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Fundamentalist Camp Trains God's Little Army

The directors of the new documentary 'Jesus Camp' discuss the good, the bad, and the disharmony in the evangelical community.
They have billions in media holdings, the ear of the president, and the ability to make or break a Republican candidacy. To Becky Fischer, however, former manager of a custom sign business and current children's minister, evangelicals are in danger of losing the next generation. Unimpressed by the fact that 43 percent of America's 100 million evangelicals accepted Christ before the age of 13, Fischer set out to ensure that a new generation of Americans are instilled with a "Christian worldview." "If we wait until they are teens," she remarks, "we have waited too late!"

You've probably seen the ads on the internet of an all-American girl, eyes skyward, the spitting image of a beatific Medieval icon painting. Against the backdrop of the Samuel Alito hearings, "Jesus Camp" follows 11-year-old Tory and a pack of young campers at Kids On Fire Summer Camp, which is the basic training for "God's army." Fischer is Kids On Fire's drill sergeant, and her mission is to empower kids to heal "this ... sick old world." Fischer's zeal is infectious, her belief unshakable, and her will strong. It's not difficult to see why the filmmakers were delighted to find her.

The kids, some of whom are jarringly precocious ("Because I just wanted more of life," one says), are respectful and supportive of one another, attentive to their elders and as humorously oblivious about the secular world as most AlterNet readers are about the evangelical reality. A clip over the closing credits features a young girl who approaches a pair of elderly gentlemen in folding chairs to ask if they know where they're going when they die. After they confidently assert that they're going to heaven, the girl wanders away, uttering offhand to her companion that she thought they might be Muslims.

The age of the kids (some as young as 6 years old) combined with Fischer's bellicose language (she openly refers to their mission as "war"), will undoubtedly make some, as filmmaker Heidi Ewing says below, "pretty uncomfortable." In that sense, "Jesus Camp" doubles as a perfectly entertaining horror flick for secular progressives -- or anyone outside the evangelical community, for that matter. But to leave it at that would be wildly off the mark and just as parochial as the triumphalist evangelicals depicted.

I've argued in PEEK that, just as progressives urge fearful conservatives to probe the phenomenon of terrorism, so must secular progressives probe the activist evangelical mindset. On the other hand, it's natural for a nonevangelical to be utterly turned off by some of the politically charged elements of the film, most of which are aired without counterpoint.

My response to Jesus Camp is similar to the nagging feeling that followed Errol Morris' brilliant Fog of War. That film, you'll recall, was essentially a conversation with Vietnam-era Secretary of Defense Robert Strange McNamara. The 86-year-old McNamara comes off looking like a contrite old man, consumed by self-deception, peppered with startling statements like, "We were behaving as war criminals."

My desire for a ferocious counterargument and an overarching condemnation left me feeling nervous about whether the proper gravity had been afforded the subject. Likewise, although "Jesus Camp" includes a few clips from Air America's liberal Christian host, Mike Papantonio, the rhetoric of Becky Fischer, Ted Haggard and the rest of the film's cast of characters simply sits on screen; take it or leave it.

In the final tally, access has its price, and art should not be polemical. Filmmakers Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady sought to make art and received access in exchange. That access ironically provides opponents with a great deal of insight into this political powerhouse, should they choose to approach it with courage and the desire to see the community's humanity. As they say below, "If people have a problem with what they're doing then they should take a page out of the playbook and start to get involved themselves." Amen.


In most cases, Ewing and Grady, who are close friends as well as co-directors, spoke as any couple would. Which is to say, over each other and finishing each other's sentences. When it was important to separate their responses, I did so (as in the case with their backgrounds). Otherwise, the answers can be seen as a coming from "the directors." -- Ed.


Derkacz: So what inspired you to make "Jesus Camp"? Why now?

Heidi and I were looking for a story about children and faith, and we were inspired by a child from our last film, the "Boys of Baraka," Devon, who was a Baptist preacher, a 12-year-old. He really provoked us to start thinking about where faith comes from: Why is one kid more devout than another? Where does that come from? How does that happen?

Derkacz: What were each of your relationships to religion, spirituality and evangelical Christianity before and after "Jesus Camp"?

Grady: I was raised as a Jew, so my experience with born-again Christians was limited, though it wasn't nothing.

Ewing: I was raised Catholic in a Jewish and Catholic neighborhood, but I didn't have much experience with evangelicals. There was a beginner's eye that we walked into the thing with, for which I'm actually grateful. I think if I walked in with all these negative experiences, or if I'd been a born-again Christian, it would definitely have colored my view of this community.

It was more like being an anthropologist in a way. I don't mean to denigrate anyone by saying this, but it did feel like we were sort of fresh and I'd never seen children exposed to this kind of extreme and intense worship. I was definitely surprised and astonished and confused at first as to what exactly was going on. Of course, the Pentecostal experience and charismatic experience is way more expressive and kind of wild than a lot of other evangelical denominations. So it made it even more gripping for us.

Derkacz: But you felt welcomed by the evangelical community?

Yeah! They were incredibly warm and gracious. It's a caring group of people. I think it was important for Heidi and me to spend time with them. It draws out what people have in common and the humanity of an individual or group of people.

Derkacz: The kids and adults in "Jesus Camp" appear remarkably happy and supportive of each other. Did you feel like they were generally more happy than the population at large?

