Jesus’s little army
A new documentary explores how children are being indoctrinated with disturbing fundamentalist Christian values at a bizarre summer camp. Director Rachel Grady talks to Stephen Applebaum
THE FRIGHTENING FACE of Islamic fundamentalism is a commonplace in the media these days, but a new documentary suggests that other kinds of religious fundamentalism can be equally chilling — especially when children are involved. Jesus Camp focuses on a group of bornagain Christian children who attend a Kids on Fire evangelical summer camp at a place called Devils Lake in North Dakota. Under the regime of the camp’s formidable founder, Pentecostal pastor Becky Fischer, the children speak in tongues and weep with ecstasy as they confirm their love for Jesus.
When the film was released in America, it provoked shock and awe in almost equal measure. Some people were horrified by its portrait of a world where children’s minds are shaped for political as well as religious ends; others were inspired by the young evangelicals’ apparent passion and dedication. That there was disagreement among viewers was the perfect reaction, says Rachel Grady, the Washington DCborn filmmaker who directed the Oscar-nominated film with Heidi Ewing.
“I think that Jesus Camp can speak to many groups and it can give many messages,” she says. “It’s really in the eye of the beholder. I might have my personal wishes but, frankly, getting a rise out of people and having this film stick with them was my objective.”
Neither filmmaker knew much about the world they were entering when they first found out about Fischer’s activities, so they had few preconceptions. But did being Jewish (Ewing is a lapsed Catholic) make it harder for Grady to be objective?
“I grew up culturally Jewish, but in a very secular family, so my religious upbringing was minimal,” says the 35-year-old filmmaker. “I think that just sort of put me in a position of being open-minded because I don’t have any hang-ups about any religion.”
The same cannot be said for some of the people who appear in the film. At one point, Levi, a 12-year-old would-be preacher, reveals that his “spirit feels kind of yucky” whenever he meets a non-Christian. “That was one of the few moments during the entire process where we felt kind of put on the spot,” admits Grady. “It was quite chilling, because in that moment you can see the seeds of serious intolerance taking root.”
To the filmmakers’ relief, they were never asked about their own beliefs and positions. “I don’t know if it’s because everyone they know is a born-again Christian so that’s not a conversation they have a lot,” says Grady, “but there was a surprising lack of curiosity. We were grateful for it, to tell the truth, because we didn’t want to be in a position where we were alienating our subjects while we were still filming them, because we weren’t going to start lying to them if they asked us the question.”
Ironically, if they had been asked about their backgrounds, Grady’s might have been more acceptable to them than Ewing’s. To her surprise, there was a strong relationship between the evangelical movement and Israel. “All the churches have Israeli flags and they are very pro-Israel,” Grady says. The reason is partly scriptural: “The Jews need to be reunited in the Promised Land before Jesus returns to Earth,” she explains, “so if that is something that you’re waiting around for, you’re going to be an advocate for making sure that the Jews have a place that they can call home.”
There is much in Jesus Camp that prompts astonishment. At home, Levi watches a video called Creation Adventure that claims that the Earth is just 6,000 years old. His mother, who is also his tutor — Levi does not attend school — tells him: “Creationism is the only possible answer to all the questions,” and that global warming is “not a big problem, really”. Says Grady: “The question is, what happens when they have the opportunity to experience different realities [as young adults]? Because that’s just the nature, ultimately, of living in a multicultural, secular society, which is the United States. We’re very curious to see what happens to them, because they’re pretty much put into an incubator.”
At the summer camp, things are even more bizarre. In the pastor’s hands, toys become tools for lecturing her young flock on the dangers of sin. Even Harry Potter is a threat. “Warlocks are enemies of God,” she bellows. “If it had been in the Old Testament, Harry Potter would have been put to death.”
Thingsbecomeevenweirderwhenawomanencourages children to bless a cardboard cut-out of George W Bush, to give him spiritual strength. “Mr President, one nation under God,” they all cry. Later, a pro-life campaigner hands out life-sized plastic foetuses and leads the children in chants of “Righteous judges”.
The filmmakers increasingly viewed Fischer as part of a political movement, even if she herself did not. “They just feel that being politically active is part of being a good Christian,” says Grady. “They don’t draw these lines.”
Nor do they believe in a separation of Church and state. “They believe that the separation has been misinterpreted from the beginning,” she explains, “and they’re just trying to have America be returned to its natural order, according to their view.”
With the US Supreme Court now stacked with conservatives, Ewing suggests that the religious right could get America’s abortion laws overturned in the next five years. “Even if George Bush were to leave office tomorrow, the Supreme Court is forever. Religious conservatives understand that.”
Their rise, believes Grady, is partly why the filmmakers were able to get such good access to their subjects. “I don’t think it’s a coincidence that a group of people that have more political clout than they’ve ever had in the history of this country feel somewhat emboldened,” she says wryly. “They really feel their prayers are being answered, and now’s the time to spread their vision to a secular America.”
At the end of the film, the charismatic minister Ted Haggard, who has since been embroiled in a sex and drugs scandal, confidently claims that evangelicals now comprise a voting corpus large enough to determine future elections. “It’s a fabulous life,” he beams.
Haggard has good reason to be happy. With fewer than 50 per cent of Americans voting, “a minority can have an enormous amount of influence”, according to Grady. “I would hope that watching Jesus Camp would make someone think that voting is the most powerful thing that they could do. For me, that would be the most powerful influence the film could have.”
A girl approaches an almost trance-like state in a scene from Jesus Camp, a film which exposes activities at an evangelical children’s camp
Heidi Ewing ( left) and Rachel Grady, the co-directors of the controversial Jesus Camp
From top: Evangelical pastor Becky Fischer; a child at a anti-abortion protest; children at Fischer’s Kids on Fire camp bless a cut-out of President George W Bush