Jesus Camp

May, 2006, Documentary

Directed by:Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady

Starring:Becky Fischer and Mike Papantonio

Concepts create idols; only wonder comprehends anything.

Gregory of Nyssa

A religion that is without theology quickly becomes fundamentalism as is begins to interpret Scripture in a literal way, full of cultural bias

Sebastian Moore

Becky Fischer of Lee's Summit Missouri is a formidable presence; possessed of a battleship physique and exuding the supreme confidence of a self-satisfied zealot, she's pastor of a fundamentalist Christian church in a suburb on the east side of Kansas City and principal recruiter for Kids on Fire, a summer camp in North Dakota dedicated to the indoctrination of prepubescent children destined for leadership roles in the growing ranks of America's loosely affiliated evangelical churches. By permitting filmmakers Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady, (The Boys of Baraka) to document life at the camp and then delve more deeply into the lives of three of its more impressionable campers, Pastor Fischer and her colleagues provide a riveting if narrowly focused view of the most rapidly growing religious movement in the United States. 

Camp examines 12 year-old budding preacher Levi, decade-old Tory, (whose ambition is to dance for God and not "for the flesh") and 9 year-old Rachael, an ebullient youngster who's already practiced in proselytizing total strangers with her sunny smile and religious pamphlets. Each is home-schooled by parents confident that (1) Darwinism is false and that (2) they're better able to equip children for adulthood than can either the public or parochial education systems. This trio, and dozens of other impressionable kids are encouraged at the Kids on Fire camp to speak in tongues, publicly confess their sins and summon the courage to become "warriors for God". Convinced that America is in the grip of godless secularism and revering President Bush, (present in the form of a life-sized cardboard cutout) for appointing Supreme Court justices who will reverse Roe v. Wade, (the film was shot during the confirmation hearings for Judge Alito) the camp's staff provides the children with a mixture of leisure activities and revival-style Pentecostalism designed to equip them with the feeling that they're part of a special generation The Almighty has chosen to lead the U.S. back to the right path. The only thing more frightening than the hysterical acceptance of this regimen by the kids is the fervor with which their adult supervisors deliver it. 

Side trips to Washington D.C., (focusing on a pro-life demonstration outside the Supreme Court) and to a mega-church in Colorado Springs, (where the kids encounter gimlet-eyed pastor Ted Haggard, whose barely concealed contempt for those filming his sermon hints at the aggressive intent behind much of the movement's conflation of religious belief and public morality) suggest that the filmmakers found Levi, Tory and Rachael such perfect symbols of the movement that the film could make its case most effectively by showing them in circumstances beyond the camp's immediate reach. In doing so, Ewing and Grady miss the opportunity of situating the camp experience inside the larger context of the religious right's increasingly determined effort to force acceptance of a universal belief system defined in unabashedly Christian fundamentalist terms. Fischer contemptuously dismisses mainline religious traditions such as Catholicism, Judaism, Islam and various Protestant denominations as "dead churches" in a verbal sparring match with talk-show host Mike Papantonio of Air America, who provides a running commentary throughout the movie on the distortions of Christian thought inherent in this form of virulent evangelical fundamentalism. His carefully framed questions to Fischer about the implications of her worldview fall on deaf ears.  

The New York City audience I watched this film with laughed uproariously at some of the more egregious statements made by these youngsters, but it should be noted that the families these young people come from contribute substantially to our society; their parents overwhelmingly hold down jobs, perform valuable volunteer work, obey our nations laws and contribute in countless ways to the nation's social fabric. In the face of America’s drug abuse, pervasive sexual vulgarity and blatant consumerism that course through so much of our culture, is it really any wonder that growing numbers react favorably to Becky Fischer and her colleagues? 

Jesus Camp barely hints at contemporary fundamentalism's driving impulse - - the legislation of a unified version of personal morality - - but in demonstrating the profound impact these ideas have on their young acolytes, Camp delivers a profoundly troubling message. 

The verdict? An 85-minute wake-up call for those who cherish the doctrine of separation of church and state. 

     

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