When it comes to human development, documentarians Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady clearly hail from the nurture-over-nature school, a stance borne out by 2005’s The Boys of Baraka and reconfirmed by Jesus Camp, a similar study of the ways in which external environmental and educational influences (parents, role models, community mores) shape kids’ personalities and belief systems. As with their previous effort, which followed “at-risk” African-American Baltimore boys to a Kenyan academy via a program aimed at righting their wayward ways, Ewing and Grady’s follow-up is a stinging depiction of the impressionability of youth, the milieu this time being the Evangelical Christian movement spreading throughout the American heartland. Though nominally focusing on three devout preteens as they attend Pentecostal Pastor Becky Fischer’s “Kids on Fire” camp in North Dakota, the film’s primary center of attention is the larger revivalist subculture whose practitioners take the Bible at face value, home-school their children in creationism, encourage their young charges to convert nonbelievers, and, despite Fischer’s counterfeit claims to the contrary, freely marry their religious teachings to a conservative political agenda (anti-homosexual and anti-abortion views, dismissals of global warming, and so on).
Jesus Camp locates itself smack dab in the middle of Bush country, a fact resolutely established during a climactic scene featuring an auditorium of Kids on Fire attendees praying (some in nonsensical tongues) to a cardboard cutout of our current Commander-in-Chief. Even more disconcerting than the doc’s illustration of the increasing ties between fundamentalism and Republicanism, however, is its examination of this radical movement’s militaristic slant, with Fischer proudly showing off sermon props like a toy scythe, having kids stage interpretative (yet pious) dance routines in army camouflage, and frequently peppering her aggressive lectures—including one against Harry Potter, who would have apparently been “put to death” had he been in the Old Testament—with exclamations that “This is war!” Throughout, uplifting talk about Jesus’s love and imminent return is matched with terrifying warnings about straying from the straight and narrow, whether it be Fischer’s employment of a dripping-blood font for a sign stating “The Punishment For Sin is Death,” or the adults’ more general use of fear, shame, humiliation, and guilt as coercive methods of indoctrination.
By layering particularly frenzied church gatherings with ominous music, playing radio news broadcasts of Samuel Alito’s confirmation hearings over shots of gray highway landscapes, and occasionally cutting away to anti-Evangelical Air America talk show host Mike Papantonio, Ewing and Grady slightly undercut their supposedly evenhanded approach while providing little insight not already available from the brunt of their footage. Yet during incidents such as a gentleman warning campers against telling ghost stories that don’t “honor God,” 12-year-old wannabe-Marjoe Levi delivering a sermon that brainlessly regurgitates the same anti-Satan, “we’re a key generation” spiel he previously heard Fischer give, and 10-year-old true believer Tory stating (like an extra from Footloose) that she’s always careful to dance for God and not “for the flesh,” the film’s nonjudgmental perceptiveness renders such editorializing miscues negligible. And in its astute visual juxtapositions of belligerent fire-and-brimstone preachers and the rapt, absorbent countenances of their fresh-faced spectators, Jesus Camp—a piercing portrait of innocence perverted—devastatingly corroborates Fischer’s statement that “The Devil goes after the young. Those who cannot fend for themselves.”