Jesus Camp is a 2006 documentary by Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady on the now-defunct Pentecostal children's camp "Kids on Fire." It takes place during a specific time in American history. George W. Bush was president, which in general comforted and emboldened conservative Christians. Ted Haggard, pastor of New Life Church in Colorado Springs, was the president of the National Association of Evangelicals. The number of children being homeschooled was approaching a growth apex. The moderately conservative Sandra Day O'Connor retired as a Supreme Court justice and was replaced by the more conservative Samuel Alito.
In this environment, the formerly-Catholic Ewing and the nominally-Jewish Grady set out to understand evangelicalism through the eyes of children. Their chosen setting was a children's camp run by Kids on Fire, a Pentecostal ministry run by Pastor Becky Fischer. The result is an interesting, sometimes disturbing, look into a time when ultra-conservative parents and ministers believed it was their God-given duty to raise their kids to be culture warriors.
The focus of the camp seems to be on sin—individual and national—and what to do about it. The kids are encouraged to confess their own sin as well as take responsibility for the corporate sins of the nation—particularly abortion. The kids are called on to "take back America" because adults are too fat and lazy (a comment that may have been meant tongue-in-cheek). All of the teaching is done within a charismatic context. When not weeping uncontrollably over the state of the nation, the kids are speaking in tongues or being slain in the Spirit. The Holy Spirit is given as responsible for saving the nation, but seemingly only through the emotions of the kids.
The ecstatic emotional experience of the camp is presented as an extension of the kids' lives at home. The kids are homeschooled; the footage emphasizes their curriculum on creationism and their families' disgust at the removal of God from public life. Their walk with Jesus fills their lives, whether in private pursuits such as dancing or bowling, or in more public aspects like witnessing or protesting abortion at the capital. One boy is shown visiting with Ted Haggard as he preaches against homosexuality; the film was released shortly before Haggard was discovered to have had a sexual relationship with a male prostitute.
Interspersed throughout the scenes on the kids are footage of Mike Papantonio, a lawyer and liberal Methodist radio talk show host who disagrees strongly with the actions of the "religious right." He provides a counterpoint commentary on the scenes of the children in the camp that the directors added for more "tension" in the storyline.
Jesus Camp has the surprising honor of being a documentary on a controversial topic that almost all the contributors find accurate. All the main players were pleased with how they were portrayed except for Haggard, who resented the implication that evangelicals were associated with the Pentecostalism.
The movie resulted in a turning-point for Fischer and her ministry. After Jesus Camp was released, protestors vandalized the camp site, leading the owners to ban the camp. Fischer has changed the name of her ministry to Kids in Ministry International (KIMI). Her training course, the School of Supernatural Children's Ministry, still provides programs for children's ministry leaders and parents, as well as a conference for parents to attend with their children. Courses include analyzing children's dreams with the goal to stop nightmares, messages from modern-day prophets for this generation, and teaching kids to speak in tongues. The kids have had varied lives since then. One, who prayed for faith in the film, now relies on eastern mysticism, quantum mechanics, and psychotropic drugs for spiritual fulfilment. Another is still a strong believer, but seems to rely on experience for his faith.
The filmmakers have received both criticism and kudos from both sides of their audience. Most viewers finished the movie with their pre-conceived notions reinforced—that either Christians abusively brainwash their kids or that holistic Christian education that applies to the real world is important. Apparently the leading criticism is that the music is spooky. Fischer lauded the directors and has stated she is pleased with the film.
Fischer later explained that one of her strongest goals is to introduce kids to "more mature spiritual food." That they leave church in part because they are bored. By teaching them about the sin of the nation, they are invited into a wider spiritual battle and equipped for when they will take leadership. The ironic thing is that she didn't see herself as part of the Christian right that was indoctrinating kids into politics. She believed she was merely indoctrinating them into the Christian religion. She had the kids pray for President Bush as the Bible says to pray for your leaders. She had the kids mourn for the sins of the nation as the Old Testament prophets did. She seemed genuinely puzzled by critics who claimed she was building a conservative army, even after commenting that the kids needed to take back the land and break the power of the enemy in government.
Jesus Camp shows wrong theologies by both sides of the argument. Fischer teaches the kids continuation of the signs gifts and leads them to rely on spiritual experiences over the truth of the Bible. Her words about changing the culture and taking back the nation drift into unbiblical dominionism.
But Papantonio, the radio show host, misses the point, as well. He resorts to fear-mongering, claiming that fundamentalists had gained too much control and power in the country. He believes that one's religious faith should not bleed over into their political stances, and fears that Christianity is going to take over democracy.
Training children in Christian truths is important. Every Christian parent is responsible for teaching their children the truth about the Bible, Jesus, and their place in the world. But that place does not mean twelve-year olds are responsible for the sins of the nation. Sin issues such as abortion and homosexuality are important topics that kids should understand, but only at their level. And it is good and right to teach kids to pray for their country, government, and leaders, but we should all place our faith in God, not a specific political party.
It is true that people who do not follow God will always be suspicious of the motives of those who do. It's our responsibility to make sure our motives are biblical, and that we don't scare others off by beliefs that aren't even godly.
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