Saturday, October 9, 2010

Jesus Camp (2006)

Truth is stranger than fiction, they say. Its also a hell of a lot scarier.
The 2006 documentary Jesus Camp takes a look at evangelical fundamentalism in America, centering on the heartland, namely Missouri and North Dakota. Its here that Becky Fischer holds what is essentially a revival for children, teaching them Christian fundamentalism. One child in particular is Levi O'Brien, who has a great passion for Jesus and even gives sermons to other children. Through these two, and scenes from the camp, the film asks: are they being brainwashed?
Here's the neutral critique part of this post: its a very well-made film, even if it was obviously done on the cheap. Directors Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady make good use of the images they capture, letting them speak for themselves. However, the film does lose points for its cloying use of a liberal radio talk show host; he's a pandering device that only repeats the points that have already been made in the footage from the camp, rather than offering any new insights. Its a shame that Ewing and Grady felt that they needed to spell everything out, as if their film wasn't powerful enough.
Now for the objective part. I have nothing wrong with Christianity. I have no problem with public worship or evangelicalism; religious freedom is protected in the Constitution, and I believe its your basic human right to practice your faith. I think Bible schools and Sunday school for children is perfectly acceptable; kids have every right to love and praise Jesus at any age. However, what I do have a problem with is extremism in any form. And the fundamentalism on display in Jesus Camp is, without a doubt, dangerous extremism.
The main purpose of this fundamentalism is to "bring America back to God." Now, this was not formed as a Christian nation; in fact, freedom of religion and separation of church and state have been a part of America since colonialism. But they want the United States to be a Christian nation. It's ironic that Becky continuously cites the Muslims as an enemy that "turns children into soldiers, carrying guns and willing to die for their beliefs," but then calls the children she takes the camp "soldiers who are willing to die for God." There are several images of the children dancing to songs, their faces painted in camouflage, carrying sticks and marching in place; they're soldiers for God.
It's hard to argue that these children aren't being brainwashed. Many of them are homeschooled, where they learn that science is evil and should not be believed; rather, they should only believe what "God" tells them (God, of course, being other fundamentalists, not necessarily the Bible). They are told that President George W. Bush is one of them, and that they should pray for him; there's actually a supremely creepy scene where Becky brings a cardboard cutout of Bush on stage, and all the kids essentially bow down in prayer to him, as if he were an idol in the image of God or Jesus on the cross. Though they claim there is no political bent to the camp, it's hard to ignore the fact that the children are being taught that anyone who disagree with their ideas (namely far-right conservatism) is "corrupt" and "destined to hell;" to illustrate this, the kids use a hammer to smash teacups with "GOVERNMENT" emblazoned across them. These kids, as seen here, are indirectly being taught to be radical, and that if the government is not outwardly and explicitly Christian, then it should be violently overthrown. Scared yet?
Looking back on the film four years later, there's some interesting things to note in the film. First, there's the presence of Ted Haggart, just before he had to step down from all of his leadership positions because of claims that he engaged in homosexual acts with a male prostitute and dabbled with crystal meth, the former he had preached fiery sermons condemning (including in the film). The timeframe of the film focuses on the confirmation hearings of President Bush's nominee to fill the space on the Supreme Court left by Sandra Day O'Connor, Samuel Alito. At the time, as Becky and other fundamentalists repeatedly say, Alito is a great hope for the creation of a Christian nation, since he himself is an outspoken Christian. Four years later, Alito's decisions on religion have been staunchly libertarian, supporting the First Amendment's protection of freedom of religion and separation of church and state. This, in hindsight, brings new meaning to the film's final scene: Becky takes her car through a car wash, listening to a preacher talk about what the Alito confirmation means for bringing America back to God. As her car is cleaned, she reaches the exit, the sun shining, a smile across her face: it's a brand new day. But now, all of that optimism is taken with a knowing chuckle. She's going to have to wait a little longer.
The third, and perhaps most frightening, thing that I noticed is repeated several times: "we've got to take the country back." Here, in 2006, two years before the next presidential election, we have the foundations of the Tea Party rhetoric. On the political spectrum, Becky and the other adults are certainly within the Tea Party's demographic. The movement's roots can be traced back to the evangelical fundamentalist movement. In other words, we shouldn't really be surprised that the Tea Party exists; it's been long in the making. And children such as Levi will carry it forth into the next generation.
Personal politics and religious beliefs aside, I highly recommend this film. For some, it may reaffirm everything you believe. But for many, I expect, it will scare the hell out of you.
*Bear in mind that this film only represents evangelical fundamentalist Christianity, and not all Christians, and that my opinions are only in regards to the film's subject matter. Be smart, please, and don't call on me for being a Christian-basher.*

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