The world is partially inhabited by no-nonsense pragmatists who see life as a black and white, all-or-nothing proposition. You’re either Democrat or Republican, Steelers or Seahawks, sinner or saint. Meanwhile, there are those who reside in the gray zone, sensing that life is full of messy loose ends that contradict each other, and cannot easily be explained. They might detect a whiff of insincerity in even the most sharp-dressed man, while sensing redemptive goodness in a convicted felon.
“Jesus Camp” explores the former specimen. “Our nation was founded on Judeo-Christian values,” explains one Bible-thumping parent, who goes on to declare that you either love Jesus, or you don’t. Inhabitants of this same household suggest that global warming is a myth. The film zeroes in on Pentecostal pastor Becky Fischer. Through a fire-and-brimstone, North Dakota-based summer camp dubbed “Kids On Fire,” this perky middle-aged woman summons together fundamentalist children to serve Jesus Christ.
We’re told that children make up one-third of the world’s population. They’re “so usable in Christianity,” proclaims Fischer, who persuades her fresh-faced camp congregation to don military fatigues and face-paint to show their commitment to God’s Army. “Take these prophecies,” Fischer yells like a shrill boot camp Sergeant, “and make war with them!”
Later, while an ominous, percussive bongo beat ricochets off the walks, Fischer pulls out a stuffed animal to represent sin. It’s “cute, warm, and fuzzy,” she observes to her massive audience of children. “Feed this baby long enough, though, and you’ve got a tiger by the tail.” Fischer denounces Harry Potter, informing her prepubescent congregation, “Warlocks are enemies of God. You don’t make heroes out of warlocks.” Caught shining flashlights on the wall while telling scary stories, boys are warned, “Ghost stories might be fun, but they don’t honor God.”
More palatable, apparently, are the plastic fetuses handed out as reminders of the evils of abortion, or the cardboard likeness of President Bush blessed by participants. Sermons becomes emotional and tense when Fischer yells, “You’re phony and a hypocrite. It’s time to clean up your act.” Kids are then instructed to wash their hands of sin, while Kleenex is passed out to dry off their weepy, tear-stained eyes. Hammers are distributed for smashing ceramic cups symbolizing enemies of political cronies. “Break the power of the enemy over government,” instructs a facilitator, before shards of dinnerware go flying in all directions.
“Jesus Camp” lays out the hard facts. There are 80,000,000 evangelicals in America today. They make up an influential political force. 75% of home-schooled children belong to evangelical Christian families.
Let’s get the obvious stuff out of the way. Yeah, it’s disturbing to see children weeping openly during fire-and-brimstone sermons, their faces concentrated in expressions of anguish, pain, and surrender, repenting for sins they’re obviously to young to have committed. Liberals will shudder at these far-right images, in which the fear of God is planted into young minds with all the subtlety of Tom Cruise jumping on a couch.
However, in our post-9/11 age, where people struggle to make sense of the unexplainable, it’s not difficult to see why fundamentalism would prosper. Acting as perhaps the ultimate bonding experience, these churches are one of the final bastions of truly passionate support and fellowship in our depersonalized society of e-mail, cell phones, and instant messaging. At a time when humans hunger for connection and meaning, the fundamentalist arena might seem an appealing lifeline for some.
What’s more, the children in “Jesus Camp” appear to be nourished, smartly dressed, and well taken care of. Obviously, these kids come from loving families who ensure that their needs are being met. Compared to onscreen depictions of discarded, wasted youth like “City of God” and “River’s Edge,” is “Jesus Camp” not a far superior alternative? The film’s young Bible believers are also articulate and assertive. It takes guts to pass out religious tracks at a bowling alley, or to speak in front of an ocean-sized congregation, but these kids are up to their formidable challenges.
But are such challenges misguided? Mention is made in the film of Islamic extremists training children to be fanatics. The mindset is clear – why can’t “we” do the same thing, as a counter-defense? Again, “Jesus Camp” reminds us of the no-nonsense, us against them mentality at the root of fundamentalism. You either “get it,” its practitioners inform, or you don’t. National Association of Evangelicals President Ted Haggard makes this point clear when he leans toward the camera with a smirk during mid-sermon, and tells the camerawoman, “Repent!” He’s like the head of an elite social club, taunting non-members.
During another telling moment, a camp youth confesses doubt over whether he believes in the concepts being spouted from the pulpit. Whoa! The room becomes mortuary-silent. He’s met with the types of silent, horror-filled gazes typically reserved for unexpected serial killer confessions. Clearly, there’s no room for soul-searching or doubts in this concrete, heaven-and-hell
As a counterpoint to this rigid perspective, “Jesus Camp” includes talk-show host Mike Papatonio, whose “Ring of Fire” radio program espouses a less militant form of faith. He’s clearly concerned with the stance taken by Fischer and her ilk, describing their brew of fanaticism as an “entanglement of politics and religion.” He reminds us of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mound in which followers were encouraged to be “peacemakers.” It’s a potent contrast to all the military face-paint and war dancing.
“Jesus Camp” works nicely as a time-capsule document confirming the impact – and popularity – of American evangelism. But for those of us living in the gray zone, the movie ultimately fails to reveal precisely what leads these committed, motivated masses to strip away all but the most black and white attitudes towards sin and redemption. They’re out there, but what makes them tick? We’re left craving answers.
Whether you’re of the “black and white” or “gray zone” persuasion, however, “Jesus Camp” will convince you of one thing. Our society is more polarized than ever.