Jesus Camp. Dir. Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady. Loki Films, 2006.
Adam Hilkemann | Fall 2006

Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady of Loki Films are known for making controversial films, such as their collaborative project “Boys of Baraka” and Ewing’s critically acclaimed film about Cuban Nobel Peace Prize nominee Oswaldo Paya. The pair has teamed up again to create Jesus Camp, a documentary that examines a Christian summer camp for six to fourteen year-olds in North Dakota. In what is perhaps a rare glimpse of charismatic Christianity for many Americans, the film spends much of its time on the frequent all-camp gatherings involving singing and preaching. Despite what appear to be attempts made in good faith by the directors, the film still comes off as not particularly fair to its subjects, regardless of one’s political or religious views. Nevertheless, for both outraged critics and Jesus Camp fans, the film does raise some important questions about Christianity, appropriate ways to raise children, and the role of religion in politics.

Before any discussion about the central questions raised by the film, it should be made known that the music and lighting in the film strongly influence one’s initial interpretation of the film. Perfectly innocent scenes at the camp are introduced with a dark, rainy atmosphere lit by the smeary red of stoplights accompanied by scary music. Despite the fact that the directors toned down the “sinister” music at the request of camp directors, a rather chilling mood remains for the simple purpose of manipulating the audience. Further anecdotes of the manipulative slant of this film are available but would do the film injustice, as it does bring up significant issues that should be dealt with.

The documentary starts by following the experiences of five children as they prepare for camp. The kids all come from suburban white families, relatively typical of the camp, and are extremely friendly, obedient, and excited to go to camp. The film then cuts to the kids’ arrival at “Kids on Fire Summer Camp” in the ironically named town of Devils Lake, ND (laughter ensues in theater.) We find that Becky Fischer, the camp’s director, is a middle-aged, overweight woman who throws all of her often depleted energy into the camp. The movie accurately depicts that during their time at camp, the kids spend most of their time in the large event hall hearing rousing speeches followed by powerful altar calls and praise songs. Views of the children and the camp are also interspersed with short in-studio video clips from Mike Papantonio’s “Ring of Fire” political radio show on Al Franken’s recently bankrupt Air America radio network.

Preaching and singing are not exactly foreign to the religious experience, but the energy with which lessons are taught and the level of enthusiasm of the campers’ response are certainly unexpected. The preaching style can probably best be compared to Southern televangelism revivals, often designed to intimidate and guilt-trip listeners. As many of the large gatherings reach their climax, the hall is filled with crying children of all ages. Some are shaking with their hands clasped above their heads as their lips move quickly in frantic prayers. Other children give passionate testimonies or astonishingly mature sermons to their peers. The leaders on the steps of the stage in front pour water on the hands of the anxious children, telling them how the blood of Christ has washed their sins away. In a few scenes other campers are “struck with the Spirit” and drop to the floor, in spasms, as leaders pray over them.

Soon after the release of the film in theaters, accusations of brainwashing children erupted, echoing Papantonio’s criticisms in the film. They are children after all; it is cruel and wrong to manipulate them into believing in radical doctrines. But the situation is not quite so simple. Children are educated by a broad range of sources: their parents, teachers, the media, friends, and so on. All parents are selective in some way of what they expose their kids to. Violent or sexually explicit TV shows and reading materials are almost always off limits. So are friends who frequently misbehave or are judged to be delinquents.

Parents frequently influence their children with their own political, social, and moral beliefs. Republicans, Democrats, Greens, and people of all sorts of political parties can raise their children with a particular political viewpoint. Some parents instill more liberal values in their children about sex and sexuality, while others stick to more traditional views. Are these examples of value judgments? Yes, it would be ludicrous indeed if parents did not make decisions they felt to be in the best interest of their children. The disagreement then seems to be about the content of the material selected, not the act of selection itself, by their parents. It is quite easy to throw around claims of brainwashing when one disagrees with the nature of the content, but much more difficult to defend one’s own childrearing program.

Another objection is that the children at “Jesus Camp” are, in a sense, harmed by being forced against their will to participate in certain activities. Yet, the film does not portray the use of force at all. Sullen faces are visible in the crowds of children in the camp. The adults present never handle the children roughly or ask the children to do something they do not want to do. Emotional pressure, however, is harder to gauge, and it is obvious that the camp’s leaders target the emotions of the children in order to impress certain beliefs upon them. Nevertheless, there are many other avenues of emotional manipulation in our society. Who can deny the heavy emotional element in anti-smoking/anti-drug campaigns and even in charity TV ads for poverty-stricken African AIDS orphans? The difference between these agendas in the play of emotions is only a matter of degrees at best. The discussion then comes back to content. What is it that makes the events depicted in Jesus Camp so offensive to so many?

The sort of spiritual passion, or “charismatic” Christianity, shown in the film is shocking, or at least surprising, to people who are only familiar with more austere forms of Christianity, Catholics, and “mainline” Protestants, but also Southern Baptists and many Evangelicals.

