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Jesus Camp

(2006) *** Pg-13
85 min. Magnolia Pictures.

For those who haven't yet taken a side in the American culture war, the new documentary Jesus Camp just may light a fire. To Pentecostal children's minister Becky Fisher, training Christian soldiers young is just taking a page from the playbook of the "enemy" (after all, she opines, those little Muslim campers get grenades). "There are two kinds of people in the world," says Fisher, with level confidence. "People who love Jesus and people who don't." Fisher's mission to enlist and enfold into "God's Army" unsullied pre-pubescents gives directors Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady a trove of material that alternates between the unexpectedly amusing and the downright unnerving.

Ewing and Grady get tremendous access to Fisher and her circle of born-again families, many home-schooling their kids between bible camps. Twelve-year-old Levi gets a dining-room lesson in the wrong-headedness of evolution before heading off to Fisher's "Kids on Fire" camp at Devil's Lake, North Dakota. There, we learn the mulleted lad is already a burgeoning preacher, an ideal vessel to speak directly to youth, and a church-leader-to-be, unless raging hormones intervene.

The evangelical movement keeps a finger on the pulse of adolescents, using hip-hop ("Jesus Christ is in the house today!"), metal, and rock and roll to spread the Word. A prayer conference observed at the film's outset features a decidedly martial dance that underscores the idea of God's little soldiers. Apparently, it's a small step from mass sing-alongs to speaking in tongues, and another to tearful confessions of sinfulness. Aside from Levi, we meet nine-year-old Rachael, who happily tries to save strangers' souls on the street and confidently deflects criticism ("You're not the ones who are going to be judging me...").

The most intriguing character may be a child who confesses his own doubting beliefs. To Fisher's credit, she doesn't interrupt the boy, letting him wrestle with his faith for all to see. For whatever reason, Ewing and Grady don't pursue the boy's story (or Fisher's reaction to it), though the same boy later appears to have embraced his personal savior. Are these children ready to make lifelong commitments? The filmmakers point out that 43% of evangelical Christians are born again before age 13, ready or not, but the mind reels at the potential impact of puberty on these God-fearing kids. How many will embrace shame, and how many will rebel?

The thorough indoctrination of kids to cultural and political ideals may rattle, but what child isn't raised in an environment thick with ideology chosen by parents (from home to school)? The medium may be hard to accept and harder to endorse—with its intensely claustrophobic rapture sessions bordering on trauma—but the extremity of the message is what truly rankles, whether coming out of a middle-aged fundamentalist or a nine-year-old one.

Fisher's ideology--one that vigorously denies dissent and demonizes other ideologies--perhaps not coincidentally glories in the Fundamentalist-friendly values of the Commander in Chief. In gratitude, Fisher does diligence to the hard-right by laying down the law on prayer in schools, homosexuality, and abortion. Bush's detractors will be aghast to see kids instructed to talk to and bless a cardboard standup of the President, an exercise that—if not absurd in and of itself—at least begs the question "Wouldn't talking to Jesus be more to the point?"

Another burning question: is Jesus Camp fair and balanced? Well, any normal-sounding Bible study surely dropped to the cutting room floor in favor of every inch of film supporting the viewpoint that Fisher is a loon and her camp an ideological gulag. The filmmakers not-so-nonchalantly trace the ascent of Samuel Alito to the highest court of the land, and the footage of "Kids on Fire" is framed by the commentary of Air America host Mike Papantonio, who wisely decries the "entanglement of politics and religion" and aggressively interviews Fisher.

All the same, Ewing and Grady mostly just give Fisher enough rope to hang herself. Fisher's reckless statement that "we can't give everyone equal freedom because that's going to destroy us" could probably be clarified, if not rationalized, but it's clear her heart skews less to New Testament cheek-turning than Old Testament judgement ("Had it been in the Old Testament, Harry Potter would have been put to death!" she preaches).

The ideal of allowing children organically to develop their beliefs from all available information may be a pipe dream (but wait: did that one kid say he's sneaking peeks at Harry Potter?). One thing is clear--Jesus Camp takes a hard look at the wages of religious fervor and the responsibility of child-rearing. You know what they say, folks: it's a free country. If Jesus Camp scares you, better start brainwashing some little heathens of your own. This war's not going to fight itself.

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