Movie Review: Jesus Camp

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.

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About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, City of Light, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • Jude

    Interesting. I haven’t seen the film, but I’ll stick it back on my list. I did, however, briefly attend an Assembly of God church just for Sunday School over 20 years ago. I enjoyed the intellectual exercise of analyzing the Bible, and we had a decent teacher. However, on our last day at Sunday School, we decided to attend church. It was a surrealistic experience. The organist accompanied the sermon (given by our Sunday school teacher). When he raised his voice dramatically, the music got louder. The strangest thing of all was when he called me and my friend forward to bless us, inviting anyone who knew us to come forward at the same time. That’s when these people whom I’d come to know as fairly sensible and ordinary, raised their hands and prayed in tongues over us. In one Sunday School class, an older gentleman had bemoaned the fact that, as he put it, “I’ve never received the blessing of tongues.” I wanted to tell him, “Dude, it’s okay. You’re obviously too rational to make up a fake language.”

  • Freeyourmind

    I recently saw this movie, just last week in fact, and it outraged me. I felt sadness and anger at the same time so strongly it was pretty intense.

    I encourage every atheist or non-believer to see this movie just to give you a sense of how extreme some of these groups can be. It’s very disturbing.

  • andrea

    considering how many of the kids who were so religous right after Columbine are back to their old ways, you can be sure that the kids who were indoctrinated by this “camp” will leave the faith.

  • Alex Weaver

    Creepy. I might consider showing this to Trish, but she already knows THESE Christians are nuts. She did finally admit to me last night that her fondness for church was mainly due to a sense of community and comfort, so there’s some progress there.

    Hmm. Maybe when Joey’s (quite a bit) older we’ll opportunistically pick up Chick tracts (but never pay a cent to the organization, of course) and read them together and make fun of them. ^.^

  • John P

    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.

    I agree with this to a certain extent. Look at the backlash in the real world today to the high visibility and apparent rise in power of fundamentalism. We now have many more people speaking as and about atheists, a couple of books on the best-seller lists about atheism, with more coming, and a more general openness about the subject, not to mention the losses in the recent elections. Once you expose fundamental religion, of any kind, to the open air, it dries out, and is seen for what it is – nonsense.

    Yet, it’s still possible that some of those indoctrinated kids, ones with continued reinforcement, or weaker wills, will grow up to be religious wackos.

  • Will E.

    I liked watching rat-tailed little Levi stalking the stage after being flattered by Haggard. You could practically see the first inklings of power madness in his eyes, dreaming of the day he could stand before thousands and berate and belittle them. Not too pretty–but an Elmer Gantry is an Elmer Gantry, no?

  • nullifidian

    I thought Matt Dillahunty’s observation on the Atheist Experience was particularly apt: little Levi, looking for validation from Haggard was told that, until he had good arguments (i.e. he’d been trained up in apologetics) he should use his youth and cuteness to get around any objections people might have with his claims. What this means for Levi, who claims to be ‘inspired’ and ‘used’ by the holy spirit, is that the holy spirit is a poor witness to promote biblical values. Basically it boils down to them telling porkies, but we all knew that anyway.

  • milkywayinhabitant

    I watched a clip of this recently in which the people were praying for the electricity to stay on or something. It was absurd but caused a nice belly laugh at the same time.

    Have you seen the HBO documentary “Friends of God”? It was made by Alexandra Pelosi. It’s only about an hour long but it is shocking as well. I found myself arguing out loud with the people on screen…it’s that kind of movie.

  • Paul S.

    If one does not believe in any religion or higher power but is willing to have an open mind and wants to get a taste or experience of what is in store his/her soul I suggest they contact

    Believers and non-believers can enrich their knowledge through an actual experience.

