The Austin Chronicle

Jesus Camp

Rated PG-13, 86 min. Directed by Heidi Ewing, Rachel Grady.

REVIEWED By Marrit Ingman, Fri., Oct. 6, 2006

If you’re not afraid of the political influence of the Christian right wing, you probably will be after watching this fly-on-the-wall account of the annual Lakewood Park Bible Camp, a gathering for children as young as 5, hosted by Pentecostal minister Becky Fischer in Devil’s Lake, N.D. Filmmakers Ewing and Grady (Boys of Baraka, a SXSW Special Jury award winner) don’t editorialize much, but they set the events of the documentary against the nomination and confirmation of junior Justice Samuel Alito to the United States Supreme Court – a battle won in what Becky Fischer calls the “culture wars” between God-fearing, “spirit-filled people” and secular liberals, who are represented in the film by Air America jock and practicing Methodist Mike Papantonio. Papantonio calls the campers “children soldiers for the Republican Party,” and it’s hard to disagree. The film follows two children, specifically: 12-year-old Levi is a bright, born leader whose homeschool lessons teach that evolution is an “idea” and global warming “isn’t really that bad”; shy Rachael loves to witness and hopes to be a Christian manicurist when she’s older. (A third girl, 10-year-old Tory, is introduced, but her storyline is not sustained.) At camp, multimedia sermons and hands-on activities teach the evils of abortion, profanity, and witchcraft. (“Had it been in the Old Testament, Harry Potter would have been put to death,” Fischer explains.) But that’s not all: The kids also salute a cardboard standee of President Bush, whom Fischer says has “brought some real credibility” to Christian government. You’ll also meet Pastor Ted Haggard, who heads the National Association of Evangelicals, which has 30 million members, and who takes a meeting with the president and his advisers every Monday. (“If the evangelicals vote, they determine the election,” he says, simply.) Despite its pithy name, Jesus Camp doesn’t trivialize or exploit its child subjects nor their spirituality; for the most part, the film maintains a patient, unobtrusive outlook from the D.A. Pennebaker school. It makes clear that evangelicalism is legitimately attractive to children, even without go-karts and hiking: The kids bond, belong, and feel spiritually nourished. What has secular humanism done for them lately, anyway? The film also evinces a trust between its makers and Fischer, who is its primary subject; it’s not a freak show (think: Hell House) or an exposé. It’s a call to arms, a call to pick sides in the deepening cultural, political, and spiritual schism between the two Americas of the 21st century.

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