If you passed 11-year-old Levi in the aisles at Wal-Mart, he would look no different than a schoolyard of boys, save for the defiant mullet flapping past his shoulders. But six years ago at the age of five, Levi got down on his knees and got saved. “I wanted more from life,” he explains. He got it. At 11, Levi is now an Evangelical Christian, which makes him one of approximately 100 million Americans with a penchant for converting thy neighbor (non-believers make his “spirit feel yucky”) and protecting God’s Country from the infidels. By infidels, he, his friends Tory (10) and Rachael (8), and his pastor and head counselor Becky Fischer mean anyone who eschews Christianity, creationism, and G.W. Bush—a list of enemies that includes Barbra Streisand, Stephen Hawking and Osama bin Laden. “We’re being trained to be warriors,” Levi and Rachael chirp. And Becky’s religious summer program in Devil’s Lake, North Dakota (seriously) is their base camp.
When the sun’s up, the hundred or so kids in Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady’s explosive documentary Jesus Camp, hike, swim, zoom around on go-karts, and sploosh water balloons. From dusk on, they’re in church following orders from adults who use scare tactics, rhetoric and mass hysteria to shape their emotions like Play-Doh. Every night it’s the same grim descent from reverent rap (“Tell me who’s in the house? J.C.’s in the house!”) to red-faced wailing. Head Counselor Becky, a rotund spinster, kicks off with “Who wants to have some fun!” (mass cheering), cranks it up to “How many of you want to be the type of people who would lay down your lives for Jesus?!” (more hoots) and climaxes with pounding into the children that they’re all sinners and phonies until the room is swept by a maelstrom of weeping. It’s like a free-thought snuff film, and Becky’s money shot is a small child so wrung out and wet that she’s unable to breathe—writhing on the floor, shuddering with the Holy Spirit.
For those who haven’t spent time in the Bible Belt, this film plays like science fiction. For those who have, Ewing and Grady have shined a flashlight under the bed and shown us the monster we imagined. (After escaping a religious high school, I found myself at a state university that sponsored a Jesus Appreciation Week.) Though Evangelicals spend their lives talking about greater beings and eternity, this documentary exposes them as temporal, narrow-minded thinkers. Their obstinacy against evolution and global warming springs from the belief that once the Rapture hits, only heathens must give a fig leaf about the ice caps—it’s no real Christian’s problem. Their inability to have perspective on their more bewildering actions (speaking in tongues, for one) engulfs them in perpetual victimhood—every bawdy song lyric as a personal affront, and though the Evangelicals made up 40 percent of Bush’s popular vote, setting the course for our present day circumstances, it is they—not us, not the Iraqis, not the ozone layer—who are the underdogs.
Unfortunately, harsh words play into the Evangelicals’ hands: any criticism only reconfirms their mission to indoctrinate their children (a word Becky isn’t ashamed of) on the right side of a culture war they are determined to win. But ignoring Evangelicals isn’t any better; what first seems jokey and harmless—an altar-staged drill routine with marching, army pants, and greasepainted lightning bolts emblazoning the kids’ cheeks—gives way to a manipulative right-to-life activist handing out tiny fetus dolls and intoning dramatically that “a third of your friends could have been here tonight, but they never made it.” Once he’s keyed the campers up to level five sobs, the room spins into chaos as he and Becky start chanting “This means war!” and telling the frightened masses that tonight they made an anti-abortion covenant with God.
It’s important to note that Ewing and Grady screened the finished documentary for Becky and the childrens’ parents, all of whom in interviews said that they were comfortable with the footage—in fact, several thought it could be used to convert new believers. Only one parent said he found the political themes running through the film awkward, as the Church insists it has no party affiliation. It’s pure coincidence, of course, that the head pastor of the mega church in Colorado Springs—a hangar with more speakers and scaffolding than a Metallica concert—talks to Bush every week. And that time Becky held up a life-size cardboard cutout of George W. by the back of the neck like a kitten and instructed the campers to bless him in tongues? I’m sure they did that for Clinton, too.
At moments like this, Jesus Camp is both maddening and darkly comic. Watching Becky prepare herself for the kids’ arrival by stocking the store room with plastic scythes, finding the blood-drippingest font to write “Sin is punished by DEATH” for her PowerPoint slideshow, and purifying the camp’s equipment with prayer and tongues (“No microphone problems in Jesus’ name oramaanshakaolaka”), it’s easy to forget that this isn’t Spinal Tap.
Try this game: At points in the film, mentally substitute a people other than pudgy Midwesterners. Replace that genuflected cutout of Bush with another world leader—Kim Jong-il, perhaps, hell, maybe even Canada’s Stephen Harper. The unfamiliar is even scarier, no? Imagine headscarves instead of curly blonde locks. Becky has—she swears that in Palestine, kids of the infidels are also in summer camps like hers, minus Jesus, and are learning about rifles and grenades. This mandates that she breed children as willing to lay down their lives for their beliefs as the enemy children abroad; she is in a Cold War arms race for the hearts and minds of youth—and she wants to win. Will she?