Hey, Barbecutie

#52filmsbywomen 7 – Jesus Camp

Posted on: March 21, 2016

jesus camp

No. 7 – Jesus Camp (Rachel Grady, Heidi Ewing, 2006)

I read a review of Jesus Camp that described it as hilarious to watch with a group, but deeply depressing to watch alone. That description is utterly accurate.

I watched it alone. Mostly, I felt terrible. Partly, I wondered how I would write about it without lapsing into lazy criticism of religious zealots, despite how often people act like clichés throughout the film. The documentary claims to have taken an unbiased approach to the activities of the Christian summer camp and its staff and attendees, and while, like previous subject West Of Memphis, its directors are entirely unobtrusive and off-camera, I couldn’t help wonder quite how selective the editing had been. And yet, and yet. Nothing in culture convinces me that Charismatic Christianity (all chanting and metaphors and raw emotions) is exaggerated by the film. Intentionally or otherwise, Jesus Camp will only reinforce the stereotypes.

The Jesus Camp itself comes fairly late in the film, which is instead framed by the election of Sandra Day O’Connor’s replacement to the Supreme Court, and the eventual choice of Samuel Alito, himself far more extreme than his moderate predecessor.  It is an appropriate metaphor for the significant split emerging throughout the US in the early 2000s, one that has only become more vivid in recent years. Throughout, a radio host challenges the views of religious extremists, and is the only voice of secular America we hear. The remainder of the film is filled with parents, children and Christian evangelicals. Yes, there are mullets.

Even before the camp, the film has the surreal edge of a mockumentary in places. A mother homeschools her son, where she guides him into an elegant refutation of evolution, wherein he states Galileo was right to turn him back on science and turn towards the Lord. The influence of the Spanish inquisition has somehow escaped from their textbook. A little girl approaches a bemused but polite woman at a bowling alley and gives her a pamphlet, later telling the cameras that God told her to do it. Another asserts how she loves to dance to Christian rock, but is worried that sometimes she dances more for herself than for the Lord. This is, of course, a sin. It is in this aspect that the film churns your stomach – not the religious beliefs, and not the sometimes screwing ways of expressing them, but in the youth of our protagonists, how vulnerable and malleable they seem. These kids, frequently in tears, are really fucking afraid of going to hell.

It’s not for me – or the documentary – to comment on whether such religious devotion gets in the way of children having a childhood. Certainly they seem to enjoy the camp at times, particularly during one laboured lesson on Government corruption which culminates in the children being invited up to smash mugs with a hammer. But who doesn’t want to smash something with a hammer? But even the moments of kids being kids comes with an asterix. Even if God isn’t watching their every move for the hint of sin, the camp staff certainly are. The boys’ bunk, enjoying a boisterous round of ghost stories after bedtime, is interrupted by one guardian, warning that while they might be having fun, God would want them to be truthful, which swiftly dampens the mood. And there’s something sickly at seeing young children being forced into complex and decidedly adult debates – how the Government is a corrupt force, the state of the nation under liberalism, and, naturally abortion (which is, to them, the murder of many possible friends). Regardless of where you fall on the spectrum (and this liberal Catholic feminist is choosing her words with care), it is uncomfortable to watch the range of emotions the children encounter – confusion during the abortion debate, passion when laying hands on a cardboard cut-out of then-President Bush, who, in fairness, did need the prayers, and, repeatedly, fear, despair and sorrow, with numerous scenes of the children sobbing to the point of incoherence, fearing damnation, ashamed of their sins, and told that before they can be forgiven, they will have to “simmer” first.

Regardless of your political or religious views, there’s no doubt the techniques on display are questionable. The kids chant repetitive truisms like “righteous judgement”, are lulled in by friendly pastors whose playful discussions of Harry Potter turn into fire and brimstone accusations of warlocks as enemies of God. The children confess their sins in front of the room. They have masking tape with the word LIFE placed over their mouths to represent aborted children. In the most chilling scene, they take a vow to pray for the end of abortion in American, and warned not to be “a promise breaker” – as though every baby not born is their own personal burden. Who knows how much actual understanding there was – I know at that age I was more concerned with the approval of adults than achieving nuanced comprehension of political touchstones. It feels more like indoctrination than education.

The radio presenter interviews leader Becky, challenging her on the camp’s vigorous methods, but she remains cool, saying they don’t do anything different than any other church. The argument could certainly be made that all churches impress their views on their followers from birth, with various levels of intensity. On the group’s involvement in political causes, including taking the kids to protest abortion in Washington, Becky insists she is not political, since democracy is merely an earthly concern. According to the documentary, 75% of home schooled kids are evangelical, and evangelicals make up 25% of Americans. No matter how much my liberal self recoils, surely the voices of such a chunk of society should be heard? And yet their creationist stance and amateur debate touchstones are uncomfortable to watch.

It’s one thing if the children were guided by honourable people. A late scene takes place at a megachurch, where aspiring preacher Levi meets senior pastor Ted Haggard after a sermon against homosexuality, performed more like a stand up than a religious guide. Ted’s rictus grin is steely when Levi recounts his own experiences, then Ted asks Levi if people listen to him because of his words or because he’s a cute kid. Levi stutters a response. Ted looks proud of himself. Ted Haggard is not a cute kid. For further adventures of Ted Haggard, do Google him, he’s had an exciting few years. But perhaps what Jesus Camp reinforces most of all is that these children, and maybe all children, deserve better leaders than the hypocrites and manipulators on offer.


 

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