“I think we should all wince when we hear a small child being labeled as belonging to some particular religion or another. Small children are too young to decide their views on the origins of the cosmos, of life and of morals. The very sound of the phrase ‘Christian child’ or ‘Muslim child’ should grate like fingernails on a blackboard.” — Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion
Behind the eyes of a child, they say, lies infinite possibility, though such optimism surely never took into account the plague of religious belief. After all, the same young mind that can master the multiplication tables, chart the orbits of the planets, and consider the complexities of human DNA, can also, with equal ferocity and passion, fold upon itself, block out all sources of light, and retreat to dogmatic rigidity. The wee ones of Jesus Camp, unfortunately, have chosen the latter course, which is as we would expect in the most religious nation on planet earth. These eyes, then, betray a fanatical conviction of the purest submission; so efficiently scrubbed, washed, and rinsed that even before reaching the tender age of ten, these kids have stopped progress and growth dead fucking cold. They are, for all the good they will do us, rotting from within, and they will appear much as they are now until they breathe their last. For these eyes are the eyes of the future; a horrifying picture of authoritarianism unchecked, though rather than the labor camps and gray landscape of dystopian fiction, the country will be eerily familiar. For these young people are not warriors for overt oppression or the jailing of dissenting voices, but rather unrelenting champions of mainstream, thoroughly effective means. They will change the laws, pack the courts, haunt the school boards, and piece by piece, our nation will become the vision they have promised for many decades; a quiet, chilling revolution in which not a single shot need be fired.
Lest you think I am guilty of exaggeration, this film is but one example of how the case can never really be overstated. Far from a conspiracy or underground movement, this takeover by religious fundamentalism is open and honest and shockingly transparent. These people have been warning us for years, only the very forces capable of blocking the holy soldiers — liberals, secularists, and defenders of the Constitution — have themselves been complicit in that they’ve chose to accommodate rather than declare unconditional war. And it is a war; a war against illogic, superstition, fear, and pure fantasy, though in the name of tolerance and acceptance, the terms of the debate have been ceded to those unwilling to practice the very same. Given this harsh set of circumstances, a figure like Pastor Becky Fischer — the very woman responsible for the “Kids on Fire” religious camp on the harsh plains of North Dakota — is, despite her ridiculous life, someone who should be taken very seriously indeed, rather than laughed away as if she’s little more than a foolish clown. Sure, it’s hard to accept that anyone who tours her complex asking the Lord to bless her Power Point presentation and the electricity that illuminates her house of worship is anything other than a colossal joke, but as we watch her with these kids, we understand what’s at stake. More than that, so does she.
Two particular children come to the fore — Levi and Rachael — and while they differ in their style and approach to God, they are exactly what is meant by the term “mindless devotion”. Levi insists that he was saved at age five, while Rachael rants and rambles so maniacally that we almost weep for the loss of her mind. Levi, clearly poor white trash given his unfortunate haircut, has charisma and just might believe in what he’s doing (even if he’s utterly foolish), but Rachael has clearly accepted her doctrine out of that unique brand of childhood loneliness that is instantly recognizable. She makes little sense, of course, but as we follow her around, we also notice an obsessive-compulsive component to her personality that explains everything in a single, unforgiving shot. For her feeble, arrested mind, the entire religious experience — prayer, Bible reading, church — is a ritual; a stabilizing influence for a young girl who has been taught that growing up is so fraught with peril as to be deadly. She believes because she seeks to be inured to life’s inevitable sting.
And then there is the little blond boy, easily the most heartbreaking of the lot, as he “testifies” at camp about how hard it is to believe in God, given that he can’t be seen. He even admits to doubt, which should be the first sign that he’s on the road to health and happiness, but instead is believed to be a grievous sin. He falls to the ground in a bucket of tears, raising his hands to the sky in an act of such horrifying submission that it was all I could do to hold back the sobs. Here was a young mind on the very threshold of maturity, using the power of his brain to examine the new world opening up before him, and he fell back into darkness. For is it not the nature of childhood to question? And yet this mere child is rewarded — applauded like a champion athlete — for shutting down and accepting whatever befalls him. In this moment, we see not only the power behind religion’s throne, but the roots of Nazism, Jonestown, Soviet enslavement, and terrorism. Cease asking why, and the answers will be provided for you. Often by overweight shrews who love God because no mortal man would have them.
In addition to the blatant child abuse on display — and forcing a developing mind to accept religious dogma is abuse as detrimental as molestation and physical violence — we see how Becky and her creepy flock aim to use these kids in their wider war on secular America. The camp provides lectures about the evil of abortion, as if any kid would understand what the procedure even involves. But they do hear that “little ones” much like themselves (they are shown plastic fetuses that distort actual development) are being murdered, so the kids understandably cry out for an end to it all. In their minds, abortionists are coming after them next, and if the babies aren’t saved, no one will be left alive. The political nature of abortion is, above all, an adult issue best left to legislatures and courts, but these kids are forcibly enlisted without receiving a single reliable fact. And then the group crowds around a cut-out of President Bush, praying and swaying to the song that compels them to work for noble judges who will overturn the hated Roe v. Wade. And from all appearances, Becky and her minions are winning, as the Supreme Court is but a few cases away from doing that very thing.
In addition to the camp, we visit with more children, stay-at-home moms who also home school, and at the end, Pastor Ted Haggard of the New Life mega-church in Colorado Springs, Colorado, a man so powerful (he presides over 30 million Evangelicals) he speaks with President Bush once a week. He’s a greasy, pathetic figure, but he’s also smooth as glass, and as he rightfully reminds us, his kind control the political dialogue. If Evangelicals vote, Republicans win. I’d say he’s no better than Elmer Gantry, but old Elmer only conned a few bumpkins; Haggard is at the right hand of power. And that smile betrays a confidence that won’t soon fade, much to the peril of liberals everywhere. He meets with Levi after a service, and though he’s condescending to the boy, we can see a torch-passing nonetheless. It should shock us to our very foundations that here stand two human beings, apart in age by perhaps 40 years, who believe exactly the same thing. But rather than feel humiliated and embarrassed by seeing eye to eye with an ignorant child, Haggard is inspired, almost gleeful. In the face of that, how can secularists ever hope to win a damn thing?
Jesus Camp is one-sided to be sure, but ultimately fair, because there truly is no other side of the debate save the irrational. This isn’t the installation of a favorite color or pizza topping as if by fiat, this is patent falsehood — laughably improbable, impossible to prove bullshit — alleging to “compete” against the very scientific method that is our only means of understanding the universe. Just as “intelligent design” cannot share the playing field with evolution because the latter has in data, evidence, and endless reams of research what the former has in fabricated fantasy, religion is not — and never should be — afforded the same respect or deference as reason. One by one, the kids are told that global warming is a lie, evolution a shameful distortion, and every subject under the sun — including geometry — can be taught from a Biblical perspective. So in addition to the seizures, speaking in tongues, and fearful tears (imagine being in kindergarten and hearing that you are vile and need to confess your sins to the Lord), these kids are being denied the basic tools to compete in the world. Though home schooling remains legal (an atrocity that never stops grinding away at my being), its greatest tragedy is that the young ones leave the nest not with a well-rounded education or fresh perspective on life, but regurgitated facts, fanciful tales, and a pathetic piece of parchment from Mom University. Again, it’s abuse. And until it’s widely accepted as such, the game’s not even close.
***UPDATE: Since this review was posted, the infamous and much-maligned Jesus Camp has closed. In even better news, Pastor Haggard has been outed as a fabulously gay man with an affinity for well-hung male escorts. Life is sweet.