Possibly one of the most disturbing documentaries ever made about Christianity is Jesus Camp. In the 2006 film, we meet a plethora of young children attending an extremely fervent evangelical Christian camp presided over by a wild-eyed preacher named Becky Fischer, who exhorts her charges to perform greater and greater acts of devotion. We spend time with a few of those children, along with a Creationist homeschooling family and Ted Haggard (pre-scandal, of course), among many other Christians. It’s a chilling look at how young children are preyed upon and brainwashed by the adults they trust. Eleven years later, the children featured in Jesus Camp are a striking sign of Christianity’s future. We’ll meet some of them today–and talk about the flaw in Christian thinking that led to their involvement with the camp in the documentary.
Trailer for Jesus Camp. Content note: indoctrination and extremist religiosity in children.
Trained to Be God’s Army.
In April 2006, Michael Luo wrote for the New York Times, “Today, on Easter, evangelical Christians can celebrate knowing that they are part of a movement that has never been so powerful or so large.”
But he continued, presciently, that “now, at a time of heightened power, old fissures are widening, and new theological and political splits are developing.” He noted the culture wars that evangelicals were firming up over abortion and gay rights as well as the new ones over immigration and climate change, but he doesn’t talk at all about deconversions, disengagement, or Nones. The word “Nones” itself, a description of people who call themselves “none of the above” when it comes to religious affiliation, would become popularized around 2008 or 2009, though it wasn’t in circulation until 2012. In 2006, though, the word “Nones” didn’t exist (ETA: in common parlance anyway — see this very kind commenter’s writeup of the origin of the word itself) because it didn’t need to exist.
Nine days after that editorial was printed in the NYT, Jesus Camp was released during the Tribeca Film Festival.
Jesus Camp was made at what must have felt to Christians themselves like the very beginning of fundagelicals’ takeover of American culture. It’d be years before the striking, groundbreaking news of their decline discovered by the 2015 Pew Religious Landscape Survey. That survey was one of the first truly objective and inarguable surveys showing that this decline was already underway, particularly among Millennials.
That decline was only a seed in 2006, when those Millennials were only children. But it wasn’t the only seed being planted.
Some of those future Millennials were taken to a camp in the middle of nowhere for hardcore indoctrination into what the leader of it called “God’s army.” At Kids on Fire, children paint their faces and have swordfights in a disturbingly militaristic skit, do Nazi-style salutes during indoctrination sessions, speak in tongues, and listen to interminable sermons about changing the world and avoiding the spiritual perils offered within Harry Potter books–all of it presided over by Becky Fischer, their screaming, short-haired, makeup-wearing commandant.1 It’s a scary spectacle to mainstream Americans, but one that I suspect needed to be seen.
The world of Jesus Camp is one that outsiders never before even imagined existed outside of terrifying news stories about North Korea and Jonestown. It was simply an everyday reality for the children involved, though. The adults around them had decided long ago that the world, which is fundagelical-speak for everything outside their insular community, was far too dangerous for children to navigate. Despite their fears, however, they’d also decided that their children needed to be equipped to combat the world in order to win souls from the clutches of its demonic masters.2
It’s hard to imagine that those children thought the camp they attended in the documentary was anything really new or different from what they experienced at home. Their lives were very much themselves the outgrowth of seeds I’d seen sprouting in the 1980s and 1990s: the fundagelical homeschooling movement, a growing affection for military power, the emphasis on culture wars and politicization, the vision of an apocalyptic future of oppression and persecution, increasing rigidity of both gender and social roles, a growing view of public schools as a fertile hunting-ground for eager soulwinners, and the constant redefinition of words for self-serving and opportunistic purposes. That stuff was in the general background while I was a fundamentalist myself, but it hadn’t gotten as big as it is now, nor as hardened. By 2006, those seeds were in fullest flower.
When I saw Jesus Camp, it shocked me. Back when I was Christian, I’d been a member of what was considered at the time to be one of the very most extremist denominations in the religion, the United Pentecostal Church International (UPCI). It wasn’t the worst, but it was definitely up there. What I saw in that documentary, though, went far past anything I’d seen in any Christian group. I shuddered to watch children being encouraged to out-and-out zealotry. I gasped when Ms. Fischer, the leader of the Kids on Fire camp itself, spoke of her hopes that the kids attending the camp would grow up to be just as fanatical as the Muslim terrorists who’d caused the 9/11 attacks.3
But I’ve often found myself wondering over the years whatever happened to the children featured in the documentary. I suspect it’s quite natural to want to know how the next chapters in a compelling story unfolded.
