On Jesus Camp (and going to one)

Lizzie invited me to last night’s screening of Jesus Camp. I went, with some trepidation. “It’s okay,” she told me, as the opening credits started. “You’re sitting next to a Jew.”

I tend to shrink from reimmersion in the whacked-out, storefront-church world of my childhood. Also, I worried that the tone of the film might be broadly mocking, and I always find that kind of thing hard to stomach in large doses. Making zealous fundies look crazed and ridiculous is, as a friend of mine would say, like shooting retarded fish in a very small barrel.

But the directors of Jesus Camp trained their cameras on true believers, so that you actually enter this horrifying world rather than snickering outside it.

Of all the worshippers in the film, only Ted Haggard comes off as a cynical opportunist. “Work that cute kid thing until you’re 30,” he tells the budding 12-year-old preacher pictured above. “Then you can worry about whether your content’s any good.” (I’m quoting, here and in the rest of the post, from memory.)

When Jesus Camp appeared, Haggard evidently bought up all related ads on Google, and paid search engine placement services, so that viewers were directed to his attack on the film rather than the film itself. Oddly, though, his attention wandered sometime in early November.

Becky Fischer, the leader and mastermind of the actual Jesus Camp, believes in indoctrinating kids as early as possible — preferably starting before the age of seven. Palestinian children are ready to blow themselves up for Islam, she says, and American children should be prepared to make equivalent sacrifices.

“I can go into a playground of kids that don’t know anything about Christianity, lead them to the Lord in a matter of, just no time at all, and just moments later they can be seeing visions and hearing the voice of God, because they’re so open. They are so usable in Christianity,” she tells the filmmakers.

Fischer’s approach is chilling, and endlessly inventive. The kids gyrate in militant war dances for Jesus, fondle little plastic dolls meant to represent aborted fetuses, and weep over their secret sins as Fischer draws confessions out of them.

Out in the world, they stage an abortion protest in front of the Capitol. They try to distribute Jack Chick tracts. “Do you think they think we’re selling something?” a girl asks a boy after repeated rebuffs from presumably heathen passersby.

I avoided the more protracted Jesus camps as a kid, but my sister and stepsister weren’t so lucky. At ten and eleven, respectively, they spent a week at Miami’s “Lights for Jesus Summer Youth Camp.”

There they slept on lawn chairs — all the cots were taken by the time my mom dropped them off — in a closet. On the first day, Sister was called to the front of the cafeteria auditorium, where the boy she’d just broken up with asked her in front of everyone to get back together with him. “I feel in my heart that Jesus wants you to be with me,” he told her.

“Praise God!” cried their fellow campers. “Hallelujah!”

The young counselor took the mike from the boy and turned to Sister. “Isn’t the Lord telling you to go out with Jimmy again?”

She passed the mike on to Sister, who stood there silently for a second before answering. “Uh, I don’t think so,” she said.

She returned to her seat hoping this would be the low point of her week. But her ex- became camp golden boy, and she became one of its pariahs — the one with a stiff neck, thanks to seven nights on a lawn chair.

Watching Jesus Camp will make you despair for this country’s future. But here’s a reason to postpone the ritual suicide pact: while the Pentecostal church is growing, the ranks of its youth are shrinking. Kids are growing up and opting out, just as my sister and I did.


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