Onward Children (Christian) Soldiers... Movie Review: "Jesus Camp"

By Omar P.L. Moore/September 29, 2006

A most frightening documentary is "Jesus Camp", directed by Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady.  Ranking right up there with the other "horror" documentary film of 2006 "An Inconvenient Truth", we are repeatedly disturbed throughout as three children with the blessings (no pun intended) of their parents are sent off to the "Kids on Fire" camp at the ironically-named town of Devil's Lake, North Dakota, where pastor Becky Fischer thunderously sounds the drumbeat of Christian fundamentalism, intensely, passionately and in a way that is more  brainwashing or indoctrination than any gentle instruction.

Perhaps what is more disturbing and frightening is how committed such tender impressionable minds are.  The three children, Levi, Rachael and Tory (all 12 or under) have been introduced to this camp and each come away transformed.  They are resolute in thinking in the language of the "Lord", and not independently (at least from the documentary) for themselves.  The crucial developmental phase of their lives have been eviscerated it appears, by the religious doctrines of the faith. 

     I am the word, the truth and the light: Pastor Becky Fischer preaches the "word of God" with fervor and passion, and one young girl feels the intensity of the message in "Jesus Camp". 
       (Photo: Magnolia Pictures)

The directors do an amazingly good job at being even-handed in their portrayals of the three children.  They are all very intelligent, articulate and Levi in particular has a promising future as a preacher at the tender age of 12.  Still, the Christianity being inculcated within the children at Devil's Lake -- some as young as six years old -- is similar to the dogmatic tract currently being preached by those who have slowly but surely grasped the political reigns of control of the United States.  Whether it is highly conservative organizations like the Family Research Council (headed by James Dobson) or the Traditional Values Coalition, or others like Jerry Falwell, Minister Pat Robertson (who called for the assassination of Venezuela's president last year) or even the U.S. president himself (who claims that he is a man of deep and abiding faith), America's political grip under Christian fundamentalist right-wing policy and doctrine poses one of the great dangers to freedom and democracy, argues Mike Papantonio, a devout Christian whose politics lean to the liberal side.  Ewing and Grady intersperse the teachings at the Kids on Fire Camp with Papantonio's reactions and thoughts, delivered courtesy of the radio show he does on a weekly basis on the Air America Radio Network.  He winces in disbelief and among other things declares profound shock at the reach of such teachings.  "You are entitled to teach your kids anything you want," he remarks during an on-air interview with Pastor Fischer, "but you don't have the right to indoctrinate them or imprint your religious beliefs on anyone else."  This debate between the two is the only real confrontation between "true" believers in "Jesus Camp" and it leaves Mr. Papantonio exasperated and at an impasse.

That Ewing and Grady stay neutral works hugely to their advantage and the audience is left to think things through and decide which of the two primary competing views on religious worship and teaching is more cogent.  The idea that one of the camp's purposes is for the pre-teens to become young "soldiers in God's Army" and take back America is especially disturbing, particularly in light of the ongoing invasion and unrest in Iraq, and the backlash of many Arabs and Muslims against what they see as another Christian crusade against them, not to mention what they see as a president who espouses the tenets of Christianity but practices anything but those tenets resulting in deleterious consequences. 

As we watch kids crying, hyperventilating, chanting and speaking in tongues, it is impossible not to wonder what kind of adults they will become.  The truly frightening thing is that such adults will become the next leaders of a nation which is already struggling with fundamentalism of another kind overseas.  "Jesus Camp" speaks loudly about the dangers of religious fundamentalism of any kind and where it will lead America, through the actions of its participants but effectively resists taking a position.  We are left to ponder a mildly charismatic (and sometimes sinister-sounding pastor Fischer -- who may not even believe her own day-to-day efforts -- with the kids.)  The kids at the camp sincerely believe that they are not being taken advantage of nor are they insane -- Rachael looks at the people who would call her weird as being just that themselves.  They (the children) are well-trained and schooled by the adults at Devil's Lake, but the question that goes begging in "Jesus Camp", an important must-see documentary is, "are they also being fooled"?

Copyright 2006.  All Rights Reserved.

"Jesus Camp" is not rated by the Motion Picture Association of America.  The film lasts for one hour and 24 minutes.