Before we get to the camp, we meet a few of the kids. The most attention is paid to Levi, a ten year-old aspiring preacher who, like the rest of the children in the film and the children of the majority of evangelicals, is home schooled by his mother. The camera eavesdrops as Levi’s mom instructs him on the fallibility of science, and how the Biblical account of creation is the only version that makes sense. Levi’s mother addresses the camera in the kitchen while she prepares lunch, explaining the rationale behind not sending her kids to public school. Her speech about where things went wrong in America – “We all woke up all of a sudden and asked, ‘Hey, what happened to my country?’” – is regurgitated verbatim from the typical evangelical spiel that men like Jerry Falwell repeat ad nauseum. Becky Fischer, Levi’s mother, and millions of other evangelicals hold as their main goal “reclaiming America for Christ,” apparently unaware that America was never Christ’s to begin with.
We meet Rachael, nine, who prays earnestly to Jesus to help her roll a strike while bowling with her family. Chick Tracts in-hand, little Rachael nervously approaches a woman at the bowling alley and witnesses to her, the words tripping off her tongue. Her father beams proudly afterwards and tells her, “Way to be obedient!” Raising his daughter to accost complete strangers in public places with her religion is this dad’s idea of responsible parenting.
Finally there is Tory, who likes to dance but shares with us that she has to be careful that her dancing is “from the spirit,” and not “in the flesh.” Tory, like the rest of the kids, is utterly sincere in her beliefs. She believes her calling in life is to do God’s will, and that God’s will is contained exclusively in the pages of the Christian Bible. The kids in Jesus Camp come off as smug little jerks from time to time, but what we must remember is that the kids are not to blame. It’s not their fault – it’s the fault of their parents.
Before the kids get to the camp, Becky Fischer and her staff pray over the seats in the chapel, the computers, the electrical system. “Jesus, we pray there will be no microphone problems, in your mighty name,” she says, eyes squeezed shut. I wonder what she thinks it means when there are microphone problems? Is that God failing to answer prayers, or Satan’s wicked interference? Once the campers arrive, Fischer wastes no time. She makes room in her welcome sermon for a tangent against the Harry Potter books and films, shouting “You don’t make a hero out of a warlock!” and drawing a few “Amen!”s from her prepubescent congregation. She then informs the children that she knows some of them are not as sincere in their faith as they should be. Some of them are hypocrites, she says, posers, weak Christians, and there is no place in God’s army for hypocrites and posers. Yelling at them in an angry voice she demands that they come forward and have their sins washed clean with holy water, which looks suspiciously like a bottle of Dannon spring water, and the kids, many of them sobbing, comply. At this point I was sitting in the theater asking myself, “What the fuck is wrong with this woman?”
How can children who are too young to legally work, drive, purchase or drink alcohol, marry or have sex be expected to understand much less devote themselves to any religious doctrine? Kids depend on adults, especially their parents, to help them make sense of the world. Isn’t beating them over the head with such a harsh, absolutist dogma as evangelical Christianity tantamount to child abuse? I found myself wondering how the fuck a ten year-old girl could be a hypocrite about anything, much less her religion.
The kids at the camp are fed a steady diet of Jesus morning, noon and night. There is a scene of the boys after lights-out, waving flashlights and horsing around, telling ghost stories. A counselor appears and admonishes them. “Guys, I’m not nuts about ghost stories,” he says. “Some of them are fun, but they’re not really of God, you know?”
In some of the most satisfying scenes in the movie, recently disgraced preacher Ted Haggard is filmed speaking to his congregation, including a visiting Levi and Rachael, brazenly joking to the camera about adultery and blackmail. I was reminded of Becky Fischer’s harsh admonishing of the kids for their supposed hypocrisy. I wonder how she felt upon learning what a lying bastard Haggard truly is. More importantly, I wonder how little Levi felt. In a few years he’ll be old enough (and hopefully, despite his quality home-schooled education, wise enough) to really examine his beliefs, and maybe he’ll realize a few things. For instance, in order to devote oneself to doing God’s will, one must first know what God’s will is. To claim that you know God’s will – worse, to claim your absolutist religious doctrine is the sole knower of God’s will, and that anyone who does not share your belief will spend eternity in Hell – is the most extreme arrogance imaginable. Hopefully, if enough people see Jesus Camp, if enough of the Becky Fischers and Ted Haggards of the world are exposed, a few of the Levis will wake up.