Baiting in Vain

Washington City Paper | September 29, 2006
You’ve got a regular Christian on one side and a super-Christian on the other. At least that’s how it’s presented in Jesus Camp, a documentary focused on Pentecostal minister Becky Fischer and the Xtreme Conversion she practices on youngsters. A Methodist radio-show host challenges her fire-and-brimstone approach, saying it has nothing to do with Christ’s message of peace and love. In other words: There’s believing, and then there’s true God-fearing.

The latter impression comes first. Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady’s Jesus Camp begins with an alarming, warriorlike performance by staff-wielding kids in camouflage face paint. They dance to a menacing, Christian hard-rock song that’s prefaced by a chorus of young voices proclaiming, “Now is the time.” This is the entertainment at Fischer’s Children’s Prayer Conference, held in Lee’s Summit, Mo., where she will effuse over the dancers and shill her annual evangelical summer camp.

Fischer, part cheerleader, part zealot (she asks the Lord to bless everything from auditorium seats to her PowerPoint software before the camp), and, arguably, part brainwasher, later lets slip in an interview that kids are “so usable” in Christianity. She wants to make them as devoted to their faith as others are to Islam—“radically laying down their lives for the gospel as they are over in Pakistan and Israel and Palestine and all those different places because—excuse me—we have the truth!” And, by the way, the “truth” will help greatly to “take back America for Christ.”

Ewing and Grady, who also collaborated on 2005’s The Boys of Baraka, may include the comments of the aforementioned broadcaster to imply that even conservative Christians believe the fervor of fundamentalism is nuts. He’s identified as Mike Papantonio, host of a program called Ring of Fire. What the filmmakers don’t tell you is that Papantonio’s show runs on Air America, and that the famed trial lawyer is quite the liberal. His is the only dissenting voice—besides another caller and a producer nodding in the studio—in the unabashedly left-baiting doc.

No matter what your bent, his red-herring inclusion is an audience-insulting weakness in this otherwise riveting film, torpedoing the idea that the topic’s presentation is balanced. There are others, though. Ewing and Grady frame the film with news of Sandra Day O’Connor’s resignation from the Supreme Court and conservative Samuel Alito’s appointment, emphasizing the direction America is heading. Besides Fischer, the focus is on only three children: Levi, 12, an aspiring preacher who was “saved” at 5 because he wanted more out of life; Rachael, 9, who tells strangers of God’s plan for them and wants to be a manicurist so she can “tell people about the Lord” while they’re relaxed and have let down their defenses; and Tory, 10, a dancer who couldn’t care less about Britney Spears—one thing to which both sides can be sympathetic—and is careful to boogie for God and not be aware of the flesh. Few adults make appearances, except for other ministers and a couple of parents, including the home-schooled Levi’s mom—who smugly tells him that global warming is “just not a big problem,” says creationism is the only possible answer to the question of mankind’s beginnings, and asks of his reading, “Did you get to the part yet that says science doesn’t prove anything?”

If the examples do mostly represent the big picture, however, Jesus Camp’s portrait is still a rather disturbing one. Kids speak in tongues and writhe on the floor. They’re shouted at about hypocrisy and the devil until they’re crying. (All accompanied by Michael Furjanic and Neill Sanford Livingston’s dramatic, ominous score.) Death is a big theme: Back in biblical times, Fischer says, Harry Potter would have been executed. And when she makes a sign about the ultimate punishment for sin, Fischer finds a font that is “dripping in blood” and cheerily pronounces, “There, that’s better!”

Fischer tells Papantonio that her message is not political, though she brings in a cardboard standee of the president to an assembly, and a little girl is shown weeping as she repeats, “Righteous government, God, righteous government!” But viewers, whether red or blue, who still believe in the separation of church and state will be most frightened by the comments of Ted Haggard, president of the National Association of Evangelicals. Haggard speaks to George W. every week and claims that his sect has enough growth “to essentially sway every election”—then adds, “It’s a fabulous life.”

Clearly, no members of the faith who participate here are concerned with the sin of pride. Throughout the movie, they bray about their influence but stop short at admitting that their enemy is not only Satan but also the L-word. Until the end of the film, that is, when Fischer is seen reviewing a video of one of her sermons and marveling that liberals “gotta be watching this and shaking in their boots.”

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