America is being born again.
With that tagline, Jesus Camp kicks off as a riveting documentary about evangelical children and the indoctrinated world they live in.
Directors Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady take viewers on an intensely spiritual and political journey from the playground to the pews at Children on Fire Christian Camp in North Dakota. The Academy Award-nominated 2006 film, recently released on DVD after being nowhere near most big-name theatres upon premiere time, shows a sector of Christian life where home-schooling parents teach their children that “science hasn’t proven anything,” and that global warming isn’t a real issue, just a political platform for the liberals. Children proudly declare their willingness to die for Christ and chant about being in God’s army while decorated in camouflage and war paint. Adult leaders encourage the kids to pray over a cardboard cutout of George W. Bush in intercession for the president and the nation. “President Bush,” Fischer declares, “has brought credibility to the Christian faith.”
Many people could argue with that. And in the same way, people could argue with the credibility of the Christian faith based on this documentary’s portrayal of charismatic evangelism.
The documentary focuses only on the extreme end of this religion, but despite only showing the most drastic characters, Ewing and Grady portray the zeal found at Children on Fire without an agenda. They include no commentary of their own, letting their subjects speak freely about their beliefs and convictions. The only opposition to Fischer’s stance is radio commentator and lawyer Mike Papantonio, a Methodist opposed to the “religious right.” Papantonio, who is specifically included in the documentary to add tension to the film, argues for the separation of church and state. If the documentary is condemning to the characters, it isn’t due to Ewing and Grady. The film isn’t controversial—the lifestyle is.
In the documentary and in the deleted scenes, the Bible term “child-like faith” is perverted as 8-year-olds sob, speak in tongues and prostrate themselves at the front of the church, repenting their sinful ways. Levi, a 12-year-old boy with a rat-tail, preaches to crowds of children that they are a “key generation” to Christ’s return. But how can children too young to understand sex fight against abortion? The children are sincere, compassionate, and excited about their faith, but how could their zeal come from something other than the forced, spoon-fed faith of their parents and church leaders?
Where is the line between teaching and indoctrinating. The scary, right wing lives shown in the documentary are too extreme for anyone outside of the charismatic bubble to relate to. Jesus Camp is worth watching for the controversial treatment of Christian children and religious political agendas, but not for an uplifting or encouraging Christian film. Fischer may preach a version of the truth, but she omits God’s love. And despite the few positive things to be taken away from the film, Fischer’s militant methods probably aren’t what Jesus had in mind when he said “Let the little children come unto me.”