‘I love this film. I hate this film.’
— Website posting
Filmmakers Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady, who made 2005’s The Boys of Baraka, knew they had a hot-button topic. Even so, they are stunned by the ferocity of the response to Jesus Camp, their new documentary about an evangelical summer enclave for young people, which opened Friday in South Florida.
”We knew it was timely,” Ewing says from the New York headquarters of Loki Films, where the women are adjusting to the bizarre cultural whiplash of seeing Jesus Camp splashed over theater marquees next to Jackass: Number Two. “We were shooting, and we’d open the paper, and there would be something out of our movie, conversations about teaching intelligent design in the Kansas school system or a fight over the Supreme Court. We knew it would strike a cultural nerve. But we’re taken aback by the caustic and vitriolic exchanges going on in the blogosphere. There’s a lot of anger and resentment on both sides.”
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On his weekly HBO show, Bill Maher called the film ”very disturbing.” Some Christian websites view it with trepidation; others applaud Pentecostal youth minister Becky Fischer, who runs the program it depicts. ”You can expect to learn as much about the Catholic Church from Nacho Libre as you can learn about evangelicalism from Jesus Camp,” sneers a response on the website of Ted Haggard, pastor of a megachurch in Colorado Springs and president of the 30 million-member National Association of Evangelicals. And he appears in the film.
`LOVE IT, HATE IT’
Perhaps a post on the Pentecostal Rumination and Review website sums up the conflicting emotions most succinctly: “I love this film. I hate this film.”
It was the escalating debate over religion’s place in politics that shaped Jesus Camp, which follows a group of youngsters at the Kids on Fire camp in Devil’s Lake, N.D. Led by Fischer, the kids preach, pray and speak in tongues. They’re encouraged to repent their sins, to cradle plastic fetuses and to ask God to guide President Bush in nominating anti-abortion judges. Footage of them praying in front of a cardboard cutout of the president ranks among the more incendiary moments.
A budding young preacher from The Boys of Baraka — about Baltimore middle school students attending a boarding school in Kenya — inspired the film. ”We were impressed by how focused he was on his faith and how religious he was at such a young age,” Grady says. “We were trying to find a ministry or school that focused on children exclusively. . . . Then we met Becky Fischer, and when we heard her talk about what she was trying to do, we knew we had a story.”
But the film evolved to include a broader view of evangelism, and Fischer, who has received an avalanche of e-mails since its release, says the result was a surprise.
”It wasn’t what I wanted, but I understand why they did what they did,” she says from the Missouri office of Kids in Ministry. ”I am looking at it as an opportunity.” If the film had focused solely on the children — who appear articulate, devout and are endlessly fascinating — “it wouldn’t have drawn a fraction of the attention.”
Much of the response to Fischer has been ugly, fired by clips of her talking about Muslims in Palestine teaching their children to be martyrs and then describing how she wants her kids to ”lay down their lives” for the Gospel.
”I’ve had people say they think I’m raising up a Christian jihad, and they hope I burn in hell,” she says wryly. She clearly enjoys discussing the children who attend the camp, and her view of the ministry’s aims seems anything but sinister.
”We believe God still speaks to us today,” she says, “so we teach kids to hear his voice. God heals sick people, so we teach children how to heal the sick. God answers prayer so we put much focus into prayer. . . . We teach them to know their God, to have a deeper relationship with him.”
The program, she says, does what every parent, liberal or conservative, does: It passes on a core system of beliefs. “Laying down your life for the Gospel means no matter what we do or say our priority is what would Jesus do. It could mean giving up our lives like missionaries, . . . laying down your life for the sake of other people.”
Fischer doesn’t consider herself political — ”Other than the fact I have voted in every election since I was 18, and I care about issues” — but the filmmakers disagree with her assessment.
”When we told them they were political activists, and they didn’t see it that way, it was sort of unnerving,” says Grady, who grew up in a Jewish household. “They were unable to look at things through our eyes, and that’s symbolic of what’s going on in this country. We’ve become so polarized we can’t step into anyone else’s shoes. And that’s a problem.”
As for the separation of church and state, Grady says the evangelicals she spoke with “believe it’s a misunderstanding. . . . They don’t believe it was ever stated in black-and-white terms, that the founding fathers ever put a wall between the two. It took me awhile to wrap my head around that.”
Conservative audiences, though, have claimed that Grady and Ewing, who was raised Catholic and attended a Jesuit college, intended to make evangelicals look crazy, even dangerous. The filmmakers insist they felt neutrality was essential, although they later added comments from Air America talk show host Mike Papantonio because, says Ewing, “It was important to bring in a dissenting voice that was also Christian. I was thinking that my mom is very religious, and she goes to church every Sunday, and this does not represent her. We needed to make sure we’re not painting every Christian with the same brush.”
It’s Papantonio who tells Fischer she’s indoctrinating, not teaching, the children at Devil’s Lake. To Fischer, indoctrination works both ways. Their opposing views on the matter only underscore the vicious political rift that Jesus Camp has fueled.
”Indoctrinating is continually bombarding people with the same concept or ideology,” Fischer says. “Case in point: Evolution. The public is being brainwashed to believe evangelical Christians are a threat to this country, that they want to install a theocracy. Talk about fearmongering. . . . It’s being perpetuated by the news media from sitcoms to The Gilmore Girls to Saturday morning cartoons that Christians are a joke. If that isn’t brainwashing I don’t know what is. The whole issue of abortion and sexual morality is promoted until the American public believes they have the right to take a human life.
“People accuse me of indoctrination. But to think that a child in any society can actually grow up in an ideological vacuum and not be affected by the beliefs of the people around them, from movies to books to school systems to parents, to think that they’re going to grow up uninfluenced by anything, is ludicrous.”