Jesus Camp: Where are they now?

My review of Jesus Camp (a documentary about a Pentecostal youth retreat) gets a steady stream of hits from people searching for “Jesus Camp where are they now”. Well, wonder no more, because the Guardian has dug up two of the film’s most memorable characters to celebrate its tenth anniversary. I loved the film, even though I hardly needed to watch it having lived through much the same thing, so I was curious about this myself.

The first interviewee is Andrew Sommerkamp, the boy whose story affected me the most: he was the small blond boy seen crying because, apparently alone among the dozens of children having close experiences of Jesus, he struggled to believe in God. The second is Levi O’Brien, the fiery preacher kid.

Andrew Sommerkamp. Screenshot from Jesus Camp.
Andrew Sommerkamp. Screenshot from Jesus Camp.

Both of them have turned out more or less exactly how you’d expect. O’Brien is a conservative Christian who, speaking about his upbringing, tells the Grauniad “Let’s look at the outcome: I have peace in my mind, I have drive and purpose and character.” Just his use of the word ‘character’ is telling here, because few people outside of that subculture use ‘character’ to mean ‘moral substance’. It’s a word so loaded with Christian right baggage that it creeps me out every time I hear someone use it.

Sommerkamp, also unsurprisingly, is no longer a Christian. He refers to Jesus Camp organiser Becky

Levi OBrien. Screenshot from Jesus Camp.
Levi O’Brien. Screenshot from Jesus Camp.

Fischer as “a terrible fucking person who is fueled by the spiritual suffering of other people”, which makes me think Sommerkamp is someone with whom I could share an enjoyable evening in a pub. But Sommerkamp’s story is not an entirely happy ending. The article tells us he has now “discovered peace in eastern mysticism, quantum mechanics, and psychotropic drugs”.

Judging from the rest of the sentence, I take it that by “quantum mechanics” he means “Deepak Chopra horseshit” rather than “an academic career in science”. And this is where a Jesus Camp-style upbringing can do a second level of harm. Sommerkamp has swapped one load of bullshit for another. This second lot of bullshit is arguably less malign than the former, and I’m glad it’s working for him and he’s happy. Importantly, it’s a load of bullshit that he chose rather than one that he had thrust upon him. I will always support everyone’s right to pursue the life they find fulfilling. But if he’d had a solid upbringing in critical thinking and a strong understanding of science, what are the chances he’d have fallen into this nonsense?

I’m not pretending that all, or even most, Deepak Chopra converts are former fundies, but an education that teaches people to accept irrational forms of argument as valid leaves them vulnerable to pseudoscience. I got mixed up in homeopathy and other woo for several years after leaving church. It felt like I was thinking critically, because I was trying forms of alternative medicine that my church believed were evil, but really I didn’t know how to assess evidence. As Valerie Tarico tells the Guardian:

One of the problems with faith-based teaching is it teaches children not to trust their own reason and intuition, undermining their ability to have confidence in their own knowledge and ability to process information. There is a lot of psychological damage that follows when people are trained not to trust themselves.

To which I’d add “and scientific consensus”.

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