In the interest of full disclosure and by way of confession, I should state right here at the beginning that I grew up in fairly conservative church in Texas. I know what it’s like to come of age in an evangelical/fundamentalist environment, to go through puberty with triple the usual guilt. I’ve grown up a lot since then, which is one of the many reasons I now live 1,500 miles away from my childhood home, but trust me when I say that the brand of Christianity advertised and practiced in Jesus Camp, a new documentary from co-directors Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady, is in no way indicative of the hundreds — likely thousands — of emotionally stable and globally minded people of faith who are doing their best to live simple, good lives across the country. The film is a startling look at a few extreme evangelicals who home-school their kids and send them in the summer to a week-long Bible camp in North Dakota, where they listen to the fiery sermons of Beck Fischer, the Pentecostal pastor who runs the place and sees it as her duty to train up children in the way they should go, specifically to be part of the Lord’s army. Army for what? Well, for reclaiming America. While the film is an illuminating look into a growing niche of hard-line faith, it’s also a jaw-dropping and often sad look at the kids caught in the middle. It is, for lack of a better word, unsettling.
The story unfolds over the brief period between Sandra Day O’Connor’s resignation from the U.S. Supreme Court in July 2005 and Samuel Alito’s confirmation to the Court in January 2006. But Ewing and Grady never show the news clips, opting instead to let snatches of radio broadcasts set the scene while the camera travels through Lee’s Summit, Missouri, where Fischer is based. At the Children’s Prayer Conference, Fischer takes the pulpit and exhorts a room full of kids, the oldest around 12, to be prepared to take back the nation and to surrender to God. Fischer doesn’t quote any bit of Scripture in her homily, and won’t the entire film: She doubtless owns a Bible, but she never opens it to preach. Eventually the kids stand and cluster together near the stage, arms raised, eyes closed, praying in tongues and crying openly. It’s one of the many scenes where I found myself reflexively looking away, and not out of embarrassment or shame, though I suppose there were elements of those involved. No, it’s because these children, like it or not, are going through an emotionally trying experience, and to see them in such a vulnerable state is more than a little disquieting. I looked away out of respect for the kids.
Ewing and Grady cut from the church scenes to the studio of Mike Papantonio, a DJ with Air America who co-hosts the “Ring of Fire” talk show. Papantonio professes a Christian faith but has strong issues with the way extreme evangelicals are growing more involved in divisive political practices. His voice is in direct contrast with the rest of the film’s subjects.
The real action starts, though, at Fischer’s annual Kids on Fire camp at Devils Lake, North Dakota, where campers are treated to hour-long sermons and a host of classes designed not to recruit them into the faith but to train them to speak out against abortion. The kids at the camp eagerly listen to a barrage of seemingly unconnected talking points that have little to do with applied religious belief and everything to do with voting patterns, and it quickly becomes clear that Fischer’s gospel is about political activism, not salvation.
Ewing and Grady follow three main kids before, at, and after the camp: Rachael, a smart and energetic nine-year-old who will approach strangers and begin proselytizing; Tory, a 10-year-old who likes music and dancing but worries about using her gifts “for the flesh” instead of for God; and Levi, a 12-year-old with a rat-tail who enjoys preaching and was saved at age five because he wanted more out of life (I wore Velcro shoes when I was that age, and this kid made a decision about his immortal soul). Watching Rachael approach a random woman at a bowling alley to offer her a tract and tell her that God wants her to live a good life, which you’d think would just be cute and weird and kind of misguided, turns out to be deeply unnerving. When I finally figured out why, I was annoyed at the simplicity of the answer: Rachael’s just a kid. Most fourth-graders are content to deal with playground politics, spelling tests, and other standard problems. But Rachael seems to be playing a part of which she has no genuine understanding. Kids are a lot of things, but perceptive and far-sighted aren’t on the list; I could never shake the feeling that Rachael and the rest were just doing what they were doing because the adults told them it would be good to do so.
At one point, a cardboard cutout of President Bush is propped up on stage before the kids, who pray blessings over him and his leadership. Now, whether Fischer would have the kids do the same for a Clinton mock-up is something we’ll never know, though I’d like to believe her when she says that praying over leaders is “just a thing we do as Christians.” Still, she also speaks highly of Bush, saying that he’s “brought a lot of credibility to the faith,” and mentions that the past few years under Bush’s leadership have been among the best eras for modern Christianity in her lifetime. The kids even hear a guest speaker, who hammers home his anti-abortion message until the children are weeping openly and obediently standing before him as he places over their mouth a piece of red masking tape, upon which is scrawled the word “Life.” (And yes, he reads them Horton Hears a Who and quotes “A person’s a person, no matter how small,” another in the long list to pervert Dr. Seuss’ classic.) I was sick to my stomach, but also moved by one young boy who spoke to the group about how he tried so hard to be good but still had doubts about what he was being taught. This kid wanted so badly to be what the grownups were telling him to be, and it was killing him that he couldn’t measure up.
After the camp, Ewing and Grady pay a visit to New Life Church in Colorado Springs, a town that’s one of the current hotbeds of the evangelical movement in America. The pastor, Ted Haggard, is president of the National Association of Evangelicals, and he talks regularly with Bush. He makes a couple jokes into the camera, but there’s an uneasy sneer in his manner and a barely masked condescension for what he suspects Ewing and Grady of trying to do. Haggard has since dismissed Jesus Camp as manipulating facts “like a Michael Moore film,” which shows that he certainly knows how to push the hot-buttons among his parishioners.
Jesus Camp, like a lot of documentaries, is shot on video, but it’s also presented in full-frame, a refreshing choice that wordlessly highlights the immediacy and reality of the situation; it’s as if all this stuff was going to happen anyway, and Ewing and Grady just pointed a camera at it. The film attempts to cover a lot of territory and mostly succeeds, though at one point it begins to feel like Ewing and Grady are trading on popular preconceptions of evangelicals instead of mapping any logical link between home school and fundamentalists and full-on government-level religious infiltration. The strongest moments of the film are the small moments where the kids’ actual personalities come through, as in the scene where Levi and the rest of the boys at camp joke around and tell ghost stories, enjoying a brief taste of relaxed adolescence before one of the adult chaperones enters the room and warns the boys about how ghost stories don’t honor God. The boys quiet down then but, more importantly, the light goes out of their eyes.
Daniel Carlson is the managing editor of Pajiba and a low-level employee at a Hollywood industry magazine. You can visit his blog, Slowly Going Bald.My Parents Sent Me to Summer Camp and All I Got Was This Debilitating Spiritual Trauma
Film Reviews | October 3, 2006 | Comments ()