the influence and, ultimately, approval of their parents.

Ewing and Grady (“The Boys of Baraka”) follow three children as they attend Fischer's “Kids on Fire” summer camp in Devil's Lake, N.D. Levi is a wiry and confident preteen who wants to be a preacher, nine-year-old Rachael feels the divine urge to walk up to strangers and gauge their interest in Jesus, and 10-year- old Tory dances for Christ and hates the heathenous gyrations of Britney Spears.

Their time at Fischer's camp, while including the requisite summertime activities, is intended to be a training ground for the next generation of born-again Christians, charged with reclaiming “America for Christ.” Fischer wants Christians “radically laying down their lives for the gospel as they are over in Pakistan and Israel and Palestine and all those different places because, excuse me, we have the truth!" Call it the Arrogance of Certainty, but for Fischer to contend that her religion has “the truth” fails to take into account the world's 900 million Hindus, 375 million Buddhists, 14 million Jews and countless others who have their own deeply held theological beliefs.

The kids profiled are home-schooled, insuring that no other opinions or worldviews undermine their indoctrination. Levi is told by his mother that “science doesn't prove anything.” Others read books on how to win the lost, and still more watch videos from the Creation Adventure Team which, according to its website, “reveals the wonders of the six days of creation… showing that the universe is the work of God, not millions of years.”

At the camp, Fischer's captive audience is told that “the devil goes after the young. That's why we're trying to help you” and that the witchcraft-spewing Harry Potter “would have been put to death.” Considering that the average child gets scared when an everyday object throws a scary-looking shadow, why wouldn't they acquiesce when their elders claim that strict adherence to fundamentalist doctrine is the only way to avoid the Devil's wrath? The “Kids on Fire” camp also includes anti- abortion revival meetings and other gatherings that culminate in difficult-to-watch footage of children on their knees sobbing uncontrollably and speaking in tongues.

It would be easy to dismiss Evangelical Christians as religious nutjobs, relegated to practicing their faith in arid stretches of flyover country. But they're increasingly active politically. At the camp, the kids bless a cardboard cutout of President Bush, and afterwards Levi meets Ted Haggard, president of the National Association of Evangelists, who reportedly commiserates with Bush every Monday.

Ewing and Grady cover the proceedings thoroughly, although, considering the intense and fertile subject matter, it would have been hard to screw it up. They never address any broader social issues or ask any difficult questions and, while some may feel slighted in this regard, the filmmakers rightly limit their scope to the camp and its participants. The other side is meekly represented by Air America host Mike Papantonio. As a Methodist who acknowledges the importance of faith in his life, he's a good choice to undermine the argument that anyone who disagrees with Fischer and her ilk is a godless liberal who hates America. Still, as the film's lone voice of opposition, his weak showing may explain why Air America continues to have trouble gaining serious traction.

What the viewer primarily takes away from “Jesus Camp” is the triumph of nurture over nature. There's little doubt that the emerging generation of faith-based warriors are fiercely pious because their parents and their insulated environment guarantee it. Levi, Rachael and Tory are like JonBenet Ramsey except, instead of their prepubescent bodies, their parents require that they grotesquely flaunt their love of Christ and the firmness of their force-fed convictions. Directed and produced by Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady. A Magnolia release. Documentary. Rated PG-13 for some discussions of mature subject matter. Running time: 87 min
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