Monday 23 January 2012

Let the little children come unto me

When I was seventeen, I spent three weeks serving as a 'senior camper' at a Christian summer camp. The purpose of Iwerne Holidays was to present the gospel to teenagers from independent schools in a fun environment including sports, excursions, and all sorts of activities. It was just like being a 'camp counselor' across the pond, except we weren't hacked to pieces by machete-wielding madmen.*

It was, however, nothing at all like Jesus Camp. Therein lies much of what makes the film so fascinating and irritating.

Jesus Camp, released in 2006, is an artifact of the culture wars of the 2000s, that appalling time in history when 'religion' (whatever that means) was at the forefront of public debate in the Anglo-Saxon world. The days of Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, James Dobson and Pat Robertson, all of them thankfully increasingly irrelevant in an age where culture war has dissolved into the naked class struggle whose halo it was from the beginning.

Anyway! The film follows evangelical culture around a Pentecostal children's camp called 'Kids on Fire' in North Dakota. There, pastor Becky Fischer 'equips' children to be 'warriors for Christ' to 'take America back' by evangelism as well as fighting abortion and other forms of ungodliness in the public sphere. Directors Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady focus on three of the children: twelve-year-old Levi, homeschooled by his mother, who teaches him that evolution is a hoax; nine-year-old Rachael, who regularly engages in evangelism towards strangers; and ten-year-old Tory, who breakdances to Christian metal.

At Kids on Fire, these and other children are taught to be wary because 'the devil goes after the young' and to distrust secular entertainment ('Had it been in the Old Testament, Harry Potter would've been put to death!'). Among themselves, the children discuss their feelings about films and books, revealing their struggles with what they're being taught. In a service that can in good conscience only be described as mass hysteria, the children break down weeping and pledge to end abortion by political activism and asking God for 'righteous judges'.

We meet Levi again at New Life Church in Colorado Springs. In an interview, Pastor Ted Haggard expresses his delight at evangelical Christians forming a decisive voting bloc against homosexuality, abortion and the teaching of evolution. This scene, of course, now has a potency the filmmakers couldn't be aware of at the time: just a few months later, Haggard fell from grace when it was revealed he'd indulged in adulterous gay sex and illegal drugs for years.

As you'll have guessed by now, Jesus Camp is a liberal message picture. Despite the lack of a narrator, Ewing and Grady clearly think the formation of a political evangelicalism focused on anti-abortion, anti-homosexual 'family values' is a very bad thing, and I agree with them. Even so, I didn't really need the constant scare music they lather on every scene of Pentecostal worship. The snippets of Mike Papantonio's radio show, in which he criticises the Religious Right, are editorialising I welcome: it's good to see a Christian offer an alternative view to the one pushed by the film's subjects.

Even while Jesus Camp sternly disapproves of its subject matter, it's a respectful, humane film. When Becky Fischer says, offhand, 'I get exhausted doing this' while preparing for another session, it's the rawest, truest moment in the film. While I don't think we learn enough about them (which isn't really excusable, given the film's short running time), the children are never treated as less than full human beings with dreams and ambitions. Levi's worldview may be a mess of cruel lies - if global warming is true, ye are yet in your sins - but we learn to rejoice and mourn with him.

As such, the film's ostensibly simple message constantly rebels against the much more complex response the film actually induces in the viewer - especially if that viewer, like me, is himself an evangelical Christian. Becky Fischer's ministry is horrifying: she's convinced children need to be indoctrinated because most people's Weltanschauung is fixed from a young age, so better get in early; and she's worried because 'the enemy' - Islam - is supposedly training young children to blow themselves up, an amount of dedication she seems to view with envy rather than horror. (It was 2006, remember.)

In Fischer's call that children should be 'warriors' the Christian concept of spiritual warfare thus comes worryingly close to real, physical warfare. The 'Christian pledge of allegiance' one of the families recites at home has nothing to do with the gospel but a lot with a brand of Christian nationalism - something I can't imagine Jesus approving of. Faith in radical, counter-cultural grace - following an executed criminal - does not sit comfortably with colonising the public sphere because 'our nation was founded on Judaeo-Christian values' (Fischer).

Although the film is unmistakeably a product of its time - witness the scene in which the children are invited to bless a cardboard cutout of George Bush by stretching out their hands towards it - it seems prescient in other ways. The language of 'taking back America', now secularised in the Republican Right's crusade against ostensible Marxists, socialists, and liberals, is used here in religious garb. This rhetoric of national rebirth in the face of an ungodly, totalitarian government - a narrative that is a pack of lies, remember, no matter what we might feel about Obama otherwise - has given rise to the uniquely American permutations of fascism that are now flourishing at the even-loonier end of the Tea Party.

Jesus Camp runs into problems in failing to notice that Fischer and her ilk are engaged in intra-evangelical point-scoring, too: Rachael believes that churches with ordered, sedate services are 'dead'. The raucous Pentecostal manifestations of Kids on Fire - dancing, weeping, speaking in tongues, the whole vocabulary of the charismatic movement - would be regarded with bemusement if not outright horror by many evangelicals; fundamentalists, who trace their tradition back to the Puritans and disapprove of both dancing and what Jonathan Edwards called 'enthusiasm', would be especially appalled.**

The filmmakers don't seem to realise that the Religious Right is less a terrifying monolith than a collection of increasingly disparate forces provisionally united around certain political issues: opposing homosexuality, abortion and secularism, championing the military and the death penalty. Just like Fischer herself, Ewing and Grady never investigate the loci of structural power and privilege among their subjects: the power of leaders over followers, adults over children, men over women. Jesus Camp would be a richer film for it, but it remains an eye-opening portrait of the Religious Right.

*What did you expect? Being a Christian summer camp, the experience lacked the weed-smoking and fornication necessary to enrage Norfolk's homicidal maniac population.
**Perhaps more embarrassingly, many evangelicals would not be comfortable with a female pastor.

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