The charismatic movement had its clearest beginning in American Pentecostal churches in the 1950s. By the late 1990s most mainstream churches worldwide had experienced some sort of “charismatic renewal” within their congregation. With the exception of the Roman Catholic and Episcopal Churches, most charismatics left or were forced to leave their home churches and eventually formed interdenominational churches with other charismatics. Thus, excepting churches which have drifted even farther from their mainstream roots, most charismatic churches are otherwise orthodox. (The use of “mainstream” to describe non-charismatic is becoming increasingly problematic with the dramatic expansion of charismatic congregations.)

The first difference is that most mainstream churches believe that spiritual manifestations like speaking in tongues and prophecy stopped occurring after the first century. Secondly and more importantly, mainstream churches, Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant, generally hold that the Holy Spirit is only received once by the Christian at the point of salvation or the initiation of salvation, depending on one’s denomination, and that thereafter the Spirit permanently dwells in a person, thus annulling the concept that one can receive the Spirit many times. Some Christians who exhibit charismatic behaviors believe that a Christian may, by preparing himself, receive the Holy Spirit any number of times subsequent to his conversion in a way that is somehow greater than the first and it is then that the Christian life is empowered in its fullest sense. It is important to note that this doctrine is different from the Catholic concept of multiple receptions of grace, and is solidly in opposition to most Protestant and Orthodox denominations.

There are of course Christians who display charismatic behaviors who do not hold to the second teaching of subsequent and greater receptions of the Spirit. This is akin to the New Testament example of Jewish Christians trying to push Jewish dietary restrictions and circumcision on Gentile Christians, in which case Paul recommends that Christians follow whichever course they feel is best as long as it does not cause other Christians in the church to stumble in their faith. It is hard, and wrong, to argue that God simply does not or cannot perform miracles anymore. Therefore, many would contend that the responsible and unobtrusive practice of charismatic behaviors by Christians is at least acceptable within mainstream Christianity.

The question then is where along the spectrum Becky’s camp falls. According to her website, it does not appear that she believes in the subsequent receptions doctrine, and sees charismatic Christianity solely as a “style of worship”. However, it seems rather clear from the film that Becky may not even be aware of the important theological issues at stake. That, from a Christian perspective, is perhaps the greatest failing of the camp, and for that matter, of many Christians.

Nonetheless, few people seem upset that the camp’s teachings might be slightly heretical, or its pursuit of clear doctrine lax. The camp’s main offense, according to Papantonio and others, seems to be the mixing of religion and politics. Examples of evidence for this are the invitation by many of the camp’s leaders to the crowd to “pray over President Bush,” for God to “raise up righteous judges,” to smash mugs emblazoned with various political corruptions with a hammer, to pray for an end to abortion, etc. Papantonio’s criticism contains two separate claims that should be dealt with independently.

The first is that bringing one’s religion to bear in the political realm is somehow irrational because religion is irrational. This is a non sequitur. Papantonio himself claims to be a Christian. Yet, he has decided that his religion should play no role in the formation of his political beliefs. The “Jesus Campers” have chosen to do the opposite. The very fact that while holding ostensibly similar religious beliefs, two groups can come to two opposite and practical conclusions shows that reason is at work, albeit on a political, not a religious level. Here is another example. Both Libertarians and Democrats believe that the formal education of children is good for society. However, many Libertarians reject the idea of public schools, citing poor results and lack of substance, while Democrats embrace it wholeheartedly, detesting unequal results. Neither party in this case would be seen as irrational. However, the belief that children should be formally educated is just that, a belief. Education in the past was conducted quite differently, if at all. Formal education developed at a specific point in time, and large segments of society have acknowledged its correlated benefits and compatibility with human nature and pursued it wholeheartedly. It not something that can be “true” or “false” in the scientific sense – exactly like religion.

The second claim is that regardless of the rationality or irrationality of the politics, the teaching of these political and religious beliefs to children can be harmful to their development in some way. This is simply preposterous. As directors Ewing and Grady have reiterated through various media outlets, the children shown in this film are consistently good-natured, well-behaved, articulate, and thoughtful. Furthermore, when asked, “’Do you think that these kids are capable of violence?’ …we [the directors] have been giving a strident "NO!" to this question.” As one particularly sweet and articulate seven year-old girl makes clear, the kids understand their fight to be a spiritual, not a physical war.

However, one might suspect that Papantonio and other critics already understand this. Many of those opposed to Becky’s summer camp quite willingly spread their own beliefs over the radio and other media and most likely impart them to their children. They throw around hypocritical accusations of brainwashing and hide behind deceptive walls of rationality. Furthermore, in light of the numerous hate emails and calls to Becky and her staff and an incident of vandalism to the camp in October, one begins to wonder if the search for potentially harmful beliefs would best be started somewhere else.

It is high time to stop looking at Christian conservatives, whose biggest failure has been submitting to big-government Republicans by whom they have been betrayed, to find the source of America’s ills. Neglecting to engage with a group entirely because one disagrees with their religious and political beliefs is the worst kind of intolerance and is much worse than anything of which the passionate people at Kids on Fire are guilty. Still, the leaders of the camp, and all Christians, would do well to engage in a more thoughtful kind of Christianity that is more careful with its core doctrines than is evidenced by the Christians in Jesus Camp.


Adam Hilkemann ‘07 is a History concentrator in Dunster House.