The Way He Should Go.
One of the doctrines that has taken on poignant and pressing popularity in fundagelicalism is the one about hardcore indoctrination of young people. Christian parents were told even in my day, from the day their babies were conceived, that their most important responsibility in the world, in their entire lives, was to ensure that their children were indoctrinated in such a way that they would be sure to go to Heaven when they die–or were Raptured if that happened, of course.
Back then, this task was accomplished with daily devotions at home, Sunday School, and frequent church service attendance with parents. Today, that’s still the expectation–though the sorts of Christians who deeply care about indoctrination usually add in homeschooling or private schools run by the correct kind of church, along with Vacation Bible School and camps like the one in Jesus Camp.
The focus on early and constant and consistent indoctrination comes from a very popular Bible verse among fundagelicals: Proverbs 22:6, which states “Train up a child in the way he should go: and when he is old, he will not depart from it.” This verse is thought to mean that if you indoctrinate a kid thoroughly enough and in the correct theologies and doctrines, when that kid grows up they’ll continue on in the religion just the way Mom & Dad taught them. That’s actually exactly where those Christians we were talking about just last week were coming from when they wrote about how to guarantee that a child would remain Christian for life. They take completely for granted that if parents can only model Christianity jusssssst right for their children in the listicles provided, then their children will stay Christian.
Indeed, when one of those children leaves Christianity, the blame is often laid directly at the parents’ doorsteps. They weren’t fervent enough. Or they didn’t make their kids go to church enough. Or they didn’t force their kids to memorize enough Bible verses. Or they didn’t homeschool, or homeschool with the right pseudoscience curriculum. Or they didn’t do something. There is always a way to blame the parents!
I’m bringing this up because with Jesus Camp, it’s completely certain that the parents and preachers involved in that camp were sure that they were setting their kids on a path of lifelong Christianity.
But that’s not usually how it works nowadays.
In the comments to that previous post last week, people delighted in noting just how many items on that listicle they fit to a tee–and yet they’d still deconverted or disengaged from their various churches. Hell, most of us ex-Christians probably fit at least three or four things on it, if not all five, and yet here we are. Indeed, over a third or more of young people now qualify as Nones according to Pew Research. Barna is even more alarmist, claiming something like 60% of kids will disengage or deconvert by age 30. (What ought to scare fundagelicals even more is that the remaining kids in their groups aren’t nearly as thrilled with their parents’ culture wars or politicization as they are.)
So I’m expecting to discover that most of the kids in Jesus Camp eventually found their way out of toxic Christianity, while some few kids ended up drilling down even harder. I’m expecting some of them to recognize what happened to them in that camp as spiritual abuse, nothing less. Some may even be like those friends of mine who escaped that Waco cult I almost joined and still trying to find their way to emotional equilibrium.
So Where Are They Now?
The Guardian wondered the same thing I did, and went and found some of those kids to ask them about their experiences and how they’ve been doing ten years later. It’s not easy to figure out where those kids are, and I want to show respect to the privacy of the ones who’ve chosen to lower their profiles since the documentary–so information is going to be cursory in places (apologies in advance).
One of those kids, Andrew Sommerkamp, left Christianity after his father came out as gay. After a few angry years the youth ended up in a beach commune of drug-using hippies and seems happy now. The Guardian’s picture of him reveals a wild-haired youth with a lopsided but earnest smile. He told The Guardian that he viewed his indoctrination as child abuse in some ways but not others: “I think they had the best of intentions, but I see it as sick people trying to treat sick people. It’s their coping mechanism for figuring out why we’re alive. I wouldn’t trade that experience for anything, though, because it allowed me at such a young age to question my existence.”
The rat-tailed child preacher featured in Jesus Camp, Levi O’Brien, was also located by The Guardian. He’s easily the easiest to find, for that matter. I wasn’t that surprised to see that he was still very outspokenly fundagelical. According to his Twitter, he’s one-hundred-and-crazy-percent fundagelical still, linking to blog posts he’s sporadically written that are completely and heartbreakingly fundagelical-party-line. Though it doesn’t seem like he’s managed to turn his religiosity into a professional career, he claims that his god has given him a good wife, finances that he says “are in order,” and a clear-cut purpose in life thanks to his faithfulness (which means exactly what you think it means for people who lack those things). He’s still very young, so there’s distinctly hope that he’ll one day realize what kind of sand he’s built his castle on. (This is also the kid whose homeschooling mom scornfully described climate change as just a couple of degrees, like honestly who’d even notice that, gyaah, and who seriously thinks that public schoolteachers tell kids they’re “stupid” for believing in Creationism. This was one of many parts of the doco that had me wanting to SMASH.) He’s cut off the rat-tail, too, by the way. No word on whether or not he still feels “yucky” around non-Christians.
