Jesus Is Tragic

The movie Jesus Camp by Heidi Ewing and Cahel Grady exposes the terrifying power the Christian Right has to indoctrinate and manipulate children.

Anthony Kaufman

Jesus Camp: Say your prayers.

Kids are cute. Documentaries confirm this, from the nerdy word-whizzes of Spellbound to the agile dancers of Mad Hot Ballroom. But in the new documentary Jesus Camp, children are terrifying symbols of the Christian Right’s power to indoctrinate, manipulate and control. 

The film’s creators, Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady, directed another kid-centered chronicle, The Boys of Baraka, which follows a group of inner city teenage boys from Baltimore as they spend a year at a school in Kenya. In Jesus Camp they venture to the American heartland for an eye-opening journey into the lives of Evangelical Christians, specifically their Jesus-loving spawn. Conservatives may hail the film as a celebration of their supremacy; for secular humanists, Democrats and the 49 percent of Americans who don’t believe God created human beings in their present form, it’s a shocking wake-up call. (If you thought that satirical Web map Jesusland” was a joke, think again.) 

Devil’s Lake, N.D., is the site of the Kids on Fire” summer camp, where Ewing and Grady’s cameras capture the behind-the-scenes preparations of Pastor Becky Fischer as she readies her mostly pre-pubescent flock to speak in tongues. (Children as young as six-years-old participate in the possessed proceedings.) 

Outfitted in war paint and army fatigues, the kids are first shown taking part in a choreographed dance number that evokes both Jesus Christ and combat. The images imply – and more explicitly so as the movie goes on – that these youngsters are warriors” for God, engaged in a Christian jihad to change the face of the nation. Islamic radicals may garner the newspaper headlines, but as Jesus Camp makes clear, America’s own homegrown radical fundamentalists may prove just as dangerous. Pastor Fischer puts it this way, I want to see young people as committed to the cause of Jesus Christ as the young people are to Islam … laying down their lives for the Gospel.”

If it sounds ominous – and it is – it’s also laughable. The rotund Fischer calls out to the children to make war on the government, primps in front of a mirror, asks God to bless her audiovisual equipment and damns Harry Potter (“Warlocks are enemies of God,” she yells. In the Old Testament, Harry Potter would be put to death!”)

The filmmakers focus on three other characters, kids in the camp who are seen being home-schooled in creationism and pledging allegiance to the Christian flag.” Levi O’Brien, an aspiring preacher and overly serious 13-year-old with a long mullet, says he was saved when he was just five years old. (The film reports that 43 percent of evangelicals are born again before the age of 13.) Tory Binger, 11, loves to dance but must resist the lure of Britney Spears-like dancing for the flesh.” And Rachael Elhardt, 10 and the most obviously cute of the bunch, is a prim, enthusiastic sycophant who wanders over to strangers in bowling alleys and asks them if they’ve accepted God. What will become of these kids when they grow up?

During a climactic sequence where an anti-abortion speaker whips the kids into a frenzy of tears, screams of No More,” and chants of Righteous Judges,” one senses they could ripen into murderers – of magistrates, legislators and abortion providers. They’re so usable in Christianity,” says Pastor Fischer early in the film, touting ease with which young evangelicals can be employed by the movement. 

As a break from the zealotry, Ewing and Grady make several visits to the Air America radio show Ring of Fire,” co-hosted by devout Methodist Mike Papantonio. While invoking faith, but also the separation of church and state, Papantonio offers a reasoned view of religion and its place in political life. He provides a valuable counterpoint to the self-righteous ravings of Fischer and her ilk. Papantonio’s religion is a private one, he suggests, and by including him in the film, Ewing and Grady smartly imply the movie’s target isn’t religion, just the rising strength of the extreme right. 

But is it so extreme? The characters in Jesus Camp hardly represent a fringe movement. As a small group of them huddle in front of the White House, rocking back and forth in prayer with Life” stickers taped across their mouths, one could dismiss them as a coven of freaks. But make no mistake, as National Association of Evangelicals President Ted Haggard says in the film, If the evangelicals vote, they determine the election.” 

Indeed, Jesus Camp is framed – via the voices of Christian radio commentators – by the withdrawal of Harriet Myers’ nomination for the Supreme Court and the appointment of Judge Samuel Alito: Proof positive of the power evangelicals hold in the Bush White House. In one of the more telling radio snippets, one defiant voice declares, We are engaged in a culture war. We didn’t start it, but by His Grace, we’re going to finish it.”

That leaves the rest of us with two options: prepare to fight or start packing.

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