I finally had a chance to see the documentary "Jesus Camp" earlier this week with the campus ministry group from one of my churches. I have to say that I found it to be a fairly balanced view of fundamentalist evangelical Christianity. By "balanced," I mean that the filmmakers do not try to paint caricatures of their subjects. The children in the film come off as articulate, thoughtful, and likable. Becky, the woman who runs the church camp at the center of the film, seems to genuinely care for the children and is reasonable in expressing her point of view.
The first portion of the film introduces us to Becky and to several Lee Summit, Missouri children who will eventually make their way to the "jesus camp" in North Dakota toward the middle of the film. The children are homeschooled (the film tells us that 75% of homeschoolers are from evangelical homes) and are a mix of regular childhood interests (music, sports, dance, toys) and a preoccupation with their faith. One boy, when asked when he became a Christian, earnestly responds "I got saved when I was five 'cause I just wanted more out of life." This line might get a laugh except the boy clearly believes what he is saying. The fact that he is likely parroting something he has heard an adult say does not diminish his sincerity.
The scenes at the camp itself focus on several high-powered worship services in which the children are "indoctrinated" (the camp director's word, not mine) into the agenda of fundamentalist Christianity and, not coincidentally, conservative Republican politics. The children are taught about the sin of abortion, the dangers of liberal judges and permissive government, and the evil temptations of "Harry Potter." As might be expected from fundamentalist Christianity, the children are presented with one point of view which is present at THE TRUTH. There is little "holy rolling" going on here, but a lot of speaking in tongues, crying, and "army of God" imagery. Noticeably absent is any discussion with the children about such bibical ethics as feeding the hungry, helping the poor, caring for the earth, striving for peace, and working for justice. I left the film hoping that, with luck, these children will someday soon be exposed to a different worldview and be allowed the opportunity to make their own faith decisions.
For those who are curious: Having attended a few charismatic/pentacostal worship services in the past, I can tell you that what you will see in this documentary is rather tame. Perhaps things were purposefully cooled down for the camera crew. It's hard to say. The campers and their adult leaders do not come off as zealots but they do practice a form of Christianity that is so different from mine that the two may as well be different religions.
One final note: The portion of the film I most enjoyed is a sequence where several of the children visit the mega-church of Pastor Ted Haggard, President of the Evangelical Association. Haggard is shown clowning to the camera during the worship service as if he is an entertainer dying to get a laugh. After the service, he visits with two of the children from the camp and couldn't be more condescending when one of the boys mentions that he is a "preacher", too. His sequence concludes with him smugly suggesting that when evangelicals come out to vote, they decide elections. Haggard has since complained that the filmmakers purposely tried to make him look bad in his cameo. I'd suggest they just managed to capture his true character in an ungaurded moment. Haggard has posted his complaints about the film on his personal website. Strangely, some of his criticism seems to be focused on the camp itself as some sort of sub-group or fringe element within evangelicalism. He suggests that the real fans of the movie are those who look to equate evangelicals with muslim radicals or those who are fans of Michael Moore. Speaking as a liberal/progressive, I did not find the subjects of the film to be fanatacists. I suspect Haggard's complaints have less to do with the image the film projects of evangelicals and more with his own disappointing appearance.
Extras: Check out DailyKos's expose on the documentary.
Read camp director Becky Fischer's FAQ on the film and her critics.
Read Christianity Today's film forum to see how conservatives are responding.