Documentary collaborators Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady’s Jesus Camp opens, and returns periodically to, a series of wonderfully evocative images of Middle America–Missouri, to be exact–with its lush green swaths of open land, cloud-swept skies, and that most precious of commodities for all of us in the L.A. basin, clean air. But whatever charm the place might have is quickly poisoned by the fact that it’s also a hotbed of Christian fundamentalism. Ahead of mid-term elections, Jesus Camp is a frightening but finally unilluminating portrait of right-wing America–an America that claims a significant part of the nation’s heartland, and has our legislature and judiciary by the balls. To impress that latter point, Ewing and Grady make the nomination and confirmation of the conservative Justice Samuel Alito Jr. to the Supreme Court a running theme across their film, reminding us of the Religious Right’s effective commandeering of power.
Jesus Camp gives us a glimpse of evangelist homes and mega-churches where children are indoctrinated into an extremely literalist Christian mindset. It’s a movement whose ideology is as aggressively intolerant as that of any Islamist madrasah, and whose pastors are our homegrown equivalents of the radical mullahs. This is a parallel that Jesus Camp doesn’t have to try hard to draw out, because it practically does so on its own in the person of self-styled children’s pastor Becky Fischer. Like her Islamist counterparts, Fischer and others in her trade seek to mold their pre-adolescent congregants into miniature soldiers, armed with a missionary zeal bent on converting America into a coast-to-coast Crystal Cathedral. At one point, the pastor references the indoctrination of Palestinian children into adopting radical Islam as a justification for the evangelical mission in America.
Fischer presides over Kids on Fire, a Christian camp in which children are initiated into the full package of extreme right-wing thought. They pray over a life-sized cutout of George W., they speak in tongues and go into conniptions. They speak passionately about “finding Christ,” about stamping out abortion, and galvanizing their generation with the Christian spirit. Even ordinarily, I’d find such talk disturbing, but from the mouths of 8-, 10-, 12-year-olds, it’s downright scary.
The problem with Jesus Camp, though, is that leaves the matter there, in shock-value 20/20 territory, without taking a more sophisticated look into this phenomenon. From liberal Air America radio host Mike Papantonio, an observant Methodist, we get a nominal counterweight, an appeal for religious moderation. But it’s a shout in the wind, because Ewing and Grady focus their attention largely on the Christian fundamentalists – an unfortunate choice because extremism in any form, apart for its power to incite fear, is intensely boring. By nature, zealotry is monolithic and unmoving, rather than dynamic and evolving so it does not stand up to dramatic treatment per se. Watching these morally co-opted, religiously manic youngsters, I wanted Jesus Camp to provide a voice to answer for their fragile psychologies, or input from non-evangelist parents concerned about the effect people like Fischer are wreaking on their communities. I wondered how an intelligent, incisive documentary maker indigenous to this milieu would’ve treated this subject because, to my mind, that would’ve made for a more socially constructive final product.
As it is, there is nothing in Jesus Camp we didn’t already know, or suspect was happening in America. And for any documentary subject to be worthy of attention, the maker must render it in far more shaded and complex ways that Ewing and Grady manage here. “Jesus Camp” doesn’t just preach to the converted, it bores and frightens them.
Directed by: Heidi Ewing, Rachel Grady
Cast: Lou Engle, Becky Fischer, Ted Haggard, Mike Papantonio