  • Nes

    What soul? While it is possible that there is such a thing that can leave the body and go flying around, there’s also much that we don’t know yet about the functioning of the brain. It is possible that all such experiences are just a glitch in the brain. Given Ebon’s excellent article on the idea of the soul (with a conclusion I had reached on my own some time before reading it, though he argues it in a much more compelling and eloquent way than I could), I currently lean quite heavily towards a material explanation for such experiences. I would also direct your attention towards sleep paralysis as an example of brain glitches that cause scenarios that seem absolutely real to the one experiencing them.

  • Polly

    This movie is on my list.
    I wouldn’t worry too much about the kids. The intensity of the indoctrination betrays the lack of faith in the kids’ ability to abide by the (s)creeds being pushed on them. Once they’re in the real world, they’ll quickly see through the charade. The intial brainwashing will at least be considerably watered-down. I wonder how many teens, who are pressured into making chastity vows, really abide by them.

  • fran

    Part of the appeal of right wing religion is the supposition that you can never be lonely with (now look behind you )this many like minded folks in your life . Peers who are prepped for heaven just waiting on a train. I am convinced that most people who attend the services don’t actually believe in the mystification of the divine or the supernatural ghost stories . They would much rather pretend to believe and have friends that they faced indoctrination with and feel safe around . Preachers emphasize violence and evil for a reason. They are telling people hey listen if you want to feel safe then just follow our lead and we will protect you . Magic has always been the mainstay of religion .

  • Jeff Lemmon

    Wow. I’m a Christian (Or “Xian” if you wish) since 1984, and I think I’ve seen it all inside the church. The described behaviour really saddens me too. I’ve been through the charismatic/word of faith/hyper faith/evangelical/ super prosperity “mill” and came out really burned. Funny thing is, eventhough I don’t belong with “them” in thier eyes anymore, I find myself believing in and loving Y’shua (Jesus, but Y’shua is His real Jewish name, you know)stronger and deeper than ever. I drink beer, go to bars, listen to good bands.. sinner! Heheheheh. Love people right where they are, unconditionally… compromiser!!!!
    I don’t fear the future, the truth or death. I’m happy. No one, not even me, is my judge, but God. This is peace.
    Hey, can you do me favour? Please stop saying “fall from grace”. That doesn’t mean what people mean it to mean.
    Grace is: The company says if you are late once, you’re fired. Your boss likes you and punches you in everyday on time, even if you’re not on time. Falling from grace is insisting that you punch in yourself, screwing up that one time, and losing your job.
    That’s a paraphrase from the book of Galatians
    Peace out

  • Dennis

    I watched this one a while back. It is what I call a straight documentary. No background music. No graphics. But even without those it still ends up being a horror movie. At a certain point I really became scared of this Jesus guy. At one point I became upset because the documentary had some scary music. I wondered why the documentary makers were trying to manipulate me that way. Then the camera turned and I realized the scary music was for the kids. With camps like these who needs hell?! One kid was shown reading the Lord of the Rings. Then the camp leader calls out Harry Potter as an evil warlock. Sweet. Maybe those books are better than I thought. The very worst part is when the camp leader explained that muslims train their children to die for islam. And she wanted to raise up kids that were willing to die for Jesus. If this doesn’t scare the Jesus out of you then nothing will. I wonder how pony-tail kid feels about shaking Haggarts hand now that he knows where its been. Nothing worse than a gay bashing, god pilfering guy like that. If I had no scruples I would open up a church too.

  • Polly

    I wonder how many teens, who are pressured into making chastity vows, really abide by them.

    Ah, just as I suspected. Thanks, Slate

  • patrick

    i appreciate that the makers of Jesus Camp let the people interviewed do all the talking, but of course they were selective about this; over all, there is some useful truth in this flick… as long as it’s taken with a grain (or maybe a bucket) of salt

  • OMGF

    After reading your blog entry, I think you seriously don’t understand what the movie was about. It was about Jesus Camp and the people who send their kids there, not about all Xians in general. I understand that it got your hackles up to think that all Xians were being smeared with the actions of the Jesus Camp people, but there’s no indication in there that the film-makers were focusing on anyone outside of this group.