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February 19, 2007

Filed under: movies»reviews»documentary

Jesus Camp

My thoughts on Jesus Camp were definitely influenced by reading Bob Altemeyer's work on authoritarianism this weekend. If you haven't taken the time to flip through Altemyer's work, here's a basic summary: Altemeyer's research shows that a healthy portion of people fit into a psychological category he calls "Right-Wing Authoritarians," and these people display tendencies for submission to authority, compartmentalized thinking, heightened prejudice and clannishness, and a greater feeling of fearfulness. These people tend to be conservative, but it is not impossible to have Left-Wing Authoritarians, as Stalinism showed. Authoritarians also tend to be very religious, which makes sense, seeing as how organized religion often stresses submission to a supernatural authority.

Jesus Camp, in many ways, showcases these behaviors. It's actually the story of a camp in the Midwest called "Kids on Fire" that trains evangelical Christian children in zealotry and preparation for the end times. It may sound biased to say that they're being trained as zealots, but the organizer (who apparently fully endorsed the film) directly compares it to Islamic training camps and suicide warriors. There's a fair amount of martial metaphors on display here, and a lot of talk about culture warfare that sometimes becomes alarmingly literal. They are the "Army of God."

The directors have focused on three individuals: the pastor Becky Fischer and camp participants Levi and Rachael. Fischer comes across as surprisingly charming and humble, which can be disarming considering that she spends a fair amount of time making the kids cry and leading them in glossolalia. Levi is about ten, with a long rat-tail haircut, and he hopes to be a youth pastor, while Rachael is a little younger and almost desparately earnest about her faith. Both children, however, give off the vibe that they're robotically repeating the lines they were given in church, prompting my diversion into authoritarianism. And perhaps what the film does best is show how insular their lives really are: they're homeschooled from creationist textbooks, watch only Christian movies and television (Becky berates them about the witchcraft of Harry Potter), and seem to talk about little other than Jesus. Their parents even come with them to the camp (Belle: "Worst summer camp ever."). The evangelicals wear this isolation from the rest of society as a badge of pride, even the children--in one heartbreaking interview, Rachael admits that the other kids at school have teased her, but protests that it's only God whose judgement really matters to her, and (here I paraphrase but only slightly) it won't matter when her schoolmates are in hell.

Where Jesus Camp misses the mark is when it fails to emphasize the influence and extent of the evangelical population. When reading books about the movement (and Belle likes to give me a hard time about the number that I own), it's made clear that the religious far-right is a real threat to the country. Jesus Camp tries to make this point in guest-segments from an Air America radio host, but he's really pretty limp and unconvincing. Belle wasn't even sure whose side he was on until half an hour into the movie. It's only toward the end, when Fischer calls into his radio show and admits that democracy is really something she'd prefer to replace with Jesus, that the film feels really substantial.

There are a few moments of sardonic amusement to be had with the evangelicals, especially former pastor Ted Haggard, who appears momentarily when Levi visits his Colorado Springs mega-church. Even though Levi may be a little brainwashed, he still shows enough signs of being a normal, likeable ten-year-old that Haggard's dismissal of his pastoral ambitions hits a little close to home. I might not empathize with Levi's dreams of preaching, but we've all be talked down to by an authority or role model. Of course, neither Levi nor the filmmakers knew what we know now: that Pastor Ted was secretly visiting a gay prostitute for sex and meth sessions, a fact that would lead to his fall from power when it was exposed to the world, and which lends some extra frisson to Haggard's jibes. Randall Terry Lou Engel, the fanatic who protested outside of Terry Schiavo's hospital room with "LIFE" taped across the lips of his companions, also makes a cameo appearance to teach the kids about the evils of abortion. Then there's the horrified looks of the other children when one admits to having watched the Harry Potter movies at his father's house. Rebellion, for these kids, is a low bar to clear.

For viewers who are unfamiliar with the evangelical Christian movement, Jesus Camp may be an eye-opener. But perhaps due to the movie and its buzz a few months back, as well as the increased power and profile of religious leaders within the Republican party, I think it's harder to be blissfully unaware of its subjects, even among urban liberals and heathens. I guess I'm trying to say that I was underwhelmed, but less-obsessed audiences might not be. Regardless of your exposure, it can still be fascinating for outsiders to listen to these believers, who clearly desire nothing more than to be puppets driven by the will of God, without individualism or personal choices.

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