Jesus Camp

Jesus Camp, directed by Heidi Ewing & Rachel Grady (the excellent filmmakers behind 2005’s Boys of Baraka), first debuted September 15th and has slowly been opening on more screens nationwide. I had a chance to see the film when it first came to the area via Drexel East in Columbus. The documentary focuses on the Religious Right’s future leaders by following three kids and their peers as they attend Lakewood Bible Camp in Devil’s Lake, North Dakota. It’s a Pentecostal training ground, lead by Pastor Becky Fisher, for children just as excited about Jesus as they are about “taking back America for God” – ie ridding the USA of evolution, the global warming myth, and most importantly, abortion.

The critical response to the film has been overwhelmingly positive and it’s hard to legitimately argue that the documentary isn’t well-made. Christian responses are decidedly mixed. I think many want to try to distance themselves from the charismatic Christianity portrayed, isolating them in the black/white, they/us distinctions the Religious Right is so good at. By pretending we aren’t like that it’s easier to deny a problem and blunt the impact of Jesus Camp’s hard message. But we’re not being honest with ourselves if the Christians on screen seem nothing like us. Pentecostals are Evangelicals too, and the Religious Right is an Evangelical movement — one who has a stranglehold on American politics these days. Undoubtedly your reaction to the movie will be largely influenced on how you feel about that fact. If, like Pastor Becky Fisher, you find President Bush to be a great representative of Christianity (giving us “legitimacy”) then Jesus Camp is likely to offend. If, like me, you’re a little more disgusted by our current administration, then Jesus Camp is likely to, well, offend still.

Unlike the former group, it is not offensive because I feel the film unfairly blasts Republicans and the Religious Right. It’s offensive precisely because the Republican party and the Religious Right is offensive itself. Jesus Camp simply illuminates what many of us are (re)discovering: the more the church allies itself with the RNC the more we look completely unlike anything the church Christ preached. Jesus Camp does not need to resort to clever editing or hidden cameras to accurately present its subjects. Really, the film is only funny and tragic if you’re already aware of how ridiculous the Religious Right’s rhetoric really is. Jesus Camp has the power to galvanize more than Michael Moore ever will. We laugh at the irony (and there’s lots of it in Jesus Camp) but have to quickly check ourselves because it’s sick and sad. For regardless of political affliation, the film hits hard because it exposes what amounts to Christian brainwashing. Jesus Camp depicts a childhood many of us Cedarville students can relate to. Theologically, many of the children portrayed speak a private religious language that I don’t understand; they frame their Christian belief in alien words but I’m very willing to grant them this right. The revolting and offensive part comes when the adults openly manipulate the children (Pastor Becky Fisher has no qualms with the word “indoctrination”). Kathleen Falsani’s excellent article on Jesus Camp in the Chicago Sun-Times ruminates on what exactly constitutes “spiritual abuse.” She’s absolutely right to focus on the spiritual scars of such an upbringing, wounds many of the kids portrayed (us?) will carry for many years to come. To rationally and intellectually weigh the issues and still opt in to the Religious Right is perfectly legitimate (though baffling to me). To engage in the propagandizing of impressionable children, recruiting future RNC foot soldiers, is to me inexcusable. Jesus Camp will thus enlighten and repulse precisely to the extent that we were unaware of how much brainwashing is really going on. To paraphrase Mike Papantonio, the sole liberal Christian voice in the movie, this isn’t tinfoil-hat conspiracy theories: it’s happening and it’s scary, scarier still when you consider that Pastor Becky Fisher endorses the film. It’s a tribute to the quality of Jesus Camp as a documentary that both “sides” approve of the movie. Christians of all kinds, of all political leanings, ought to see Jesus Camp simply to wrestle with the issues and force themselves to ask the tough questions about both the church in politics and the role and responsibility parents have in raising their children.

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