Well, I wouldn't use the word "happy." They seem ... they don't have a lot of angst. They have a very firm, black-and-white worldview, and I think it simplifies things. They don't have a lot of unanswered questions. They didn't have the anxiety that a lot of Americans are saddled with.

So were you ever tempted to be saved?

Grady: Mmmm, no. Can't say that I was.

Ewing: Nah, not really.

Derkacz: In a blog post I wrote, after first watching "Jesus Camp," one of the commenters wrote that "this film shows 'child abuse,'" a sentiment echoed by others. Do you think the treatment of kids in the film was abusive in any way?

I don't know where the line should be drawn exactly. Terms like "child abuse" and "brainwashing," are loaded terms. When you use a word like "brainwashing," the game is over. It's a difficult question, and I really don't know where I stand on it to this day.

Something may appear abusive or just too intense for a child at first glance, but then you get to know the kids, and you go home with them, have meals with them. When you observe them in their home environment with their brothers and sisters, they seem well-adjusted, willingly reading the Bible.

It's hard for me to just walk away after a year and say, "Yup, this is child abuse. I know it when I see it." What they're going through is extremely intense and pretty radical compared to the mainstream American culture. It's not the norm at all. Some people who see the film will be pretty uncomfortable with the education or indoctrination of these kids. I think it's up to individuals to decide. If we're parsing terms, nobody's doing anything illegal. But I think it's questionable to some people as possibly not good for the kids.

Derkacz: So you had no political agenda?

No, in fact there was nothing political about our initial intentions at all. We were interested in the theology and the faith aspect of this particular group. But after filming several days and seeing the reaction of the community when there was movement in the news or in politics -- for example, Sandra Day O'Connor, who resigned two weeks after we started shooting. I had never seen a group rejoice in such an aggressive way -- well, not aggressive, just incredibly joyful. It was fascinating. Heidi and I realized that we could not avoid the political ramifications of the community; that in fact, they're so intertwined that these people have become de facto political activists, although they don't see themselves in that way.

Derkacz: The film doesn't take any particular political stance, but you did provide a counterpoint to the rhetoric of the evangelical community in the form of Air America's Mike Papantonio, a liberal Christian and a fierce critic of the Christian right. I'm curious about that decision.

It was important that the critic be a Christian so that it's relevant to the people in the film. As it became obvious to us that there were some pretty strong political overtones going on throughout, we thought that it was important to contextualize what was being shown. For example, in the abortion debate, the evangelical leadership and the constituents are all on the same page.

It was important to include a Christian who does not believe in the politicization of the religion. Without him there'd be a flatness to it; there'd be no one disagreeing with what was being seen on the screen. In a lot of ways, Mike voices what at least 50 percent of our audience is thinking, a necessary element to create a nuanced film.

Derkacz: I understand that you screened "Jesus Camp" with the subjects of the film and the community. What were the reactions from Becky Fischer, the kids, and their parents? How about Ted Haggard's New Life Church?

Everyone portrayed in the film supports and likes it except for Ted Haggard, who is the head of the New Life Church -- he's featured at the end of the film. He's a very important, politically active figure.

That's disappointing to most of the people in the film because they really like it, and they feel like it's stinging to them that he would reject the movie, because they think what they were doing was part of the greater evangelical movement and part of his family, though he's rejecting the film on various grounds [For more on Haggard's rejection go HERE -- ed].

But Becky really likes the film, the parents feel they were accurately portrayed. To this day, they don't consider themselves political at all. So they take issue with the concept that they're politically active, although we maintain that what they consider a moral life -- you know, doing "God's will" -- appears political to a lot of people.

So they understand why we perceive that to be true, but they still don't consider themselves very active even though they know the voting records on all their local congressman and are very knowledgable about the issues. They listen to Focus on the Family and James Dobson. But they just feel like they're doing "what God wants them to do, and if you want to call that political then that's fine with us."

That was the one thing that threw us for a loop. That they're all behind the movie and encouraging their churches and their communities to see it.

Derkacz: I hate to lump them together given what you've just told me, but do you think that this movement somehow endangers America as we know it, as a nation that adheres to the Constitution above any theocratic leadership?

Well, there's an inherent problem here, which is that there is a massive number of Americans who do believe that the founding fathers intended to found a much more Christian state. That the Constitution is based on the Ten Commandments. There are a lot of people who will tell you that, who believe that to be true. I think that when you've got, I think, 67 percent of Americans believing that the founding fathers intended to found something like a Christian state, it's really hard to counteract those numbers.

I do believe in separation of church and state; I do believe it's being blurred. Especially in the last ten years. But that's bound to happen when you've got 50 percent of a population that doesn't vote and most evangelicals who do. So you've got a minority that's starting to feel like a majority because they're involved and politically engaged, and they care, and they're up on the issues, and they're not cynical about their influence, and they believe that their vote counts and that they can make changes, and they're going to do that until further notice. So I think if people have a problem with what they're doing, then they should take a page out of the playbook and start to get involved themselves.

I really do think that unless something changes in the political landscape, unless moderates and liberals decide they want to get active and vote and become knowldedgable, I see that separation between church and state getting even blurrier. I really do. It's something to take notice of.
Evan Derkacz is AlterNet's associate editor and writer of PEEK, the blog of blogs.