Rachael Elhardt, a sweet and quiet little girl featured in the documentary, got married and is now Rachael Franus. It appears that she is still Christian, but I couldn’t find any evidence that she’s a PRAYER WARRIOR FOR JESUS type or anything. According to a video she made a few years ago, she almost deconverted but in the end seems to have stuck with it in some form or fashion. Her husband appears to be a little more fervent than she is but still, he’s nowhere near the most annoying Christian I’ve ever seen online. He and his wife appear to be tutors or teachers or something.
Tory Binger, the enthusiastic dancer-for-Jesus whose entire introduction consists of her parroting what appears to be word-for-word stuff she’s heard adults say, is rumored to be okay and not a fundie anymore, according to someone on LiveJournal. She’s also the hardest of the kids to find. Based on some other stuff I’ve seen I strongly suspect that she is decidedly way-way-not a poster child for the “in the way he should go” camp of Christianity. She seems really nice. As with all of the kids who tangled with fundagelicalism’s worst, I wish her the very best as she navigates adulthood in a post-Christian nation.
So that’s one kid thoroughly out, one kid thoroughly in, and two kids sorta-kinda maybe there or not. Sounds a bit like modern fundagelicalism’s kids in a nutshell to me.
Becky Fischer, who led the controversial camp in the documentary itself, was quite pleased with Jesus Camp and even used it in her own personal evangelism. If you’re wondering, she definitely seems like one of those Christians who thinks that if non-fundagelicals oppose her or criticize her in any way, that’s simply an indication that she’s doing something that Jesus likes–but she sure didn’t expect the deluge of criticism she got. Even Christianity Today immediately noted that the official Christian Camp and Conference Association released a statement in 2006 criticizing Ms. Fischer and her camp. The UK newspaper The Guardian has her on record as whining about how it all felt just like how European Jews felt right before the Holocaust. Seriously.
Last of all, the camp itself is no more. Becky Fischer had been leasing the campsite from the Assemblies of God, who asked her not to return after Jesus Camp. Ms. Fischer’s group, Kids on Fire, became Kids in Ministry International, itself filled with fake-as-unicorns “testimonies” about the various miracles that its members regularly claim. Becky Fischer is still very much a presence in the group.4 They don’t really do camps anymore, preferring instead to work with local churches to do what they call “family conferences.” And they have a special FAQ on the site about Jesus Camp, though there’s not a single word about any of the kids who appeared in it.
Andrew Sommerkamp sums up Becky Fischer very neatly, calling her “a terrible fucking person who is fueled by the spiritual suffering of other people.” Indeed it sums up most of the worst names in Christianity. More and more, it seems like Andrew’s generation is coming to see what he did.
(Jesus Camp, incidentally, is streaming on Netflix.)
We’re going to be talking about Big Damn Heroes next time (not those Big Damn Heroes, but there’ll likely be a gifstorm because seriously how can anybody help it). As always, we’ll see you then!
1 Sorry, it’s just funny as hell to me to notice when more-hardcore-than-thou Christians like her are violating all the Bible verses that make up the UPCI ‘holiness standard.’ Don’t ever argue with a Pentecostal about who’s the most observant of them all.
2 Soulwinning is the process of proselytization and evangelism. It can range from lifestyle evangelism, which is simply behaving in a very moral and kindhearted way so that strangers and friends alike are moved to ask just what it is about that person that makes them soooo amazingly nice, except that almost never happens, to accosting people on the street, knocking on doors, handing out books or small religious brochures called tracts, or screaming into a loudspeaker in front of comic conventions. An emphasis on soulwinning is obviously behind the very appellation of “evangelical Christianity.”
3 Now, of course, the biggest names in Christianity seem to out-and-out admire Islamic cultures for their level of control over their most marginalized groups. As is often mentioned, the only difference between these extremists appears to be the flag they wave.
4 And she’s still shorn and covered in makeup. Just sayin’. This is kinda my thing. I totally don’t care now, obviously, but when I was Christian myself, she’d have lost a few feet on the ol’ spiritual yardstick with that look, I’ll tell you what. We may have to take on this topic sometime soon because I’ve noticed that the idea of “holiness standards” is largely gone from even hardcore fundagelicalism. That’s a weird thing to vanish considering the increasing extremism of the rest of it–or maybe it’s just perfect.