Last Sunday, TVCTV Channel 11 hosted a screening of the documentary Jesus Camp at The Flicks. The film, which follows a group of 9- to 12-year-old children as they attend pastor Becky Fischer's "Kids on Fire" Pentecostal church camp in North Dakota, has already received national attention for some of its more sensational scenes: contorted kids speaking in tongues and writhing on the ground in religious ecstasy; sobbing kids cradling plastic fetuses and chanting, "Righteous judges! Righteous judges!" as they pray for President Bush's Supreme Court appointees to overturn Roe v. Wade; scowling kids in camouflage face paint vowing to lay down their lives as God's soldiers.
But Jesus Camp has a lot more to offer than sheer spectacle. According to the movie's Web site (www.jesuscampthemovie.com), it is "a first-ever look into an intense training ground that recruits born-again Christian children to become an active part of America's political future." It's against this larger cultural context that the film becomes truly fascinating, since strategic political planning has become as much a part of the Evangelical tradition as churchgoing.
What does that mean for a nation that still at least pretends to believe in the separation of church and state? If such a separation does in fact exist, is its active erosion cause for alarm? How should atheists, agnostics, political moderates and members of the Christian left work to counteract the efforts of Evangelicals such as Becky Fischer and Ted Haggard? For anyone still in need of convincing, Jesus Camp proves one point over and over again: Right-wing Christians are damned organized, and lively as hell.
Scenes from Fischer's camp--and from the children's hometown churches and home schooling sessions--are interspersed with monologues from attorney Mike Papantonio, who often uses his Air America radio show to attack the right-wing Christian movement. Papantonio, evaluating the country's political landscape since 9/11, says that Christian extremists hijacked the federal government while liberal and moderate Christians were "asleep at the wheel." His outrage is palpable--at one point, he tells Becky Fischer that "there's a special place in Hell for people who mess with our kids"--but so is his relative isolation: Papantonio is always filmed alone behind a microphone in his studio, which contrasts sharply with the crowd of hundreds shown worshipping together at Haggard's New Life Church in Colorado Springs.
The film doesn't touch on Haggard's now-infamous fall from grace: In November 2006, after a long, successful career that at one point included regular meetings with President Bush and his advisory team, Haggard was forced to step down as pastor of his church and resign from his position as president of the National Association of Evangelicals, when a male escort named Mike Jones alleged that he'd had a three-year sexual relationship with Haggard, and had sold Haggard crystal meth. The pastor initially denied all of the charges, but eventually released a letter that stated, in part, "The fact is I am guilty of sexual immorality ... I am a deceiver and a liar."
Are we meant to hear Papantonio as a voice of reason? The directing team, Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady, have repeatedly claimed that they were striving for a purely objective tone, though some of the camera angles and music choices appear to stray toward the deliberately creepy, especially during scenes in which children are "saved." At one point, Fischer exclaims, "I love the American lifestyle!" and we are immediately shown a Missouri strip mall flanked by towering Kentucky Fried Chicken and McDonald's signs, which hardly seems accidental.
Haggard is also the only person involved with the film to have expressed public objections to his portrayal, and to the portrayal of Evangelicals as a whole. Fischer herself has publicly expressed delight in the film's accuracy.
Bias or no, it's clear that Ewing and Grady earned a miraculous degree of trust and cooperation from all of the movie's principals. Depending on your point of view, there is also abundant evidence to prove the old adage about how people will eventually hang themselves if given enough rope. In one scene, Fischer justifies the need for Christian soldiers by invoking the specter of Islamic militants, "But over here we have, excuse me, we have the truth!" she says. One 11-year-old boy, Levi, is shown at home reading from a textbook on Creationism, and his mother asks, "When has science ever proved anything?" Nine-year-old Rachel walks away from a group of African American men who have assured her that they are in fact going to heaven when they die, and do not need her informational pamphlets. "I think they're Muslims," she says. Finally, at one point the children are given an audience with antiabortion activist Lou Engle. The group stages a rally, and some of the girls wear red masking tape emblazoned with the word "LIFE" over their lips. Engle looks at 9-year-old Tory and muses, "Doesn't she look pretty with that tape on her face?"
It's impossible to leave Jesus Camp without wondering what will become of these kids, these avowed members of a generation that is to make the world ready for Christ's return. After the film, Mark Davis of Boise's First Presbyterian Church made a depressing yet appropriate point: "Why do we send kids off to fight? Because they will go."
Visit www.jesuscampthemovie.com for more information.