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Review: “Jesus Camp” (2006)

No matter what a viewer’s faith may be, there’s something unsettling about the image of 5- and 6-year-old children weeping, repenting for their sins and collapsing to the ground. Sure, this is a generalization; after all, the evangelical Christians appearing in the documentary “Jesus Camp” view such a scene as a triumph. Still, the concept of a children’s minister berating elementary schoolers for being sinners and “phony Christians” has to disturb somebody. Yet “Jesus Camp,” directed by Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady, does not take the stance that this approach to child rearing is child abuse. The directors allow their subjects — including evangelical minister Becky Fischer, evangelical families home-schooling their children and Mike Papantonio, a liberal Christian radio host — to guide the film. And the results, though sometimes ill-edited and uncertain, are never less than completely thought-provoking. 

“Jesus Camp” offers several viewpoints on the evangelical Christian movement in America. Those who oppose these believers, like Papantonio, who views them as militant and angry, are given a voice too. The documentary’s primary focus is Fischer and her ministry, which often feels more like indoctrination than teaching God’s word. Fischer runs a popular summer camp for evangelical children in Devil’s Lake, North Dakota. This is not the average summer camp. There is no arts-and-crafts hour where kids make crosses from nails and twine or friendship bracelets; Fischer’s camp is more like basic training for the soul. Her campers spend their days crying and speaking in tongues, giving testimonies about how they want God to cleanse them of sin. Fischer rails against the evils of Harry Potter (“In Old Testament times, he would have been put to death!” she shouts). She also urges her youngsters to crusade against abortion; a guest speaker even brings in models of tiny fetuses. In the strangest scene, Fischer has the campers lay hands on a cardboard cutout of George Bush — whom Fischer credits with singlehandedly reuniting church and state — and pray over him. The suggestion of idol worship is frightening.

Interspersed with these riveting camp scenes are interviews with evangelical children and parents and clips from Papantonio’s radio show. Particular attention is paid to Levi, a Missouri youth who claims he got saved at age 5 because he “just wanted more of life,” and Rachel, who spends part of an outing to the bowling alley obeying God’s command that she approach a stranger and talk to her about God’s love. Levi appears curious and comfortable with his faith, while Rachel is twitchy and nervous. Most alarming is the look in her eyes; despite her youth, her eyes look overburdened, with a tinge of mania. She could be the poster child for Papantonio’s worries about the evangelical movement and what it means for children raised to be warriors in the battle against Satan and for American government (mixing religion and government is dangerous in his view). Fischer and Papantonio’s portions of the film intersect during a radio interview, when she makes no bones about supporting religious indoctrination of children. She wants to get to kids while they’re young because their minds and morals are moldable. They can be “used in Christianity,” she says. She doesn’t mean this to sound sinister or strange; it’s simply her truth.

The same does not appear to be true for Ted Haggard, who appears in the final 1/3 when the campers take a trip to his church in Colorado Springs. (After the film was released, he resigned due to a sex/drug scandal involving a male escort.) Haggard’s asides to the camera are wholly insincere and, well, sinister. There’s no other word to describe the man: he is creepy. Even as Haggard talks with Levi, who clearly idolizes the pastor, his words reverberate with fakeness. Haggard’s portion of the documentary is a counterpoint to Fischer’s scenes. While she is a genuine believer, someone who practices what she preaches, Haggard oozes insincerity. Somewhere in the middle is Papantonio, reminding listeners that Christ was not a solider but a peaceful man. In presenting all sides of this growing movement, Ewing and Grady succeed in creating a film (albeit an imperfect one) that does not cower in the face of some complex and tough issues.

Grade: A-