I walked out of Jesus Camp feeling a little dirty. I felt like what I had just watched was a hatchet job, a case where filmmakers with an agenda took advantage of trusting, provincial people, and presented a portrait of them as loonies, weirdos and extremists. Jesus Camp seemed like the worst kind of documentary filmmaking, and a good example of how nasty the editing process could be.
And then I found out that the people in Jesus Camp had seen the film – and liked it. They felt that it portrayed them well, and that it could possibly spread their message. At that point I realized that Jesus Camp is nothing less than a horror movie, a vivid look at a malignant growth spreading in the heart of our country; Jesus Camp is about the tumor of fanatical, fundamentalist Christianity and its goals for America- and the world.
The film opens with a Southern evangelical children’s worship service, where the kids are encouraged to open themselves to the Lord and speak in tongues. It’s strange, and intensely creepy. Becky Fischer, a large and loud woman pastor, presides over the surreal scene, watching happily as children break down sobbing and seemingly in seizures.
Becky is recruiting kids for a very special Bible camp, one that aims to bring the teachings of the Bible together with political action. Fischer takes her inspiration from a dubious and troubling place – Palestinian camps that teach kids to wage war against Israel. She’s worried that Christianity is losing the war of faith, that Muslim kids are willing to die for Allah while American Christians want to just stay home and watch TV. Again and again throughout the course of the film Fischer and the other adults reinforce the idea that there’s a war going on, and Christians should be ready to lay their lives down in it.
The film follows a couple of kids who attend the camp, including an almost preternaturally bright young girl and a grotesquely mulleted boy who thinks his future lies in preaching. He tells Fischer that he chose to be born again at age 5 because he wanted more out of life. (At age 5! Fischer loves this, by the way.) At the camp the kids learn about abortion and the Supreme Court and George W Bush, as well as sing along with astonishingly bad Christian hip hop and rock songs. There is a black kid or two in the crowd, but this is mostly a white group, and their flag – white with a blue inlet and a cross – creepily reminded me of the symbolism of the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan.
Jesus Camp‘s campground material is crosscut with an Air America bloviator – Mike Papantonio. It’s an unnecessary counterpoint to what is being said at camp, like the filmmakers felt the need to let us in the audience know that there was another side (aka: rationality) to this. Papantonio is apparently a man of faith himself (or he portrays himself as such here) and most of his points – especially about what Jesus would think of these people – ring true, but also unnecessary.
The movie is at its creepy best when it lets its subjects speak for themselves. Their thoughts on evolution, homosexuality and prayer in the classroom sound exactly like what I thought these people would say, and I had always assumed I was a big city bigot when it came to evangelicals. I don’t know if it’s good to be vindicated or terrifying.
As scary as aspects of the profiled Bible camp are, there are some things that I really liked. These kids are being very engaged on real world issues and aren’t just learning the usual touchy-feely, everybody is special crap that liberals embrace. These kids are being given goals and feelings of serious importance – again and again they’re told that they’re part of a special generation that will change the world. If there’s anything for progressives to learn from Jesus Camp, it’s how to get kids involved at a very young age.
I wish Jesus Camp had cast a wider net, although I guess that would have necessitated a name change. I don’t know how dangerous Christian fundamentalists are anymore as Bush burns through all of his political capital and extremism falls out of favor – unless the turn to violence, which seems to be what Becky Fischer is training her army of automatons to get involved with – but religious fundamentalism itself is the most dangerous thing in the world. Whether it be the Christians who want to deny women the right to choose what to do with their bodies, Jews who see God’s promise for land in the Bible as a real, binding contract or Muslims who horrifically misinterpret the words of the Koran to legitimize their own barbarism, those who mindlessly follow and subjugate in the name of their religion are the biggest threat to the rest of us.