Jesus camp: Kids used for Christianity
November 9, 2006
Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady, the directors of “Jesus Camp,” a film about young evangelical Christians, give as little spin to their subject as can be imagined. The documentary features precious little talking-head commentary, statistics or even argument; this is not Michael Moore shredding the history of the Bush family’s relations with Iraq.So when Becky Fischer, the director of a North Dakota camp for young evangelicals who gets the most screen time, observes that children are “usable,” no one asks the question: Usable for what? For whose purposes? But “Jesus Camp” is a powerful film – and for those who believe in a secular America, a frightening one; and for those who believe that a parent’s obligations include protecting their children’s innocence, a sad one. And without directly addressing those questions, Ewing and Grady strongly suggest that these kids are being “used,” and with all the negative connotations associated with that word.The children, ranging from 5 or so up to their early teens, are taught that they are soldiers in the army of the Lord. But they are not soldiers seeking battle against poverty and injustice, as Christ might have described himself. Tellingly, not one of the evangelicals – child, parent or minister – speaks once of using his faith for a greater good, to relieve someone’s pain, or to bring about the end of war. They are soldiers in a battle with a real enemy: anyone unholy enough not to believe, as they do, that only by being born again in the name of Christ will there be a place in heaven for them. The lesson is intolerance, and Levi, a 12-year-old aspiring preacher, is a fine student. “Whenever I’m around someone who isn’t a Christian, it makes me feel kind of icky,” he says. Wouldn’t Christ be proud.
In a sermon to a church full of kids, Fischer gets even more specific about the enemy. She warns of the battalions of children in the Middle East so dedicated to their faith that they are strapping bombs to their bodies, prepared to blow themselves up for their religion. Fischer’s point about kids being usable – she elaborates by saying their minds are wide open, that they can be easily molded – is made as the children speak in tongues, cry and confess to the very real evil that inhabits their souls.So what are these children being used for? Political ends, for one. In the film’s ickiest scene, a preacher is brought in to explain the evils of abortion. By the end of the sermon, these kids can be forgiven for being incapable of distinguishing between a carefully considered abortion and the drive-by shooting of a random bystander. In another scene, the children are made to greet a cardboard cutout of President Bush, and then to pray for the appointment of right-thinking justices.But the evangelicals’ concern with worldly issues goes only so far. If your time on earth is but a blip and the real reward comes in the hereafter, why fret your mind over the environment? So when Levi gets home-schooled, the lesson plan – from his mom – includes a section on why global warming is a bunch of left-wing hooey.The resolution of a film involving real-life kids is inevitably left up in the air. The story isn’t finished until we see these kids as adults.
Or is it? In an offscreen plot twist worthy of the divine hand, one of the featured evangelicals is the Rev. Ted Haggard, the recently fallen head of Colorado Springs’ New Life Church. Haggard points to the camera and denounces homosexuality; he jokes, “For $1,000, I won’t tell your wife what you did last night.”Is this the final scene that awaits the kids of “Jesus Camp”? Are these kids being damned to a mortal hell of condemnation, intolerance and self-loathing that leads, on a small scale, to hypocrisy and deceit, and in the larger theater, to holy war?Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org