Jesus Camp (2006)
Starring: Becky Fischer, Mike Papantonio, Ted Haggard, Levi, Rachael, Victoria
Directed by: Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady
It’s hard to watch a documentary like Jesus Camp and not worry that it is merely sensationalistic fear-mongering on the part of the documentarians, no matter how hard it might try for objectivity. Equally hard is watching the evangelical zealots on display and their insanely extreme views and not paint the entire evangelical right with the same dismissive brush.
Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady‘s Jesus Camp takes a look at the “Kids On Fire” summer camp, located just outside Devils Lake, North Dakota and run by Becky Fischer and her ministry, Kids in Ministry International. Fischer runs the camp for elementary-aged children, in an attempt to indoctrinate them in the ways of Christ, with the goal of raising them “to take back America for Christ”. Fischer designed the program herself, with the stated goal of raising a generation of charismatic Christians in similar fashion as extremist Muslim groups who raise followers so dedicated that they become suicide bombers (presumably, just similar in terms of devotion, you know, without the bombs and stuff).
In doing so, the kids listen to and give fiery sermons about the evils of the world, including Harry Potter and sin, are encouraged to speak in tongues, pray to cardboard cut outs of President Bush while chanting for “righteous judges”, and are given plastic fetuses to play with. Yeah, it’s just that crazy. These kids are taught by the church and their families (many are home schooled) about how the Earth has been around for 6000 years, and how scientific theories like global warming are mere liberal propaganda.
As shocking as it is to see this level of ignorance celebrated and encouraged, shedding light on the evangelist zeal that keeps shaping the level of debate in the States, the most surprising thing for me was the absolute earnestness that the children exhibited. Ten-year-olds just shouldn’t be that serious, convulsing in tears during sermons while chanting in tongues. It’s just creepy. Sure, I come from the Catholic tradition where we sit on our hands for most of the sermon, except when we have to stand, kneel, and give our “peace be with yous”, but still… these kids ain’t right (one of the featured kids, Rachael, tells us that churches that aren’t charismatic Christian aren’t real churches and God wouldn’t want to visit. Which I’d find insulting if A) the kid wasn’t a brainwashed looney, and B) I was anything more than an incredibly passive Catholic).
The problem with bias permeates throughout the movie, as the material is so inflammatory. I honestly believe that the filmmakers were mindful of the bias, giving the other side most of the movie to present their point of view and staying out the movie, leaving it without narration or editorials from the filmmakers. The problem is that there was no avoiding the appearance of bias, so the filmmakers should have made their role and goals more explicit. Instead, we’re given long interview segments with Fischer and the kids, without the presence of the interviewer, leaving us to wonder how leading the question may have been. Moreover, it isn’t all that difficult to figure out how the movie views the camp and the evangelism it represents, as the movie is framed by Air America radio host Mike Papantonio (a Christian himself) presenting the opposing argument about the importance of the division of church and state and the danger posed by the evangelist movement. Worse, scenes of kids praying and chanting are backed with ominous music designed to increase the fear viewers are supposed to feel while watching. So Ewing and Grady should have been more transparent about their feelings, just to get it out of the way.
The thing is, I’m not entirely convinced that if you simply took out Papantonio’s commentary, that Fischer and evangelists like her wouldn’t use this as a promotional video. They aren’t ashamed by their extreme views, they celebrate them. Hell, maybe they’d just use Papatonio’s commentary as an example of how the world is against them, which is my favourite element of their views: somehow Christians in America are an oppressed minority. It’s a laughable idea, especially at the time of the filming (pre-midterm elections, when they dominated the political landscape). But it’s an effective recruitment technique, presenting yourselves as suffering martyrs for an audience who will eat that up.
Ultimately, the greatest failing of Jesus Camp is that it presents extremists as the norm. I have no doubt that the portrayal of these particular evangelists is accurate, as we see examples of people espousing their views in the media all the time (Pat Robertson practically prays for the death of Supreme Court justices on The 700 Club so Bush can appoint ones to overturn Roe v. Wade). But they can’t all be this crazy, can they?