Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Jesus Camp

I watched Jesus Camp this past weekend, which is a documentary following three kids who attend an Evangelical Christian camp in North Dakota. It was certainly an eye-opening film, to say the least.

We spend a decent amount of time learning about the kids: one is home-schooled on creationism and is even told at one point that "science doesn't prove anything." Another goes bowling and 1) prays over her ball before she rolls it, and 2) walks up to a stranger, gives her a tract, and leaves after a mini-speech about God putting it on her heart to do so. A third tells of her love for Christian heavy metal.

While perhaps older elementary-age, all three speak with a somewhat impressive sophistication about their faith. The girl who witnesses with the tract talks in a different segment about seeing herself as a warrior for Christ, "but not in the sense of going into battle." The home-schooled boy actually preaches one evening at the camp, talking about how their generation is crucial to the future of American Christianity. I found myself impressed by how well-spoken they were, though at the same time cynical as I could also spot buzzwords and phrases likely picked up from other church leaders and parents who speak in the film.

The film also spends a good deal of time with Pastor Becky Fischer, who organizes the camp that they attend. We watch her and the other organizers pray over the sound equipment and tell Satan not to mess with their microphones in the name of Jesus. We hear her exclaim that Harry Potter would have been put to death if he'd grown up in Old Testament times. We hear her tell the camera that she wants to do what radical Islamists do when they "indoctrinate" their children from an early age (except, she qualifies, "We have the truth.").

The camp itself features some dramatic practices, some of which belie an Ameri-Christendom hybrid. At one point, a cardboard cut-out of Bush is set on the stage, and the children pray for him, even laying hands on the cut-out as they do so. Another evening is spent breaking cups with a hammer, meant to symbolize breaking unChristian influences on our government. Another evening is spent with a man who gives an anti-abortion talk as he hands out miniature plastic fetuses. The children do a lot of praying, crying, speaking in tongues, and listening to Fischer tell them about hell and hypocrisy and Harry Potter being killed.

(In one brief scene during mealtime, one of the kids smugly tells his friends that even though his mom doesn't like him watching the Harry Potter movies, he watches them with his dad. It provides a small revelation that not all the kids are completely swallowing what is taught at the camp.)

The film is augmented by two other elements. First, at the very beginning of the film, we hear a radio dial being turned and focusing in on various preachers talking about Christians' need to band together to "take back America for Christ." We also hear snippets of news stories chronicling the retirement of Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor and the subsequent nomination of Samuel Alito to take her place. This all provides us with some backdrop and context.

Second, the radio dial eventually settles in on talk radio host Mike Papantonio, a self-identified "Bible-believing" Christian who raises concerns on his show about the overt and dangerous connections between Evangelical Christians and politics. He notes a political presence in worship, in teaching, and so on.

Papantonio's commentary is interspersed throughout the film, and at one point he has an on-air interview/debate with Fischer over whether or not this theopolitical union, as well as some of the tactics used in camps like hers, are appropriate. He decries "indoctrination," while she embraces the term. He raises the point that such practice flies in the face of free democracy, and here Fischer's response is very telling: she hails democracy as the best political system on earth, but then states that everyone having equal freedom is its major flaw in the same breath. One wonders which groups she might like to enjoy a little less or a little more freedom (I could take a few guesses).

We also take a trip to New Life Church and hear from a pre-scandal Ted Haggard on why it's so great to get kids pumped up for Evangelipolitics, and to Washington D.C., where a group prays for the government.

Jesus Camp presents all of this with little commentary, other than a few factoids presented such as the makeup of home-schooled children who are Evangelicals. Besides that, the viewer is left to decide for themselves what to make of Fischer and the camp, as well as Papantonio's counterpoints. First and foremost, this film is about the so-called "culture war," and what Evangelical Christians are doing to "recruit" their children into it.
One may be disturbed (an understatement...this is the kind of thing that sometimes makes me want to give up the whole "Christian" enterprise), but it is no less an important presentation.

As an aside, Fischer has shut down her camp since the release of this film due to the resulting public backlash and vandalism done to the camp facility.