The most alarming aspect of Academy Award-nominated Jesus Camp is the indoctrination of children at an incredibly young age. Mike Papantonio, a political radio show host, confronts Becky Fischer with this realization during their on-air interview.
Becky, the leader of the Jesus Camp, was Children’s Pastor for Word of Faith Church and Outreach in Bismarck, ND, before focusing her efforts full-time on Kids In Ministry International. Their ministry goal through workshops and training events for parents and leaders is to empower children to be all that God has for them to be. Through the camps of Kids In Ministry, the film shows these children being taught God’s warfare in this world, and the supremacy of America as God’s country. In one scene, a leader raises up a life-size cardboard cutout of US President George W. Bush and urges the children to reach out and pray over the President.
As the film opens, we hear radio clips from the resignation of Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor. In the Director’s Commentary, Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady mention that Bush’s announcement of O’Connor’s resignation came as they began filming, and they believed it was necessary to include that as a thread of the Evangelical Movement they were portraying.
Soundbyties from Mike Papantonio’s Ring of Fire, balance the Christian worldview portrayed by Pastor Becky and the Jesus Camp. “So there’s some new brand of religion out there,” Papantonio says, “that somehow things have changed since Matthew wrote about Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, where Jesus told us to be peacemakers.”
This camp raises up children who believe they are separated from other children around them. Some are home-schooled because their parents want a different worldview impressed upon their children. Levi, a 12-year-old, knows and shares this in the film: “I do think I’m different from other kids because we know Jesus and we’re hungry after Jesus. But you know what, I wouldn’t be different from other kids if everyone did their calling.” Tory, 10, follows: “Really Britney Spears and Lindsey Lohan, I could definitely care less about them. Their songs are mainly based on guys or girls, and we as Christians, well I, do not believe in that.”
In what has become a controversial aspect of the film, the children visit New Life Church, where Ted Haggard was Pastor. Haggard first expressed his dismay with how he was portrayed; then Haggard found himself in the midst of a scandal centered on his personal behavior. To those not a part of the Church, or who are unfamiliar with varieties of American Christianity, the correlations between the Jesus Camp and Ted Haggard could prove confusing.
The film introduces Levi, Rachael and Tory, shows their families, follows their time at camp and ventures across America with them as they put into practice what they have been taught. The words coming out of the mouths often sound more like a seasoned Pastor than a young child. During camp, Rachael takes a walk around the camp and speaks to the camera: “Churches that God likes to go to are churches where they’re jumping up and down, shouting his name and just praising him…they’re not quiet…they’re [shouting] ‘Hallelujah God!!’ And depending on how they invite him, he’ll be there or not.” During the credits, Rachael has a conversation with three men during one of her visits to the city about where they think they will go when they die. They give her all of the traditional Christian responses. Her response: “I think they’re Muslim.”
“And right now, everything they do, they say they do in the name of God,” Papantonio rants, “that we need to go to war in the name of God. They’re being told that George Bush, of all people, is a holy man, who’s been anointed with the job of creating a Christian nation, not only in America but all around the world.”
For an incredibly passionate documentary, Ewing and Grady have accomplished an insurmountable task of creating a work that is balanced. This is certainly a credit to their hard work and desire to create a solid film. In a recent interview on “Ring of Fire,” Ewing and Grady mentioned their continued contact with Fischer and an ongoing relationship. They successfully engaged their subjects and maintained a relationship despite the controversy that surrounded the release and widespread viewing of the film. This is what a documentary should be.