by Heidi Ewing, Rachel Grady
Magnolia Pictures (2006)
I once wrote a fiction piece based on my evangelical childhood and submitted it to a workshop full of polite, well-read progressives. It came back with comments that I didn’t really understand evangelicals, that I relied too heavily on stereotypes and unfair judgments, and that maybe if I spent some time with real evangelicals, I could write with more nuance.
7 / 10
Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady’s documentary Jesus Camp brilliantly showcases what non-evangelicals just don’t understand: there isn’t any nuance to the evangelical worldview. When Jesus Camp came out in theaters last year, many critics complained that the movie likens evangelical indoctrination to the Taliban, caters to a Blue state, left-leaning audience, and does not serve any greater purpose than further riling up the already-riled. They’re correct on all counts. Ewing and Grady make no secret about their biases and their intent. The film explicitly credits evangelicals for Justice Samuel Alito’s nomination to the Supreme Court and suggests that more and greater political gains are on the way. But this transparency is to the film’s credit, not its weakness, as too often directors distract from or even discredit their material by attempting to deny inherent biases. Jesus Camp offers an honest and straightforward depiction of evangelical childhood and its implications to both the children and to our collective interests.
Jesus Camp follows the bombastic, spiky-haired Becky Fischer, a cool-aunt type who is building “armies for God” through her Pentecostal children’s camp. Fischer is warm, likable, and seems to genuinely believe in her cause; Ewing and Grady allow Fischer plenty of space to speak for herself and rebut her critics. The movie’s three child protagonists—Levi, Rachael, and Tory—are good, real kids, not the Rod-and-Tod automatons that usually are offered as examples of evangelicals. Rachael is the film's comic relief, a know-it-all prone to seeing the world is black and white—literally, in some cases. When she tries to evangelize to a black Capitol police officer who informs her that he, too, is Christian, she insists, “He's probably Muslim or something.” The kid doesn't even like Christians who disagree with her specific doctrines (“those are dead churches and God doesn't go there”). Tory, a dancer who aspires to be more respectable than Britney Spears, so perfectly epitomizes sensitive, innocent childhood that her final scene—breaking down into sobs over abortion in America—is all the more powerful. Levi, a thoughtful, smart homeschooler, is the movie's real center. Unlike Rachael, he carefully examines everything taught by the adults around him, and unlike Tory, he does not buckle under the responsibility that Fischer places on him for electing Christian leaders and ending abortion. You can see him internalizing the messages around him and imagining a lifetime of merging the state with his church. All three kids repeatedly hear the same messages—the entire world is us-against-them, and the kids alone are responsible for stopping evil and death. “They're killing your generation!” screams a “special guest” to the camp, an anti-abortion leader who later takes many of the kids to demonstrate in DC.
Ewing and Grady make several regrettable choices. One is to splice the story with narratives from Air America's Mike Papantonio—supposedly as a spokesperson for Christian progressives. His inclusion is unnecessary and sets up the film as a polemic between Christians, rather than between fundamentalists and non-fundamentalists, as the film intends to be. Also unfortunate was the choice to study only Fischer's camp, rather than the countless other children's camps in other denominations across the country, making it easier to brush aside the subject matter as specifically Pentecostal. But Ewing and Grady mostly get it right. Fischer, like the fundamentalists of my own youth, is frank about her hopes that her charges' childhood insulation from opposing ideas will create political leaders in line with her own thinking. The most interesting aspect of the DVD is their inclusion of Pastor Ted Haggard's super-creepy interview with Levi; since the movie's theatrical release, Haggard has resigned his pastorate due to meth and sex with a male prostitute—perhaps making the case against religious leaders over populism better than Ewing and Grady can.