I missed seeing the documentary Jesus Camp when it first came out in theaters last September. However, I’ve finally had the chance to view it, and I think this review is better late than never. In any case, so much relevant to the film has happened since then – the 2006 elections, the downfall of Ted Haggard, and even the announcement that the film itself had been nominated for an Oscar – that this seems an opportune time to review it and see how things have changed.
Directed by filmmakers Rachel Grady and Heidi Ewing, Jesus Camp is a documentary about a Pentecostal Christian children’s summer camp in North Dakota, called “Kids on Fire,” run by a minister named Becky Fischer. The filmmakers follow three pre-teen children, Levi, Rachael and Tory, around the country as they attend this camp, sit in on one of Ted Haggard’s sermons in his New Life megachurch in Colorado Springs, and travel to Washington, D.C. during the nomination process of Samuel Alito to the Supreme Court. The filmmakers themselves do not narrate these events or otherwise provide an editorial voice during the film, but a critical viewpoint is provided by clips from the radio show of Mike Papantonio, a Methodist and the host of Air America Radio’s Ring of Fire.
For an atheist like myself, this was not an easy movie to watch, and I think even many Christians would find it disturbing. The children in this film, most of them around 10 or 11, are subjected to a degree of indoctrination that is sickening and cult-like in its intensity, one that is intended to scrub from their minds all traces of independent thought and brainwash them into compliance with an agenda that is extreme and radical even among Christian fundamentalists.
In one scene from the film, Fischer leads the children in “praying in tongues”, the babbling of nonsense syllables that supposedly indicates the presence of the Holy Spirit. In another, she publicly chastises the congregation, accusing some people present of being “phonies” who falsely profess allegiance to Christianity, until many of the children are sobbing; she then demands that they come up to the front one by one to confess their sins in public. One boy gets on his knees in front of the entire several-hundred-person congregation to admit that he sometimes has trouble believing that God exists or that the stories in the Bible are true.
Extreme right-wing politics are also a major part of the indoctrination. Fischer and the other ministers often profess their devotion to George W. Bush, because of his supposed born-again Christian beliefs, and at one point bring in a cardboard cutout of the man and encouraging all the children to stretch out their hands toward it and pray for him. The children are also taught that abortion is evil, with tiny dolls that are supposed to be fetuses passed out among them to touch and adore. At another point the entire congregation, including the children, is led in a chant of “Righteous judges!”, repeated until many of them are crying or shaking, and are then told that they have made a sacred covenant with God to pray every day that abortion be outlawed. A third scene shows some of the children at home, being taught by their parents to say an altered version of the Pledge of Allegiance, not to the American flag but to a “Christian flag” that consists of a blue cross on a field of white.
Even now, my words do not do justice to the insidious and vile coercion used against these poor children. The film shows clearly how all of this activity takes place in an atmosphere of extreme emotion and intense peer pressure, the same technique used by many cults to break down people’s resistance and then rebuild them in a way congenial to the cult’s beliefs. The children interviewed for the film appear to be willing subjects who have wholeheartedly internalized the precepts of fundamentalist Christianity, which is not surprising, considering every peer and authority figure in their lives acts likewise and puts them under pressure to behave this way. (Most of these students are homeschooled, of course; one section shows one of them watching a young-earth creationist video and being taught by his mother to say that evolution is “stupid”).
Fischer and the other ministers are unapologetic about their desire to indoctrinate children. Fischer praises kids for being “usable” for their cause, and speaks almost with admiration of Muslim madrassas where students are taught to admire terrorists and suicide bombers, stating her wish to teach children a comparable level of commitment to Christianity. Another minister congratulates children who attend the camp, “Way to be obedient!”, and says, with no apparent awareness of irony, that “the devil goes after the young, those who cannot fend for themselves”. Their expressed goal is to raise a new generation of fundamentalist Christians that will outnumber other groups and win the culture war through population. Stories like this are the best possible evidence for Richard Dawkins’ argument that it should be considered child abuse, in a moral if not a legal sense, to indoctrinate children in the religion of their parents and deny them the chance to make up their own minds.
Near the end, the film shows a sermon given by the now-disgraced Ted Haggard. Knowing what we now know, there is much to find amusing about this, such as Haggard’s assertion that we “don’t have to debate about what we should think about homosexual activity – it’s written in the Bible!” In another part of his speech, Haggard looks straight into the camera and jokes, “I know what you did last night. If you send me a thousand dollars, I won’t tell your wife.” His congregation laughs at this, but in retrospect, it is difficult not to think that Haggard was really speaking to himself. I can only wonder at the chaos that must have been raging inside him as those very words were taped. (Some of the children from Fischer’s camp are shown attending Haggard’s sermon; I’d be very interested in knowing how his fall from grace has affected them.)
Haggard also claims, “If the evangelicals vote, they determine the election,” echoing other claims made by the believers in the film that their prayers and votes can control the course of events. Those confidently made assertions are now looking very shaky, considering the Republicans’ disastrous loss in the 2006 midterm election. Though they captured a solid majority of the evangelical vote, as they usually do, it utterly failed to bring them victory, even losing many districts that were thought to be conservative strongholds. (And as this site has documented, Protestants in general are losing electoral power to nonbelievers.) What is more, the Republican presidential nominee for 2008 will have to face an extremely difficult balancing act, trying to be extreme enough to appeal to believers like this while simultaneously trying to appeal to the rest of the country, which has rejected most of the fundamentalists’ favored positions by large margins.
When this documentary was made, it probably would have been far more depressing for the hope of our society. Now that so much has changed, it is still saddening, but mostly because of these children’s lives that are being taken away from them by a warped ideology that tries to turn all its adherents into mindless drones for the cause. Since this film came out, Fischer has closed the camp down, citing fears of a backlash, though she has stated that she intends to continue her child-indoctrination efforts in other ways. However, I would be interested in a followup that explores how the children and adults featured in this documentary have changed, if at all. Fischer’s website says the following:
The time people need to be seriously discipled is while they are still children, not when they are teens. If we wait till they are teens, it’s too late!
Statistics show that by the time a child is 7 to 9 years old his/her moral moorings are already cast in stone, and whatever he/she believes by the time he/she is 13 they will generally die believing unless something catastrophic happens in his/her life to turn them around. I clearly remember Catholics and Communists both saying years ago saying “Give us a child until they are seven years old and we will have them for life!” They know something Christians don’t know.
This movie is my scream for equal time in Christianity for children!
Notwithstanding the irony of Fischer’s openly admitting she wants to follow the child-indoctrination model practiced by other groups, I think this declaration is in error. People do not always follow the beliefs they were taught in their youth (and Fischer seems to admit this and contradict herself by saying, on the same page as the excerpt quoted above, that “our own children are leaving the Church in alarming numbers (70%) when they reach their teen and young adult years”). While the devotion of the children in the film seems extreme – preaching sermons before the entire congregation, handing out Jack Chick tracts to strangers on the street – I find that beliefs so intense often do not last. The more intense the indoctrination is, the stronger the backlash can often be. I’m sure that some of these children may retain these beliefs for life, but I suspect that others (perhaps including the one boy I mentioned earlier) may ultimately break away and possibly even become atheists. There is just too much in the world that contradicts the beliefs of fundamentalist Christianity once people who hold those beliefs venture outside the protective bubble of their early years.