Jesus Camp is an Oscar-nominated documentary about an evangelical Christian camp for kids in Devil’s Lake, North Dakota, and, more broadly, about the political militancy of America’s religious right. It was directed by Rachel Grady and Heidi Ewing.
The film observes the Kids on Fire Summer School of Ministry run by Becky Fischer, an unmarried, childless children’s pastor with some very fervent beliefs and a remarkable talent for capturing the attention of kids. Interspersed occasionally with this story are the talk-show comments of Mike Papantonio, a Florida attorney and Christian whose Ring of Fire program airs weekly on the liberal Air America Radio network. Papantonio is shown on the air in his Pensacola studio, essentially warning his listeners that a fundamentalist coup is in progress in the United States.
Although Jesus Camp was marketed as “honest and impartial” and offers no narration, Papantonio does pretty much come across as the movie’s official voice. While Fischer and a couple of other evangelicals (including the since-disgraced Ted Haggard) are also given time onscreen, you get the sense that it’s mostly an opportunity to gape at them.
As the camera follows three individual children preparing for and then participating in the Bible camp, it lingers on eyebrow-raising behavior which ranges from the peculiar to the seriously disturbing. There is a dismissal of global warming as part of homeschooling, a pledge of allegiance to the Christian flag, evangelizing to strangers in bowling alleys, the blessing of power supplies, and “speaking in tongues.” There is also war paint and a children’s anti-abortion war rally, a life-size cardboard cutout of President Bush, politically symbolic smashing of objects, and some screaming and browbeating of sobbing boys and girls.
The film’s most powerful images are the tears pouring down the trembling faces of uneasy kids as they struggle to satisfy their amplified elders. At what point does this youth camp’s instruction and discipline cross over into child abuse? That question is never explicitly raised. Instead, this local indoctrination is fitted into the larger designs of fundamentalists in reshaping the U.S. Supreme Court, and the movie is framed by the nomination and confirmation of Samuel Alito.
Overall, however, Jesus Camp does not reveal much that most people don’t already know — although some of it does seem to come as a bit of a revelation to its filmmakers, who supply the DVD’s commentary track. Grady and Ewing have succeeded in capturing several very memorable personalities and they offer a decent visitor’s view of a way of life that is ordinary for many Americans. It would have been a better film if it simply concentrated on its subjects and dispensed with the voice-in-the-wilderness commentary of Mike Papantonio.
I rated Jesus Camp an ambivalent 3 out of 5 stars at Netflix.