Bright Lights Film Journal

Innocence Lost or Regained? The Clear-Eyed Vision of Jesus Camp

“Real things happening to real people”

Toward the beginning of Jason Reitman’s pitch-perfect Juno, the title character is in a classic sort of adolescent trouble; her classmate Su-Chin (Valerie Tian) pickets the abortion clinic, with the telling chant: “Unborned babies deserve to live.” In Diablo Cody’s exacting screenplay, Su-Chin’s misspeak is obviously intended to underscore the naiveté of young people wedged into situations their maturity level makes them ill-equipped to understand. Cut the age in half, raise the expectations, and close the system, and you’ve got the kids of Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady’s Jesus Camp (2006).1Juno is an Oscar favorite, but as many a couch critic will bemoan, the wrong film often wins.2 While Jesus Camp was up for Best Documentary, Davis Guggenheim’s far less cinematic An Inconvenient Truth won. What the Al Gore vehicle lacks in objectivity and style, Jesus Camp makes up for in its triumphant blend of content and filmmaking brio.

In the true spirit of a good documentary, Jesus Camp presents facts and allows viewers to make up their minds. Insightful cinematography spars with vérité style to capture innocence lost (or regained, depending on the perspective) to the expert indoctrination taking place at the Kids on Fire Bible camp. When the sun breaks around enraptured young faces at a camp sermon, as we watch young Tory’s Kansas City family pledging allegiance to the “Christian flag,” we realize we have filmmakers here who will shut up and allow their subject to tell the whole story — often in a single scene or frame. Jesus Camp subsumes viewers in the world of the Religious Right, where Christianity meets Government meets Military meets Kids on Fire with bonus footage of the mega-church, home school, and true insight into what can be done, for good and ill, with the independent spirit of the easily pliable within our democracy.

Within two minutes of film, Jesus Camp shows how eager for manipulation children can be. First we are treated to close-ups of their pure faces stifling laughter as obese camp leader Becky Fischer decries all fat and lazy Christians. Moments later, just to proselytize, she leads children in something that defies instruction — speaking in tongues. This is no cartoon, this is Shaw’s definition of drama: “real things happening to real people.”

A good documentary allows a subject the time it takes to get an entire point across; a great one presents its contrasts objectively. Throughout Jesus Camp, the kids spout wisdom that can only be false at their young age. Witness adorably self-righteous Rachael (right) performing her self-styled “bowling ministry” as she cordially accosts a shocked bowler. In the very next scene, she cuddles her stuffed animals while sweetly relating how people who think she’s “weird won’t be judging” her on whether she’s going to hell. The directors allow the mise-en-scène to say it all as we can practically hear Rachael’s panda bear utter “how can this baby possibly know such a thing?”

Jesus Camp is indeed a study of contrasts, and violation. At Kids on Fire, shameful tears in savage close-up break the viewer’s heart as Fischer lambastes the entire camp for being phony warriors in God’s army. Youthful uncertainty and awkwardness palpably blend with Fischer’s emotional barrage to form an explosive synthesis that jolts the viewer into understanding that children not only cannot understand this criticism, but, simply put, deserve and need to be kids. To underscore this point, the very next scene shows true joy for one of the few times in the entire film as flashlights illuminate their beautiful, adrenaline-rushed faces telling ghost stories. Of course, a counselor quickly puts the kibosh on this potential evil. Fischer’s earlier sermon echos: as a “warlock, Harry Potter would have been put to death.”

Former Southern preacher Mike Papantonio offers a less effective counterpoint from his Air America radio show, Ring of Fire. In the kind of claustrophobic close-ups usually reserved for talk show films (Oliver Stone’s heavy-handed Talk Radio, 1988, comes to mind), he claims that the separation of church and state will vanish with a “thief in the night.” The filmmakers added Papantonio to create tension, but the real tension lies between what the children could (and maybe should) be allowed to be and the imposed hands of “God” pushing down upon them.3 Papantonio’s later call from Fischer, and his effective shut-down of her non-logic, is satisfying in a cheap and flimsy way. Far more compelling and honest are interspersed scenes like the ghost stories, young Levi exploring caves with his friend, and kids generally being kids.

By the end of the film we understand that Jesus Camp doesn’t simply refer to Kids on Fire, it broadens its scope to include the direction a certain sector of this country is headed in. Late in the film, mega-evangelist Ted Haggard (right) says he likes to “get them young” and claims, kids “love it.”4 Again, allowing the participants to almost solely inform the content, Haggard boasts that a new church like his 14,000-member New Life ministry in Colorado Springs opens its doors every two days. This rapidly vanishing separation of church and state is underscored when the fact that Haggard had weekly meetings with the Bush cabinet flashes across the screen — that is, until he was fired a few month’s after Jesus Camp‘s release after being exposed as a gay meth addict.5

I have seen references to Jesus Camp as a horror film, as something of a slam against religion, as true hope for atheists. On the contrary, when the very first scene consists of power-drenched low shots, panning up of kids in militant camouflage, dancing to upbeat Christian music, when we see so many sides of the same story, the film really succeeds in making us do what any great film should: think.

  1. From the Creation Adventure game to the following scene where a mother explains to young Levi that Creationism is “the only explanation” with an image of GW Bush in the background, rather than home-schooling, this is a closing off, a way to ensure no conflict of opinions with her “Judeo-Christian values.” []
  2. Sadly, note the lack of even a nomination for The Simpsons Movie. []
  3. See the Wikipedia entry for Mike Papantonio. []
  4. Indeed, the film routinely provides such facts as “43% of evangelical Christians become born again before age 13.” []
  5. Mike McPhee and Felisa Cardona, “Escort Says Haggard’s Apology ‘Hollow’,” Denver Post (Dec. 12, 2006). []