“Jesus Camp” begins quietly: Hills roll alongside lengthy freeways; 18-wheelers coast by billboards for Kentucky Fried Chicken. It’s small-town Middle America, and everything is as it should be. Within minutes, however, this permeating placidity is blown to pieces.
The documentary focuses on the stories of Levi, age 12, and Rachel, age 9, who have been raised Evangelical Christians by their frighteningly fanatical parents. Their immature yet amazingly strong beliefs soon develop through their participation in “Kids On Fire,” a Bible study camp in Devil’s Lake, N.D., created by Becky Fisher. The founding Pentecostal Children’s Minister, Fisher is immediately portrayed as manipulative and abusive, but still appears strangely sweet. She screams, “You’re phony and a hypocrite” at a group of sensitive preteens, inducing tears and hysteria; yet she genuinely believes that she is working the will of God through her burning tactics.
While at home, Levi is schooled by his mother on the idea of creationism; he is taught that evolution is absurd, and that global warming just isn’t worth worrying about. In her efforts at edification, his mother even takes the time to comment, “Our nation was founded on Judeo-Christian values.” Apparently the whole “separation of church and state” thing is an elaborate hoax.
Rachel, who openly admits that other kids her age find her “weird,” walks up to complete strangers to talk about her religion, telling them that she heard God’s voice directing her to do so. Her father, who tells her, “Way to be obedient,” then praises her.
The motif of violence is vivid throughout the film, displaying itself most dramatically during the children’s camp lessons. At one point, Levi speaks of enlisting in “God’s army,” while Rachel exclaims, “We’re kind of being trained to be warriors.” This, in fact, seems to be true, as Fisher later preaches to the children, “This means war, this means war! Are you a part of it or not?” Another preacher, Ted Haggard (who happens to meet with President Bush and his advisers every Monday morning), tells a crowd, “It’s massive warfare every day. Let the battle begin!”
Yet Fisher is aware of the disparity of these incidents — “Some extreme liberals, they must be watching this shaking in their boots.” If not scared, people are certainly affected somehow by the film. In a large NYC theater, half of the audience was muttering and laughing nervously, with the words “Oh, no …” and “That’s ridiculous” pouring out of their mouths as they watched a group of children surround and appear to worship a cardboard cutout of George W. Bush. Even more outraged was the response to the placement of red tape over the children’s mouths as they cried over the legality of abortion in America.
Credit must be given to filmmakers Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady for providing a relatively untainted view of an extremely controversial topic. Fisher, for example, is filmed while watching the footage taken from her camp, and is then given the opportunity to address the camera with her sentiments. And the only condescending voice in the film is that of radio talk show host Mike Papantonio, who appears sparingly throughout the film — his presence seems superfluous, but he is able to address the crucial question of the film in his short screen time: “You think you know your country?” he asks. “You don’t.”
“Jesus Camp” has the ability to be a pivotal and influential look at the extremist Evangelical presence in Middle America today. It draws attention to a movement that few in the urban centers and along the coasts are aware of, and it does so in a way that is simultaneously open-minded and heart-wrenching. This may not be an easy film to watch, but it is well worth every unnerving minute of viewing.